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Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Five climate questions (plus one) for the next Presidential Debate

by Gaius Publius

As you may have heard, the topics for the next presidential debate have been chosen:
  • Debt and entitlements
  • Immigration
  • Economy
  • Supreme Court
  • Foreign hot spots
  • Fitness to be President
and quelle surprise, not one is about the climate. Unless, of course, Brad Johnson has sussed this one out.

At Media Matters, though, Andrew Seifter has figured out how climate can enter the debate after all. His piece is longer than just these questions, and worth reading in full, but as debate prep for viewers, consider his list of climate questions under five of the six topics chosen:
Topic: Immigration

Possible Debate Question: Studies show that climate change worsened the extreme drought in Syria that contributed to the Syrian refugee crisis, and that the effects of climate change on crop yields will drive millions of Mexicans to seek entry into the United States in the coming decades. Will you incorporate climate change into your immigration policies, and if so, how?

Topic: Economy

Possible Debate Question: A 2016 survey of 750 top economists found that climate change is now the single greatest threat to the global economy. What will you do to protect our economy from the effects of climate change?

Topic: Supreme Court

Possible Debate Question: Following a 2007 Supreme Court ruling and a scientific assessment by the Environmental Protection Agency, the EPA is legally required to regulate greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change under the Clean Air Act. Will you implement the Clean Power Plan, the centerpiece of the EPA’s emissions reduction strategy, and if not, how will your administration fulfill the Supreme Court’s mandate to cut greenhouse gas pollution?

Topic: Foreign Hot Spots

Possible Debate Question: The Pentagon has determined that climate change will “aggravate existing problems -- such as poverty, social tensions, environmental degradation, ineffectual leadership, and weak political institutions -- that threaten domestic stability in a number of countries.” To what extent do you believe climate-related risks should be integrated into military planning?

Topic: Fitness To Be President

Possible Debate Question: The scientific community is nearly unanimous in saying that global warming is happening and caused by burning fossil fuels, yet many politicians refuse to acknowledge this is the case. Will you listen to the scientists on climate change, and do you believe that those who refuse to do so are unfit for our nation’s highest office?
These are almost softball questions, and Chris Wallace could easily ask them:
  • How will you deal with climate refugees from Mexico? 
  • How will you protect our economy from climate-driven devastation? (More on that here.)
  • How will you implement the Supreme Court's climate mandate?
  • Will you direct military planners to integrate climate chaos into their scenarios? (Hint: They already do.)
  • Is a climate denier fit to serve as president?
You can tweet Chris Wallace at @FoxNewsSunday. But that's just five of the six debate categories. I think I can offer one more, and it's no softball.
A "Debt and Entitlements" Question

I have a final question, one for the Debt and Entitlements section, and it's a whopper. Not at all a softball question.

Consider what happens if humans fail to significantly limit atmospheric CO2 and other greenhouse gases through, say, 2060. That is, what if our "leaders" give it a try — enough of a try that none of them is villainized (or thrown out of office) — but sorry, they just couldn't get there because of "constraints" of some kind.

That scenario — halfway sorta getting "there" — is similar to what the IPCC used to call its "A2 scenario," a world that reaches 600 ppm CO2 by the end of the century, but not the almost-1000 ppm CO2 predicted by the IPCC's worst-case scenario, A1FI (the "FI" stands for "fuel intensive)."

Projected changes over the 21st century in the atmospheric concentrations of three greenhouse gases: carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), and nitrous oxide (N2O). These projections by the United States Environmental Protection Agency are based on emissions scenarios contained in the IPCC SRES document.[13] The A2 scenario is near the middle in each chart. Note that the worse case, or "business as usual," scenario, A1FI, reaches nearly 1000 ppm CO2 by end-of-century (source; click to enlarge).

Now consider this evaluation (pdf) of the world-wide cost of all climate impacts, calculated both with and without human adaptation to them, assuming we do little to mitigate those impacts — do little, in other words, to "soften the punch" of global climate change ahead of time and merely try to "absorb the blow" as it comes.

The title of the study referenced above is Assessing the costs of adaptation to climate change: A review of the UNFCCC and other recent estimates, published in August 2009. After looking at all of the ways climate change will cause damage ("impacts"), and assessing the total costs of each of those impacts, they have arrived at a number, or rather a range of numbers.

From Table 8.1 of that study, there is "very high" confidence that the world-wide total cost of the damage (net present value in 2000 dollars) will be in the range of ... ready? ... $270 trillion to $3,290 trillion, with a mean value of $1,240 trillion if we spend no money on adaptation — that is, if we, the species, just let it happen to us and try to roll with it. (That's a distinct possibility, by the way, that we will do not much to adapt until it's too late.)

On the other hand, if we fail to "soften the punch" of climate change (no mitigation) but do succeed at some adaptation to the blow (anticipate and prepare, in other words), those numbers improve ... to a very high confidence range of $170 trillion to $2,340 trillion, and a mean of $890 trillion.

Let's average those means to something like a world-wide cost of climate impacts of about $1,000 trillion.


With that in mind, my suggested "debt and entitlements" climate question is this:
Topic: Debt and Entitlements

Suggested question: The world-wide total cost of the damage from climate change, its world-wide impact, has been credibly estimated by a peer-reviewed study as something like 1,000 trillion dollars. Again, that's one thousand trillion.

Clearly, most of that cost will not fall on the United States, but a good percentage of it will. Let's say conservatively that only 10% of that cost, or $100 trillion, will be borne by the U.S. If we amortize that cost to the U.S. over the rest of this century, the price of not "softening the blow" of those impacts, not mitigating the damage ahead of time, comes to about $1.1 trillion per year.

So my question for each of you is two-fold. First, given those numbers, do you plan to treat climate change as a WWII-style emergency as a way to bring those cost numbers down? And if you don't, how do you propose we pay for our failure to treat it as one? Where will that $1.1 trillion-per-year come from?
I don't know if those numbers got your attention, but they certainly got mine — just as they did in 2009, when they were first reported.

(A version of this piece appeared at Down With Tyranny. GP article archive here.)