In the decade that ran from 1979 to 1989, we had an excellent opportunity to solve the climate crisis?

That's the claim from the NYT. Weird, I know. Or in more detail:
The world’s major powers came within several signatures of endorsing a binding, global framework to reduce carbon emissions — far closer than we’ve come since. During those years, the conditions for success could not have been more favorable. The obstacles we blame for our current inaction had yet to emerge. Almost nothing stood in our way — nothing except ourselves.
I don't think the overall sentiments are true. The last part - nothing except ourselves - is sort-of but not really true as well. And the idea that something like GW could be solved by a couple of signatures is magical thinking; or, put another way, confuses law with legislation.

One can argue a lot about exactly when "we knew enough", and what "enough" means, or even what "we" or "knew" means (who exactly is "we"? Scientists? The political elite? The public?) and I've tried to do that before, but I find it hard to believe that even the first IPCC report would be considered sufficient evidence. So any time before 1990 is definitely unreasonable.

Before then - in the 1980's - there was little public awareness of the issue, and no political support for anything GW related that would cause the electorate any kind of pain (so if there was "nothing but ourselves" in the way, that wouldn't help, because we were in the way). The scientific support for anyone who would want to suggest such a thing was lacking. And the technological support for solutions was also lacking (so it wasn't true that only ourselves were in the way; we lacked any kind of fix).

The NYT tells us:
A broad international consensus had settled on a solution: a global treaty to curb carbon emissions. The idea began to coalesce as early as February 1979, at the first World Climate Conference in Geneva, when scientists from 50 nations agreed unanimously that it was “urgently necessary” to act.
But my notes from the same say:
of possible warming from CO2 rises they say: "...increased the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere by about 15% during the last century and it is at present increasing by about 0.4% per year. It is likely that an increase will continue in the future... it appears plausible that an increased amount of CO2 in the atmosphere can contribute to a gradual warming of the lower atmosphere, especially at high latitudes". This isn't a prediction of warming such as you would find in the 2001 IPCC TAR, its a much weaker statement of plausib[i]lity appropriate to the level of knowledge of those times.
And I wrote that more than a decade ago. The NYT's description of the 1974 CIA report on climate change also somewhat differs from mine. Most importantly, the NYT has failed to realise that the author of the CIA report was clueless about climate (though doubtless an excellent spy).

After that there are an awful lot of words, many of them doing that tedious journalistic thing, the "personal story" (Jim cut down on his work hours, leaving the Goddard Institute at 5 o’clock each day, which allowed him to coach his children’s basketball and baseball teams), rather than recounting facts. And as to the things that are facts, I'm not at all convinced it is a reliable history of what happened; you're much better off with Spencer Weart's version. There are so many documents out there from those times that you can, by selective quotation, get almost anything you want.


The world is losing the war against climate change - the Economist (via RS)
* Joe Romm doesn't like the NYT piece either (h/t DB) but IMO for the wrong (i.e., not the same as my) reasons. Instead, he is as usual keen to make sure all the world's ills are blamed on Evil Industry and the Evil GOP. After all, it is hardly possible that anyone else could be "to blame", is it?


dave said...

Woof, woof!

In principle, it's not daft if rather premature – the pedia on Hansen's 1988 testimony has Timothy M. O'Donnell of the University of Mary Washington saying it was "pivotal," "ignited public discussion of global warming and moved the controversy from a largely scientific discussion to a full blown science policy debate," and marked "the official beginning of the global warming policy debate."

That could be the turning point as industry and ideology increasingly went into full out detail mode.
Reaching the extent now that lawyer and former Murray Coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler is in charge of the EPA, and we're too focussed on disrupting our trading links with yoorp to bother about climate...

David B Benson said...

Joe Romm slams the article.

William Connolley said...

Woof: poor old stoats, everyone's unfavourite animal nuisible.

Hansen 1988: that could be so, but again it's not at all compatible with the NYT piece, for example their 1979 "quote". And 1988 testimony would not have got you an international agreement by 1989.

Thanks. I think Romm is wrong in his reasons, but I've added a link to his piece.

Anonymous said...

If I could go back in time, I'd rework the Kyoto agreement: instead of cap&trade (leading to things like Russian hot air, setting caps too high, the US not wanting to pay other countries for credits, etc.), I'd have set up a 3 part system:

1) countries agree to phase out fossil fuel & energy subsidies. (replacing, say, a subsidy that makes heating oil cheaper with just a direct money transfer where the recipient can choose to buy heating oil or buy insulation or just live in a colder house and buy better food)

2) countries agree to impose an internal carbon tax, with the level determined by GDP/capita (e.g., differentiated responsibilities, but not permanently creating Annex I/non-Annex I distinctions regardless of what happens in the interim), starting low and increasing over time. Because this is internal, it isn't a real cost - each country can decide what their own internal funds are used for (lump sum rebates, tax cuts, green spending, whatever)

3) setting up funds for international aid, LULUCF, R&D, etc.

Alas, the greens wouldn't have bought into it, and it probably couldn't have passed the anti-climate Senate anyway. But it might have had a better chance... and it would have had more tangible accomplishments than a near-zero-price cap and trade...


William Connolley said...

> the greens wouldn't have bought into it

I agree. Perhaps I wouldn't have bought it, at the time. Partly because people are over-ambitious about what they can achieve, and reluctant to risk under-offering, and discount the risk of failure; and partly because there's quite a lot of wanting-to-reshape-the-world in the green platform; so GW is an issue to be solved, yes, but also to be used as a means to and end.

Phil Hays said...

"...there's quite a lot of wanting-to-reshape-the-world in the green platform; so GW is an issue to be solved, yes, but also to be used as a means to and end."

A very good point. Which explains why a people that don't want the world to be reshaped in some of the proposed ways often disbelieve in climate science. "It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!"

After we burn all of the available fossil fuels the resulting climate would be similar to the PETM. Tropical rain forests in the Arctic Circle and all that. How long would the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets last, in such a world?

Some of the proposed solutions really scare the comfortable and fortunate citizens of the first world. There must be a reason to not be concerned. Really need to find it. Some reason, any reason at all. And to be fair, some of the proposed solutions are unrelated to the climate problem.

Which is why the most successful response to the climate issue to date has been the LED bulb. No reason that scares the comfortable and fortunate citizens of the first world. Unless they are in the tiny minority that work in the business of putting tungsten wires in glass bulbs. Maybe we might find others, such as perhaps battery powered cars. Oh dear, that scares auto unions, a rather larger group, as well as oil related workers and businesses, even larger. Perhaps much of the electric power we generate might come from solar, wind or nuclear. Oh dear, that scares coal miners and mine owners.

Why are you scared?

Tom said...

I do not believe that there was in any way, shape or form a consensus path to reducing emissions that was agreed upon by the developing nations whose projected emissions are the principal obstacle to a global reduction.

To say otherwise is fantasy.

Phil Hays said...

@Tom, thanks for pointing out the difficulty of dividing a Commons.

Tom is sure, of course, the the developing nations not only should the much smaller fraction of the Commons that they have today, but that fraction should reduce as much or more than the developed countries fraction.

Clearly there is no possibility of a deal when the more numerous poor demand something closer to equality as the cost of their agreement. Secessio plebis made the Roman Republic work for a while, but nothing similar is or was possible.

Phil Hays said...

Error in proof reading.

Tom is sure, of course, that the developing nations not only should have a much smaller fraction of the Commons that they have today, but that fraction should reduce as much or more than the developed countries fraction.

Tom said...

Actually, Mr. Hays, you are incorrect on what I am sure about. Peace be with you.

Anonymous said...

To follow-up on my critique of the green philosophy (or at least a subset thereof): part of the movement seems to conflate "success" with "very stringent target": so for Kyoto, it was all about getting countries to agree to more ambitious caps. With Paris, it was all about getting countries to agree "to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5 degrees Celsius". But I'd trade any number of stringent targets for actual, measurable, policy implementation. So, with Kyoto, the problem is that the cap (which could potentially be an actual, measurable policy) was too ambitious for the US to ratify, so we got nothing (admittedly, I don't know if the US would have ratified even a wimpy cap, but...). With Paris, the 1.5 degree (or 2 degree) goal would be worth a cup of coffee, if we also had a 5 dollar bill.

Whereas _any_ tax, no matter how small, would be a small step towards real emissions reductions, and once the tax infrastructure is there, it makes it more plausible to slowly ratchet it up. (I'll admit that the US gas tax has been stuck in neutral for decades, so that's not great support for the political will to do so, but at least it is plausible. I also blame the gas tax authors for not indexing to inflation)


Hank Roberts said...

Cheer up. Things could get worse. Remember Crutzen's Nobel Prize warning that we dodged a bullet on CFCs because industry really easily could have settled on bromine compounds and we'd have lost the ozone layer before having any idea what was going on?


Well, opportunities abound; remember it's not just single chemicals that can cause problems, it's interaction effects:


The E.P.A.’s abrupt new direction on legacy chemicals is part of a broad initiative by the Trump administration to change the way the federal government evaluates health and environmental risks associated with hazardous chemicals, making it more aligned with the industry’s wishes....
... the E.P.A. regulates some 80,000 different chemicals, many of them highly toxic and used in workplaces, homes and everyday products. If chemicals are deemed less risky, they are less likely to be subjected to heavy oversight and restrictions.

The effort is not new, nor is the decades-long debate over how best to identify and assess risks ....

Hank Roberts said...

You wondered about interactions?


JoeT said...

You wrote, "The NYT's description of the 1974 CIA report on climate change also somewhat differs from mine."

I found this fascinating because it's NOT JUST that the description differs from yours. My take on it is that Rich got it completely wrong.

Rich wrote, "In 1974, the C.I.A. issued a classified report on the carbon-dioxide problem. It concluded that climate change had begun around 1960 and had “already caused major economic problems throughout the world.The future economic and political impacts would be “almost beyond comprehension.”

I followed your link and this report has NOTHING to do with carbon-dioxide. I couldn't even find those words in the report. Rather it is talking about speculation that the world was entering a stage of COOLING.

It may well be that the report you linked to wasn't the one that Rich is referring to, but I found indeed that report said climate change had begun around 1960 and that the consequences were "almost beyond comprehension".

Makes you wonder whether anyone even proofread Rich's article.

Russell Seitz said...

Don't despair of loosing the ozone layer , Hank-

The Aussie coal PR hacks claim dark greens want to feed cows bromine to curb methane emission-


David B Benson said...

William, on the Energy Matters blog a commenter wrote that you are a climate alarmist. He further stated that you control the editing of climate articles on Wikipedia.

For the record?

William Connolley said...

DB: http://euanmearns.com/blowout-week-241/ ? Once upon a time I tried to correct their ignorance but it was hopeless. They can't even agree if I control the articles or are banned from editing. But it is to some extent instructive: never mind the subtleties of GW or politics: even simply checked facts like "does WMC still edit wiki?" are beyond them.

PH: the things you are "sure" of about Tom appear to be wrong; and I can't think of anything he has written that would make you think them, other than out of frustration. On a scale of 1 to Trump, he's on your (and my) side. I refer you to WaPo raises the bar.

MMM: I agree; the Green criteria for success wasn't just solving GW, it was changing lifestyles; and somewhere in all those grand plans the desireablility of small improvements was lost. This isn't strange; it's a common dynamic. I wrote a post - which after ten minutes of searching I've just found - on the difference between budgets and taxes, pointing out that budgets aren't so good; nonetheless it's what the hairshirts always go for.

Joe: I think you're right about the CIA report, having just re-read my own post. It first came to me during the global-cooling wars, so my main interest was "was it reliable" to which the answer was no: it is written by a spook, not a scientist, and it fails to understand the state of the science then prevailing; but it very definitely does not support "we understood GW in those days"; quite the reverse.

Phil Hays said...

RE Tom, seems so. There was a "Tom" that was arguing on the internet almost 20 years ago for the same or even larger percentage reductions in CO2 release for developing nations. This was before the Kyoto accords, mid 1997. A little reflection indicates it was almost certainly a different Tom. As such apologies are in order.

Phil Hays said...

Oh, and is the future linear?

Or not?


Tom said...

Thank you for your apology Mr. Hays. No harm no foul.