Very soon, the US political system will be involved in a serious debate regarding the merits of a tax on carbon emissions. The main debate will center on two issues:
- Should the US put a price on carbon emissions?
- What should that price be, both now and in the future?
Fossil fuels have long powered the Indianapolis economy
The typical tool used in a debate of this type is the Cost-Benefit Analysis (CBA). This type of study weighs all of the costs associated with an action against all of the benefits. Any project with a net benefit is considered worthwhile, but trying to figure out how to distribute costs and benefits is always a difficult political problem, and especially so with something as large and pervasive as a carbon tax.
A fun, graphic explanation of this CBA is found in The Cartoon Guide to the Environment (which is a good source of conceptual information for anyone needing a crash course in environmental economics, the history of environmental regulation, or human interaction with ecology):
As the illustration above points out, there is a large amount of uncertainty involved with assessing the risks and costs of a warming world. However, the atmospheric models that scientists have developed thus far all point in the same direction. Without some sort of comprehensive strategy to reduce emissions, the biosphere will warm by a small but significant amount and this will have deleterious effects on ecological systems around the world.
ASCE, along with other engineering societies, has identified climate change as a key issue and pledged to work to lower the risk and mitigate the consequences.
The US policy on carbon pricing must consider the context of our political system and the need for action. In the past, the US has managed pollution either by cap and trade markets (see 1990 Acid Rain Program), direct taxes, or by regulations. There is no reason to believe the US cannot establish or manage a carbon pricing scheme successfully in the future.
The debate on question #1, should we do it, is yet to be settled. There are many in this debate who have argued for us to do nothing. A popular argument is one presented in The American Scene “Why I Oppose A Carbon Tax“. You can summarize his argument from the first line:
I oppose a carbon tax for a very simple reason: I do not believe its benefits justify its costs.
Another such article was published in the Wall Street Jounal entitled “Time for Inaction on Global Warming“. A summary of the article is given in the subtitle:
Congress should consider the costs before passing “cap and trade.”
After reading these articles, I think these authors are deliberately confusing question #1 and question #2. The decision to set a price and the level the price is set at are two independent topics. We can set the costs of the pricing scheme at whatever level we want, once the system is in place. There is no reason for anyone to fear a carbon tax, because we will never put in place a system we can’t afford.
Clearly, these authors are willing to sell their future for a lower price than a Greenpeace advocate. But what are the values of society in general? We already know that reducing our dependence on fossil fuels will lead to greater energy independence, cleaner air, better transportation systems, and a chance to become producers rather than consumers of the green revolution. Are US citizens willing to throw away rational and effective strategies to reduce carbon emissions, even when the benefits are so great?
Indy’s inefficient transportation system is another big source of emissions (Indy MPO
I believe there are more important things in life than money. The US must have policies that balance our need for economic activity and our need to manage our resources carefully. We should not squander our natural capital in search of greater financial wealth. Community health and ecological integrity deserve priority over personal wealth.
So the choice we all face, but especially those who write public policy and design our built environment, is whether or not we should take action. We know that inaction because of political expediency or high costs will be a shameful legacy for future Americans. We know that the costs of doing nothing will begin to accrue immediately. We know that any environmental costs of global warming will be borne by those most unable to cope with the changes.
I find inaction to be unacceptable. Engineers are ethically bound to prioritize the health, safety, and welfare of the public. In my opinion, a mistake is made when any engineer argues that the costs, while small, justify the destruction of our environment and an impending human crisis. At that point a line has been crossed. That is no longer the argument of a civil engineer, but something else entirely.
One of the key concepts in engineering theory is metastable equilibrium. Systems are designed to resist forces, but a large shock can cause catastrophe.
The classic example of this is a marble resting on the dish. The marble can move in any direction but will come back to rest in the middle of the dish – unless it is pushed hard. Then it is given enough energy to seek a new equilibrium position. Maybe the new equilibrium position is inside a larger dish. Maybe it’s on the floor, rolling straight towards a heating vent.
The principle at work here is minimization of potential energy. Every object at every scale seeks to minimize its energy level. It explains the throwing off of photons from excited electrons in a neon light, it explains the shape of water condensate, it governs the flow of hot gas up a chimney, and, unfortunately, it means that our buildings fall down in high winds.
You can never prevent minimization of potential energy because you can’t stop entropy. However, you can slow it down. You can trick systems into finding a local minima, just like the marble was tricked into the middle of the saucer. This is called metastability. The system is not at its preferred state, but a further investment of energy is needed to push it over the edge. Until that energy is provided the system will remain in its metastable state.
This concept is not only useful in structural engineering, it is broadly applicable. For instance, we can use the principles to discuss why sustainability is important. If we look at the ecological system here in the Midwest, we see that everywhere people are constantly altering small aspects of our environment. None of these actions by itself cause much damage. But if we consider the sum total of all of the actions, we realize that a destabilizing force is being applied.
An ecological system is merely metastable. Most people believe that humans can act as responsible stewards of the environment (e.g. recent tuna conservation debate). The current theories of resource management assume that we can study natural systems and determine where the tipping points are. As long as we don’t push nature over the edge then we can optimize our utility of it.
The problem is that balancing nature on the edge means only a small shock will lead to disaster. History is full of civilizations who have learned too late that nature should not be pushed too far. A recent study pointed out that the Nazca civilization may have been decimated by a combination of over-harvesting Huarango trees before a severe El-Nino event. The old forests are now deserts, having suffered a complete ecological collapse in CE500. The people kept pushing that marble towards the edge, never expecting the strong shock that forced it over.
We are now playing the same game on a global scale. We don’t have to think too hard to find the next shock to the system. Climate change is expected to be capped at a 2degC change, but could go higher if politicians don’t find a way forward in Copenhagen (current rate is 6degC – BBC). This rapid climate change could force our ecological systems over the edge and hurtling out of control.
Not only will these changes devastate our natural resources, especially for those areas fenced in by human development, it will cause our carefully cultivated croplands major problems. Imagine trying to curb world hunger and disease when global crop capacity decreases by 30%.
As an engineer, I am familiar with the effects of upsetting metastability. Our industry is always studying disasters and trying to learn from them. Of course, the disasters leave human tragedy in their wake. Society buries its dead. Survivors return to the scene of the tragedy and face a pile of debris that was once the source of their community. Amid all the calls to rebuild, everyone begins to doubt if what was lost could ever be replaced. We must remember that certain things can never be replaced.
The fast growing economies of Brazil, Russia, India, and China (BRIC) need complex infrastructure solutions and they need them fast. There is a great opportunity for engineers who know how to meet those needs. Considering that these countries are the next dominant world powers based on current global development trends, we had better begin brushing up on our Portuguese, Russian, Mandarin/Cantonese, and Hindi.
A lot of engineers in the US feel threatened by overseas competition. I don’t. I feel that our ethical obligations to “build their professional reputation on the merit of their services and shall not compete unfairly with others” mean that we shouldn’t put up unfair barriers to outside competition. I encourage honest competition, if we can lower prices and maintain safe structures then everyone benefits. Competition for important jobs always inspires creativity.
Let’s not try to hold back our engineering friends from the BRIC countries, I say we welcome them and start working together to solve humanity’s great problems. But seriously, I expect great things to come out of these countries in the next few decades. Russia and Brazil are scheduled to host upcoming Olympic games, China just hosted one itself, and India has been widely acknowledged as one of the new world powers.
These countries are still working through some difficult issues like guarantees of democracy, freedom of the press, and human rights issues, but their own ascension to the world geopolitical stage is not unlike the US or similar countries. It took the US many many years before we met our goals of a society based on equal rights (still an ongoing process). It’s important to look at where these countries will be in 30 years, not necessarily where they are right now.
A caveat remains, however. As the people living there acquire more wealth and seek the luxuries that the US and Europe currently enjoy, then the efforts at preventing climate change could be thrown into disarray. It is important that we get this right, because the BRIC countries represent 40% of the human population! The way to do this correctly is for the US and developed countries to start making serious policies regarding climate change. The time is right for developed countries to save the world, and it is our responsibility because we have been the cause of most of its problems through our centuries of industrial experimentation.
BRIC presents us an opportunity to start a meaningful dialogue about the future of the human condition. It is not just an opportunity to open their markets and sell them gasoline cars, it is an opportunity to raise the quality of life of every person on the planet in a meaningful, and sustainable, way. We have the capability to meet the needs of all people while still preserving a viable future for our later generations.
The BRIC economies have shown off the human ability for innovation. From the bus transit system of Curitiba, Brazil to the speeding bullet trains of China, these countries have no fear of modernizing their transportation systems. Of course, the traditional neighborhoods in these countries are some of the most efficient and low-impact styles of living, so we need to encourage BRIC to retain them. Let’s not export our worst product – suburban sprawl. What we need are ways of accommodating the wants and desires of the middle class with the realities of a world under threat of climate change.
In this sense, the Western countries can continue to develop green designs that will deliver safety under environmental hazards, comfortable climate controls, and continued transit solutions. Working together, BRIC and the US/Europe can accomplish more than working alone. In support of these goals, I am including translation tools for this website. I may speak only one language, but I think if we listen carefully we find ways to understand each other.
This post is an update to my post on Coastal Engineering and the impacts of sea level rise on the Atlantic Coast.
A recent article from ASCE’s Smartbrief service says that Florida has allowed development along the coast to increase despite risks of sea level rise. The authors also introduce the concept of abandoned versus protected coastal properties, assuming that much of the developed land in places such as Miami will be shielded by Coastal Engineering projects.
There is a known risk (known since 1980, as pointed out in the article) that sea levels are likely to change. Current policies assume that they can be fixed, but this is only true if huge sums of money are involved.
One of the issues it raises is who will be paying for these engineered structures. The people who benefit most from preserving existing property rights will obviously be the property owners themselves. But the costs are so high that taxpayers from all over the country will probably be asked to chip in. This makes the coastal development activities of Florida and similar states irresponsible.
As sea levels rise during the next few decades, get ready for the biggest bailout in history.
I recently read the US Climate Change Science Program’s report “Coastal Sensitivity to Sea-Level Rise: A Focus on the Mid-Atlantic Region.” Released in January, 2009, this is part of the US Govt’s documents that address the public policy issues surrounding climate change and its effects. Find more information at GlobalChange.gov.
This report has some interesting bits of information for engineers to consider:
Consensus in the climate science community is that the global climate is changing, mostly due to mankind’s increased emissions of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide, from burning of fossil fuels and land-use change (measurements show a 25 percent increase in the last century). Warming of the climate system is unequivocal. [my emphasis added]
…there is currently no consensus on the upper bound of global sea-level rise…
Recent studies suggest the potential for a meter or more of global sea level rise by the year 2100, and possibly several meters within the next several centuries.
…the rate of rise appears to have accelerated over twentieth century rates, possibly due to atmospheric warming causing expansion of ocean water and ice-sheet melting…
With a substantial acceleration of sea-level rise, traditional coastal engineering may not be economically or environmentally sustainable in some areas.
…it is likely that most wetlands will not survive acceleration in sea-level rise by 7 millimeters per year. Wetlands may expand inland where low-lying land is available but, if existing wetlands cannot keep pace with sealevel rise, the result will be an overall loss of wetland area in the Mid-Atlantic. The loss of associated wetland ecosystem functions (e.g., providing flood control, acting as a storm surge buffer, protecting water quality, and serving as a nursery area) can have important societal consequences, such as was seen with the storm surge impacts associated with Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in southern Louisiana, including New Orleans, in 2005.
Loss of tidal marshes would seriously threaten coastal ecosystems, causing fish and birds to move or produce fewer offspring. Many estuarine beaches may also be lost, threatening numerous species.
Nearly one-half of the 6.7 billion people around the world live near the coast and are highly vulnerable to storms and sea-level rise.
Nationally, most current coastal policies do not accommodate accelerations in sea-level rise.
Most coastal regions are currently managed under the premise that sea-level rise is not significant and that shorelines are static or can be fixed in place by engineering structures. The new reality of sea-level rise due to climate change requires new considerations in managing areas to protect resources and reduce risk to humans.
This is scary stuff. If we underestimate the potential for climate change even a small amount, then it is unlikely that engineers can help. Typically engineers err on the side of caution. We are a conservative bunch, and uncertainty is explicitly and implicitly managed through the standard use of Load and Resistance Factors. However, the vast majority of civil engineers in the US are still not convinced of climate change at this point.
And while most people feel that governments are working towards a solution, the truth is that almost all governments have decided to sacrifice coastal areas to avoid the political reality of reducing emissions to really safe levels. Most governments have decided to “limit” global warming by redefining “safe levels” to whatever level is politically convenient.
I guess we are all counting on “geoengineering” to save the day, but that is probably the most expensive and least satisfactory solution of all (see Real Climate entry for more information). For those wondering just what Coastal Engineering can do for us, see my earlier post about San Francisco or just look at the multi-billion dollar MOSE Project being built to protect Venice.
Neither Coastal Engineering nor Geoengineering will be our savior. The cure of Geoengineering is almost as bad as the disease. Coastal Engineering is an expensive solution that requires us to choose certain areas for preservation. What is likely is that some areas are selected as too important to cede. The remainder will probably be lost because of rapid changes in sea level. The consequences of this change will be severe. Wetlands that shelter endangered bird species and protect coastal areas from hurricane storm surge will be lost.
The receding shoreline begins shifting so rapidly that whole towns must be abandoned or moved once per decade. The beautiful fishing villages and beaches of the Northeast will be decimated. The debate over Galveston and New Orleans becomes a moot point, as we slowly watch the Strand and Bourbon Street become modern versions of Atlantis.
So the next time you see a cost-benefit argument against the Waxman-Markey bill (such as “Time for Inaction on Global Warming” published in the WSJ), or a video from the American Petroleum Institute warning about job losses, try to remember that the cost of inaction is probably higher than represented. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
I was faced with an interesting truth this week. As an unofficial, non-scientific poll in ASCE Smartbrief showed, the majority of civil engineers don’t understand climate change. The poll was included in their daily email (which I find very informational and strongly recommend it). The reason for the poll was because of a reader’s comments to ASCE:
I was hoping that engineers would take a progressive view on the issue of global warming and climate change, but I wasn’t holding my breath on the issue. For those who can’t read the options, they are:
- Our use of fossil fuels has created a crisis. We need emission reduction regulations to halt climate change
- We should look into alternative energy sources, but climate change isn’t as dire as some predict.
- The climate-change models are so flawed, we have no idea what’s really going on.
- Climate change is natural. Regulations will only benefit some companiees and will hurt most of the rest of us.
Voting has ended and the results were posted in the following day’s Smartbrief. Here are the final results:
Results show that the majority of engineers are uncomfortable with the topic of climate change, believing either that it is not caused by humans, not a real problem, or not enough is known to justify intervention. In fact, only 25% of engineers thought emission reduction regulations were required.
Once again, I am concerned that ASCE is trying to portray themselves as “leaders of sustainability” but not spending any time educating their own members. (see my previous posts on ASCE
) The consequences of global warming are severe, but many engineers have chosen to ignore the risks completely. A great comment by Daniel Kurkjian
on ASCE’s blog summarizes what ASCE itself should be communicating to the profession:
Scientists are in agreement that carbon dioxide increases global temperatures and that can have significant negative effects on our way of life. Civil engineers have a role to plan in lobbying regulators to make sure that new rules are phased in and do not cripple construction and infrastructure development.
It’s unbelievable to hear comments on the ASCE website claiming global warming is not real and the carbon dioxide is somehow not a pollutant. At elevated concentrations in the atmosphere CO2 raises temperatures, which can have devasting impacts on climate and the way we live. That defines a pollutant; something that can damage the enviroment at elevated concentrations.
It’s understandable to fear an over-reach by the goverment that hurts business. However, the way to deal with that isn’t to deny reality and claim global warming isn’t associated with carbon dioxide pollution. The role of the civil engineer is to make the government aware of the imapcts of their regulations and to seize the business opportunities that will come with being current on regulations.
This is an excellent statement, I hope that ASCE will continue to hear these comments and realize that being a leader in sustainability means educating ASCE members. As this comment so rightly points out, it is unbelievable that ASCE would entertain the idea that climate change has not been associated with CO2 increases and human activity.
The problem with global warming “skeptics” is that they are not skeptics at all. A true skeptic is one who approaches an issue with an open mind, refusing to be swayed by arguments until the evidence is presented. Instead, those who deny global warming are the opposite of skeptics, having decided their opinion before evidence was presented. For a quick look at the evidence that is accepted by the global scientific community, which Daniel Kurkjian referred to in his comment, see my earlier post on Global Warming Potential.