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What if the Public Had Perfect Climate Information?
Joe Romm, 1 Jul 10

Revkin asks me via Dot Earth, “What if The Public had Perfect Climate Information?” Ahh, the hypothetical question that launches us into an alternative history. Reminds me of that Saturday Night Live routine, “What if Spartacus had a Piper Cub?”

I’d love your answer. Here’s mine.

If the entire public had perfect information on all matters related to climate — the science and the solutions — we would certainly be on a path to below 450 ppm (see, for instance, Scientists find “net present value of climate change impacts” of $1240 TRILLION on current emissions path, making mitigation to under 450 ppm a must).

Indeed, I’d argue that having perfect information on the solutions is at least as important as having perfect information on the problem. Probably the single biggest reason for the lack of deployment of energy-efficient technology is lack of perfect information.

Let’s set aside that there is no definition of what one means by “perfect information.” The term implies we’re in the hypothetical ideal state here.

Also, the possession of perfect information 30 years ago would completely change the amount of information we have today. This I think is a very important point.

If the public had perfect information on climate — and by public I am, of course, including the media and politicians — then we would certainly have put a great deal more money into climate science, observations, satellites, and the like starting at least 3 decades ago, when it became clear to the scientific community that the threat of unrestricted greenhouse gas emissions was real and serious.

Remember, the National Research Council’s 1979 review of the science (”Killing the Myth of the 1970s Global Cooling Scientific Consensus“:

In this case, the panel concluded that the potential damage from greenhouse gases was real and should not be ignored. The potential for cooling, the threat of aerosols, or the possibility of an ice age shows up nowhere in the report. Warming from doubled CO2 of 1.5°–4.5°C was possible, the panel reported. While there were huge uncertainties, Verner Suomi, chairman of the National Research Council’s Climate Research Board, wrote in the report’s foreword that he believed there was enough evidence to support action: “A wait-and-see policy may mean waiting until it is too late” (Charney et al. 1979).

Obviously, if everybody had even that amount of information in 1979, we would have charted a very different course. We would have immediately started investing heavily in low-carbon RD&D — a strategy many embrace today based on imperfect information.

Ironically, President Carter did start such heavy alternative energy investment (though not aimed at carbon), but Reagan tragically slashed the budget 70% to 90%, from which it never recovered.

As our understanding of the risks became clearer in the 1980s, we would have ramped up RD&D funding and started making aggressive deployment in technology up the carbon cost curve, starting with the lowest cost strategies — “best buys first” as my old colleague Amory Lovins used to say. That is especially true because most independent studies done by groups that are funded by the disinformers and their allies find the cost of action to be quite low (see “Introduction to Climate Economics: Why Even Strong Climate Action Has Such a Low Total Cost — One Tenth of a Penny on the Dollar“).

Public policy built around perfect climate information would not merely encounter dramatically fewer market barriers, it would presumably be built around a best estimate of the cost to society of carbon dioxide emissions. That estimate would take into account our understanding that even a low probability of high-impact negative outcomes implies the need for a much higher CO2 cost than the kind of simple cost-benefit analyses we typically see (see Harvard economist: "Climate cost-benefit analyses are “unusually misleading,” warns colleagues “we may be deluding ourselves and others”).

That also means we would have properly valued ecosystem services, including the tropical rain forests, and they would be going a heckuva lot better today.

As the world worked together to understand the science and adopt the most cost-effective solutions — while spending money to developed yet more solutions — we would have seen that emissions reduction is inexpensive and straightforward, especially when you take a long time horizon. That’s in my experience over the past two decades working with businesses to develop and deploy low carbon technologies, as I have documented at great length — see my book Cool Companies: How the Best Businesses Boost Profits and Productivity by Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions.

As everybody saw the multiple benefits of embracing energy efficiency, advanced control systems, variable speed drive motors, daylighting, production processes, and the like in terms of both energy savings and productivity gains, this would quickly have become the norm around the planet.

As for renewables, I can’t even imagine how cheap Solar Baseload would be if Luz had not been allowed to die two decades ago! If you don’t know that story, well, it’s a sad one, but we might have had carbon-free load-following power suitable for use around the planet at under 10 cents a kilowatt hour in the 1990s.

By the 2000s, the world would certainly have been on a path below 550 ppm and as it became increasingly clear that aspects of the climate system were more sensitive than we expected, we would have moved to the 450 ppm path or lower, which would be considerably easier to do since we were on a lower emissions pathway to start with and had so many more clean energy options.

I’m not certain how productive it is to spend a lot of time in the imaginary world of perfect information. But it is worth spending enough time to realize just how destructive the disinformation campaign and the enabling media coverage has been, which was the point of my original post, “Apparently You Can Write an Entire Article on how the Public Doesn’t Get Climate Science without Mentioning the Disinformation Campaign or the Media’s Failings.”

This post originally appeared on Joe's blog Climate Progress, which was just named one of the top blogs of 2010 by TIME magazine - Congrats Joe!

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Just another addendum to emphasize that social science research shows disinformation campaigns are a small contributor to societal stasis on energy and climate. It's nice to wish otherwise, and any disinformation should be exposed, but no one should think that'd magically change things:

Posted by: Andy Revkin on 1 Jul 10

No one should think that'd magically change things

Posted by: halima8910 on 2 Jul 10

No one should think that'd magically change things

Posted by: halima8910 on 2 Jul 10

I don't think it'd change things too radically. Even "perfect information" is open to different interpretation. At the moment it seems like we've got two camps, both in a state of hypnosis, that climate change is real and is going to kills us all or that it's all a hoax and therefore won't have any effect at all.

Posted by: Jake on 2 Jul 10

That presupposes that perfect information and perfect solutions would be perfectly applied.

I think to keep this scientific you the formula is more like:

(perfect information + perfect solutions) * (1 - Public Apathy Percentage) = X ppm

Posted by: Chris Richter on 3 Jul 10

Sorry, guess you should divide by that apathy percentage, but I still don't think the issue solely resides in imperfect information.

Posted by: Chris Richter on 3 Jul 10

I'd just like to add that i totally agree when you say that I’d argue that having perfect information on the solutions is at least as important as having perfect information on the problem. Youth Soccer Drills

Posted by: Andre B on 3 Jul 10

103 increases system geoengineering

Posted by: gaellevin on 4 Jul 10

If that happens then it could boring, we only like to see what we lack info of.

Posted by: arnold stamps on 4 Jul 10

What if the Public Had Perfect Climate Information?

A more important question is "What if the IPCC had perfect climate information?"

Would they actually publish it, or would they continue to sing from the AGW hymnal?

Posted by: Orkneygal on 4 Jul 10

That's really impossible thing to happen in this world. God created everything to balance our life. We could not live in perfect world.

Posted by: Cindy on 4 Jul 10

That's really impossible thing to happen in this world. God created everything to balance our life. We could not live in perfect world.

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Posted by: Cindy on 4 Jul 10

This is only my opinion on climate change it has been happening a lot longer than the last 3 decades. I personally have found that a Green Living lifestyle will lower co2 emissions. Green living will also save the amount of money you spend on everyday things.

Posted by: greenl19 on 4 Jul 10

I wrote a short book that seemed like it offerred a "perfect" explanation of climate change. It was written in everyday language and was generally greeted as well written but its dire message was scary. Those that got the point - act to save yourself or forget about a future for your loved ones - became very agitated and sought direction as to what to do next.

After three months of breast beating the readers began to calm down and within six months all had abandoned any action on their own behalf.

Anything that is not fully engulfed in flames and directly in their face (and possibly not even this) will see a loss of interestover a surprisingly short time period. I'm 74 and I regret (I really do regret finding this to be true) to report to you that the Americans of my youth, the ones who stepped up to save us all of those times when our fat was in the fire, they are all dead. Their replacements are poor substitues - rely on them at your own risk.

Posted by: rich albertson on 4 Jul 10

The skeptics are afraid that the problem is too big to tackle, or that tackling it would call for them to make sacrifices (any) or would hurt their bottom line. Therefore, better to believe that climate change is a big hoax...

Posted by: web design on 9 Jul 10

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