History Offers Hope that We Can Reduce the Risk of Global Warming

News Abroad
tags: climate change, global warming, Anthropocene

Mr. Kunnas defended his doctoral thesis “Fire and Fuels: CO2 and SO2 Emissions in the Finnish Economy, 1800-2005” at the European University Institute, Department of History & Civilization, in Florence Italy.

While still writing on my doctoral thesis, I received as a comment on an early version from a professor in my university, “that few people today believe in history as the vita magistra.” At first this statement shocked me, but later on it turned into a great inspiration for further thought. The first question arising was, that if we do not believe that we can learn from history, then what is the justification of the whole academic discipline history. If it is just for our own fun, is it then legitimate to finance our hobby with taxpayer’s money? If it is just for the enjoyment of our readers, why don´t we simply invent hilarious stories?

I do not mean that I think that all historical research should have an immediate practical use. But I think that giving up the notion that we can learn from history would be a huge loss. Great errors of the past are very useful in many ways. We can perhaps find useful lessons from past mistakes, and hopeful also insights from past success stories. To achieve this goal it is, however, necessary to go beyond a mere reconstruction of past events to an understanding of the underlying processes.

As a fresh doctor in history, I still have a sincere belief is that we can learn something from history. The subject of my doctoral thesis was the environmental effects of Finland’s energy consumption. One of the main questions was the divergent paths of carbon dioxide and sulphur dioxide emissions. Why did the emissions of sulphur dioxide start to decline in the 1970s in Finland and other industrialized countries, but emissions of carbon dioxide not? Could we perhaps learn something from the decline of sulphur dioxide emissions that could be useful in the case of global climate change? I believe that we can, but the lessons from history are seldom unambiguous.

I argued that the initial decline of sulphur dioxide emissions in the 1970s was mainly a side-effect of changes in industrial processes rather than an outcome of a deliberate policy. Furthermore, anxiety about large and widespread damage to the forests was a major reason for active measures to decrease sulphur dioxide emissions since the mid-1980s. Thus the emissions themselves provoked their downturn. Although the risks facing Finland’s forests might have been overestimated, without active measures the emissions would eventually have reached a level in which the forests would have been seriously damaged. This again would have caused serious injury to the Finnish economy.

From an environmental point of view it does not matter whether an emission decline is a result of environmental considerations or a by-product of economically dictated technological change, or whether the engine of change is increased wealth or public unease with pollution. However, there is a big difference in the policy implications. For future development of carbon dioxide emissions, the story of declining sulphur dioxide emissions in the 1970s inspires hope that reduction of emissions could be part of normal technological development. By speeding up this kind of development, environmental concerns and policy measures can accelerate the development creating at best a win-win situation according to the Porter Hypothesis, which claims that environmental protection can benefit competitiveness.

If again the environmental damage has to become severe enough to create pressure to reduce the emissions, then in the case of carbon dioxide the prospects are grim indeed. At that point, when the negative consequences are revealing enough to convince all skeptics, it is already too late. Another option is that, as in the case of sulphur dioxide, the anxiety about possible serious damage in the future can be enough to create a downturn in emissions.

It have been estimated that we need an 80 percent emission cut in the developed countries by 2050 to achieve a global emission cut of 50 percent. This would enable us to stay below a 2 Celsius degree global warming, which is most likely enough to prohibit the direst prognoses related to climate change. The goal sounds staggering, but the international success story of dealing with acid rain is inspiring. When a consensus about the need to deal with emissions of sulphur dioxide and other emissions causing acidification was finally achieved, the emissions fell rapidly. For example in Finland the emissions of sulphur dioxide declined by 87 percent from 1980 to 2001.

Another inspiring example of a successful limit on global pollutants, which follows a similar development path as sulphur dioxide emissions, is the story of ozone-depleting chemicals. In both cases a few countries first made unilateral cuts. Their example together with active lobbying eventually led to successful international treaties. In the end the actual costs for dealing with the emissions were also much lower than at first anticipated, which made it easier for less eager countries to follow.

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Jan Kunnas - 8/6/2009

eriously speaking, if district heating, nuclear power and natural gas would be enough explaining decreasing emissions of sulphur dioixide, then the emissions of carbon dioxide should have gone down simultaneuously

Jan Kunnas - 8/6/2009

Dear Andrew, I guess that if you are right, then the whole climate issue will be solved as soon as the military college students have some spare time from dodging panzers. Seriously speaking, if district heating, nuclear power and natural gas would be enough explaining decreasing emissions of sulphur dioixide, then the emissions should have gone down simultaneously.

In that you are right that: "Carbon reduction is basically just a question of committing the necessary funds." And the lesson from history is that in the end, the necessary funds might be much lower than first anticipated. That was the case with sulphur dioxide and with ozone depleting substabnces.

Andrew D. Todd - 8/6/2009

I found Jan Kunnas' essay uncomfortably diffuse, and when I went and looked at the posted introduction of his dissertation, that was not much better. It did not compare favorably to much shorter business-school case-studies, which are expected to be produced in a few weeks, or to military staff college paper, which is typically expected to be produced overnight ("The Panzers are rolling. Make up your mind, fast!"). Kunnas talks vaguely about technological changes without spelling them out. Energy policy is not so complex a topic that one has to shroud it in statistical regression, or proceed by historical analogy. We understand how machinery works. We don't understand how the human mind works. When the professional scholar tries to approach a mechanical problem as if it were the Protestant Reformation or the French Revolution, he tends to get lost in Rube-Goldberg-isms.

A quick bit of Googling and Wikipedia-crawling reveals that in 1977-80, about 2500 Megawatts of nuclear power plants (Russian-built and Swedish-built) began operating in Finland. Furthermore, nuclear power and District Heating/Cogeneration, taken together, make up a major share of Finland's electric supply. The natural gas which fuels the district heating power plants comes from West Siberia. Of course, the Siberian gas fields were largely opened up in the 1980's. Yes, naturally, those changes would have had a substantial effect on sulfur emissions. A reasonable proposal for reducing Finland's carbon emissions would involve combining smart drilling with deep geothermal, in effect, producing artificially, by remote control, what nature has supplied in Iceland. One would drill wells down to, say, 10,000 feet and then turn sideways and drill large numbers of collection galleries, and circulate water through them to reach boiling point. This is not a new idea, of course. Wily Ley devoted a chapter to the subject of geothermal energy in his _Engineers' Dreams_ (1954), and reached the point of an "artificial geyser."

Carbon reduction is basically just a question of committing the necessary funds. It needn't involve very many people materially altering their lifestyle, if they don't want to. There is a political question of how the public comes to accept the necessity of such funding, and _that_ is within a historian's grasp. For example, one could presumably write about the politics of district heating. It might possibly turn out that the people who were promoting it were trade unionists or whatever, and that the people opposing it had involved fantasies about their urban houses really being out in the wilderness, and were prone to invoke the symbolism of the old pagan gods. If so, that might turn out to be a worthwhile topic to study.







Randll Reese Besch - 8/5/2009

Or no. When it happened violence, starvation, wars, regime changes all around and disease out break. It was a grim time, no one was safe.

This has nothing to do with the solar cycle this time. The temp rise is in the lower atmosphere, not the upper.

Mark Reitz - 8/3/2009

Maybe some of the early history historians can inform us what humanity did to reduce the temperatures experienced during the Medieval Warm Period until we got the reduced temperatures of the Spörer Minimum.

Randll Reese Besch - 8/3/2009

Could produce its own catastrophic effects while not fixing the main problem. The kind of energy used on such mega-projects are ridiculous when they could be used to put solar on every structure on the planet to start. Use to the utmost, first, the other green alternatives before that. Reduce, reuse, recycle and long term use of items too. No more throw aways.

The others could be painted white to reflect the sun in the mean time. Plus energy misers too and reduce our wasteful use of everything. We need to become harmonious with nature not twist it even more. A dead end idea that is itself a waste and ads to the danger.

Sol Shapiro - 8/3/2009

Geoengieering, possibly sulfites in the atmosphere, earth albedo increase or increased cloud reflectivity will put climate change on hold and give the world the century or more it will need to change its energy base.
The American National Academy of Sciences under a congressionally mandated program "America's Climate Choices" had a workshop on geoengineering; and, I expect, in its report to congress will recommend major funding of geoengineering research to lead to deployoment as needed. Write to me at Somarl@msn.com for links.