‘Stand-up economist,’ illustrator take comic book look at climate change

Seattle’s Dr. Yoram Bauman is probably best known for clarifying the intricacies of economics with doses of humor as “the world’s first and only stand-up economist.” He has a national following and has shared the stage with luminaries from Robin Williams to Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman.

Dr. Bauman now focuses his wit and economics expertise on the daunting issue of climate change with illustrator Gary Klein in an educational and entertaining new book, “The Cartoon Introduction to Climate Change” (Island Press). In the book, Dr. Bauman offers — using humor — a primer on global climate history, the science of climate change, the consequences of human use of fossil fuels, and policy guidelines for addressing climate change — before it’s too late.

“The Cartoon Introduction to Climate Change” has won praise for its accessibility, skillful combination of text and drawings, and nonjudgmental approach to complex policy questions. John Michael Wallace, professor emeritus of Atmospheric Science at the University of Washington, commented that the book is “A clear, concise rendition of the story of human-induced climate change… [and] an innovative springboard for discussion of what we can do as individuals and as a society to turn down the heat in our planetary ‘compost pile.’”

Dr. Bauman is a doctoral environmental economist and active in Carbon Washington, CarbonWA.org, an effort to bring a revenue-neutral carbon tax to Washington state. He also co-authored with Mr. Klein the two-volume “Cartoon Introduction to Economics.” His website is www.standupeconomist.com.

Dr. Bauman recently talked about our climate at a coffee house in Seattle’s University District on his return from a round of talks for audiences ranging from the American Enterprise Institute and Research for the Future in Washington D.C., to a conference of New England public utilities commissioners in Vermont.

Robin Lindley: How do you see climate change and why are most scientists convinced it’s actually occurring?

Dr. Yoram Bauman: Climate change is occurring because of the burning of fossil fuels, deforestation, and putting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, mostly CO2 [carbon dioxide]. Lately, we’ve been learning about ocean acidification so that some carbon that goes into the atmosphere gets dissolved in the ocean and affects ocean chemistry and that can change things like the ability of ocean creatures to build shells. We also see changes in weather patterns and precipitation. A warmer atmosphere tends to hold more moisture so you get heavier and heavier rainstorms.

So a whole host of issues come from putting CO2 and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Humans are slowly contributing more to the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere [primarily from use of fossil fuels]. One hundred years ago we were at about 300 parts per million and now were at about 400 parts per million.

Lindley: So we have a warmer earth because of greenhouse gases produced by activities such as human use of fossil fuels?

Bauman: Think of it like a blanket. There’s energy that comes into the earth’s system and energy that goes out of the earth’s system, and if the energy in and energy out are in balance, the earth stays at the same temperature. But greenhouse gases reduce the amount of energy that goes out. Like a blanket, they trap the energy out, so energy out is lower than the amount of energy in, so the planet warms up.

Lindley: You write about the history of climate. What are scientists learning from this history?

Bauman: In Antarctica, we can drill down through the ice and pull up ice core samples that go back about 800,000 years. They certainly show comings and goings of ice ages on a semi-regular time scale.

And you can look at CO2 levels over the past 800,000 years, and we’re certainly out of balance now when compared to that period. Basically, during the ice ages, CO2 concentration varied from 180 to 280 parts per million. We’re now at 400 parts per million, and we’re headed up at a pretty fast clip relative to geologic time. We’re going up 2 or 3 parts per million a year, and definitely headed to 560 [by midcentury], a doubling of preindustrial levels. We’re headed toward a terra incognita, and it’s blasé to think the planet will be as good to us in the future as it has been in the past.

Lindley: You write about chemist Charles David Keeling and how his work confirms the increase of atmospheric CO2 since the 1950s.

Bauman: Yes. Keeling started modern measurements of CO2 concentrations directly from the air since 1958 at a measuring station atop Mount Mauna Loa in Hawaii. He didn’t want to measure in an urban area with factories and other activities. So we’re at 400 parts per million of CO2 [and Keeling] showed this trend that’s going upward over time.

Lindley: As you note that in 1896 Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius predicted the temperature rise from CO2.

Dr. Yoram Bauman: Yes. At the time, he and other scientists were obsessed with the cause of the ice ages. He noted that, even back in the late 1800s, we were burning a lot of fossil fuels. He did preliminary calculations on what would happen if CO2 doubled in the atmosphere from 280 then to 560, which we’re on track to hit by the middle of this century. He was the first to estimate what the global average temperature increase would be, and he wasn’t far off. He said 5 degrees Celsius for the average temperature increase. And in the world of 1896 the economy was more dependent on agriculture, so Arrhenius thought climate change would be a good thing because Sweden would have warmer seasons.

Lindley: You mention in your book that temperature has been increasing at about 0.15 degrees Celsius per decade. That sounds tiny to a lay person, but that increase worries many scientists.

Bauman: That’s true. I think the difference between the ice age and the temperature now is about 5 degrees Celsius, or 9 degrees Fahrenheit. That doesn’t sound like much yet it means a big change. Look at things like what will happen to snow pack. With warmer temperatures you’ll get more rain and less snow and the snow will melt earlier, and that can have a major impact with just a couple of degrees.

Lindley: What environmental impact are we seeing from climate change?

Bauman: Right now, we’re seeing the tip of the iceberg. Maybe that’s not the correct analogy. The amount of precipitation in heavy rainstorm events has increased by 12 percent in the Northwestern United States. The latest National Climate Assessment shows the impacts already, which makes sense because with warmer temperature the atmosphere holds more moisture and you get more rain.

You also see some effects already in terms of acres burned by fires. It’s difficult to tease out how much is caused by forest management practices and how much is caused by hot, dry weather in the summer.

Certainly glaciers are melting around the world, and there’s good documentation of that. There’s lots of evidence out there that the climate is changing and the planet is warming, and you can see that in the arctic ice, the glaciers and the temperature records.

Lindley: Who are the major culprits now in terms of greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere?

Bauman: Until the last century, climate change and carbon emissions were, for the most part, a rich world phenomenon. That’s no longer true. As we proceed into the century, it’s more and more of a developing country issue. The rich world can show leadership, but we [cannot] solve the problem by ourselves.

The most amazing story is that China in 2006 passed the United States for the first time as the number one emitter of CO2 in the world. Some time in the next year or two, they will be at double U.S .levels. Even at double U.S. levels, China has four times more people as the U.S., so even at double our levels, they are still at half of our levels per capita.

Lindley: That’s sobering. You also mention that the gap between the rich and the poor will widen because of climate change.

Bauman: The first story is that poor countries will start catching up with rich countries. We’ve seen this in China. It’s unfortunate that they’re destroying their environment, but they certainly have higher living standards now that they did 30 or 40 years ago. And I hope we’ll see waves of development in India and Africa and other places around the world that are very poor right. As people get richer, they’re better able to deal with the impacts of climate change. They can afford to buy safer houses and equipment.

For folks who are still on the poor end of the spectrum, they will be a lot more vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Look at Bangladesh. It will have a lot more concern about sea level than the United States because we have the money to deal with it. If you think about people in Bangladesh who live near sea level, food is a major part of their yearly expenditures. Those people will be vulnerable in ways we’re not.

Lindley: Has sea level change yet affected Bangladesh and other low-lying areas?

Bauman: Again, there are many other issues that affect sea level. But it’s an extra risk factor. You look at Hurricane Sandy, and climate change may have added a couple inches to the maximum water level. It that a big deal? It depends on whether a couple of inches make a difference between your house flooding or not flooding.

Lindley: You look to the future and suggest policies that may help us address climate change, including a carbon tax.

Bauman: What I do as an environmental economist is use the tools of economics and the power of capitalism to protect the environment. With climate change, that means putting a price on carbon and using market forces to get companies and individuals to use less carbon. The policy I talk about is raising the price of fossil fuels with a carbon tax and then using the revenue to reduce existing taxes on income, on savings, on investment. So you have higher taxes on bad things and lower taxes on good things.

Lindley: And you’re active in an organization that’s proposing a carbon tax for Washington state?

Bauman: Yes. It’s called Carbon Washington and our website is carbonWA.org. We’re working toward a November 2016 British Columbia-style revenue neutral carbon tax for Washington state. The basic idea is to have a $30 per ton of CO2 carbon tax and use the revenue to reduce the state sales tax by a full percentage point. The state sales tax right now, before local rates, is 6.5 percent so it would get lowered to 5.5 percent. We’d save the average household hundreds of dollars a year. You’d pay more for fossil fuel but you’d pay a couple hundred dollars a year less for everything else, and that will encourage people to economize on fossil fuel usage and carbon emissions.

Lindley: What can average citizens do about climate change?

Bauman: They can get involved in our carbon tax campaign. And there are things you can do in your own household. Solar panels have come in price and there are incentives for putting them on your house, so think about solar. Also, think about your water heater, insulation, the car you drive, how far you drive to work. Think about your own carbon footprint—about how much you fly.

Lindley: The future in terms of climate change seems bleak to many. Can you hopeful developments you see?

Bauman: Some people talk about tipping points, or being past the point of no return. There’s some argument that the ice sheets in Antarctica are past the point of no return.

I mostly think about it from a risk perspective. For the most part, we like the planet that we have now, and if it doesn’t cost much to buy some insurance to keep the planet that we have now, then we should think seriously about doing that. That’s what I like about environmental tax reform like the carbon tax idea. It’s not that hard on the economy and it will benefit the economy over all by moving toward a more reasonable tax system.

On the hopeful things, I think there are some good policies, like the carbon tax in British Columbia. California and states in the east that are experimenting with cap and trade. I think that the marketplace is starting to move in the right direction. Solar panels are coming down in price. Lots of people are working on innovation.

The Holy Grail of climate issues is getting the price of renewables below the price of fossil fuels. So if we can develop renewable energy that is cheaper than coal and gasoline, then we will have solved a major part of the problem. It’s not guaranteed we can do that, but we’re slowly moving in that direction and, if we put a price on carbon, then we’ll move a lot more quickly in that direction. That’s what I’m optimistic about.

Robin Lindley is a Seattle writer and attorney, and the features editor for the History News Network. He can be reached at robinlindley@gmail.com.

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