ISGP Podcast: Remix to Ignition

How do we know that excess atmospheric carbon dioxide is the primary driver of climate change?

All the predictions say the same thing: temperatures are increasing in a manner that’s correlated with atmospheric CO2 levels. The only uncertainty that exists is the magnitude of that increase. In other words, if climate change really was some conspiracy on the part of one government or another, the data simply wouldn’t agree across the board.

To offer a bit of perspective: 56 million years ago, a historical event known as the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum occurred. This was basically the time when the earth’s climate was about 8 degrees Celsius warmer than it is today. During this time, nature released way more CO2 into the atmosphere than humans are even doing today, probably at the hands of a massive volcano-related event. That event actually induced warming at a slower rate than humans are causing today, and the end result was pretty incredible. Notable outcomes included the dwarfing of large warm-blooded animals, mass migrations, ecosystem disruptions, and extinctions — both at the local and global scale.

Shifting away from a fossil fuel-based economy over the coming years is expected to have both environmental and economic benefits. Many of the debaters agreed that sustainable, renewable energy sources are the future, both because of emissions reduction targets and because fossil fuels are finite. Policy-wise that means research projects with implications for clean energy will need full support — both ideological and financial.

These issues and others were part of a discussion of a paper written by Dr. Richard Alley, a professor at Penn State University, member of the National Academy of Sciences, and foreign member of the Royal Society. The paper, “Large and Long-Lasting Human-Caused Climate Change,” was discussed at the ISGP conference series called Climate Impact on National Security convened in partnership with the U.S. Army War College in 2016.

The policy that needs to be adopted here, according to Dr. Alley, is, quote, “a rational carbon tax.” A carbon tax is basically one that tries to put a price on carbon emissions. It tries to take into account all of those outcomes and damages that we associate with CO2 emissions. It’s hoped, of course, that such a tax could result in decreased fossil fuel consumption and thus, lower emissions.

Precedent exists for these sorts of carbon taxes, and as more and more are instituted the world’s inhabitants will see how effective they are at lowering fossil fuel consumption and helping decrease emissions.

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