Counting the cost, climate change, and carbon fees (Part 1 of 2)

Record breaking global temperatures for 2015 as reported by NASA. Source: http://www.nasa.gov/press-release/nasa-noaa-analyses-reveal-record-shattering-global-warm-temperatures-in-2015

Record breaking global temperatures for 2015 as reported by NASA. Source: http://www.nasa.gov/press-release/nasa-noaa-analyses-reveal-record-shattering-global-warm-temperatures-in-2015

In this 2-part post, I’ll give some background and reflection on one of Jesus’ parables and in the next post I’ll tie it in to the topic of climate change.

Jesus told a parable about counting the cost:

A king is thinking about going to war with another country. You better bet the king will send some scouts or spies to figure out how big the other army is. Do his forces even have a chance? If not, the costs are far too high and he’d be foolish to wage war.

A builder wants to build a tower. A competent builder would sit down and figure out how much it costs to build the tower, and only build it if he can afford it. Otherwise, the builder will run out of money, the tower will only be partially built, and people will see it and laugh.

Counting the cost is simply good common sense. It helps you make good decisions.

Without counting the cost you might honestly not know how to choose between 2 options. If you’re already leaning toward the bad option and you don’t count the cost, you’ll probably pick the wrong choice!

Being a follower of Jesus back during his day wasn’t easy. He had an alternative view of how human relations should work, one based on love, forgiveness, and justice. He used an analogy of a godly kingdom founded on these values, one that was blasphemous to the actual kingdoms of his day because those kingdoms were founded (partly? mostly?) on power and oppression. Even more, kings justified their power and authority by claiming it was from God. As a result, they couldn’t stomach any competing kingdom or authority within their own kingdom. Jesus’ view of a godly kingdom was also blasphemous to those who insisted that religious rules were more important than love, or who coveted their religious leadership mainly because of the power it gave them over others.

The movement Jesus started was difficult, and dangerous. Friends might stop being your friend. Family might disown you. Religious or state authorities might kill or imprison you.

But there were also perks: a new way of life, a deep sense of peace and purpose, and forging bonds of friendship and new family deeper than blood.

Today, Christianity is generally an accepted part of our culture. It’s often associated with privilege, respect, or power. I personally believe that institutional Christianity has forgotten, ignores, or explains away many of the deepest, most profound, and most difficult of Jesus’ teachings, especially those on power, violence, justice, and self-giving love.

But getting back to Jesus’ time and the original context of the parable, counting the costs of discipleship.  Being aware of the costs – acknowledging and facing them – was actually better than ignoring them. By counting the cost in advance, a potential follower of Jesus could decide if the path was really worth it. When or if suffering came later on they would be ready and could accept it.

Stay tuned for next time, when I apply this to our current challenge of climate change and weaning ourselves from fossil fuels.

The speed or pace of climate change is key

earth-globe

Scientific consensus is solid that climate change is real and is caused by humans.  Of course the climate is always changing, but it’s changing way faster than normal because of our burning of fossil fuels.  The takeaway from this article is that atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations are increasing at a rate about 650 times faster than the natural rate (pre-Industrial Revolution before we used fossil fuels).  

When I was an undergrad at Harvey Mudd College I was taking an introductory environmental engineering course (2003 or 2004).  We had to make an educational website for middle school students on an environmental topic of our choice.  I chose global warming, and I remember that my professor was disappointed (or something else?) that I hadn’t learned more about natural variation of carbon dioxide levels over longer historical time scales.  I would think that this would be an ideal topic to cover in an environmental engineering course, but I’ll also accept that it’s important to learn to do deep independent research as well.

I recently (2013) came across these figures in a textbook that do an amazing job of putting historical atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations into perspective, answering the questions I should have answered back in undergrad!

The figure below was made in 2001, contains data up until 1998, and shows carbon dioxide concentrations on various time scales going back hundreds of millions of years. The figure’s caption explains where the data came from, and below I’ll discuss each of the graphs, (a) through (f).

CO2_historical
a)  The concentration of carbon dioxide was around 320 ppm in 1960 and grew to about 370 ppm by 1998.  [Today it’s over 400 ppm].  This is a rate of 50 ppm in 38 years, or 1.3 ppm per year.

b) CO2 was essentially constant at about 280 ppm from the year 900 to 1850 when the industrial revolution started, and then began increasing rapidly from there.

c)  About 11,000 years ago (years before present) the concentration was around 260 ppm and slowly climbed to 280 ppm then rapidly increased starting at the industrial revolution around 1850.   The pre-industrial change in concentration during this period was about 0.002 ppm per year.  (20 ppm over 10,000 years).  The rate of increase from 1960 to 1998 (part a) is about 650 times (!) faster.

d)  Looking over the course of hundreds of thousands of years, we see a cyclical behavior that people allude to when they say “the climate is always changing”.  Over this time scale, carbon dioxide levels fluctuated between 200 ppm and 280 ppm.  In each cycle, it rose by 80 ppm in about 33,000 years and fell again by 80 ppm in about 67,000 years.  This corresponds to a change between about 0.001 and 0.002 ppm per year.  This makes sense, as it’s about the same number as in (c) which is the same natural fluctuation seen over a shorter time period.  According to this graph, we haven’t had concentrations above 280 ppm in over 400,000 years, and we’re at 400 ppm and rising.

e)   At the scale of millions of years we can’t even see the fluctuations in graph (d) because they are small relative to the time span.  I’m not sure what was going on 25 million years ago when the concentration was high and falling, but this is a key takeaway: before the industrial revolution the planet didn’t have concentrations above 300 ppm for almost 25 million years!

f)  Now we’re looking at HUNDREDS of millions of years ago and I was surprised that concentrations were much higher, over 5000 ppm.  According to Wikipedia, land plants first appeared about 450 million years ago, and trees appeared in the Middle Devonian period, about 390 million years ago.  So it seems like plants and trees (which consume CO2 and produce O2) were responsible for changing the climate from over 5,000 ppm down to the levels in which we humans would ultimately develop.

I don’t know why CO2 levels increased around 220 million years ago.  But even though that increase looks rapid, we have to keep in mind it was over millions of years.  Let’s do the math: 220 million years ago, CO2 was at about 1500 ppm.  190 million years ago it was roughly 5500 ppm.  A change of 4000 ppm over 30 million years is 0.00013 ppm/year.  So although the change was large, the yearly rate was very slow.  Today’s rate (1.3 ppm/year) is about 12,000 times faster than during this large change 20 million years ago.

Conclusions
CO2 is increasing at a rate that far exceeds any in at least the past 500 million years on this planet.

The fastest CO2 changes naturally is 0.002 ppm per year, while today it’s about 1.3 ppm per year, 650 times faster.  This is because we’re burning an incredible amount of fossil fuels which represent carbon dioxide trapped in organic matter over millions and millions of years released by us in less than 200 years.