Alaska is Melting. Can Kyoto Save It?
Treaties that mandate emissions reductions aren't the ultimate solution. R&D on efficiency technologies is.
Richard A. Muller
Technology for Presidents
April 16, 2004
People in cold climates covet warmth. Not all of those 'Canadians For Global Warming' bumper stickers are tongue-in-cheek. But they don't joke like that in Alaska. To residents of this state, the prospect of even a small rise in average temperatures is a looming catastrophe. That's because Alaska is melting. Literally.
Much of Alaska is built on frozen ground called permafrost, a soil condition that results when the yearly temperature averages below freezing. But across most of the state, that criterion is just barely met, by a few degrees Celsius. Alaska lives on the edge of a phase change. A small bit of warming can make a big difference. And that's why many Alaskans, along with plenty of outside researchers and environmentalists, are concerned about global warming and the strategies proposed to limit its rise. Even if the United States signed international treaties designed to limit climate change, they're starting to realize, that might not be enough to keep the state from softening.
As I drove Alaska's Highway 4 last summer, the landscape looked flat but the ride felt like I was on rolling hills. The road undulated up and down, thanks to spotty drainage from partially melted permafrost; costly road repairs must be done every summer. Along the sides were 'drunken trees' (a local term), leaning on each other's shoulders like thin inebriated giants, their shallow roots loosened by soft soil. There were also drunken homes, leaning and sinking into the ground, and sunken meadows, three meters lower than the surrounding forest. These result when trees are cleared and a little bit of extra warmth reaches the ground in the form of direct sunlight.
The ecology itself seems to melt down around zero degrees Celsius. Warm weather in Alaska in the 1990s encouraged an infestation of bark beetles that killed four million acres of spruce forest. This has been called the greatest epidemic of insect-caused tree mortality ever recorded in North America.
Many people think human activity is to blame for this warming, and that Alaska is a particularly sensitive alarm, like a canary in a mine shaft. Canaries were actually used as recently as the late 1980s to alert coal miners to whitedamp, their name for carbon monoxide. Now Alaska may now be our early warning against chokedamp—carbon dioxide.
Carbon dioxide comprises only 380 parts per million of the air that we breathe, yet this trace gas is the primary source of carbon for plants, and thus for our food. But it is also one of today's villains. Because carbon dioxide absorbs infrared radiation emitted from the earth that would otherwise escape into space, an oversupply of the gas enhances the atmosphere's natural greenhouse effect. The burning of fossil fuels and tropical rainforests has raised atmospheric carbon dioxide by about 20 percent since 1958 (when careful measurements began), and perhaps by as much as 35 percent since the beginning of the industrial revolution. And while you've probably heard it before, it bears repeating: The United States, with about 4.6 percent of the world's population, is responsible for about 40 percent of fossil fuel emissions worldwide. That disproportionate fraction is partly a result of our great economy and productivity—but is also due to our great inefficiency, which is in turn abetted by low oil prices.
Is carbon dioxide responsible for the melting of Alaska? As I have pointed out previously, scientific discussion on this issue has become rude and nasty. Ad hominem accusations abound. Is global warming real? Are humans responsible? One side says, 'Yes, and if you don't believe that, you are not a non-scientific troglodyte.' The other side says, 'It isn't proven, and if you act prematurely you'll kill our economy, you liberal communist tree-hugger.'
A symbolic word in this argument is "Kyoto." More formally, the 'Kyoto Protocol' is a proposed amendment to a treaty called the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. It was negotiated in Kyoto, Japan, and signed by the U.S. representative, vice president Al Gore, in 1998. Senate ratification of the treaty would commit the United States to a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions of 7 percent below our 1990 level. Since emissions have grown since 1990, the actual cut required works out to about 16 percent of the current levels.
But nobody expects the Senate to ratify the treaty, unless there are enormous changes in the public's perception of the danger. President Clinton never brought the treaty to the Senate (it would have been rejected), and President Bush opposes it. If John Kerry is elected president, he is unlikely to send the treaty to the Senate only to lose the vote.
But Kyoto stays alive, mostly as an emblem of the potential problem. People are categorized by their stand on this treaty—for it or against it—even though the issue is subtle and complex. I hold an unusual position. I believe carbon dioxide emissions should be brought under control—not because they are the scientifically proven cause of global warming, but because they could be responsible. Yet I dislike the Kyoto approach, since I believe it does not address the real issue. In fact, complying with the Kyoto treaty might lull us into thinking we had taken a valuable step, when in fact a substantially different direction is needed.
Virtually everyone agrees that if the United States were to comply completely with the Kyoto protocol, that by itself would not halt global warming. We may be responsible for much of the rise of the last century, but we will not be responsible for the 2- to 8-degree Celsius rise that climate modelers say could occur over the next 50 years. The long-term problem comes from India and China. Their economies, and thus their energy use, are rapidly expanding. Fortunately, these countries have taken strong conservation measures, which appear to have paid off. Carbon-dioxide emissions in China have actually gone down recently, while its economy has grown. Part of that may be attributed to good will, but most of it is probably just good economics.
But it is hard to be optimistic. The easy measures have been taken. The 1.3 billion people in China and the 1.0 billion people in India deserve a standard of living equal to ours, and they are heading in that direction. With that many people striving for automobiles and air conditioning, what future can we expect?
Pro-Kyoto advocates say that we must set an example. Let's show we can restrain ourselves, and China and India will eventually follow. I find this argument weak. We have already set an example: our standard of living is so high that for the first time in recorded history obesity among the poor is a serious health problem. China and India have a right to covet a life of abundance, and we have no right to deny it to them. They'll get their SUVs first, and only then will they consider following our lead toward benefiting the rest of mankind. That approach is not good for Alaska.
Moreover, China has vast coal reserves, so they will have cheap fossil fuels too, just like we had. Can we deny them the right to use it? No, of course not. Can we set an example that they will follow? The welfare of their people is more important to them than the ecology of Alaska. Kyoto does not address this serious problem. It has no limits whatsoever on carbon dioxide emissions of China and India.
There is a solution. India and China will endorse conservation, not because it is good for the world, but because it makes economic sense. A kilowatt-hour saved is a kilowatt-hour earned. Amory Lovins coined the term 'negawatts' for energy not used. Negawatts are cheaper than megawatts because you don't have to build new power plants. Spend a little bit improving efficiency, and you'll save a lot of money on the fuel you don't buy and carbon dioxide reduction is thrown in for free. And with steady progress, we can reduce emissions while bringing the standard of living of China and India up to ours—a point I made in a previous column.
The Kyoto approach is actually harmful to the extent that it nudges industry and some in government to oppose conservation, since anything Western industry does to conserve will be undone by development in India and China. But energy efficiency need not be painful for East or West, if done in such a way as to save money. The conservation movement has a long history of endorsing visible but ultimately meaningless steps (e.g. recycle your grocery bags) that make us feel good but accomplish little. Let's not do that again.
Substantial improvement in energy efficiency requires research and development. Some development can be done in the private sector (e.g. hybrid cars) but stockholder pressure has killed most of the truly long-term research in the great industrial laboratories. Long-term anything, especially if it is expensive, requires government support.
The best part about energy efficiency is that it makes economic sense. Let us welcome China and India into the modern standard of living, and maybe save Alaska in the process. Let's pour federal money into research on methods of conservation, methods that don't reduce our standard of living but allow us—and the rest of the world—to enjoy life while using fewer gallons of gasoline. With energy efficiency, rather than dreading the ecological consequences of economic growth, we can have the joy of sharing it with the rest of the world.
Richard A. Muller, a 1982 MacArthur Fellow, is a physics professor at the University of California, Berkeley, where he teaches a course called 'Physics for Future Presidents.' Since 1972, he has been a Jason consultant on U.S. national security. More by this author >>