Science: Curbing Global Climate Change

Steven Mufson and Karen Yourish
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, July 16, 2007; 11:00 AM

Washington Post energy writer Steven Mufson and graphics editor Karen Yourish discussed strategies for easing a warming climate on Monday, July 16 at 11 a.m. ET.

Read the story: Climate Change Debate Hinges On Economics (Post, July 15) and click through the interactive graphic.

A transcript follows.


Steven Mufson: Welcome to this morning's chat. Karen and I will be answering questions related to yesterday's article and graphic about climate change measures and policies that might be needed to slow global warming. Karen, who does graphics in the financial section, read extensively about this for the graphic. I cover energy, but the lines between energy and environmental coverage have blurred and that's why I've been helping out on our coverage of this area. You'll be reading more in the coming weeks from some of our colleagues from other parts of the paper. And now we'll turn to your questions.


Sun Prairie, Wisc.: Thanks to you both for doing this chat, and for taking a question submitted in advance.

I suppose it is the most basic question where this subject is concerned. We know raising the price of energy through taxation will reduce the use of energy; we also know it is unpopular. Is the fact that raising energy taxes is unpopular to dominate media coverage of climate change?

Your story and the interactive feature barely mention the price of energy; there is discussion of regulating this and subsidizing that, but none of simply using taxation to raise the price of energy and let the market take things from there.

We know how things like cap-and-trade (and carbon sequestration, and so forth) are supposed to work, but we don't know if they do work. If the verdict on taxation -- which we know will work -- is that politicians and green groups just think it's too hard, shouldn't reporters like yourselves say this straight out at the beginning of every story on climate change?

Karen Yourish: The graphic analyzes the impact of placing a cost on carbon dioxide emissions, either through a tax or cap and trade system, and points out that the higher the price put on carbon emissions, the bigger the potential reduction. We chose to elaborate on the "medium cost" scenario, a price of $50 per ton of carbon dioxide equivalents. According the the Carbon Tax Center, This would translate into 49 cents more for a gallon of gas and an average of $33 more a month for electricity.

John Dingell, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, is quoted in the story as saying he doesn't believe the American people are willing to pay what it will cost to cut emissions. He will be introducing legislation to impose a carbon tax to see how people feel about it.


Fort Collins, Colo.: Whatever the CO2 reduction solution is its a global world infrastructure issue because the atmosphere is global. The source of the CO2 is segmented in a number of ways markets, technology, demand. How do you apply a global solution on a multi segmented market?

Karen Yourish: Good point. Many experts believe that the only way nations, industries and individuals will burn fewer fossil fuels is if we put a price on carbon emissions.


Fairfax, Va.: Thanks for your excellent reporting. I wonder has anyone on the Hill or elsewhere put down on paper side by side the comparative costs of preventing the more disastrous effects of global warming with the costs of those disastrous effects themselves? Could you do that in a subsequent report so citizens would have a handy club to hit do-nothing congresspersons over the head with?

Steven Mufson: This is a good question and a good one to start out with. All estimates about costs and benefits in this area are fairly rough. To make an estimate about the costs involves making estimate about economics, demographics, consumer habits and technology adaptation.

But the overall direction of a variety of forecasts is similar. And your point about the costs of not doing anything is what Nicholas Stern was getting at in his report for the British government. One can quibble about his cost estimates, but his point is what you're saying: the cost of inaction will be much greater than the cost of action.


Silver Spring, Md.: How do you see the Post reporting on climate change and related subjects going forward AND what to what extent do you think consumers are willing to change their lifestyles to deal with climate change (e.g. paying a lot more for energy)?

Karen Yourish: The Washington Post is dedicating a lot of space to the subject. We just launched a once-a-month series of stories on the Monday Science page exploring the impact of global warming and possible strategies for dealing with it. How much consumers are willing to change their lifestyles is a major unknown factor in the equation. However, they could reevaluate if it becomes cheaper to use technologies that burn fewer fossil fuels.


Charlottesville, Va.: Talking about the uphill climb, economically speaking, of tackling global warming, seems to me antithetical to both the capitalist spirit, and the spirit of change. Why isn't such a hurdle viewed as the next great economic wave, with myriad ways to reinvent every kind of commodity in its "green" version? Can't it be like the new New Deal--- putting people to work, opening great new swaths of technology, research, development and manufacturing? If the U. S. simply shifts its vision, from "how can we afford this," to "look what money there is to be made," (to say nothing of the other positives in global leadership and moral courage,) can't this thing become the great new vision and fuel of the future?

Steven Mufson: This is a good question. Yes, there will be many new jobs created (and profits made) by what will become a climate change industry. I think that the reason to worry about costs is this: the economy benefits when we produce things that we can actually consume. If we were all just digging ditches and filling them, that would create employment but it wouldn't necessarily be as good for the economy as producing some good. If we are spending money to pump carbon into the ground, that will avoid some environmental costs but it's not a good that people consume so there's some difference. But yes, there will be many economic benefits from these new activities.


Alexandria, Va.: It is time for me to "get off the covered wagon and onto the jet." What is a concise as possible definition of greenhouse gas emissions? I personally am very concerned about the large numbers of people I see waiting in line, car engines running, while they obtain a meal from a fast food restaurant. Although my husband and I have seen "An Inconvenient Truth," I would also like a concise definition of global warming. It makes me so sad to contemplate our lovely coastal areas eventually going under water unless we do something to stop the encroach of the oceans.

Karen Yourish: Greenhouse gases include carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels, methane from livestock and landfills and nitrous oxide and nitrous oxide from soil fertilization. Global warming refers to the increase in the average temperature of the earth.


Herndon, Va.: I'm in favor of reducing my use of energy, and more in favor of the U.S. doing so, both for environmental and energy security reasons. Still, I don't know how much my family's budget can take in terms of further increases in energy costs and still maintain the very modest life we live. Seems as though being environmental responsive is going to dramatically reduce my standard of living.

Steven Mufson: The cost of some things will definitely rise. I would say two things to moderate any sense of alarm:

1. We have already seen much bigger utility and gasoline price increases in the United States over the past three years than the costs that many economists are talking about to slow climate change. In Maryland, electricity rates just went up 72 percent over a year or two. The amount that the average American spends on energy costs comes to about 4 percent or so household expenditures if I remember correctly.

2. Many of these price increases will be phased in over time.


Tampa, Fla.: I run power price models for a living and the premier way to have low end user impact model results is to assume unrealistically low natural gas prices. In reality, natural gas will be a premium fuel in any carbon economy and its price will probably be higher than today. All carbon studies I have seen use extremely low natural gas prices.

Steven Mufson: It seems to me that if we price carbon then natural gas will be more valuable relative to coal or petroleum, but less valuable relative to solar, nuclear or wind.


Washington, D.C.: Who were the "experts" you consulted for this report? Were any of your statistics taken from industry funded think tanks like CEI, AEI, etc.? Thank you.

Steven Mufson: I talked to a fairly wide variety of experts. I have talked to people at CEI and AEI, but I did not rely on them for this article. For this we turned more to groups or experts who are thinking about ways to address the climate change problem: the IPCC, a European utility called Vattenfall (which has done some interesting research work on climate change), Prof. Socolow at Princeton, a McKinsey report, etc.


Capitol Hill: Is there any evidence that the European's limits on their carbon emissions have cost them economically? Have any economists been able to show that Europe's CO2 limits have cost them their competitive edge? Europe's Problems Color U.S. Plans to Curb Carbon Gases (By Steven Mufson, April 9, 2007)

Steven Mufson: I'm sure there are some studies, but it's early still since Europe's program just got going in 2005. There are a lot of anecdotes, some of which I described in the April 9 piece on the problems with Europe's plan. Europe hopes to address some of those problems with rule changes for the second phase of its cap and trade program that will run from 2008 to 2012. Other costs in Europe would be eased if more countries around the world adopted policies to slow climate change.

_______________________ Vattenfall


Arlington, Va.: If it becomes federal policy to store carbon dioxide, how much carbon dioxide are we talking about over the next 50 years and who should be liable for it?

Karen Yourish: Princeton professor Robert Socolow estimates that one 1,000-megawatt coal plant designed to trap carbon dioxide would generate 6 million tons of C02 in one year, or about 100,000 barrels per day (one barrel equals 42 gallons). After 60 years of operation, about 3 billion barrels would be sequestered underground. A key uncertainty to carbon capture and storage is who will be liable for any potential problems.


Bethesda, Md.: In late 2006, the United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization released a report revealing that the single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions is animal agriculture (and not transportation).

While driving a Prius is better than driving a regular car, shouldn't eating vegetarian or vegan foods be on the very top of everyone's "How to save the planet" list? (Not to mention that those of us concerned about preserving nature should also be concerned about the horrible ways that animals are treated on factory farms.)

Steven Mufson: As I understand it, eating vegetarian won't necessarily address global warming. It's a question of farming techniques -- pesticides, fertilizers, tilling techniques. I think it's more a question of farming habits than eating habits.


Washington, D.C.: Did your report factor in at all the potential catastrophic increases in energy prices that could occur if/when peak oil theorists are proven correct? Sure it might be expensive to transition to renewable energy now, but what happens when gas prices quadruple and we haven't made any of the infrastructural changes necessary for making this switch?

Steven Mufson: Energy efficiency steps have multiple benefits: addressing climate change, cutting energy costs and easing U.S. reliance on foreign energy sources. If you think, as many people do, that energy prices are destined to rise sharply for political or geological reasons, then many of the measures to fight climate change only make more sense.


Munich, Germany: Barring any immediate breakthroughs in solar power generation and power storage technology, nuclear technology appears to be the planet-friendly source of power for the time being. I've even read that both the European and American nuclear industries are tooling up for an expected boom in business.

Do you know of any efforts that have been made to placate sceptics of nuclear power generation, such as the Greenpeace organization, and convince them that a Nine Mile Island or a Chernobyl could not happen with modern nuclear power plants?

Steven Mufson: The threat of global warming has a lot of people looking at nuclear power in a new way. In Germany, as you know, some nuclear plants were scheduled to be taken out of service and will probably remain online now. And yes, industry is gearing up here and elsewhere. India and China are moving ahead. Whether that will happen here is still up in the air. It isn't only a safety issue. It's a question of big upfront capital costs and the persistent problem of waste disposal that are also obstacles.


Out here: Let's go with the idea that the earth is warming. Why do people believe that we humans had anything to do with it? It's a little absurd to think that we could have that much impact. When the earth starts to get too cold are we going to figure out ways to release carbon into the air?

Who is measuring the 'warming' trend? Who believes that 50 years ago the instrumentation we had was anywhere near as accurate as it is now? Clearly that isn't the case. In the last 50 years the instruments placement had a lot to do with the temperatures that they were reading as well. No one mentions that, though.

Don't get me wrong - many of the things that people want to do are good (conservation, lower emissions of HARMFUL gasses (not CO2), increasing mileage requirements for cars, etc), but they shouldn't be taken on because of a fallacious argument - they should be taken on because it's the right thing to do.

Karen Yourish: Measurements from Antarctic ice cores show that atmospheric carbon dioxide levels were about 280 million parts per million before the Industrial Revolution. Since then, the concentration of many greenhouse gases have increased. C02 specifically has risen by about 100 ppm; about half of that increase occurred since 1973. The UN International Panel on Climate Change has concluded that human-generated greenhouse gases are triggering changes to the earth's climate.


Newtown, Pa.: How can we assign monetary values to different parts of our environment (ie: the rainforest, clean water, ice caps)?

It seems that one of the biggest problems we have is that our economic system does not provide us with an easy, or accurate, way to assign value to our environment. Therefore, of course when analyzing climate change legislation, the proposed costs seem to outweigh the benefits. This is, however, not the case - and we must shift our current form of economic thinking.

Steven Mufson: It's true that cap and trade systems are computing the benefits of forests only from a perspective of how they affect the atmosphere's carbon dioxide balance, not from the pleasure we derive from forests or other environmental benefits that are hard to quantify. This is one of those market failures that government can play a role in correcting, though the method of correcting them is a matter of policy debate.


Anonymous: A consideration unrecognized by Mr. Mufson's interesting article is that whether or not a decision is made reduce greenhouse gas emissions, there are costs associated with climate change. Transportation infrastructure, agricultural production, water supply, and public health, to name a few key socioeconomic sectors, are all susceptible to economic strain from climate change. They are so fundamental that few (if any) of us can simply do without. There are economic consequences either way. It is therefore a trade off. By choosing not to limit emissions, we are choosing to pay more for such necessities. Or vice versa. We have a choice, but no "get out of jail free" card.

Steven Mufson: This was the point that I tried to make by quoting the Stern report. While many economists have criticized some aspects of the report, I don't think many have questioned the general thrust that the costs of global warming could be much greater than the costs of doing things to slow global warming. Public health is a good example. What happens if certain diseases are able to spread to areas that were once inhospitable?


Takoma Park, Md.:"I think it's more a question of farming habits than eating habits."

That's not exactly right. Why, for example, do people feel the need to eat raspberries etc. in the middle of the winter, forcing us to fly them in from thousands of miles away? Eating local seasonally produced foods, an eating not a farming habit, is an important step toward combating climate change.

Steven Mufson: This is a fair follow up question. In your raspberry case, the carbon emitted by the airplane would indeed add to overall greenhouse gas emissions. But it doesn't mean you have to be a vegetarian. That's all I was saying.


Churchville, Va.: Much of the debate on global warming seems to center on "is it real or not?" Why not encourage more media reporting, and other discussion, on the science? If people better understood the science of global warming, maybe voters would encourage their leaders to take more firm action. After all, what is done with tax revenue is always a tradeoff among priority issues. Today, The Post starts a monthly series looking at the science behind the global climate change. Read the first installment: Clues to Rising Seas are Hidden in Polar Ice. For updates, go to

Karen Yourish: Today, The Post starts a monthly series looking at the science behind the global climate change. Read the first installment: Clues to Rising Seas are Hidden in Polar Ice. For updates, go to


Washington, D.C.: The effects of global warming can already be seen in our national parks. These protected areas are acting as the "canary in a coal mine" for the rest of the country. I highly recommend checking out the new report by the National Parks Conservation Association at

Karen Yourish: Thanks, this looks like an interesting resource.


Berkeley, Calif.: Thank you for your excellent article -- I had been wondering why so little of substance is produced in DC on this important subject, perhaps the most important political issue to people my age and younger.

Which of our legislators are finding ways to educate their constituents through town hall meetings, newsletters, etc?

I've been disappointed in how much of the public discussion, from environmentalists to everyone else, has assured us that we can combat climate change for next to nothing. Some solutions, such as mandating high efficiency bulbs, will save money, as will more efficient refrigerators and cars (up to a point). Others, like nuclear power, are expected to cost only a tad more than coal power. But much of what we must do -- pay more upfront for buildings and cars, raise the cost of natural gas, oil, and especially coal -- will cost. Not as much as the consequences of not paying for them, as you say in the article. Note that the Stern Review's estimate of 5 - 20% of our GDP spent adapting to climate change does not count the cost of conflict. With food productivity down by half in parts of Africa and rice productivity down by 10% in Asia, by 2020, with the Ganges running dry part of the year within a generation, with more than one billion people without access to year-round water due to climate change by the 2050s, these costs may be substantial.

I am sending this in early, as I'll be on the train during the relevant hours. Those of you who haven't tried the train, do consider it. I tried it two years ago to see how it compares to flying; now I'm a convert.

Steven Mufson: Thanks for your comments.

It's hard to say at this point whether legislators are educating constituents or whether constituents are educating legislators. I think that the hurricanes of 2005, whether or not they can really be blamed on global warming, did wake up a lot of legislators and constituents about the potential dangers of climate change.

On your cost point, one issue on cost of energy saving measures is that the costs come upfront. If an individual or company is short on cash, they'll put off those investments. Also, there are some structural obstacles to sensible steps. For example, in many rental apartments the landlord will opt for a cheaper piece of equipment and the tenant will get stuck with the utility bill.

As for developing world costs, they are big and connected to the most basic elements of living like water and food. I spent four years as the Post's Beijing correspondent in the 1990s and three years as the Wall Street Journal's Africa correspondent in the 1980s and I saw a lot of environmental damage that was affecting people's basic health.


Alexandria, Va.: I grew up on farms in Iowa and did not live in an air-conditioned house until 1961. I am therefore awe-struck by the number of people who insist they have to be inside in air-conditioning in order to "survive" in summer time.

Karen Yourish: We'd probably have less of a problem if more people felt like you.


Providence, RI: With the growing concern over global warming and the push for stronger policy to deal with the issue, is there any thought that Al Gore will eventually run for president? It seems that if there was ever one person that could help establish a change, it would be him. Have you heard anything in regards to people pushing for him to run. I think he would have a great chance.

Steven Mufson: I have no special insight on this. He certainly has a lot of name recognition and he aspired to the presidency before, so it seems like a possibility. But I wouldn't pretend to have any knowledge of his thinking or how his candidacy would do against the current crop of would-be presidents.


Kensington, Md.: Your article quoted Stern saying that the cost of inaction on climate change could be at least five times as much (as he 1 percent of the economy that would have to be sacrificed to mitigation efforts). His report that came out last October actually said that climate change is likely to reduce global GDP by 20 percent. Why was a lower figure used here?

Steven Mufson: Here is the exact quote from the Stern report summary section:

"Using the results from formal economic models, the Review estimates that if we don't act, the overall costs and risks of climate change will be equivalent to losing at least

5% of global GDP each year, now and forever. If a wider range of risks and impacts is taken into account, the estimates of damage could rise to 20% of GDP or more.

"In contrast, the costs of action - reducing greenhouse gas emissions to avoid the worst impacts of climate change - can be limited to around 1% of global GDP each year."


Steven Mufson: That's all we have time for today. Thanks for your questions. We hope you'll read the many other stories we plan to run related to climate change and we hope they will answer and provoke more questions. Until then....


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