Revkin asks me via Dot Earth, “What if The Public had Perfect Climate Information?” Ahh, the hypothetical question that launches us into an alternative history. Reminds me of that Saturday Night Live routine, “What if Spartacus had a Piper Cub?”
I’d love your answer. Here’s mine.
If the entire public had perfect information on all matters related to climate — the science and the solutions — we would certainly be on a path to below 450 ppm (see, for instance, Scientists find “net present value of climate change impacts” of $1240 TRILLION on current emissions path, making mitigation to under 450 ppm a must).
Indeed, I’d argue that having perfect information on the solutions is at least as important as having perfect information on the problem. Probably the single biggest reason for the lack of deployment of energy-efficient technology is lack of perfect information.
Let’s set aside that there is no definition of what one means by “perfect information.” The term implies we’re in the hypothetical ideal state here.
Also, the possession of perfect information 30 years ago would completely change the amount of information we have today. This I think is a very important point.
If the public had perfect information on climate — and by public I am, of course, including the media and politicians — then we would certainly have put a great deal more money into climate science, observations, satellites, and the like starting at least 3 decades ago, when it became clear to the scientific community that the threat of unrestricted greenhouse gas emissions was real and serious.
Remember, the National Research Council’s 1979 review of the science (“Killing the myth of the 1970s global cooling scientific consensus“:
In this case, the panel concluded that the potential damage from greenhouse gases was real and should not be ignored. The potential for cooling, the threat of aerosols, or the possibility of an ice age shows up nowhere in the report. Warming from doubled CO2 of 1.5°-4.5°C was possible, the panel reported. While there were huge uncertainties, Verner Suomi, chairman of the National Research Council’s Climate Research Board, wrote in the report’s foreword that he believed there was enough evidence to support action: “A wait-and-see policy may mean waiting until it is too late” (Charney et al. 1979).
Obviously, if everybody had even that amount of information in 1979, we would have charted a very different course. We would have immediately started investing heavily in low-carbon RD&D — a strategy many embrace today based on imperfect information.
Ironically, President Carter did start such heavy alternative energy investment (though not aimed at carbon), but Reagan tragically slashed the budget 70% to 90%, from which it never recovered.
As our understanding of the risks became clearer in the 1980s, we would have ramped up RD&D funding and started making aggressive deployment in technology up the carbon cost curve, starting with the lowest cost strategies — “best buys first” as my old colleague Amory Lovins used to say. That is especially true because most independent studies done by groups that are funded by the disinformers and their allies find the cost of action to be quite low (see “Introduction to climate economics: Why even strong climate action has such a low total cost — one tenth of a penny on the dollar“).
Public policy built around perfect climate information would not merely encounter dramatically fewer market barriers, it would presumably be built around a best estimate of the cost to society of carbon dioxide emissions. That estimate would take into account our understanding that even a low probability of high-impact negative outcomes implies the need for a much higher CO2 cost than the kind of simple cost-benefit analyses we typically see (see Harvard economist: Climate cost-benefit analyses are “unusually misleading,” warns colleagues “we may be deluding ourselves and others”).
That also means we would have properly valued ecosystem services, including the tropical rain forests, and they would be oing a heckuva lot better today.
As the world worked together to understand the science and adopt the most cost-effective solutions — while spending money to developed yet more solutions — we would have seen that emissions reduction is inexpensive and straightforward, especially when you take a long time horizon. That’s in my experience over the past two decades working with businesses to develop and deploy low carbon technologies, as I have documented at great length — see my book Cool Companies: How the best businesses boost profits and productivity by reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
As everybody saw the multiple benefits of embracing energy efficiency, advanced control systems, variable speed drive motors, daylighting, production processes, and the like in terms of both energy savings and productivity gains, this would quickly have become the norm around the planet.
As for renewables, I can’t even imagine how cheap Concentrated solar thermal power Solar Baseload would be if Luz had not been allowed to die two decades ago! If you don’t know that story, well, it’s a sad one, but we might have had carbon-free load-following power suitable for use around the planet at under 10 cents a kilowatt hour in the 1990s.
By the 2000s, the world would certainly have been on a path below 550 ppm and as it became increasingly clear that aspects of the climate system were more sensitive than we expected, we would have moved to the 450 ppm path or lower, which would be considerably easier to do since we were on a lower emissions pathway to start with and had so many more clean energy options.
I’m not certain how productive it is to spend a lot of time in the imaginary world of perfect information. But it is worth spending enough time to realize just how destructive the disinformation campaign and the enabling media coverage has been, which was the point of my original post, “Apparently you can write an entire article on how the public doesn’t get climate science without mentioning the disinformation campaign or the media’s failings.”