March 11th, 2010

On Sunday morning an unusually strong tropical cyclone hit Rio de Janeiro. Six people died when their houses (shacks really) collapsed under mudslides.

O Dia, Rio, 7/03/2010

In this one, Gabriela de Souza Freitas, 3 years old, was sleeping with her grandmother. (The Brazilian poor have names like grandees with 10,000 acres). They both died, buried alive. O Dia´s paper edition carried her smiling photo; it¨s not on the website, perhaps from a belated concern for the family´s privacy. Still, I was irresistibly reminded of her contemporaries, my granddaughter Cassie and Lu´s nephew Gabriel.

Am I responsible for Gabriela´s death? Are you? If we are, to any extent, what should we do about it?

It´s difficult to think straight about this sort of thing. We are scared to admit an impossible burden that would overwhelm us with pain and guilt, so we shut our minds and pass by on the other side.

We are obviously talking here about a small share of responsibility – but a small share in something very large, the death of an innocent child. But let us at least try.

1. One of the probable effects of global warming is to increase the intensity of tropical storms. IPCC 4 in 2007 gave the odds for this link at better than evens for the past and better than than 2 to 1 for the future. This is common sense: heat is energy, so there is more energy in the atmosphere all the time, and we would expect all the processes to run that bit more actively. The unusually intense storm in Rio was, within normal standards of prudence, a foreseeable consequence of carbon emissions. These have come historically mainly in the rich North, and are now split between the North and fast-growing middle-income countries including China and Brazil.

2. The Rio storm was only just strong enough to cause casualties. A little bit weaker, and no-one would have died; a little bit stronger, and many more would have done. Gabriela´s death was at the margin, the tipping point of risk. It is therefore probable (around evens) that global warming was sufficient to take the storm past that tipping point and therefore caused her death.

3. The tragedy had other causes besides the storm: the shack built in a dangerous place (but the Rio poor don´t have much choice), lax or nil enforcement of building codes, general inequality and poverty, bad individual luck. Any one of these factors can also be fairly described as the critical one at the margin, although the social factors have been getting better in Brazil and only the climate change one has clearly been getting worse.

4. Moral responsibility isn´t additive but distributive. The law has this one right: if a Mafia don orders a hitman to take out a rival, they are both fully guilty of murder, not half each. Bush, Cheney, Yoo, Addington, Goss, two CIA staffers, and a guy in a cellar conspire to waterboard Abu Zubaydah: the responsibility for the war crime of torture is not + ⅛ + ⅛ + …. but 1 + 1 + 1 +… (All right, we´ll knock down Bush and Yoo to ½ on rounds of mental incapacity, but the point holds.) So the fact that the Rio City Hall is also responsible by negligence for Gabriela´s death does not let you and me off the hook in any way.

5. So we can´t get round the fact that your and my past carbon emissions very probably contributed to Gabriela´s death. But, you say, there are a billion high-emission Northerners: our individual shares are a billionth each. Unfortunately there are at least a billion poor Southerners like Gabriela whose lives we have put at similar degrees of risk. Stern points out that a month before Hurricane Katrina, 1,000 people died from flooding in Bombay, and two years later Cyclone Sidr in Bangladesh killed 3,000 and displaced 7 million. The scaling up on either side balances out roughly. To a first approximation, you and I, and Gabriela and her granny, are representative of our respective societies.

6. We are therefore at fault, even if we only personally contributed a few drops of water to the mud shrouding her little body, and should be ashamed.

What should we do about it? You could send some money to one of the many charities that work with Rio´s street children. The main deal is however stopping further harm to other Gabrielas from climate change.

As a citizen, I think I´m doing okay. My countries of citizenship (UK) and residence (Spain) both have decent mitigation policies, pushed along by the strong EU commitment. I blog here regularly (see the RBC climate change archive) and I hope constructively.

I´m not doing so well in my personal behaviour. On the plus side, I live in a warm country in a reasonably insulated and compact house without central heating or air conditioning, and my hot water is solar. On the down side, I drive 15,000 km a year (though in an efficient diesel that does 7litres/100km), and fly about as much. I can´t afford to change the car yet, and am waiting for plug-in hybrids to come on to the market. I offset carbon on flights when the airline offers it (Easyjet) but not when they don´t (Ryanair).

So my practical post-Gabriela resolution is to find a reputable carbon offset charity and pay for my flights in future. Stern uses this one, which is good enough for me. Let´s see, Rio to Seoul makes 3 tons, costing £27. OK.

That wasn´t too difficult. Is it enough in the circumstances? I don´t know. Is it something? Yes.

How about you?

Share this post:
  • Twitter
  • StumbleUpon
  • Digg
  • Reddit
  • Facebook

23 Responses to “Statistic”

  1. Randy Paul says:

    About a year ago I booked a flight on Northwest Airlines and they gave me a choice of environmental NGO’s to donate to for a carbon offset. I chose thr Nature Conservancy and will continue to look to these offsets in the future.

  2. MobiusKlein says:

    A very long stretch of causality. My contribution to the ill effects of global warming should not be contingent upon the strictness of building codes half way around the world. Unlike your example with Bush and torture, I do not have the ability to affect the outcome in any significant way. Bush could have ordered it stopped, and it would have been stopped.

    In this case, you would be better off contributing money to make better houses in safer locations around the world. We even get mudslides in California that kill people. And in the end, the only way to deal with GW is to stop burning so much coal and oil.

  3. Tractarian says:

    Wow. I’m a liberal but you just took the whole global-warming-guilt-trip thing to an entirely new level. In fact, that post was so offensive that I’m taking RBC off my RSS reader. Bye!

  4. Joel says:

    Resourcehouse, an Australian mining company, signed a $60Bn contract (yes, $60,000,000,000) last month with a Chinese electric utility to supply 30m tons of coal per year for 20 years.

    Anyone who talks with a straight face about “stopping global warming” needs to explain, in detail, how they intend to get the Australians and the Chinese to void their contract and leave all that coal in the ground where it belongs.

  5. James Wimberley says:

    Your second paragraph is about policy, which I wasn´t writing about here. Since you ask the question, the feasible path forward is to persuade the Chinese to accelerate carbon capture from coal power stations (see Stern). The CCP leadership accepts the reality and dangers of global warming; they just don´t want properly enforced limits set by international treaty law. Whether this is s fundamental issue of principle for them or a negotiating stance to ensure the USA is on board first has yet to be tested. Changing their stance is a hard problem in international relations, but not surely an intractable one. Australia as vendor is secondary. If the carbon price is high enough, the market for coal will dry up.

    My post was in any case was about individual responsibility, regardless of public policy. Do you and MobiusKlein really think that this does not exist? If we were citizens of Norway, with a credible government commitment to go carbon-neutral, it could be reasonable to rely on collective action, just as Norwegiansd need not feel obliged to give handouts to beggars with a comprehensive safety net in place. For those of us who live in states with weaker commitments, I suggest its usp to individuals to get started.

    Tractarian: I am glad my facts or arguments got under your skin. You will be welcome back any time, but reality can be a painful place.

  6. MobiusKlein says:

    I’m taking a more pragmatic approach to saving lives -
    Fixing deaths due to substandard housing is better addressed directly where the problem exists – see Haiti and various other places flattened by earthquakes, deaths from flooding and mudslide from rain & storms. Those problems deserve and need fixing independent of global warming. Brazil will experience hurricanes whether or not we halt global warming.

    Global warming should be fought close to their source as well – policies that allow CO2 to be emitted without limit. And since Man will dig up and burn coal as long as it’s profitable, the price of carbon emission must rise to the level where coal is left underground forever.

    Are we talking about buying existing coal mining operations out and shutting them down?

  7. Brett Bellmore says:

    Ah, so you agree that Gore is a moral monster for flying to global warming conferences, instead of teleconferencing? Doing the latter would probably be more effective in promoting his views, by demonstrating that he takes the whole thing seriously, and would save more CO2 than most people are responsible for in a decade. But it wouldn’t get him a paid tropical vacation. So he’s killing people in order to hit the beach…

  8. Randy Paul says:

    Brazil will experience hurricanes whether or not we halt global warming.

    You’re obviously not familiar with climate in the South Atlantic. There have been seven known tropical cyclones in the South Atlantic all of which have taken place within the last 36 years.

    Indeed, if you’ve ever gone swimming around parts of Rio de Janeiro state in places such as the well-named Cabo Frio or Saquarema – which was far to cold for this New Yorker to bear swimming – you’d know that the conditions are not conducive to hurricanes. In addition, the strong wind shear makes them rare.

    It is not unreasonable, then, to consider the possibility that warmer water temperatures could increase the likelihood of South Atlantic cyclones.

    Please don’t take my word for it:

  9. MobiusKlein says:

    I’ll admit to ignorance about the hurricane zones in Brazil – was working with the expectation that much of it was close enough to the equator to be in the hurricane zone. But whether or not global warming would increase hurricanes in Brazil or not , global warming risks compel us to take effective countermeasures.

    And likewise, the folks in New Orleans, Haiti, and Rio de Janeiro deserve safe housing, no matter the genesis of the storms in their home.
    And as our models get better, we will be able to cope with the changes that we are unable to prevent.

    Sorry I’m feeling pessimistic about the possibility of actually staving off climate change – some of the proposed actions seem like pissing in the Pacific.

  10. Barry says:

    Tractarian, if you were a frequent commenter, you’d have some credibility. Since you weren’t, I’ll file your statement with ‘other people support me in e-mails’.

    Brett: “Ah, so you agree that Gore is a moral monster for flying to global warming conferences, instead of teleconferencing? ” Double lie, which is about par for the course with you: first, Gore buys offsets; second, if what Gore’s doing causes millions of people to change their ways slightly, it’s a ‘net carbon profit’, so to speak. What’s really hysterical is that you are feigning ignorance about the basic idea of investment; if you were running a business you wouldn’t hire a salesperson because ‘that would cost money!’.

  11. Brett Bellmore says:

    Barry, if Gore were serious, instead of buying his own carbon indulgences when he flies himself and his court to some distant conference, he’d teleconference. Tell me that’s technically infeasible, and that might carry some weight. Tell me that the self-appointed world firefighter is justified, by his own lights, in dumping equal quantities of water and gasoline on the fire, and I’ll just laugh. If you take his indulgences seriously, he could have bought them, AND not flown.

  12. Barry says:

    “Barry, if Gore were serious, instead of buying his own carbon indulgences when he flies himself and his court to some distant conference, he’d teleconference. ”

    That assumes that teleconferencing is as effective as in-person schmoozing.

    “Tell me that’s technically infeasible, and that might carry some weight.”

    As usual, you have it absolutely reversed. It’s quite technically feasible, as anybody who’s not foolish knows. In addition, I’m sure that Gore does do a lot of that.

  13. Brett Bellmore says:

    Depends, I suppose, on whether you’re trying to convert the converted, a notably easy task, or whether you’re trying to convert the dubious. The latter have no particular reason to ignore the hypocrisy involved in flying yourself and your court to distant, and inevitably pleasant, venues, in order to discuss how people are burning too much fuel.

  14. Proton says:

    Brett Belmore: Your opinion of Al Gore nothwithstanding, I’m curious as to whether or not it’s possible to find any commmon ground,
    or in other words, what is your stance regarding the underlying physical science pointing to global climate change?

  15. Pierre says:

    Ego me absolvo?

  16. Brett Bellmore says:

    I think the basic, well proven science is enough to establish that some degree of warming is likely. Getting to dangerous levels of warming requires one to depart what can be proven by purely physics based modeling, using models with disturbingly large numbers of free parameters, which can be tuned to produce just about any result the modelers want. And the modelers want the public to be convinced we’re faced with an existential threat, so that the public will accept painful policy changes. This doesn’t mean they’re wrong, it just means that nobody should be confident that they’re not wrong.

    We don’t know enough to reliably model climate. Getting to know enough is an important enough task to be worth a lot of funding. But, it’s going to have be be done in the light, with every last move fully transparent, and every detail of the models carefully checked, and openly revealed. The climate modeling community has lost it’s claim to be uncritically believed. It never should have had it. That much has become clear.

    I fully expect that, by the time we have a solid basis on which to make decisions, we won’t have the leisure to do things in a pretty way. Some kind of geoengineering is essentially inevitable if the higher end projections are correct; Achieving the kind of international cooperation to appreciably reduce CO2 emissions is a practical impossibility. That much should be obvious by now.

    We can do some things fairly cheaply, such as pushing to convert our electricity production over to nuclear. Much of the cost of nuclear power, after all, is due to regulatory uncertainty, not normal engineering costs. Solar will not be able to appreciably supply baseline power until power leveling storage approaches free, something I don’t anticipate any time soon. Otherwise you need to have equal capacity of other power sources sitting idle during the day, which is economic insanity.

  17. MobiusKlein says:

    Ok, Brett – so we should wait before taking drastic measures until we have better information.
    What then can / should we do until the data is solid to your satisfaction?

    Since you acknowledge the risks of warming are non-zero today, the price you would pay today to reduce those risks should likewise be non-zero. Now we’re just haggling over the price.

    Steps taken today to reduce the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere of 2020 may give us extra leeway to make the drastic changes somewhat less drastic. Or more time to get the geo-engineering solutions you suggest right.

    Which steps? I’ll take you seriously if you suggest cutting tax breaks for coal / oil / etc.

  18. MobiusKlein says:

    Oh, and solar does not have to be backed up 100% by coal, cmon.
    Wind + Solar + Hydro + Fossil Fuels as backup will emit less CO2 than the same setup with less Wind / Solar power.

    If it’s economic insanity to have idle power plants, I’ll suggest the the Govt should own them and take the loss.

  19. Brett Bellmore says:

    Wind is even more unreliable than solar. Then there’s this; I wouldn’t call it established, but sucking enough energy out of wind to replace any substantial amount of our energy budget is going to significantly effect climate itself, there’s only so much energy in that system.

    And having enough of other energy sources available to replace on short notice the power sources liberals like guarantees that those energy sources will always be more expensive than just building nukes, which can be run 24/7 regardless of whether the sun is up, or the wind is blowing. The government paying for something doesn’t make it any less economically insane, it just proves the government is run by nuts.

  20. MobiusKlein says:

    Brett, if we’re happy with shoddy nuke plants being built in South American dictatorships, build more nukes everywhere.
    Electricity is desired everywhere, and we should provide solutions that we’re comfortable being installed everywhere.

  21. Brett Bellmore says:

    So we can’t have nukes, because they can’t be properly maintained by every third world country? Feh, what a stupid excuse for not using a technology you don’t like.

  22. MobiusKlein says:

    Brett, you started out arguing in good faith, and now you are putting words into my mouth.

    Nuke power as a global solution to GW issues will run into the problems with third world / second world safety and proliferation concerns. It’s not at all about what I ‘like’ or not.

    For the economically insane part, I assume that a tax / fee / whatever for coal power plants will price them out of the general baseline power market, but still allow them a niche for the peak or standby power market. Done right, they will burn less coal than the alternative. Which is the goal.

  23. Brett Bellmore says:

    I’m advocating a lot of nukes in the US, and you object to placing them in South American dictatorships, and I’m putting words in your mouth?

    And what’s economically insane is choosing a power source that requires complete back up by another power source to not crash the grid, so that you’re paying for two powerplants for every one powerplant of energy you want produced. Sure, you can posit a tax/fee regime that makes that sort of thing look sort of reasonable if you squint carefully, but it doesn’t make the insane sane, it just relocates the insanity to the people setting the fees. Even if you got the nominal cost of solar down to coal, it would always be twice as expensive. So why not build nukes, and just leave them running 24/7? Better when it comes to CO2, since every watt of Solar requires 3 watts of fossil fuel to keep the output constant. If solar got high enough market share, it could start increasing CO2 output, because nukes can’t ramp up and down fast enough to be the backup for solar, you’d have to start shutting down CO2 free nukes and replacing them with fossil fuel plants.

    Hell, wind varies so fast, it sometimes forces utilities to run base load plants in a power wasting mode, just so that they’ll be ready to compensate when the wind dies down. Effectively throwing away power you’ve burnt fuel to generate, just so somebody can feel good about solar.