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Posted at 10:30 AM ET, 10/20/2008

Will an Economic Downturn Benefit the Climate?

By Andrew Freedman

"It's a cruel thing to say ... but if we are looking at a slowdown in the economy, there will be less fossil fuels burning, so for the climate it could be an advantage"
- Paul Crutzen, Nobel Prize-winning chemist, in an interview with Reuters.

The economic news these days is about as grim as most climate science news.

As the stock market took a trip to Six Flags last week, a new federal assessment was released warning of an imminent transition to an ice-free Arctic Ocean in the summer months due to climate change, and another study found that even the most stringent reductions of greenhouse gas emissions would still lead to climate change on a scale that is considered by most experts to be downright dangerous. In Australia, a paper showed that climate change might imperil beloved kangaroo species by shifting precipitation patterns and vegetation.

You're not alone if you find yourself frantically looking for a silver lining in the midst of all the alarming information. One notable person tried to provide that bright spot last week, but unfortunately he wasn't very convincing.

Keep reading for more on whether the economic slump is good news for the climate. For D.C. area weather, see our full forecast through the weekend.

Paul Crutzen, who shared the 1995 Nobel Prize in chemistry for his work in discovering the mechanisms causing the destruction of the ozone layer, made an attempt at finding a speck of good news in the economic/climate change milieu when he told the Reuters news service that a drop in economic activity could benefit the climate by curtailing human emissions of greenhouse gases.

When the economy is bad, Crutzen reasoned, people use less energy and hence emit fewer greenhouse gases.

Annual percent change in U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Courtesy U.S. EPA emissions inventory.

Crutzen's point is sound in the sense that economic slumps can in fact result in temporary drops in the rate of emissions growth. According to a Pew Center on Global Climate Change analysis of U.S. EPA emissions data, the only years between 1990 and 2004 in which emissions decreased were the recession years of 1991 and 2001.

More recently, domestic emissions declined by 1.5 percent in 2006, which was not a recession year, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). (The U.S. EPA estimated a similar decrease of 1.1 percent as shown above). The EIA attributed the drop to lower overall energy demand related to warm weather conditions and high fuel prices, as well as an increased use of cleaner-burning natural gas, among other factors.

Thus, in some respects Crutzen's basic point is well-established. The problem with Crutzen's reasoning is that, as his plans for large-scale "geoengineering" solutions to climate change have indicated, climate change won't be brought under control with small cuts in the rate of emissions growth. What matters are reductions in the concentrations of greenhouse gases, which is the total amount of greenhouse gases actually in the atmosphere. If the rate of increase in greenhouse gas emissions were to simply stop growing, concentrations would still keep going up, thereby leading to continued warming.

Unless this recession proves to be an epic one, emissions won't drop by the amount that many scientists recommend -- up to 80 percent below current levels.

Although it's convenient, relying on the economic mess to take care of the climate problem would be foolhardy, especially considering recent information showing that the early stages of the economic downturn coincided with a dramatic growth in worldwide emissions, a finding that has surprised and alarmed some scientists.

Researchers found that between 2006 and 2007, global greenhouse gas emissions increased at the blistering pace of about three percent. China was the biggest emitter of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, but even in the U.S. emissions rose by about two percent despite the sputtering economy.

Furthermore, It's quite possible that the economic mess will work against emissions reduction efforts by making governments and businesses more skittish about spending money to develop and deploy alternative energy technologies or enact tough new emissions standards.

So, all in all I say thanks but no thanks to Dr. Crutzen. I'll find my optimism on climate change somewhere else. Where that is, I'm not sure yet, but I'll let you know when I figure it out.

Do you think the economic situation will help or hurt efforts to tackle climate change?

By Andrew Freedman  | October 20, 2008; 10:30 AM ET
Categories:  Climate Change, Freedman  
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By "climate change" are you referring to global cooling? Is the global cooling man made? Will an economic downturn cause the temperatures to stop falling?

--begin quote--
Still, the number of climate change skeptics is growing rapidly. Because a funny thing is happening to global temperatures -- they're going down, not up.
--end quote--

source of the above quote - here

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr. Q. | October 20, 2008 12:55 PM | Report abuse


Some of the more radical on the left have had this very goal for years now. Harm the economy to make the world greener and the rich poorer.

Posted by: RM | October 20, 2008 1:44 PM | Report abuse

Not necessarily, because of this late point in your blog post:

"It's quite possible that the economic mess will work against emissions reduction efforts by making governments and businesses more skittish about spending money to develop and deploy alternative energy technologies or enact tough new emissions standards."

Hopefully we don't elect across-the-board-spending-freeze McCain, who seems more likely to take that shutting down approach, but thoughtful Obama, who seems more inclined to identify prudent investments to put both our economy and climate on more stable ground.

Posted by: Chickenlady of Riverdale | October 20, 2008 3:09 PM | Report abuse


Obama does certainly come across as more thoughtful on this and many other issues.

However, he espouses Socialist ideals and has a more "socialist" voting record than Bernie Sanders, a self-avowed socialist. I worry that implementing in the U.S. this discredited philosophy will harm our economy to the point that fossil fuel prices will drop and thus stall out the greening of our energy sources due to unfavorable economics.

Posted by: RM | October 20, 2008 6:29 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Freedman said, "I'll find my optimism on climate change somewhere else."

So I take it this does not make you optimistic? Is it the steep decline in temperature that worries you?

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr. Q. | October 21, 2008 12:34 AM | Report abuse

Andrew or GWG:

Why is it that we don't hear more from the MSM that the preponderance of recent temperature data seems to show global cooling?

Posted by: RM | October 21, 2008 9:17 AM | Report abuse

RM: According to NASA ( ""Global warming stopped in 1998," has become a recent mantra of those who wish to deny the reality of human-caused global warming. The continued rapid increase of the five-year running mean temperature exposes this assertion as nonsense. In reality, global temperature jumped two standard deviations above the trend line in 1998 because the "El Niño of the century" coincided with the calendar year, but there has been no lessening of the underlying warming trend.

Posted by: Capital Weather Gang | October 21, 2008 10:20 AM | Report abuse

Capital Weather Gang, I followed the URL you provided and I checked out the references at the bottom of the page -
Hansen, J.
Hansen, J.
Hansen, J.
Hansen, J.

He sure seems to be popular with the catastrophic man made global warming people! I am constantly amazed that his opinion is extended any credence at all. Everyone who continues to believe him is turning a blind eye to the phenomenally horrible accuracy of his past predictions. The yellow line on the graph (Hansen's Scenario "C") represents his temperature prediction if DRASTIC REDUCTIONS in CO2 output had occurred starting 18 YEARS AGO, in 1990. There hasn't been any reduction in CO2 output. CO2 output has increased! More info here.

Dr. Hansen's prediction was horribly wrong. He wasn't even close! And yet people continue to be swayed by him. Despite the fact that global temperature was LOWER 20 years after his 1988 testimony before Congress. It is the kind of blind following that leaves me shaking my head in disbelief.

I am reminded of the poor, disheveled gentleman on the street corner carrying his "The world will end tomorrow" sign. He will stand there every day for months. After a couple months, you start to wonder why the poor guy doesn't seem to grasp that his prediction is wrong. The mere fact that he will be standing out there tomorrow proves that his prediction from two days ago is flat out wrong. And yet he stands there every day. Convinced that one day he will be proven right.

It is really quite sad.

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr. Q. | October 21, 2008 12:01 PM | Report abuse


I read an article in the NY Times about a month ago on the increased use of wood burning stoves for heating when fuel prices rise. Do you know any sources that compare the overall impact of wood burning vs. other fuels (oil or natural gas)? Thanks.

Posted by: John - Burke | October 21, 2008 12:31 PM | Report abuse

John-Burke - I'm not aware of any studies comparing emissions of wood-burning vs. other fuel sources, but will keep an eye out. Thanks for the question.

Posted by: Andrew Freedman, Capital Weather Gang | October 21, 2008 8:51 PM | Report abuse

Okay, this is tangential at best, but it does include a weather comment. ;)

---begin quote---
You have trained the American people to blame everything bad — even bad weather — on Bush, and they are responding as you have taught them to.
---end quote---

That quote comes from one of my favorite sci-fi writers, Orson Scott Card. It comes from his open letter to the local daily paper. The title of the column/letter is "Would the Last Honest Reporter Please Turn On the Lights?"

To say that it is a powerful piece is a gross understatement. The full column/letter is here.

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr. Q. | October 22, 2008 1:24 AM | Report abuse

Via the Wall Street Journal -
Green Meltdown: Credit Crunch Whacks Renewable Energy, Too.

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr. Q. | October 22, 2008 1:35 AM | Report abuse

I believe I wrote on this very blog that the ultimate victims of catastrophic AGW would be -
1. the environmental movement
2. the media (what little respect they have left)

And contrary to whatever anyone may think, I will actually mourn the loss of both of those; as I have repeatedly stated.

That outcome is so obvious as to be comical. But those who do not see it simply won't.

Anyway, to the point and to answer Mr. Freedman's question, "Will an Economic Downturn Benefit the Climate?", here is one man's opinion -

---begin quote---
The next commodity to collapse will be mass-marketed environmentalism, which will come to be disdained
---end quote---

Source of the quote is Lawrence Solomon.

And this quote comes from Investor's Business Daily -

---begin quote---
Funny how economic concerns pull the mind away from foolishness such as global warming.
---end quote---

source of the above IBD quote is here.

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr. Q. | October 22, 2008 1:48 AM | Report abuse


All else being equal, burning wood is a net zero contributor to CO-2 emissions.The carbon released from burning wood is same carbon that was removed from the atmosphere when the tree was growing.

The same is true with fossil fuels (coal oil, natural gas), except the carbon absorbed from the atmosphere by living matter occurred millions of years ago - not exactly relevant to changes occurring now in atmospheric levels of CO-2.

Posted by: Steve Tracton | October 22, 2008 10:52 AM | Report abuse

CWG - that whole article was based on ground temperature data sets with all their flaws, particularly incompleteness and site selection. Why would that data be better than the satellite data (far more uniform in terms of how it is collected) that shows cooling?

Posted by: RM | October 22, 2008 12:06 PM | Report abuse

Andrew and Steve - thanks for the replies.

Posted by: John - Burke | October 22, 2008 10:07 PM | Report abuse

You have overlooked nuclear power Dr. Tracton. If one were to heat their home by burning wood versus electric heat from electricity from nuclear power, that would be a HUGE increase of CO2 - not to mention pollution.

Nuclear power produces ZERO CO2. None. Notta. Zero. Zip.

Burning wood produces a lot of CO2, plus other pollutants.

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr_Q | October 23, 2008 7:27 PM | Report abuse

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