Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Carbon Tax and Climate Change

Green Party leader Russell Norman posted a link on Facebook the other day about the merits of imposing a carbon tax. I was one of half a dozen people who posted responses to his post, and my response has led to several other fairly heated responses about the “facts” and “hypotheses” surrounding this issue. Here's my take.

A carbon tax is a tax imposed by government for the burning of fossil fuels (gas, oil, coal) to encourage the development and use of cleaner energy sources such as solar energy, wind, and hydro-electric that do not increase the level of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere. CO2 is one of several “greenhouse gases” implicated in what used to be called “global warming”, and is now called “climate change.”

[Following this tangent for just a moment, measuring global temperatures is a difficult task at best. The traditional method involved taking temperature readings at various locations, mostly located in urban land areas in the Northern Hemisphere and comparing them year after year. A general rise of about 0.8˚ C since 1800 has been noted by this method. Since 1979, satellite readings have given a more global perspective, and these show stable earth temperatures from 1979 to 1997, a significant jump in temperature in 1997-1998 (El Nino years), and then a levelling off. The global temperature has been stable and perhaps slightly declining since 1997-98. Hence “global warming” has kind of disappeared from the popular radar, but the idea that humans are the primary force negatively impacting the earth’s climate has not. And “climate change” is even more vague and hard to measure than global temperatures.]

From the article linked above

But back to the carbon tax issue. I believe that a carbon tax is primarily a revenue-gathering exercise likely to have little if any real impact on climate change. Here’s my reasoning:

Fact: An estimated 0.04% of the earth’s atmosphere is composed of CO2
Fact: An estimated 4% of that 0.04% of atmospheric CO2 comes from the burning of fossil fuels
Fact: CO2 levels have increase by about 40% since the 1880s
Fact: Global temperatures have increased by about 0.8˚ C since 1880 (nothing like 40%)
Hypothesis: The earth’s climate has been relatively stable until recently but now it is changing (Change is a vague term and difficult to quantify—how do you prove this?)
Hypothesis: Mankind’s burning of fossil fuels has upset the planet’s CO2 level (Has anything else done so?)
Hypothesis: Increasing CO2 levels have an adverse effect on climate stability (How do we know?)
Hypothesis: Decreasing our use of fossil fuels will help stabilize the climate (Only if the above hypotheses are true)
Hypothesis: Taxing Kiwi users of fossil fuels ($3/litre for petrol, anyone?), will cause citizens to decrease their use of fossil fuels, and this will have a significant and positive impact on the planet’s climate. (You're kidding, right? China alone accounts for 42% of global emissions.

This is science presented to the public in a shoddy way. The facts are fine, but too many folks are talking about the hypotheses as if they are facts, or as if they are the only hypotheses out there. Personally? I think the biggest driver of climate change is the sun and her impact (or lack thereof—notice a paucity of solar flares during what is supposed to be a grand maximum, meaning the earth’s magnetic shield is weak and getting weaker by the day) on the planet. As supporting evidence that the main driver of climate change may be the sun not man, consider the profound changes occurring on other planets in our solar system where humans are not interfering (see here and here for examples).

What’s more, it seems just as likely that warmer earth temperatures may encourage the planet to generate more CO2 rather than the other way around. And although the current CO2 level is very high, it should be noted that during prehistoric periods it was much, much higher.  Also,CO2 is good for plants. Some scientists believe increased levels of CO2 may make crops and forests grow faster, and that can be of benefit to all life on the planet.

Furthermore, water vapour and methane are much more prominent greenhouse gases than CO2 and they almost certainly—just due to their greater concentrations—have a greater effect on climate than CO2 but are harder to “tax” or control. Realizing that CO2 only plays a small role among the large cast of participants on the climate stage, and that the proportion of CO2 that we humans are responsible for belching out into the atmosphere is even smaller is a first step.

Ultimately, I am all for anything that can help us clean up the planet because frankly, we’re making a mess of our world. I ABSOLUTELY believe that cleaner energy sources (especially solar) are the way to go. However, I do not believe that imposing a carbon tax in New Zealand will make a significant difference to our planet's climate. What it will do is make almost everything more expensive, from petrol to toilet paper to roads to home heating. And the people who will be hurt most by this are those at the bottom of the economic food chain. Come on Russell, what are you thinking?

I’d like to end this blog post with a really worthwhile summary of the CO2 connection to climate change, as presented by Ben Davidson earlier this year.  His passion and dedication into research on this topic and the sun/earth relationship is extraordinary.

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