Global Warming Theories + Political Reality = Tesla Subsidies

Apr 5 2014, 8:44am CDT | by

Global Warming Theories + Political Reality = Tesla Subsidies
Photo Credit: Forbes Auto

Americans are hopelessly divided over global warming, or climate change as it seems to be called now, with some in full, Al Gore-level panic over rising sea levels and others skeptical about the accuracy of scientific models used to explain how man-made C02 affects temperatures.

But they all seem to agree on a couple of things: Government-financed clean energy research, and subsidies for solar panels and electric cars.

That’s the conclusion of Yale researcher Anthony Leiserowitz, who studies the public reaction to global warming. He’s actually found not two, but six Americas when it comes to global warming, from people who are “alarmed” to those who are “dismissive.” He detailed what surveys suggest those disparate groups of Americans believe in common in a talk at the sixth annual Yale Alumni in Energy conference yesterday, which I helped organize.

Leiserowitz noted a sharp drop in global-warming concern as the economy tanked, with poll results showing the percentage of people with some level of concern fell from 71% before the crisis to as low as 57% in the depths when people were more concerned about whether they’d make their next mortgage payment. It’s now around 63%, he said, although less than half of Americans still think observed global warming in the past 150 years is due to human activities.

Nearly three-quarters of Americans are in favor of regulating CO2 as a pollutant, however, and nearly all of them tick the box in favor of government-funded research and subsidies for clean energy and related products. This showed up most recently in the strange alliance of Tea Party activists and the Sierra Club in Georgia, which some dubbed the “Green Tea Party,” that formed to change state laws in favor of rooftop solar arrays. They were in opposition to Southern Co., which like many utilities opposes generous subsidies for solar in the form of offtake requirements that force them to pay for the excess electricity generated from those panels.

“This is the art of politics,” Leiserowitz said. “Finding policies that very different groups of people will support for very different reasons.”

Elon Musk will likely benefit from a similar consensus around green subsidies. While 15% of Americans are “dismissive” about global warming, researchers at the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication have found strong support among nearly every group for research into renewable energy technology, which tracks well with their strong support for anything that boosts the economy and jobs. There was also surprising consensus around subsidies for vehicles and solar panels — this last, Leiserowitz suspects, because the skeptics, most of them also of an individualist stripe, like the idea of generating their own electricity.

Some of the points Leiserowitz made in his talk may have inadvertently explained why there are skeptics about climate change (when has the climate not changed, in often sudden and violent ways?). He dismissed people who are skeptical of the equally changeable scientific models as the victims of “a very successful strategy to confuse Americans, lifted straight out of the tobacco wars.”

“That same exact strategy was imported straight into the climate debate,” he said.

Maybe so, but there are also people out there who find words like “scientific consensus” and “overwhelmingly agree” to be something less than scientific proof. Remember when there was scientific consensus that ulcers were caused by stress? Or secondhand smoke caused cancer? Or a low-fat diet prevented heart attacks?

There I go again. Another presenter at the YAE conference gave an informative update on climate science, with this fact I hadn’t heard before: Successful anti-pollution measures may have made the climate warmer in recent decades, and have seriously complicated the jobs of scientists trying to figure out how rising CO2 levels are affecting temperatures.

Trude Storelvmo, an assistant professor of geology and geophysics, explained how a “pause” in the rise of global temperatures from 1950 to 1980 may have been because of steep increase in sulfur emissions from coal power plants. Sulfur molecules and other aerosols act as tiny mirrors that reflect solar energy back into space. For a good example, see the eruption of Mt. Pinitubo in the Philippines in 1991. The second-largest eruption in the 20th century threw 20 million tons of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere, causing a two-year drop of 0.6 degrees Centigrade in global air temperatures. (For context, they had risen an average of 1 degrees C since 1850.)

Those uncontrolled sulfur emissions corresponded with a significant decrease in observed solar radiation reaching the surface at monitoring points around the world, Storelvmo said.The carbon atoms in CO2 have the opposite effect of increasing temperatures, she said, “but when you take all the effects together, the cooling effect wins.”

Scrubbers and other pollution controls have greatly reduced sulfur emissions in North America and other developed economies, from 70 teragrams a year (roughly 70 million tons) down to 42 million today. But China’s emissions are on the rise, possibly confounding the effects of rising CO2 emissions and contributing to the recent “pause” in global warming where temperatures have barely budged since the late 1990s.

That’s a good news/bad news story for global temperatures. If pollutants other than CO2 have a minimal effect on warming, then rising CO2 levels later this century could cause temperature increases at the low end of the recently issued Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates. In its most recent report, the IPCC estimated global temperatures could rise 1 to 5 degrees centigrade depending on how effectively governments control CO2 emissions.

If aerosols have a powerful dampening effect on warming, however, temperatures could rise at the high end of estimates, especially if countries like China and India adopt the types of pollution controls the U.S. mandated in the 1970s and 1980s. Sulfur as a solution to global warming? No, because not only does that type of pollution kill people in the here and now, but it just masks the effects of rising carbon concentrations in the atmosphere that drive temperatures higher in the long run./>/>

Finally, economist Paul Joskow, president of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, had these sobering words for those who look forward to a natural-gas energy economy. While methane generates lower CO2 emissions than coal and oil when it’s burned, the gas is a much more powerful global-warming agent by itself. That means drillers and pipeline operators must brace for tougher controls on methane emissions in the field. The greatest burden may fall on local distribution companies, however, who operate capillary systems of natural-gas pipelines that are highly prone to leaks (and sometimes explosions, as in Manhattan earlier this year.)

With the shale-gas revolution North America now has a 250-year supply of the stuff, and the Obama administration is betting on gas to replace coal-fired generation it is phasing out with tougher environmental regulations. Will it have the political will to impose tough and expensive regulations on local gas companies as well?

“The White House strategy is gas,” Joskow said. “And if greenhouse gases are higher because of methane leaks, that whole strategy is out the door.”


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