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The Real Budget Crisis: ‘The CO2 Emissions Budget Framing Is A Recipe For Delaying Concrete Action Now’

By Joe Romm

"The Real Budget Crisis: ‘The CO2 Emissions Budget Framing Is A Recipe For Delaying Concrete Action Now’"

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Time: “Why the Coming Budget Crisis May Be the Worst”

UK Guardian: “IPCC: 30 years to climate calamity if we carry on blowing the carbon budget”

The Washington establishment and the media have been mesmerized into inaction by a short-term budget crisis — funding the continued operation of the government. But it is the continued operation of a livable climate that should have their full attention.

Climate graphic

Decades from now, our children won’t be fretting over the inanity of the GOP shutting down the government because of their implacable opposition to giving health security to millions of uninsured Americans. Rather, they will be our struggling to secure the health and well-being of billions of people in a Dust-Bowlified world ruined by their parents’ greed and myopia.

On Friday, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its latest assessment of how humans are destroying a livable climate. As we discussed, it was yet another dire prognosis — 9°F Warming For U.S., Faster Sea Rise, More Extreme Weather, Permafrost Collapse. It should have spurred an immediate global move toward deep cuts in carbon pollution.

Instead, U.S. opinion makers steering the ship of state went right back to arguing about whether the deck chairs [infirmary beds?] should have been rearranged in the manner approved by President Obama, Congress, and the Supreme Court.

Our inaction on climate is primarily the fault of the disinformers and obstructionists — and those in the media who enable them — but the IPCC certainly deserves some amount of blame for its poor communication skills and flat learning curve.

The UK Guardian, in its IPCC piece (cited above), writes:

But the most controversial finding of the report was its “carbon budget”. Participants told the Guardian this was the last part of the summary to be decided, and the subject of hours of heated discussions in the early hours of Friday morning. Some countries were concerned that including the numbers would have political repercussions.

The scientists found that to hold warming to 2C, total emissions cannot exceed 1,000 gigatons of carbon. Yet by 2011, more than half of that total “allowance” – 531 gigatons – had already been emitted.

To ensure the budget is not exceeded, governments and businesses may have to leave valuable fossil fuel reserves unexploited. “There’s a finite amount of carbon you can burn if you don’t want to go over 2C,” Stocker told the Guardian. “That implies if there is more than that [in fossil fuel reserves], that you leave some of that carbon in the ground.”

This raises key questions of how to allocate the remaining “carbon budget” fairly among countries, an issue that some climate negotiators fear could wreck the UN climate talks, which are supposed to culminate in a global agreement on emissions in 2015.

“To ensure the budget is not exceeded, governments and businesses may have to leave valuable fossil fuel reserves unexploited.” They “may have to”? Try “must.” Is there any other subject than climate change where the media feel obliged to hedge even the most obvious statements?

As an aside, the fossil fuel reserves that must remain unexploited are “valuable” only in a world that actually doesn’t accept the climate science reviewed in the IPCC report. The sentence would read more accurately this way: “To ensure the budget is not exceeded, governments and businesses must leave climate-destroying fossil fuel reserves unexploited.”

Climatologist Ken Caldeira emailed me with an even greater concern about the way this issue is being framed, pointing to the same UK Guardian piece:

There is some noise around the idea that it useful to think about some amount of “allowable CO2 emissions budget” that would keep the world under 2 C of global warming.

This concept is dangerous for two reasons:

1. There are no such things as an “allowable CO2 emissions.” There are only “damaging CO2 emissions” or “dangerous CO2 emissions.” Every CO2 emission causes additional damage and creates additional risk. Causing additional damage and creating additional risk with our CO2 emissions should not be allowed.

2. If you look at how our politicians operate, if you tell them you have a budget of XYZ, they will spend XYZ. Politicians will reason: “If we’re not over budget, what’s to stop us to spending? Let the guys down the road deal with it when the budget has been exceeded.” The CO2 emissions budget framing is a recipe for delaying concrete action now.

We should be framing the issue around what we need to do today: stop building things with tailpipes and smokestacks and start retiring the things we have already built that do have tailpipes and smokestacks. Stop using the sky as a waste dump for our CO2 emission.

These are things that we can hold politicians accountable to today. Trying to hold politicians to a budget that will be reached 30 years in the future is a recipe for disaster.

If our current crop of politicians is any indication, it is unreasonable to expect politicians to feel constrained by something that might happens 30 years from now, long after they have left office.

The key point is that every CO2 emission is bad; the budget for “allowable CO2 emissions” should be zero.

When I emit CO2, I am transgressing against nature and future generations. It is not something allowed; it is a violation.

As long as we are still building CO2-emitting devices, the politicians are failing, and we must hold them accountable for their failure today, not 30 years into the future.

A key flaw in the carbon budget framing is that most people — including most opinion makers and politicians — don’t understand that that avoiding catastrophic global warming requires stabilizing carbon dioxide concentrations, not emissions (see here), which means emissions have to become zero when the budget is expended.

The metaphor is also flawed because people naturally have a mental model that you can afford to exceed your budget as long as you make up for whatever you borrow. People may think we can easily pull CO2 out of the air at that point (assuming they think about 30 years from now at all).

People understand that we can solve our federal budget crisis any time we want to. And, of course, we can just pass a simple law that increases the ceiling on the national debt, as we have many times in the past. But solving the carbon budget crisis requires immediate action — and doing things utterly different than what we have done in the past.

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