Schrödinger’s Climate

Posted on May 18, 2020 by JB Ruhl

Question: Will we meet the goal of holding the rise of mean global temperature to below 2°C?

Answer: Yes and no, simultaneously.

Welcome to Schrödinger’s climate, a paradox in which commentary on climate change policy assumes we will meet the 2°C goal, for that is the motivation behind aggressive emission controls and other mitigation measures, but at the same time assumes we will not meet the 2°C goal, for that is the motivation behind aggressive measures to adapt to the impacts of climate change.

Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger famously described a paradox that follows from quantum physics theory, which posits that particles in a quantum system exist in multiple states at the same time, assuming a final position only when observed from the external world. In his scenario, a cat is placed in a sealed box with a quantum particle and, through a contraption that reacts to the state of the particle, will either live or die depending on the state of the particle. Under quantum theory, Schrödinger argued, the cat would be simultaneously alive and dead until the lid of the box was unsealed and lifted off, at which point the observer would see the cat as either alive or dead.

It is important for climate change mitigation policy to have a goal. Whether expressed as parts per million of atmospheric carbon dioxide or average global temperature rise, the goal is used by mitigation policy commenters to rally support for emission controls. The goals used to be 350ppm and 1.5°C. Those are history now. The Paris accord moved the upper limit to 2°C. “We will hold the rise to below 2.0°C!”

At the same time, climate change adaptation policy commenters use scenarios built around different temperature rises to motivate action. While it is not as if no adaptation will be necessary in a 1.5°C or 2.0°C scenario, things start looking really messy above 2.0°C. If we are honest, 2.0°C may be a best-case scenario, so adaptation policy needs to get rolling. “We will not hold the rise to below 2.0°C!”

The Schrödinger’s climate paradox arises from the necessity of pursuing both mitigation policy and adaptation policy at the same time. There was a time when talk of adaptation was frowned upon, lest it lead to complacency on mitigation policy. Even modest sea level rise, however, threatens island nations and developing nations with large coastal populations, pushing adaptation into the international climate policy discourse. As it became clearer and clearer that climate change will have a wide range of nasty effects in many parts of the world—developed and developing—the need for adaptation policy became increasingly apparent. The urgency of mitigation policy depends on meeting the 2°C goal. The urgency of adaptation policy becomes more salient above the 2°C goal. To engage in the broad climate policy discourse these days—to advocate action across the board—one must enter the box of Schrödinger’s climate. 

Yet this leads to awkward conversations between those focused on mitigation and those focused on adaptation. “We need to prepare for massive human migration,” says the adaptationist. “Oh my,” says the mitigationist, “But we’re going to hold it to below 2.0°C, right?”  “Uh, sure,” says the adaptationist, “But we really need to prepare for bad stuff happening.” “Um, right,” says the mitigationist, then changes the topic. Tension between mitigationists and adaptationists remains in the air inside the Schrödinger climate box.

We do not have the luxury of lifting the lid off the box to observe whether the future is above or below 2°C. We are a world in dire and present need of aggressive mitigation and adaptation policies. Adaptation cannot be portrayed as a contingent policy for mitigation failure. Acting as if adaptation policy need only prepare us for the worst if we don’t meet the 2°C goal means we won’t be prepared for the worst. We need to shape mitigation policy around the idea that we will attain 2°C, and we need to shape adaptation policy around the idea that we will not. Ironically, this means climate policy must behave as if 2°C is both alive and dead.  This conundrum should no longer be cause for uncomfortable conversations.  “Embrace the paradox of Schrödinger’s climate!”

12 Legal Tools to Push Climate Preparedness

Posted on December 4, 2019 by Michael Gerrard

We know that, mostly as a result of climate change, extreme weather events are becoming more frequent and severe.  Reducing greenhouse gas emissions should be the highest priority, but that won’t be enough to prevent severe impacts, some of which are already occurring. Here are twelve ways the law can help society cope with these impacts.

1. Flood maps – The Federal Emergency Management Agency should update its flood maps and make them reflect anticipated future climate conditions, not just past experience.

2. Disclose flood risks – Prospective buyers of property should be given information about any flood risks faced by the property.

3. Environmental impact assessments – Environmental reviews under the National Environmental Policy Act and its state counterparts should consider the climate conditions expected at the end of a project’s useful life, not just at the start, to help ensure the project can withstand those conditions.

4. Public utility regulation – Other states should follow the lead of the New York Public Service Commission in requiring major utilities (in this case, Con Edison) to study expected future climate conditions going out decades, and prepare plans to cope with those conditions in order to maintain reliability.

5. Permit conditions – Several statutes require permit holders to have and implement plans to prepare for extreme events – e.g., Clean Air Act; Clean Water Act; Oil Pollution Act; Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. The Conservation Law Foundation is pushing these requirements in lawsuits in Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

6. Securities disclosure – As required (but not enforced) by the Securities and Exchange Commission, and as advanced by the Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures, public companies should disclose the physical risk to their facilities and operations from climate change.

7. Heat – To cope with the dangerous heat conditions to come, cities should require landlords, including of public housing, to provide air conditioning or otherwise keep apartments cool enough to not endanger health.  They should also require suitably-shaped roofs to be white, green, or topped with solar panels; and they should require large-scale tree planting.

8. Building codes – Codes should require buildings to be designed and built so as to withstand anticipated flooding, wildfires, and other risks.

9. Inspections – Flooding-vulnerable infrastructure such as levees and dams should be inspected frequently and repaired when needed.

10. Toxic sites – The remediation of contaminated sites under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act and other programs should reflect future flood risk.

11. Architects’ training – The states’ architects licensing boards should require architects to take continuing education courses on climate risks.

12. Managed retreat – Though politically toxic almost everyone, cities that are vulnerable to future extreme flooding should begin planning to retreat from shorelines and riverbanks that will become uninhabitable, and to relocate uses to safe areas.

Cole Porter Was Right: The Economic Cost of Climate Change

Posted on December 18, 2014 by Seth Jaffe

There has already been significant discussion of the economic impacts of climate change. Damage from catastrophic events, the cost to build adaptation measures such as sea walls; these have all been examined. Now, a National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper suggests a much more direct measure. Apparently, we’re just not as productive as the planet warms.

Cole Porter knew what he was talking about.

Climate Change Litigation – Will Property Insurers Take the Lead?

Posted on April 24, 2014 by Ralph Child

Common law litigation seeking relief from petrochemical companies for causing climate change has been much touted but little successful.

The insurance industry has been warning of huge coming losses due to climate change, but has not taken aggressive action to force change.

Until now? 

In a lawsuit filed in Illinois state court on April 16, 2014, some property insurers sued the City of Chicago and a host of regional and municipal water managers for failure to provide adequate stormwater storage.  The class action suit alleges that the plaintiffs’ insureds would not have suffered so much flood damage from a 2013 storm had the defendants exercised better planning and construction to deal with foreseeable storms. 

Notably, the plaintiff insurers rely heavily on the 2008 Chicago Climate Action Plan.  The plan recognized that climate change would cause increased amounts, durations and intensities of rainfall.  Plaintiffs allege that despite the foreseen problem and having had adequate time and opportunity, the defendants failed to make the recommended and necessary improvements, leading to the injuries to the insureds’ properties.

Certainly this suit faces many challenges.  Courts are slow to override state and local governments’ complicated budgeting choices.  Moreover, courts may be ill-equipped to oversee projects such as Chicago’s Deep Tunnel Project, which was commissioned in the 1970s to address metropolitan flooding, stormwater and sewage.  After more than $3 billion so far, itwill not be completed until at least 2029.

Also, query whether such litigation will help or hurt state and local efforts to adapt to climate change.  It could deter honest forecasting of what it will take.

Still, this lawsuit could augur a new wave of common law climate change litigation – a category involving well-funded plaintiffs with provable arguments for proximate cause of real damages.

ExxonMobil Admits Climate Change Is Real. It also Imposes an Internal Cost on Carbon. Still Not Enough to Get Any Love From the Greens (Interesting Reading, Though)

Posted on April 14, 2014 by Seth Jaffe

Last week, in response to shareholder requests that it disclose information regarding how climate change might affect it in the future, ExxonMobil released two reports, one titled Energy and Climate, and one titled Energy and Carbon – Managing the Risks.  They actually make fascinating reading and seem to represent a new tack by ExxonMobil in its battle with those seeking aggressive action on climate change.

The reports do not deny the reality of climate change.  Indeed, the reports acknowledge climate change, acknowledge the need for both mitigation and adaptation, acknowledge a need to reduce fossil fuel use (at some point), acknowledge the need to set a price on carbon, and acknowledge that ExxonMobil in fact already is making future planning decisions utilizing an internal “proxy” price on carbon that is as high as $80/ton of CO2 in the future.

The reaction of the shareholder activists who pushed for the disclosures?  They are not happy.  Why not?

Because ExxonMobil has said explicitly that it doesn’t believe that there will be sufficient worldwide pressure – meaning government regulations imposing very high carbon prices – to reduce fossil fuel use sufficiently quickly enough to limit global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius.  It also does not believe that worldwide carbon regulation will leave it with any “stranded assets.”

I understand the moral case against fossil fuel use.  Personally, however, I’d rather rely on a carbon price that provides the appropriate incentives to get the reductions in CO2 emissions that we need to mitigate climate change.  On that score, sadly, it’s not obvious to me at this point that ExxonMobil’s analysis of likely outcomes is actually wrong.

My biggest complaint with the reports is the refusal to recognize that markets react dynamically to new regulatory requirements.  The history of big regulatory programs is that they pretty much always cost less than the predictions made before the regulations are implemented.  The lesson then is that the current projections of energy cost increases resulting from a high cost of carbon are likely to be overestimated.

Time will tell.  At least I hope so.