Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The Political Spectrum and Climate Change

The climate change policy debate has produced little action, but some ideas are becoming more prevalent than others, while the science behind choosing policies is becoming better. A serious debate of all of this has just been posted over at Cato and is worth a good read. I give a general summary of each viewpoint, with some quick thoughts attached.

The lead essay is by Jim Manzi, a technology executive that has advised conservative politicians. He takes a more right leaning approach and brings up some excellent points regarding the downfalls of a carbon tax and alternative energy research funding through the government. It is interesting that, ultimately, Manzi agrees that the U.S. (and other industrialized countries) need to address climate change, diverging from many other right wing politicians. I'm still not sold on only relying on the market with some, limited government involvement. He proposes the government offering small grants for businesses to produce alt. energy technologies - a good proposal - but I fear not enough by itself (I still think the government needs to take a more active role in research and development, among other programs).

LIBERAL: The first response essay is by well published, liberal climate scientists, Joseph Romm. He may be the most ardent scientist when it comes to proclaiming the negative consequences of climate change and he has some great points. The most startling is the drastic decline in the ice sheets and permafrost, which will rapidly increase CO2 concentrations due to the trapped gas in the ice. He also notes the ever debated "tipping point", that while it exists, may not be known until it already happens. Policy-wise, he is very much on the left leaning, aggressive side. He notes that the U.S. should rapidly utilizing existing clean technologies, while extensively funding those in the pipeline (i.e. CCS, hydrogen, PHEV, etc.). I question whether the government can be the sole purveyor of a new technology revolution though - where does the private sector fit in? Also, is constantly stating the negative impacts of climate change really going to bring about the change needed?

CONSERVATIVE: The second response essay is by conservative environmental expert, Indur Goklany. He takes an interesting spin on things and questions whether climate change is even that important within the context of environmental based health issues. He correctly states that currently, hunger, malaria, tainted water, and habitat changes are hugely more important to address than climate change. I think he is correct if the assumption is that mitigating climate change is an "insurance policy" for the future. Yet, I don't think it is - if we truly mitigate the core causes of climate change I think it would become easier to mitigate the issues he states as more important, while generally opening the door to greater societal advances. It would be less insurance and more societal progress, in my opinion.

INDEPENDENT: The final response essay is by independent environmentalists and founders of the Breakthrough Institute, Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus. Let me first say that these guys get it, in my opinion. They see the battle between liberal and conservatives and instead of waiting for better times, take it head on. They propose a comprehensive retraining of U.S. workers in the same fashion that the G.I. Bill and National Defense Education Act did. They propose annual government funding of technology investment and research that costs tax payers only a dollar or so a year - much different than the farce that is the Lieberman-Warner bill in the Senate. They even go so far as to state that society needs to focus on adaptation and our energy infrastructure, two issues that seem to get lost in the shuffle. They ultimately show why Obama has it right when it comes to oil drilling and technology, I think.



E. R. Dunhill said...

Thanks for posting this level-headed discourse on climate. I think the lead essay makes some valid points, chiefly that climate change is a major economic threat and that an international carbon tax is ivory tower fiction. He also recognizes the pitfalls of federal grant-making.
I'm concerned to see geo-engineering rear its head in such a positive light here. Climate is an outlandishly complicated system, one we're just getting a comprehensive handle on. Humans' track record in large scale modifications to natural systems (and our knowledge gaps) do not suggest that this is a sound course of action.
I'm also not sure that simply financing R&D will actually accomplish anything other than to spend public dollars, pad some corporate/university partnerships' financial statements, and make for some really interesting work for some really smart people. We've had technologies like gasohol and electric cars since the 1970s. People don't use them (in part) because we don't account for waste-related costs of fossil fuels. In the interest of not leveraging the government for handouts, in the interest of the insoluble American land management doctrine of multiple use, and in the interest of compensating owners for using something that belongs to them, I think a fee structure for pollution sinks, including the atmosphere, is appropriate. It will also level the economic playing field that has historically artificially favored non-renewable fuels. R&D creates new technologies, but market forces deploy them.
Climate change is an important issue, but we need to focus on the even bigger picture, that of sustainability. If we charge people and firms fair prices for public good they use, we'll begin to close the gap we pretend exists between economy and ecology. Reduced human impact on climate will be a natural outcome of this.

Chris Crawford said...

I was greatly impressed by the four essays. I've been participating in some anti-AGW blogs, trying to explain the science to the dogmatists there, and it has been a futile effort. But this debate was so refreshingly reasonable that I decided that I'm completely wasting my time talking to the idiots at the anti-AGW blogs.

My own take is that AGW is real, that it will lead to temperature increases, that these temperature increases will cause economic hardship, and that it would be best for humanity if we did something to mitigate the effects. However, I agree with the libertarian's point that we do not have the governmental institutions to cope with the problem. We're in much the same position that European governments were in when the Black Plague struck in 1348: they simply did not have the means to take effective countermeasures, so they were helpless against the plague. Modern governments would have no problem stopping something like this in its tracks. (BTW, my analogy has the misleading insinuation that AGW is as dangerous as the Black Plague, so I want to explicitly disavow that right here and now.)

I am slowly coming to the still-uncertain conclusion that our best approach is to merge the carbon problem with the imported fossil fuels problem and should therefore impose a "military security" tax on all imported fossil fuels. My reasoning is that the people who demand all those foreign fossil fuels should have to pay for all the military expenses associated with maintaining the security of the supply. Combine this negative approach with a positive approach of encouraging alternatives to our current energy consumption (transportation energy costs could certainly be much reduced).

I still have to convince myself that all the numbers add up.

Pat Jenkins said...

these economic hardships erd and chris you refer too, are they anything like the hardships caused by the "attempt" at producing ethanol. leading food prices to go through the roof along with shortages. hmmm...... and i hope life finds you well prog!!!

E. R. Dunhill said...

I don't speak for Chris C, but as far as my own point goes, the answer is no.
Food prices began increasing due to an increase in the cost of petroleum, as petroleum is the fuel of choice for most agricultural equipment and many agricultural drying processes. The corn lobby was able to exploit public ignorance about biofuels and anger over fuel prices to get legislation passed that artificially inflated the ethanol fuel market, which diverted a portion of domestic corn crops and encouraged farmers to plant corn instead of other crops. This in turn caused food prices to further increase.
The economic hardships I refered to in my earlier comment are more widespread than just in the US. These hardships would include reduced agricultural and fisheries productivity, the cost of internally displaced persons, and increased costs related to water.
One similarity between this scenario and the one you describe is that we'd expect to energy prices increase as temperature increases. Just as we've recently experienced (and continue to experience) increases in energy costs parlay into increased costs for just about everything else.