January 15, 2012 in Column, Opinion

Smart Bombs: Not by soot alone

By The Spokesman-Review

(SCENE: FBI headquarters, Washington, D.C. The year is 2112. Frank Columbo III, head of the Cold Case Unit, enters the office of the director carrying a thick manila folder.)

FRANK : Pardon the interruption, sir, but I thought I should bring this old case to your attention.

DIRECTOR : Come on in, Frank. Those cold cases can be tough to crack. How can I help?

FRANK : Well, that’s just it, sir. I was reading this Global Warming file, and I can’t figure out how it became cold in the first place. It’s like a murder detective ignoring the body, the knife, the fingerprints and declaring the whole thing an unsolved mystery.

DIRECTOR (nervously tapping pencil on desk): Go on.

FRANK : Well, sir, your grandfather’s name is in the file, so I thought you might have some insights.

DIRECTOR : Come on, Frank, you have to understand the politics of the era. Powerful forces were aligned against the theory that humans were the chief culprits in that crime.

FRANK : But with all due respect, sir, the file clearly shows that every relevant scientific organization had pinned this on carbon dioxide emissions created by man. Plus, the crime scene pictures show the dwindling glaciers, widespread drought, damage to reefs, bark beetle devastation and disappearing coastlines.

DIRECTOR (pounds desk and glowers at Frank): But YOU haven’t considered how much it would’ve cost those people to head off the disasters we’re dealing with today! Your selfishness is so typical of today’s generation!

FRANK (attempting to contain a puckish grin): So by ignoring the inevitable effects on us, they were able to say, “Move along. Nothing to see.”

DIRECTOR: It’s all about us, isn’t it, Frank? You don’t know the meaning of sacrifice! If they had knuckled under to the quote-unquote scientists, it would’ve killed jobs and destroyed the economy!

FRANK: Actually, sir, the file contains several analyses that the threat to the economy was terribly overblown. Plus, what’s left of our economy is circling the drain because they didn’t act. The postmortem reports make that clear.

DIRECTOR: Look, those people acted. They debated cap-and-trade. They formed committees to curb soot. All of that was supposed to buy them time until … until …

FRANK: They found the courage to deal with carbon emissions? The file contains this note from McKinsey Global Institute written in 2010: “Delaying action from 2010 to 2020 would cut abatement potential in half.”

DIRECTOR: You’re getting on my nerves. Too late to do anything now. In fact, there’s something I’ve been meaning to tell you.

FRANK: What’s that?

DIRECTOR: We have to close down the Cold Case Unit. Need to shift resources over to FEMA. After all, what’s the point of solving old cases now?

FRANK: Got me there.

The dirty Little secret. The same political calculation that pushes people into passionate anti-debt rages by focusing on a sliver of the problem has them touting the wonders of reducing soot in the fight to tame global warming.

I like curbing soot for curbing soot’s sake, and it’s a lot better than pretending the entire scientific community is perpetrating a global warming hoax, but it’s dangerous to do that instead of addressing greenhouse gases.

Addressing soot is faster because it doesn’t linger in the atmosphere for a hundred years or more, like CO2 emissions. But it’s a mistake to think of “faster” as more effective or as “buying time.”

CO2 emissions are cumulative. Much of what is in the atmosphere was emitted long ago, and, as scientists note, you can’t “unemit” it.

If we could completely eliminate soot in 10 years, the globe would still warm. It’s like trying to solve a long-term budget problem with one-time money, while ignoring ongoing expenses.

We won’t be buying time. We’ll be wasting it.

If we’re eliminating soot to save millions of lives a year and bring about the estimated $6.5 trillion in savings, then great.

But if we continue to ignore CO2 emissions, it will be a temporary victory.

Associate Editor Gary Crooks can be reached at garyc@spokesman.com or (509) 459-5026. Follow him on Twitter @GaryCrooks.

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