When Pretty Good Isn’t Good Enough


An excavator that is in a hole and has stopped digging. Chris Wimbush

Recently I attended a talk at Western New Mexico University given by Jeff Bingaman, the former Democratic Senator from New Mexico. He spoke in front of a friendly home-town crowd on energy and environmental policies in the US Congress. Once viewed as independent, they increasingly overlap due to the challenges of climate change.

Bingaman gave predictions from various sources – including ExxonMobile – that really struck me. For a time frame of 2000 through 2040, worldwide:

  • Population will increase from six billion to nine billion – up by 50%.
  • Energy demand will double – up by 100%
  • CO2 emissions will only go up by 60%, mostly in the Asian Pacific countries while staying flat in the western world. (He didn’t touch on other causes of global warming such as methane releases and land use.)
  • Global GDP, Gross Domestic Product, or the total market value of goods and services produced worldwide in constant dollars, will triple – up by 200%.

To put those numbers in an admittedly limited analogy, if I hired 50% more workers and paid 60% more in supply costs (I’m assuming the CO2 is a measure of efficiency), but got 200% more income, I’d be happy. But even these fine numbers are accompanied by warnings that, while future impacts will vary from region to region around the globe, the effects of global warming include a rise in sea levels, a change in the amount and pattern of precipitation, and probably expansion of subtropical deserts. [Wikipedia Global Warming]

I realize science and technology are advancing every day and the human tendency to draw straight line extrapolations often leads to poor predictions*, but Bingaman presented a pretty bright scenario in terms of GDP and, therefore hopefully, human progress.

This leads me to sobering thoughts.

I believe in the Law of Holes – “if you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.” Bingaman had recommendations for the future. He said we should pursue energy efficiency and, since that usually saves money, everyone is pretty much behind it. We should lower the costs of alternatives to fossil fuels, and government policies to encourage these industries get decent support. But sweeping efforts to “put a cost on carbon” through carbon taxes, cap and trade, or other policies, aren’t likely to go anywhere.

I agree we should do what we can to reduce emissions and keep searching for solutions, but in the absence of a technological marvel, global warming is our future. Climate engineering includes some scary ideas, and mitigations and adaptations run from easy to difficult. [Wikipedia Possible Responses]

I live in southwest New Mexico where water is a big concern. How much water is available relates to rain and snowfall and how much we pump from streams and aquifers to compensate. The community wells for the enclave closest to me have gone dry and they are piping in water from a nearby incorporated town. The water is costly and the people mostly low income – homes in the effected area are being abandoned as residents die and renters leave. They aren’t the only area community suffering water problems. I have a very deep, satisfactory private well – what’s going to happen to me? Or rather, when will it happen to me?

Americans – citizens and politicians – need to talk about balancing costs in the present and the future, about mitigation and adaptation, and about how to thrive in a warming world. I’m an optimist and I think we will thrive, once we tackle the problems.

Note * I once read if you predict the weather tomorrow will be the same as the weather today you’ll have an excellent record of accuracy. But since you’ll miss the changes, and changes are what people are interested in, you’ll be a failure as a meteorologist.

2 thoughts on “When Pretty Good Isn’t Good Enough

  1. Interesting, especially the statement that global warming is our future. Based on population predictions alone, this is unavoidably the most likely scenario, which begs the question: Why do most environmentalists insist that we expend precious economic capital trying to reverse the climate change juggernaut rather than aiming said investments at ways of mitigating its effects? A prime example – California is knee deep into a 62 BILLION dollar high speed rail project that will be a mere redundancy of existing airline service. That 62 bil would pay for a dozen or more desalination plants that together could supply most of the water needs of the state. Which plan do you suppose is most popular with the environmental crowd?

    The problem with our hole is that the sane and practical among us have little influence with and less control over the people doing the digging.

    • How we choose where to spend our time, money, and efforts is an interesting debate – but mitigating the effects must be in the mix. Desalinization is a good example.

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