Thursday, February 7, 2008

party on

a couple weeks ago, the chairperson of the california air resources board (carb), mary nichols, gave a talk here on campus. for those that are not familiar, carb is the highest air quality regulatory agency in california. they set regulations and policies to achieve emissions standards set by the legislature.

the implementation of the global warming solutions act of 2006 (also known by its legislative code AB32) has also fallen on their shoulders. the emissions target is set at 1990 levels by 2020 (approximately a 25 percent reduction from business as usual), and 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. this is a substantial reduction. mary threw out some numbers. my recollections are in the ballpark, but i'm thankfully now familiar with the orders of magnitude so they won't be that far off.

current california per capita greenhouse gas equivalent emissions:
13 tons/year

current usa per capita greenhouse gas equivalent emissions:
23 tons/year

2050 goal, california per capita greenhouse gas equivalent emissions:
1.5 tons/year

ok, that's an order of magnitude of reductions that are required to meet the california target. i'm not sure if mary's numbers included expected population growth in california (they likely did, california is expected to grow substantially over the coming decades--to ignore population growth would be an egregious error.) ignoring the fact that these targets are political (as opposed to scientific) in nature, can we expect technology to get us there in 42 years?

this is a reasonable question that reasonable people should be asking. the carb chair did not ask it. i must say that i was impressed since she at least gave the impression that technology could only take us so far. this is in stark contrast to her boss, who seems to think that as long as all of our vehicles are running on distilled plant matter that we've somehow solved the problem.

who is doing the analysis on this stuff? pacala and socolow, in a well-cited science article claim that the technology we've got now can be deployed sufficiently to "solve the climate problem for the next 50 years." the absolute best part is that we can do it without changing any of our behaviors--renewable energy, nuclear fission, carbon capture and sequestration, and new vehicle technologies can combine and grow in effectiveness to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to a safe level. ok, ok, fine, let's see it done. let's do more rigorous analyses and get the policies put into place.

that said, i'm fundamentally biased against tech fixes. i think (and this is supported by evidence, see vanderburg's outstanding work) that technology which sets out to solve problems often creates more in its wake. these may not be explicit. our current primary transportation mode, for example, destroys urban forms, kills many tens of thousands of people per year directly (and possibly hundreds of thousands indirectly), contributes to climate change, regional air quality concerns, etc. had we considered these unintended effects when initially supporting the automobile, the primary modes we use today might have looked different. as would our cities, families, personal relationships, etc. the bottom line is that technology doesn't usually work the way we think it's going to.

i view climate change mitigation as an avenue for possibly addressing things that i view as fundamentally flawed within society. this includes, for example, our primary transportation mode, and all of its externalities. the mitigation of climate change through behavior change and by extension a large social change, i believe, presents some of the most positive prospects for the human race. the admission of this fact possibly makes me unfit to work on climate change mitigation policy. nevertheless, that's where i devote a lot of my time.

tying this back to the beginning of the post...i think that mary nichols needs to come clean, to outline exactly what we can do with technology, and exactly what we can't. we need to start envisioning alternative futures, envisioning the types of behavior changes that we will need to enact if we want to achieve the 1.5 tons/year that we're aiming for. the other option of course, is business as usual, in which case we should just party on. after all, the most severe impacts from climate change probably won't be felt in my lifetime, on.

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