Climate Change is a Really Hard Problem, Really

I had an epiphany on climate change yesterday.

CO2 when released into the atmosphere remains for at least a thousand years before natural processes remove it. This means the only thing that matters is the total amount of CO2 we emit, not the rate at which we do so.

As a hypothetical example, lets assume we have 50 years of fossil carbon left at current rates of consumption. Now assume that citizens wake up and elect governments that initiate carbon taxes and other policies resulting in a 50% reduction in global fossil carbon use. What would happen?

  1. Total global wealth would reduce by more than 50%.  Wealth is proportional to the rate of energy use so we would lose 50% of our wealth off the top. In addition, a lot of our wealth is in the form of debt which requires growth to retain its value. This debt would default and become worthless in a shrinking economy resulting in further reduction of wealth.
  2. Fossil carbon reserves would last 100 years instead of 50 years. This assumes that much less wealthy consumers could continue to afford the high cost of extracting the remaining low quality fossil carbon reserves. It is probable that we could not afford these high costs and consumption would therefore drop even more than the 50% targeted by government policies. Which in turn would mean a further reduction in wealth.
  3. The total amount of CO2 released would be unchanged. As speculated in the previous point, it might take longer than 100 years because the maximum possible rate of extraction will decline in a smaller and poorer economy. But in the end, we clever monkeys will probably find a way to burn all the reserves, resulting in the same amount of CO2 released.
  4. The climate would change by the same amount although it might take an extra 50 years or more to do so.
  5. The negative impact on species extinction, ocean acidification, sea level rise, violent storms, food production, and fresh water supplies would be unchanged.

This means enlightened citizens willing to reduce their standard of living by more than 50% is not enough to avoid a disaster for their grandchildren and other species.

To reduce our impact on the climate we must leave fossil carbon in the ground and never burn it for at least a thousand years.

We therefore have no choice but to collapse our population and per capita consumption to, at best, an ancient Roman level. I say at best because the Roman civilization used wood and other resources at an unsustainable rate which led to its collapse.

This of course will not happen voluntarily.

It was an epiphany for me because I am trying to live a low carbon lifestyle but now understand that it probably makes no difference what I do, including influencing those around me. So now I am back to square one wondering what is the best thing to do with the balance of my life.

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