Unhealthful New 197 – What do easy interventions against global warming have in common with e-cigarettes?

I have a dozen big topics on my backlog list, but I will ease myself back with a simple one that showed up in today’s news.  In his column, John Tierney (aka one of the handful of writers at the New York Times who consistently reports accurately and with genuinely useful analysis) wrote about a book and a new study in Science, that suggests that the best (both effective and practical) strategies for reducing the threat of global warning are not the “ecologically correct” ones we hear about.  The new study suggests focusing more on “black carbon” (basically, soot) and methane, which contribute more to global warming immediately than does the CO2 that we focus on (though CO2 lingers longer – a problem, but one we have more time to deal with).  They advise:

encouraging a switch to cleaner diesel engines and cookstoves, building more efficient kilns and coke ovens, capturing methane at landfills and oil wells, and reducing methane emissions from rice paddies by draining them more often.

As an added bonus, moving those in the third world from dirty 19th-century-style techs to modern alternatives will reduce local health-affecting pollution too, and improve crop yields.  And they are cheap interventions – indeed, they are estimated to be money-saving the near-medium term.

What makes this an Unhealthful News topic is not the coincidence that my previous post was a link to a talk I gave explaining why current wind power tech is terrible, no matter how much you are worried about global warming.  Nor is it that Tierney is writes unhealthful news – quite the opposite.  Rather, it is the subtext from all of the authors, sometimes not so subtle, suggesting that these ideas face an uphill battle because they do not demand meritorious sacrificial pain inflicted on rich countries, and because pursuit of theoretical perfect permanent solutions is the enemy of the good action that we can take now.  Tierney observed the:

…lack of glamour: Encouraging villagers to use diesel engine filters and drain their rice paddies is less newsworthy than negotiating a global treaty on carbon at a United Nations conference.  Another [concern] is the fear of distracting people from the campaign against carbon dioxide, the gas with the most long-term impact.

That should feel familiar to regular readers.  There seems to be the same urge for sacrifice – imposed on others, of course, not oneself – and refusal to pursue favorable cost-benefit ratios that dominates “public health” nannyism.  Encouraging active recreation, building sidewalks, and other welfare-improving and non-confrontational alternatives are not nearly as glamorous as trying to ban Happy Meals and tax soda.  Encouraging the use of e-cigarette or smokeless tobacco as substitutes for cigarettes is violently opposed, and newsworthy global treaties and bans are favored, even though substitution is by far the most promising current intervention and has amazingly low costs.  The “problem” is that dealing with the most immediate threats (protecting the health of today’s smokers; climate change over the next few decades) distracts us: that is, it buys us time to develop better science and technology, distracting from the urge to pursue whatever half-assed, expensive, ineffective “solution” is in vogue right now. 

There is a perverse preference for more costly solutions, even if they are not effective, so that people are forced to repent and suffer for the sins of modern decadence.  Funny how the math works out:  when the costs are added to the benefits as part of what is good about a policy, rather than being subtracted, then expensive and ineffective can score better than cheap and effective.

I find myself in the middle of numerous conversations following my talk and video about industrial wind turbines, some of which are productive, but many of which touch on some or all of these same themes.  The upshot of many comments is that we should be willing to pay any price – or, more precisely, that other Americans (Canadian, Europeans) should be forced to pay any price – for anything that reduces global warming at all.  We should not wait for good technologies that are just a few years off, or take advantage of increasingly cheap natural gas as a good substitute for coal.  No, we have to do something that is really really painful, and never mind that it actually does not do any good at all. 

Like Tierney and the researchers, I am not holding my breath waiting for those who claim to be so worried about climate change to jump on the black carbon bandwagon.  Like, say, e-cigarettes, it offers huge benefits with little sacrifice, and gives us a lot of slack to make further improvements in the still imperfect situation, rather than desperately flailing around for a glamorous, top-down, immediate, perfect solution.  We can’t have that, now can we?


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