I generally try to avoid discussing climate policy specifically. One obvious reason is that I don’t have any particular expertise in that area, or any special insights. However, there is a somewhat subtler reason as to why I find it a difficult topic. When I read something like this post about carbon taxes (which I discussed here) it makes a lot of sense. There are lots of factors to consider. If we do too much now, the current generation could pay much more than their fair share, and we could do more harm than good. If we do too little now, we could pass on too much to future generations. It’s a difficult balancing act.
Then I start to think a bit more like a physicist. Our climate is a complex, non-linear system. We have the potential to change it substantially, and to do so very quickly. We could change our climate by an amount comparable to the change between a glacial and an inter-glacial, but could do so ten times faster than has occured in the past. For small changes, we expect the response to be linear, and maybe it will remain linear even if we induce what is quite a large change. On the other hand, maybe not; it’s not impossible that it could flip into some kind of new state. Maybe such a new state would be beneficial. However, I would guess that the region of parameter space in which changes would be beneficial is dwarfed by the region of parameter space in which it would be very detrimental.
On top of being a physicist, I’m also involved with finding planets around other stars. This makes me very aware of the fact that the only place in the universe where we know life to exist is on our own planet. In fact, the only place is in a very thin shell around our planet. What makes this planet habitable is our atmosphere, into which we’re currently dumping CO2 like there’s no tomorrow. Even if there is life elsewhere – as there probably is – it also doesn’t really make any difference; this is our home for the foreseeable future. Treating our atmosphere like a waste dump, seems like a really bad idea.
So, of course I think that dumping giga-tonnes of CO2 into our atmosphere and pushing our climate hard and fast is something we should probably avoid doing, but how? I just end up back at the beginning again; just because we should probably not be dumping giga-tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere doesn’t mean that it’s easy to work out how best to not do so. There are clearly many factors to consider. However, ignoring – or even dismissing – that what we’re doing carries risks and is probably unprecedented, doesn’t appear to be an effective way of encouraging that we take this seriously and actually start doing something substantive. It’s why I find myself getting frustrated by some of the social science comments on this topic; they seem to often ignore what makes this an issue worth taking seriously.
Anyway, I’m not really sure where I’m going with this. I guess it’s that climate policy (by which I mean what we should decide to do) is a very difficult and complicated issue. On the other hand, deciding whether or not we should actually do something, doesn’t seem all that complicated; to me, at least.