Before the Flood

by Ingrid Robeyns on November 6, 2016

I watched Before the Flood today, the Leonardi di Caprio film on climate change. I think it does a great job for three reasons. First, it brings the debate on climate change to the masses, which the articles that scientists write in Science or Nature won’t do, nor will the class with 25 graduate students to whom I taught climate ethics. It’s great to have in-depth and very detailed debates on either the science or the ethics of climate change, but this problem needs mass mobilisation. Second, it gives a more visual and narrative complement to an intellectual approach to climate change (have you ever tried to read the IPCC reports? You’ll understand what I mean). As Piers Sellars, an astronaut and director of the Earths Sciences Division of NASA says in the movie, he understood the problem of climate change intellectually for a long time, but only when he saw the fragility of the Earth from space, really captured the scale and significance of the problem. A film such as this one can be that non-cognitive complement for all of us. Third, Di Caprio interviews an impressive range of people from different sectors and different countries, which makes the movie interesting and rhetorically powerful.

The most powerful scene is when he interviews Sunita Narain, from the Center for Science and Environment in Delhi. When Di Caprio talks with her about what will happen if the millions of Indian poor who now use biomass energy will turn to coal, she responds that if there were an easy solution to getting renewable energy to the global poor, we would have long implemented it. And she adds: “Your [that is, the American] consumption is going to put a hole in the planet. I think this is the conversation we need to have”. She wants to focus on the issue of the excessive ecological burdens by the US lifestyles and consumption (and of course the same applies, although to a lesser extent, to other affluent countries). I was surprised when Di Caprio responded by saying, yes, we need to change our lifestyles, “and it is not going to happen.”

That came as a blow. Di Caprio seems to believe that we need to put all our cards on the energy transition from fossil fuels to renewables, and that if that is accomplished, we can go on living as we have been doing in the last decades. Di Caprio should have acknowledged that in addition to the energy transition it would require massive changes in people’s values and habits and traditions. Carbon emissions also come from all the stuff we buy, and the meat and cheese we eat. Moreover, while many of us are already heating our houses and working on our computers with green energy, it is not at all clear to me how quickly there will be a non-fosile-fuel-based way of flying. As long as there isn’t, we should avoid flying as much as we can, and in some countries flying is much more seen as ‘middle class’ consumption than in other countries. As long as there is no climate-friendly way to fly, we should envisage flying as a luxury consumption good rather than an ordinary consumption good. Also, cows will keep producing shit and hence emit methane into the atmosphere. Hence I just think we will need to change our lifestyles even if we have clean electricity. For me, the frankness with which Sunita Narain confronted the role of consumption in the US (and by extension – Europe, Canada, Australia, etc.) was the best part of the movie.

And then there was the surprising appearance of Greg Mankiw, who argued (sensibly) that what we need primarily is a carbon tax. Di Caprio asks him: “Let me get this straight. You are a republican who wants more taxes?” – to which Mankiw responds “One of the important things to keep in mind, is that if you have a carbon tax, you can turn around and cut other taxes in response”, such as the payroll tax. “It’s a tax shift, rather than a tax increase.”

But that makes no sense to me. The aim of a payroll tax is to raise tax revenue, in order to pay for public goods and other public services. But the aim of a carbon tax should not be to raise tax revenue, but to minimise carbon (and other greenhouse gas) emissions. So if the carbon tax is pitched at the optimal level, it would be a level that minimises the emission of greenhouse gases, and the tax revenue from the carbon tax would be very limited. That’s what Mankiw should have said. There won’t be a reduction in payroll taxes, since the carbon tax should be high enough to strongly discourage emissions, and moreover the additional revenue raises will be much-needed for climate adaptation projects. Yes, we need more taxes, whether republicans like it or not.

Before the Flood has been freely available online on youtube and other places for the last week, though it may be the last day today, before it moves to the movie theatres. Either way, a very welcome movie that will hopefully contribute to the change that the planet needs.

{ 87 comments }

1

Eskimo 11.06.16 at 9:43 pm

If it could be implemented, a carbon tax would probably be phased in over several years. The point of it is to “disrupt” the economy, but all at once? Not that I’m expecting it to happen in a political landscape similar to what we have now.

2

bob mcmanus 11.06.16 at 10:02 pm

I was surprised when Di Caprio responded by saying, yes, we need to change our lifestyles, “and it is not going to happen.”

I’m not surprised and agree with Di Caprio. Anyway, it doesn’t matter. This article convinced me.

Some reflections on the Twilight of the Oil Age (part III)

In order to avoid quite near term catastrophic economic and political damage, as in depression and war…

We are currently according to above, generating 17 trillion annual Kwh worldwide, the vast majority used in 1st world.

1) In order to bring the developing world to 1st world levels (anybody oppose?) we need another 17 trillion Kwh.

2) In order to make the very difficult transition to sustainability, fast, we need an additional 17 trillion Kwh dedicated to transition. Preferably clean, but we are in a hurry.

Total 50 trillion Kwh, and we need it now. Conservation and lifestyle change would get us what, a saving of 5-7 trillion Kwh? It is a good idea to develop and apply technologies, but it is nearly trivial in terms of survival.

(PS: Let’s not repeat the free trade scams, where we plan on ending the carbon economy, without providing for the workers, industries, and economies displaced by the change. Author above estimates 1.5 billion people directly affected, I think that’s high.)

3

bob mcmanus 11.06.16 at 10:22 pm

I’ll just add briefly, the kinds of questions I have been thinking about for a while.

1) What y’all gonna do for Sumatra, Burma, Bangladesh, SS Africa? I think at least, as above, one third of OECD energy production needs to be dedicated to developing nations.

2) What y’all gonna do for Iran/Iraq/Russia/Saudi Arabia/etc extractive economies (ignoring our own) as we transition from oil? They are our problem, because if we ignore them, we will likely eat all our energy savings in drones and cruise missiles.

4

Omega Centauri 11.06.16 at 10:26 pm

The last plan I saw for 100% renewables in the US (before 2050 IIRC), had a solar buildout of a million panels per day for the US alone. We are currently below a hundred thousand. So its not impossible, but is quite a bit larger than we’ve what we’ve been doing to date. If also includes similar scaled programs to expand wind and storage, and convert transport and heating to electric.

5

Val 11.06.16 at 10:34 pm

Well yes, we had a carbon tax (or price) here in Australia, and it was repealed by the conservative government, so it is very difficult politically. However there are a lot of other mechanisms that can also be used.

I was a bit dismayed Ingrid that you said teaching wasn’t going to make much difference, since I have just finished my second round of teaching in a climate change and public health unit, and was thinking that those 60 or so professionals going back into the health system with their new knowledge would make a difference! I accept that’s gradual change and we really need rapid change, but hopefully all these small efforts coming together will add up.

On your larger point, I haven’t seen the film yet, but I have observed that ‘reliance on technology’ approach. I actually wrote about it on my blog back in 2014
http://fairgreenplanet.blogspot.com.au/2014/09/different-responses-to-climate-change.html
– and it provoked some discussion on other blogs. I have also seen this more widely since. I have a hypothesis that this is gendered, in that it seems to be particularly men who think that technology can save us, without having to make substantial changes in our way of life.

Like you, I don’t think that is going to happen, but my belief that renewable technology alone isn’t the answer is also supported by my public health background. There’s no doubt that over-consumption and sedentary lifestyles are now the greatest threat to global health, rather than scarcity and want (although that is still a problem for nearly a billion people). It would be good for us in health and social terms to consume less, to share more, and to be more active, as well as being good for the ecology.

6

RichardM 11.06.16 at 11:02 pm

The thing with the phrase ‘lifestyle changes’ is there is quite a bit of a gap between what is necessary and useful, and what is possible.

What’s _necessary_ is changing the status quo of using every technologically-based efficiency increase as an excuse to increase consumption.

What is _useful_ is the middle class spending spending money on electric cars, solar roofs, shorter commutes, etc.

What’s _possible_ is more than that, and individuals are certainly free to choose to do so.

But anything based on individual choice to cut consumption is going to be at absolute most 20% of people cutting 20% of their consumption. Which is basically lost in the noise.

It would be a shame of the latter meaning of lifestyle changes came into conflict with the necessary and useful parts.

7

Peter Dorman 11.06.16 at 11:29 pm

I don’t want to make any grand statements here; my book on this topic, which is coming out next year, is sort of one grand statement after another, backed up (I believe) by evidence. But a few things should be put on the table:

Forestalling a climate catastrophe is fundamentally about curbing the use of fossil fuels, which is not the same as expanding the supply of renewables. (a) Unless we prevent it, nothing prevent us from using both carbon fuels and renewables; up to now, this is the story of Germany’s Energiewende, for instance. (b) The timetable for carbon emission reduction, if we want to stay within the IPCC 2 degree budget, is almost certainly more stringent than any conceivable renewables transition.

Individual consumption choices, while understandable in the current political situation, are not going to save us. (a) In many important contexts it’s impossible to know what the consequences of our choices will be for carbon emissions. This is the problem of economic complexity. (b) Consumption choices come with collective action problems. Are you going to be the only one who doesn’t fly to conferences? (c) Many of the consumption options we need are not available to us on an individual basis and require collective action as well. (d) Climate moralism (my consumption is virtuous, yours is greedy) is presumptuous, divisive and unproductive. It raises the question of whether the goal is to prevent catastrophic climate change or to cleanse our personal consciences.

A carbon permit system is preferable to a carbon tax, but either, to be effective, will need to be stringent enough to reduce fossil fuel consumption in developed countries by something like 8% a year, year after year. Because demand is inelastic within historical experience, this will at least initially involve very large sums of money, contra the OP. I estimate about $1 trillion a year in the US alone. Because carbon revenues will be highly regressive, and in order to sustain living standards and political support over a very dicey transition, most of this money will need to be recycled to the public. I disagree with Mankiw; it would be much better to do this in the form of equal lump-sum rebates than through the tax system. Of course, we would also need an equity fund to assist those most vulnerable to high energy prices, etc.

All of this is documented, along with discussions of why offsets are largely a scam, carbon accounting doesn’t work, the political economy dimension, international strategies, social justice aspects, etc. I expect to annoy a lot of people but in a responsibly argued way.

I wrote the book because I felt a lot of the popular discussion, apparently echoed in the DiCaprio movie, doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, and that we won’t have a chance of staying under the 1000 Gt limit unless we get a lot more clarity, fast.

8

wilful 11.07.16 at 12:05 am

I haven’t seen the movie and am only responding to what you have written, but Di Caprio sounds like he is being a realist, not like he is defending the Northern way of life as immutable.

9

wilful 11.07.16 at 12:09 am

Also, I don’t think it’s too hopeful to think that the cattle methane problem will be solved, at least in first world agriculture. It seems likely that we can manipulate the gut flora in an affordable way to greatly reduce, possibly eliminate the methanogens. Which leaves a lot of issues still with cattle farming as an industry, such as ongoing land clearance, but cheese may be yet saved!

10

faustusnotes 11.07.16 at 2:05 am

I love these people who think that the greatest crisis facing industrial civilization is going to be fixed by raising taxes. Sure, that’ll do it!

11

nb 11.07.16 at 3:15 am

Also, posturing aside, we don’t really care all that much for abstract future generations – the further out they are, the less we care.

12

Ram 11.07.16 at 3:22 am

The purpose of a carbon tax is to internalize the negative externality associated with carbon emissions. It is not to minimize carbon emissions. What does this even mean–reduce them to zero? There are some carbon-emitting activities where the social benefit of the activity exceeds the social cost, and under an optimal carbon tax such activities would take place, and these would increase government revenue. This means that other taxes can be reduced, or other spending can be increased, whichever suits you. Mankiw’s point is that someone who doesn’t want to increase government revenue can still support a carbon tax so long as other taxes are correspondingly reduced.

Also note that Mankiw has been actively promoting his “Pigou club” for years, advocating carbon taxes to deal with global warming. This is not something he endorses uncomfortably.

13

Omega Centauri 11.07.16 at 5:16 am

I did watch the movie. I thought he did really well. Now, if I can get family members to watch.

I understand the thinking behind asking for lifestyle change. I also think asking for it would be a catastrophic mistake. If we ask the current crop of Americans to do that, they will reject the whole idea of doing anything about climate change, including the science. I really think we are on the cusp of massive technological change wrt. energy. Renewables are getting better, which also means more affordable at a fast pace, and before long even the most hardened greedy people will see that they are far superior, than those fossil fuels so many still think are indispensable. Fear of forced lifestyle change, coupled with camel’s nose arguments have set back the advance of renewables, by creating strong political enemies. I want to avoid repeating that mistake.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’d be fine with lifestyle change for myself, but politically I’ve seen that it is a bridge too far.

I also strongly disagree about Indian coal, renewables are the best choice for India, and they are coming around to that view. In fact the India coal agency has contracted for several hundred megawatts of solar.

Now, China is still part of the problem too. In one sense they are heroes, they are deploying far more wind and far more solar than anyone else. But, they are also building a similar volume of new fossil capability. That has to change.

14

Val 11.07.16 at 5:46 am

Peter Dorman (and others)
Thank you for the information, I will be interested to see your book.

I can’t speak for Ingrid, but I want to emphasise that I am NOT primarily talking about individual ‘lifestyle choices’, nor am I talking about “moralism”. Those choices are fine, and as you say can be helpful. However I am talking about concerted community and societal action, at local, state and international level. Some people, including ZM who comments here, refer to ‘wartime mobilisation’. I think that’s a bit of an unfortunate metaphor, but the principle is correct – we need whole of society mobilisation. We had something of that sort here in Victoria during our long drought to 2009, and it worked quite well.

I really want to emphasise that my comments are not about merely individual lifestyle choices, because I have been accused of this before here. It seems there is a level of misunderstanding (which I suspect may be gendered and patronising, no personal offence to anyone, but I think it possibly is) that anyone who talks about way of life or lifestyle is merely advocating ineffective individual action, when I think a more charitable reading would clearly see that people like myself (and probably Ingrid, though it’s up to her to say) are talking about moral and political choices that we, collectively, as citizens of wealthy countries, need to make right now.

And those choices are about are about individual behaviour, but they are also about what communities (including professional and academic communities), states and international organisations need to do, and we are calling for this in our capacity as citizens, as members of the human community, and as beings who are part of a broader ecosystem.

15

Brett 11.07.16 at 6:36 am

Air travel is a small enough percentage of overall emissions that you might be able to just mandate that it offset them, either by buying offset credits equal to emissions, using only net-neutral biofuels for planes, or something more exotic (hydrogen fuel cell planes). I would bet on doors #1 and #2, although that would also make air travel more expensive and/or slower.

It’s mostly an implementation problem for everything else, from electric cars to electric furnaces. I’m thinking that will come in bursts, following surges of political concern about climate change in the wake of major disasters and increasing awareness of sea level rise.

@wilful #9

Also, I don’t think it’s too hopeful to think that the cattle methane problem will be solved, at least in first world agriculture. It seems likely that we can manipulate the gut flora in an affordable way to greatly reduce, possibly eliminate the methanogens.

Changing up their feed might do it, or mixing something into it. Cows fed on carbohydrates and fat seem to produce much less emissions of methane than grass fed cows.

16

Barry Freed 11.07.16 at 7:53 am

2) What y’all gonna do for Iran/Iraq/Russia/Saudi Arabia/etc extractive economies (ignoring our own) as we transition from oil?

Not to mention the billions in remittances sent back to Nepal, India, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, etc. by their nationals working in GCC countries. Something like a third of Nepal’s GDP comes from such remittances. What’s to replace that?

17

Marc Davidson 11.07.16 at 8:10 am

It does not matter what the aim of the carbon tax is; it will simply raise revenue (just as a payroll tax reduces employment without it being its aim). If the carbon tax is pitched at the optimal level, the tax revenue will still be considerable. Imagine a tax of €200 per ton CO2 and imagine that it would reduce emissions by 80%. In the Netherlands, taxation of the remaining 20% (about 40 Mton CO2-equivalents) would offer a revenue of about 8 billion Euro per year. On the one hand, that is not very limited and you can use it to lower payroll tax although it will certainly not replace it. On the other hand, you are right that we need money for adaptation. But then a republican may argue that adaptation should be left to individuals and the market and you do not need government expenditure. Government expenditure would take away the incentive for efficient measures to reduce the damage due to climate change like moving to higher places. But even if you would deny the need for the government to spend resources on mitigation and adaptation, there is still a government task for compensation. So I agree that the issue of climate change will increase the need for taxes, even for republicans.

18

faustusnotes 11.07.16 at 8:14 am

I agree with Val, it’s simply not going to happen without lifestyle changes but those lifestyle changes aren’t at an individual level. For example, changes in town planning and transport structures require more than individual effort, as do changes in the way food is grown and transported, reduced food waste, changes to cooking practices in developing countries. I agree also that describing the response to AGW in terms of individual choices and guilt is a dismal failure, both practically and in terms of the effect it has on the problem.

Also I think it’s hilarious to talk about coal as a good decision for India in a week when its smog crisis is out of control. Populous modern developing nations need alternatives to fossil fuels for development for a lot more reasons than just AGW, and they need support in changing farming and forestry practices for the same reason. Much of the western policy debate seems to have been paralyzed by the idiot Lomberg’s of the world with their juxtaposition of development with response to AGW, when in fact the technologies we know are low carbon are also better for those countries (e.g. distributed low-carbon energy systems in countries with poor grid infrastructure, and high intensity low carbon systems for countries with megalopolises).

I’ll also note that this week Nicholas Stern admitted finally that AGW is way worse than he expected in his silly little report 10 years ago. Further evidence that economists don’t have a clue about this issue, and should stay away from it while the serious folks work on solutions.

19

ZM 11.07.16 at 8:34 am

Ingrid,

Thanks for this, I’ve been meaning to watch this and hopefully I’ll have time tonight :-)

Re: “The most powerful scene is when he interviews Sunita Narain…. she adds: “Your [that is, the American] consumption is going to put a hole in the planet. I think this is the conversation we need to have”. …. I was surprised when Di Caprio responded by saying, yes, we need to change our lifestyles, “and it is not going to happen.”

That came as a blow. Di Caprio seems to believe that we need to put all our cards on the energy transition from fossil fuels to renewables, and that if that is accomplished, we can go on living as we have been doing in the last decades. Di Caprio should have acknowledged that in addition to the energy transition it would require massive changes in people’s values and habits and traditions. Carbon emissions also come from all the stuff we buy, and the meat and cheese we eat.”

I volunteer a bit with an Australian non-profit called Less Meat Less Heat which hopes to raise awareness about the impact of diet on climate change and encourage more climate friendly food choices* and from there I know that Leonardo Di Caprio has been active in this field already.

It sounds kind of odd but Di Caprio has been active on this in India actually, working with a group to decrease beef consumption (I think it might be a Hindu group from memory).

I think maybe Di Caprio and other high profile Americans who raise awareness about climate change don’t know how to raise the issue in America where it would be more controversial than in somewhere like India which has cultural traditions about not eating beef, especially as most people who have high profiles like him also have high consumption lifestyles due to their work and wealth. If you look at what happened to Al Gore, his wealth and lifestyle was really used to criticise his work on raising public awareness on climate change.

There’s a group based in California called Wild Aid who do work on the issue of illegal wildlife trade mostly, but they have also got a project with the Chinese government to raise awareness about the impact of the dietary consumption of animal products on ghg emissions and climate change.

The director of Titanic and Avatar, James Cameron, has shot some public service advertisements for Wild Aid for this campaign starring Arnold Schwarzenegger who talks about changing his diet because of climate change.

From talking to international students from China, I think in China there is acceptance of the government interventions like this, whereas if the government in Australia right now started running public service announcements about reducing meat consumption it would be pretty controversial both for consumers and farmers, and I think the same is true in America.

The group I volunteer for is trying to influence consumer behaviour and has crowdfunded an app for people to use to log food choices for a month and see the greenhouse gas emissions of their diet and try to eat in a more climate friendly way called The Climatarian Challenge that’s launching in Melbourne on the 12th of November http://www.facebook.com/LessMeatLessHeat/

I’d be interested if any commenters have any ideas about what sort of things would encourage them and their friends and family to try changing their diets to be more climate friendly?

20

Barry Freed 11.07.16 at 8:50 am

I’m a long time vegetarian living and working in the GCC. I’ll give up my air travel when the last of you carnivores give a up meat.

21

Barry Freed 11.07.16 at 8:50 am

Gives up.

22

Chris Bertram 11.07.16 at 9:10 am

One of the biggest obstacles to implementing carbon taxes (and more generally of shifting to renewables) is the enormous symbolic importance of this issue for Brexiters, Trumpers and the like who are jointly and severally climate deniers, very keen on gas guzzling motoring and hate and despise anyone green, alternative, “libtard” etc … Politicians, including those of the centre and even centre-left are terrified of them.

23

ZM 11.07.16 at 9:55 am

Chris Bertram,

“the enormous symbolic importance of this issue for Brexiters, Trumpers and the like who are jointly and severally climate deniers, very keen on gas guzzling motoring and hate and despise anyone green, alternative, “libtard” etc”

I think that’s a bit of a generalisation. For example in Australia at the election before this year’s election, we had a new Senator from The Australian Motoring Enthusiasts Party, Ricky Muir.

I was actually pretty disappointed when I went to a talk on proposed Senate voting reforms after that election and the Labor Party MP there criticised the election of Ricky Muir and made him one of the main points in her argument that the Senate voting process needed reforms. He did a good job and was a very earnest Senator, the sort of person who would have been possibly chosen as a Labor candidate in the past I think. His background was working in a sawmill.

Even though he was the Australian Motoring Enthusiasts Party Senator, he really supported Renewable Energy, and also the Australian Motoring Enthusiasts Party lent support to a recent report (August 2016) by the climate change group based in Melbourne Beyond Zero Emissions about transitioning to electric vehicles.

So I think there would be more diverse views than you think about climate change within groups you even disagree with politically on other issues.

24

Sancho 11.07.16 at 10:26 am

CTRL+F says that population management hasn’t been mentioned in the OP or the comments.

Getting the public to talk about meat consumption is a start, but we’re a long way from having a level-headed debate on whether making more humans is ethical, and everything is really peripheral to that.

25

Val 11.07.16 at 11:53 am

Sanche @ 24
Look over there!
Can I suggest you look at the figures? In fact, countries with the highest birth rates have the lowest emission rates. The problem is the consumption levels of wealthy countries and you can’t change that by talking about population growth.

If you really want to do something about population growth, you would focus on the question of how you give people in the poorest countries a reasonable standard of living, without using fossil fuels, and particularly how you ensure that women have human rights including the right to an education. Those are the things that will make a difference to popularion growth.

In the meantime, it is the consumption and emission levels of wealthy countries that are causing the problem, and wealthy countries generally have low (below replacement level) birth rates.

26

Chris Armstrong 11.07.16 at 12:23 pm

Ingrid, great post. I haven’t seen the film, but you made me want to. I agree with your main point, about the need to reduce consumption in all kinds of ways (and of course, climate change is only one of the ways in which we’re placing increasing demands on the planet). I second what some people have said about carbon taxes: if we introduced them tomorrow and they were immediately effective, revenues might indeed be very small. That should be the ultimate goal – they wouldn’t be revenue-raising as such. But actually, there’s a big transition than needs to take place before we get there, and in the meantime these taxes could raise a great deal of revenue. Their goal might not be to raise revenue – the point would be to discourage consumption (internalising externalities, etc). But during that transition, a lot of money could be freed up for various projects. It’s therefore an important question what those revenues ought to be used for. Of course, I guess we could think of lots of better things than cutting income taxes :)

27

Layman 11.07.16 at 12:27 pm

Peter Dorman @ 7 seems right to me, and this in particular resonates:

“Because carbon revenues will be highly regressive, and in order to sustain living standards and political support over a very dicey transition, most of this money will need to be recycled to the public.”

Both the consequences of climate change, and any solution to forestall or mitigate them, strike me as massively regressive, in the sense that it is the masses who will bear the costs in terms of living standards, finances, culture, personal well-being; while the wealthy will be well-positioned to pay those costs while maintaining their own living standards.

The wealthy then have no real incentive to pay the cost of avoidance now rather than paying the cost of mitigation later. As for the rest of us, most have grown up in an era when there is little political will for higher taxes or for expanding transfers from the wealthy to everyone else, and consequently we suspect this state of affairs will continue.

In effect, we’re offered the same kind of choice – we can pay the cost of avoidance now, while the wealthy effectively do not; or we can suffer the consequences later, while the wealthy effectively do not; and in neither case can we expect any help from the wealthy. If nothing changes this state of affairs, you can expect little public support for avoidance measures of any consequence.

This argument of course works at the national level as well. Wealthy nations will be better able to mitigate the consequences than poor ones; and wealthy nations show no signs of willingness to use their wealth to help poorer ones in any substantial way.

28

Tim Worstall 11.07.16 at 1:28 pm

Ram @12 has it right. It’s not to stop emissions, it’s to have the right number and type of emissions. As JQ of this parish has explained at length.

@22 “One of the biggest obstacles to implementing carbon taxes (and more generally of shifting to renewables) is the enormous symbolic importance of this issue for Brexiters, Trumpers and the like who are jointly and severally climate deniers, very keen on gas guzzling motoring and hate and despise anyone green, alternative, “libtard” etc “

That’s a little strange. I’m Brexiteer, worked for Ukip, stood for the party even. I glory in the manner that we are leaving. And yet I’ve been arguing for a carbon tax for a decade now. Even at places like Forbes and the Adam Smith Institute. Even wrote a book where that was the final policy action – carbon tax now!

Yes, even argued it within Ukip….

29

Louis Proyect 11.07.16 at 1:41 pm

From my review of “Before the Flood”:

There are three interviews that epitomize the shortcomings of a Green outlook that is not rooted in a critique of the capitalist system. DiCaprio gives Harvard economist Gregory Mankiw a platform to advocate for a carbon tax that he feels will reduce its use just as cigarette taxes reduce smoking. We assume that the inclusion of Mankiw, a life-long Republican who served in George W. Bush’s economic advisor, is meant to illustrate the possibility of uniting all sides of the political spectrum in a battle against extinction.

The carbon tax is based on the idea that markets can be the solution to climate change after the fashion of Obama’s cap-and-trade that provides incentives for reducing carbon emissions. But as long as the market system prevails, there will be enormous pressures to be cost-effective. This might entail allowing big corporations to offset the expense of a carbon tax by drilling in areas of the world where labor costs are minimal, like South Sudan for example. Indeed, even as China is converting to alternative energy sources within its borders, it is stepping up drilling in the South Sudan.

As it happens, Exxon Mobil is in favor of a carbon tax but this might have something to do with the fact that it would likely benefit more than its competitors from a carbon tax that favors cleaner-burning natural gas over coal. Guess what. ExxonMobil has the largest natural gas reserves of any U.S. company.

https://louisproyect.org/2016/10/22/before-the-flood-the-ivory-game/

30

Anarcissie 11.07.16 at 2:07 pm

Of course, as usual, capitalism is the unspeakable elephant in the room.

31

Fiddlin Bill 11.07.16 at 2:09 pm

The planet is going to solve the problem, because it is not subject to political pressure. Eleven feet of sea level rise may be the first effect noticed by the political world.

32

Scott P. 11.07.16 at 2:41 pm

“That’s a little strange. I’m Brexiteer, worked for Ukip, stood for the party even. I glory in the manner that we are leaving. And yet I’ve been arguing for a carbon tax for a decade now. Even at places like Forbes and the Adam Smith Institute. Even wrote a book where that was the final policy action – carbon tax now!”

So did John McCain. Made it a plank of his platform. Then dropped it like a hot potato once the Democrats took office. Same with Mankiw. He’s happy to talk about a carbon tax as a smokescreen, but the moment the question of actually making it happen comes up, he vanishes in a puff of smoke.

33

bruce wilder 11.07.16 at 2:57 pm

I am working my way thru the movie, which I find very useful and stimulating.

In the movie, Leo plays Everyman on his globe-trotting, camera-ready Pilgrimage, and for me, he is effective in the role in part because he keeps his pessimism lurking behind the actor’s pretence, behind his friendly smiles shared with those many well-met. What the movie shows is how we are struggling in a great variety of ways not to understand. The problem of climate change and on-going global environmental catastrophe is inextricably linked to our apparent inability collectively or individually to think it thru.

34

Kiwanda 11.07.16 at 3:27 pm

Sorry, some googling again.

Aviation is responsible for about 3.5% of climate change. Reducing its impact (and there has been work on aviation biofuels) is just not that important yet.

Livestock are responsible for about 15% of greenhouse gas emissions. If there’s one place that individual action and social movement could be immediate, important, and relatively simple, it would be that: get people to stop eating meat, especially beef. This is also important to water consumption, antibiotic resistant, and increasing production of food.

Solar is now cheaper than coal in India; there shouldn’t be any temptation any more to use coal there.

In 2015, about three-hundred billion dollars were spent on renewable energy, and renewables are growing exponentially (hi Will!). So the combination of renewable energy and electric vehicles will go a long way.

Heat pumps are a known efficient electric technology for home and office heating, but I think they’re a big investment and best done at the time of construction, and there’s been little public policy to encourage their use. This might actually be the hardest problem for the “electrify nearly everything, and use renewable electricity” strategy.

35

bruce wilder 11.07.16 at 3:54 pm

A comment on a carbon tax

A carbon tax is like the deposit paid on a soda can: just as the deposit finances the expenses of retrieving the discarded can, so carbon taxes will have to go to finance taking the carbon out of the carbon cycle.

Whether there are uses, like air travel, which are still economic remains to be determined. Current IPCC projections indicate that we will need to find ways to finance taking much more carbon out than we put in, by mid-century. The resources needed will generally not be available to production for consumption.

36

William Berry 11.07.16 at 4:19 pm

Val @25:

I am sure that for you as for me, it almost goes without saying: Also, the right of women to choose when, and whether, to reproduce.

37

divelly 11.07.16 at 4:39 pm

We are no smarter than yeast.
Earth will only support 100 million killer apes.
Tax flying like cigarettes.
Paper or plastic? Bring your own bag made from fiber grown in your backyard.
“Use it up,wear it out.Make do or do without.”
Good luck with that in Murka.

38

divelly 11.07.16 at 5:27 pm

Best way to reduce carbon from flying is to not fly.
Oh ! I forgot. Our fearless leaders from 100 countries must travel 6 per jumbo jet to a conference on global warming.

39

engels 11.07.16 at 5:59 pm

Re ‘we need to cut back’ — I agree, but I think the ‘we’ in question should primarily refer to middle-class people in Western countries. The benchmark should be the median income for your (Western) country—if you’re earning more than that you need to cut your consumption down to that level before you can criticise anyone in the 50% who isn’t. The score should also be cumulative, so middle-class baby boomers may need to stop flying and eating steaks now whereas millennials can still have a few more with a clean conscience….

40

Sebastian 11.07.16 at 6:33 pm

I don’t think Mankiw’s argument about taxes is obviously faulty (the German Green party ran on basically that argument in 1998).
If you think the general tax revenue in a country is about right (I don’t think that’s anywhere close to the case in the US, but Mankiw does), then the main problem with carbon taxes is that they’re regressive because adjustment doesn’t take place immediately. You can then use the short-term revenues from the carbon tax to, e.g., subsidize and lower payroll taxes at the bottom end of the income distribution.
To the degree that the necessary technology/behavior adjustments do take place, carbon tax revenues will decrease, but so will the regressive effect of those taxes and you can phase out the payroll tax subsidies.
In other words, whether you should increase relative taxes on CO2 and whether you should increase absolute taxes are two almost entirely separate arguments. Most progressives, me included, want both. But it’s just not true that you couldn’t just do the former and still have it have the desired effect in emission reduction.

41

Matt 11.07.16 at 7:01 pm

PS: Let’s not repeat the free trade scams, where we plan on ending the carbon economy, without providing for the workers, industries, and economies displaced by the change. Author above estimates 1.5 billion people directly affected, I think that’s high.

Yes, that’s far too high for direct effects and would take some creativity to reach even with indirect effects. I’ve said before that the decline of mass employment is one of the great political challenges of the century, along with climate change, and this is a prime example. Non-fossil energy systems require much less labor in extractive industries and operation/maintenance work; they may require somewhat more or somewhat less labor in manufacturing, but even if it’s somewhat more it won’t be enough to make up for the labor decline in extraction and O&M.

Coal-fired plant’s closing sends shockwaves in Nucla

the local job options could be pretty limited in far-western Montrose County once two of its major employers close their doors, eliminating what are currently 55 jobs at the plant and 28 at the mine.

According to the EIA, the Nucla plant generated 416,150 MWh in 2015 for an average annual power of 47.5 megawatts. That’s an abysmal productivity per worker (or a great job source, depending on your perspective): 0.86 real annualized megawatts per employee at the plant ; 0.57 megawatts per employee if you include the mining jobs.

For comparison, the new Vogtle AP1000 reactors are expected to employ 800 people permanently; that’s 2.5 megawatts per plant employee, assuming a reactor capacity factor of 90%.

For another comparison, a well-sited utility scale solar farm like Desert Sunlight can produce an average annualized power of 147 megawatts with just 15 full time employees, for a ratio of 9.8 megawatts per plant employee.

Replacing old coal plants with nuclear and/or solar requires only 9%-34% of the number of plant workers, if Nucla is a typical case for an older coal plant. You can expect more than 2/3 of the plant workers to be unneeded when an old coal plant shuts even if they all have the training to immediately work at the new replacement plants. Whatever electricity sources replace old coal plants, they are going to need far fewer workers at steady-state because the productivity of labor at newer, cleaner plants is much higher.

Even renewable energy sources currently consume coal indirectly, in the form of coking coal used to make steel and silicon. But this demand for mined material and miners is much, much lower than that of an electricity system built on burning steam coal in power plants. It might take a tonne of coke to make a tonne of silicon. That tonne of silicon can be used to make 200 kilowatts-peak of solar modules. If the solar modules operate for 25 years at a 20% capacity factor, they generate 8766 MWh over their lifetime. For comparison, generating 8766 MWh via combustion would be expected to consume 4139 tonnes of steam coal (using numbers from EIA FAQs). Throw in some more coking coal demand for making the steel racking for solar… you’re still looking at hundreds to thousands of times less coal mass that needs to be mined for PV-based electricity vs. electricity from coal combustion.

42

Howard Frant 11.07.16 at 8:01 pm

On carbon taxes: Yes, if they’re big enough to have an important effect, they raise a lot of revenue, not trillions but hundreds of billions of dollars. What to do with that? The cleanest thing is just to give all citizens equal refunds. This significantly redistributes income downward. Using it to reduce the payroll tax probably has a similar effect, though it raises the question of what happens when revenues start to fall as people use less carbon. Spending it on mitigation might be reasonable objectively, but raises suspicions on the right that it’s just another tax-and-spend plan.

On Mankiw: Paul Krugman says that some people are Republican professional economists, and others are professional Republican economists. Mankiw is one of the former.

divelly

It’s fun to sneer at the hypocrisy of world leaders flying to conferences on climate change, but let’s be serious. The are around 100,000 commercial flights every day. World leaders flying to conferences are not a big source of pollution.

43

Brett 11.07.16 at 8:07 pm

@Kiwanda #34

Beef is the big killer there, with cattle producing most of livestock’s greenhouse gas emissions. We either need to eat much less beef, or we need to feed them differently -as I pointed out up-thread, moving them over to a carb-heavy diet seems to greatly reduce their methane emissions.

@divelly #38

As Kiwanda pointed out a few posts up, it’s 3.5% of global emissions. That’s like telling people to replace their existing toilets with low-flow toilets – it does save water, but it’s literally tiny compared to actually saving water in the sectors that use the vast majority of it (agriculture). Reducing emissions en masse has to come from electricity generation and automobile use.

44

anymouse88 11.07.16 at 8:19 pm

Chris Bertram,

Actually depending on the proposal a majority of Republicans will support a carbon tax according to polls.

http://closup.umich.edu/files/ieep-nsee-2014-spring-carbon-tax.pdf

It looks legit and the Washington Post sites it

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/fact-checker/wp/2015/01/13/here-are-some-red-flags-to-fishy-polling-on-carbon-taxes/

Now this is very low priority for most Republicans and from supporting a theoretical tax to actual proposed tax is a big step.

I am guessing you would have to sweeten the deal to get any real movement.

My recommendation as always, cause I think it is good one, would be to tie the tax to opening the OCC shelf to natural gas drilling. The consensus seems to be that even over the 100 year term natural gas has a lower carbon foot print than oil. With stringent regulation and update drilling transport technique I am sure that would be even more true for the natural gas drilled off the OCC shelf.

You get a source of energy that is cleaner than India’s coal. Cleaner even than oil. You get 10os of billions in revenue for renewable development. You get a tax that creates incentives for reducing carbon output and creates incentives for further investment in renewables. In addition you get 100s of billions of additional revenue and 100s of thousands of jobs. Really more like in excess of trillion and a million.

Sounds great, right?!!? A science based compromise that everyone can enthusiastically support.

Are you on board? What is your proposal?

45

Omega Centauri 11.07.16 at 8:25 pm

A note on carbon taxes, an optimum sized tax is time dependent, in much the same manner that a subsidy meant to incubate a promising technology is time dependent. In order to avoid an economic shock, carbon taxes and emissions trading schemes are usually designed to ramp up slowly. They are meant less to penalize an activity like driving a car, then they are to stimulate changes in the technology and the markets. I.E. instead of giving up owning a driving a car, the consumer is likely to buy a more efficient or eleectric car next time. And the auto companies are going to spend more on R&D of such vehicles. In many cases all the tax needs to do is tip the accounting calculation of cheapest solution from the traditional carbon intensive solution, to the greener alternative. If the tax is ramped up gradually, there may be little obvious change to an inattentive observer will note, LED bulbs (and TVs) replace the older massively less efficient variety -but only the geeks will take notice.

As far as the transition being on the back of the poor, versus the wealthy. I think you have got it backwards. Renwables are becoming the cheaper alternative, and the big economic hit is going to be the loss of trillions of dollars of equity in fossil fueled equipment and companies. The stranding of trillions of dollars of past capital investment is the really big hit. And it will be paid by the owners of such capital. Thats why we have so much money flowing into denialist organizations, the owners of this capital have good reason to fear the coming huge losses associated with abandonment.

46

Zamfir 11.07.16 at 8:34 pm

@ Val, could you expand some more on what you mean by “concerted community and societal action, at local, state and international level.”?

47

Lynne 11.07.16 at 10:38 pm

Val, I’d like to second Zamfir @ 46. I have always heard “lifestyle changes” as being very individualistic.

48

Val 11.07.16 at 10:48 pm

@46
Ok – well I’ll focus more on illustrative projects and strategies rather than who is responsible because it would take too long otherwise, but in general I’m in favour of cooperatives and joint community-government action. Also this is based on the political and social organisation in my country (Australia) it would be a bit different in others.

– community level (local, professional, community of interest, etc) – community gardens, walking groups, bike recycling schemes, green footpaths and verges, safe streets for walking and cycling, shared transport schemes, local infrastructure and planning, water retention and management, professional standards and statements, advocacy and political organising, projects for low income housing sustainability, social connection projects, local government procurement policies, waste management, sustainable organisations – right through to entire community renewable energy systems;

– state and national level – regulation, political leadership (talking about the issues, explaining, convincing, bringing people together), carbon taxes (I’m not keen on pricing or trading schemes) direct funding and support for renewables and community action, procurement policies, education including research, standards, transport policy and infrastructure, industry policy, etc etc

– international – coordinating information and action through the UN, standards, guidelines, agreements and treaties, political leadership (as above)

I’ve probably left an awful lot out and I haven’t touched on individual and household action, which is important also, but this is enough to start with I hope. There’s massive amounts that can be done, basically, and a lot of it is already happening, though not nearly on the scale it needs to be.

(Basically I’m in favour of a complete restructuring of society starting with the way we understand ownership of land, and ultimately getting rid of all hierarchies of income, wealth and power, but I’m not going into that here because while it’s desirable in the long term, it’s not necessary to get started.)

49

engels 11.07.16 at 11:37 pm

I’m in favour of a complete restructuring of society starting with the way we understand ownership of land, and ultimately getting rid of all hierarchies of income, wealth and power, but I’m not going into that here because while it’s desirable in the long term, it’s not necessary to get started.

Depends what you mean by ‘get started’—if you mean ‘contribute to a plan that has any chance of eventual success’ then it might be.

50

Val 11.08.16 at 12:01 am

Lynne @ 46
Sorry Lynne I responded to Zamfir before your comment was published so I didn’t see it. Yes I understand the point you’re making and eg in my area of work, health promotion, it is a big problem when people focus on ‘lifestyle’ as an individual responsibility rather than looking at the social conditions and determinants.

However, although I haven’t seen the film, it seems clear from the context presented by Ingrid above that the relevant question was a collective one – can Americans (or other wealthy nations) collectively change their ‘lifestyle’? To which Di Caprio regrettably concluded no, as Ingrid says. I’m suggesting that we can, but it needs to be seen not just as a matter for individuals but as a program of coordinated social action and mobilisation.

Both ZM and myself have seen an example of this working in regard to water restrictions in Victoria during the long drought, so we may be more positive about the possibility than others. Also as we (and others including John Quiggin) have often pointed out, our society is much less individualistic than America anyway, so it’s probably easier. (I’m guessing Canada is also? I don’t know it well, though I have relatives there whom I have been able to visit just once in my life.)

Relating it to the US election, I’d say the state Labor government we had in Victoria during the long drought was a bit similar to Hillary Clinton in some ways – soft neoliberal with an emphasis on community and bringing people together, although at least some members of the government were more traditional ‘left’ than Clinton (on the other hand, the government also had some very shonky ties to big money through the gambling industry). So governments don’t need to be perfect to do some good, and hopefully we can push them to do more.

But as our experience and yours also shows, you get nowhere under conservative/right wing governments, at least in fossil fuel based economies like Canada, Australia and the US. There’s some good research on the way fossil fuel industries have influenced conservative governments in our countries, but I guess you already know about that!

51

engels 11.08.16 at 12:45 am

the relevant question was a collective one – can Americans (or other wealthy nations) collectively change their ‘lifestyle’? To which Di Caprio regrettably concluded no

Haven’t seen the film but what is ‘their’ lifestyle? How do DiCaprio’s contribution to the probkem compare to eg. the homeless guys I used to see outside Penn Station?

52

ZM 11.08.16 at 12:46 am

Val,

“Yes I understand the point you’re making and eg in my area of work, health promotion, it is a big problem when people focus on ‘lifestyle’ as an individual responsibility rather than looking at the social conditions and determinants.

However, although I haven’t seen the film, it seems clear from the context presented by Ingrid above that the relevant question was a collective one – can Americans (or other wealthy nations) collectively change their ‘lifestyle’?

Both ZM and myself have seen an example of this working in regard to water restrictions in Victoria during the long drought, so we may be more positive about the possibility than others”

In terms of urban planning which I am studying I think there is a balance between individual and collective aspects of lifestyle change, and also different levels in what I’d call the collective aspects.

A lot of urban planning decisions are a mix of individual decisions and collective decisions.

For instance individuals or developers can buy a lot or group of lots of land and decide what they want to develop or change about the existing development — but their decisions need to be within the collective legal and regulatory frameworks, and follow the process set out by the Planning and Environment Act.

It will depend on the existing governance framework and what the individual wants to do with the lot how much of what happens is is individual and how much is collective.

Someone might want to build something that pretty much meets everything already in the regulations, and they will be pleased at getting to do what they individually want.

Someone else might want to do something that needs to go through a longer planning process and there are community objections and it goes to the Civil Administration Tribunal etc etc and they have to change various aspects of their plan to meet regulations and compromise with community objections, so this is more of a mix of individual and collective decisions.

Another person might want to do something that is more problematic and they are ultimately refused permission to develop their lot of land how they want, based on collective governance structures and community objections etc. So this would be when collective decision making overrides what the individual wants to do with their lot of land.

The same balance existed within the Millennium Drought water restrictions in Victoria I think.

There were a lot of restrictions on water use outside in gardens and things, and public awareness campaigns encouraged people to reduce the amount of water they used inside the house.

But how people complied with this was left to individuals, or their neighbouring community etc to work out.

Like some people installed grey water systems to water the gardens with water recycled from the house, some people installed water tanks or bores, some did a combination. Some people collected their shower water with buckets to use to water the garden with. People were encouraged to install low flow shower heads, and toilets than used less water. Some people installed composting toilets that don’t use water.

If all these decisions were taken collectively, I think people would have been less cooperative about using less water, and more annoyed about it.

And one collective decision that the government took on behalf of all the people, was to develop a desalination plant, which everyone mostly complained about the waste of money instead of being pleased at that collective decision.

53

faustusnotes 11.08.16 at 2:17 am

Where did people like Tim Worstall get the idea that carbon taxes are intended to get the right type of emissions, and not to stop them? This is why economists shouldn’t be allowed near this subject.

The goal of our response to global warming is zero emissions. Full stop. We have a deadline to reach zero emissions. The goal of every single strategy is to get to carbon zero – that is, every gram of carbon we emit offset, and as little carbon emitted as possible. There is no “good” or “right” balance of emissions except none. Carbon taxes serve purely the role of reducing emissions as much as possible, so that the only emissions we make are those that cannot be avoided (agriculture, shipping, aviation) and even those are sufficiently small that we can offset them.

That so many people commenting on AGW policy don’t understand this is an embarrassment, after 30 years of debate. How can you still be ignorant of the concept of the carbon budget at this late date?

Carbon taxes will not achieve zero emissions (even in reducable sectors like road transport and energy), no matter how high we are. We know this from our experience of tobacco control: in many countries taxes are between 60-75% of the retail price of tobacco before consumption taxes, that is about 200-300% of the wholesale price of the product, and people still smoke them. It’s trivially easy to show that even huge carbon taxes will barely increase the price of a cab fare or the food on your plate. They are just a tiny, incremental start on the road towards zero emissions.

The alternative, as proposed by Bruce Wilder, is that carbon taxes raise money to be used to sequester carbon. The problem with this is that there is no viable way to sequester the huge amounts of carbon we’re producing. Sure, someone will shortly point to a bunch of pie-in-the-sky programs that don’t work and have no chance of working, but the reality is we don’t have the ability to sequester carbon at the level we need to, and the only alternative – geoengineering – is stupidly dangerous.

Which is why we need concerted action to change our economies, not just a stupid tax.

54

magari 11.08.16 at 2:20 am

I need this on DVD like yesterday so I can use it in my enviro politics class.

55

LFC 11.08.16 at 2:24 am

Ram @12

The purpose of a carbon tax is to internalize the negative externality associated with carbon emissions. It is not to minimize carbon emissions. What does this even mean–reduce them to zero?

I know relatively little about these debates, but this strikes me as bizarre. The point of a carbon tax, however formulated and applied and administered, must be to reduce overall carbon emissions. If doesn’t reduce overall emissions, it’s doing nothing from the standpoint of trying to avoid the worst effects of climate change.

“Internalizing a negative externality” is, afaict, a somewhat fancy way of saying that the person or entity causing harm pays in some way for the harm caused. But that principle, operating in isolation, doesn’t nec. do anything to reduce emissions or ameliorate climate change.

Let’s say a billionaire likes to fly. He or she pays a carbon tax, say $5000, with every plane ticket. But he or she still flies the same amount, b/c this particular billionaire’s demand for flying is price-inelastic to some considerable degree. Unless the money from the tax is put to some emissions-reducing purpose (which is not always guaranteed in all schemes, one supposes), there’s no net reduction in emissions. The negative externality has been somewhat internalized, but to no purpose: the billionaire is a little poorer, but there’s been no impact on emissions, hence no effect on climate.

The point is not to internalize a negative externality for the sake of “internalization”, but rather to reduce the overall size of that negative externality. If “internalization” leads to that reduction, “internalization” is serving a purpose; if it doesn’t, then, in this particular context, it’s serving no purpose.

56

Val 11.08.16 at 3:16 am

@ 49

Well they are compatible goals so I hope we could pursue them together – if we can persuade people that we have a common interest in the ecosystem (and a future for our species!) maybe we can also persuade them that a sustainable society needs to be a fair society?

57

Val 11.08.16 at 3:55 am

ZM @ 52

And one collective decision that the government took on behalf of all the people, was to develop a desalination plant, which everyone mostly complained about the waste of money instead of being pleased at that collective decision.

That’s not a collective decision by my standards – a collective decision is one that is supported by community and government. Of course the government is elected, but they also should get community input on major decisions of that type, which they didn’t. It was a stupid decision and it was against the advice of people in CSIRO and BoM, from what I’ve heard. They panicked.

Also when the drought ended, they reverted to stupid neoliberal economic reasoning about how people want to ‘maximise their utility’ – in this case by hosing down their paths, etc. Prior to that though, it went pretty well.

58

Gareth Wilson 11.08.16 at 4:20 am

” getting rid of all hierarchies of income, wealth and power,”

Without a hierarchy of power, I should control about 900 kilograms of TNT, or the equivalent in destructive power.

59

Howard Frant 11.08.16 at 6:58 am

Val @50

Thank you for introducing me to “shonky,” a word that seems to mean exactly what one would guess it means.

At other venues than this, of course, it would not seem surprising that there’s a big difference in attitudes about global warming between left-liberal (or “soft neoliberal) and right-liberal politicians.

60

Val 11.08.16 at 7:55 am

Howard Frant @59
You’re welcome. I didn’t even know it was an Aust/NZ idiom, but we do have some good words :)

61

ZM 11.08.16 at 8:14 am

Val,

I agree the desalination plant was a bad decision and not popular with the community, but I think it counts as a collective decision in terms of at the moment the elected State/Federal/Local government (within various constraints) is empowered to take collective decisions on behalf of the citizenry.

The desalination plant can’t be called an individual decision or action I don’t think. I could clarify it as State government led collective action maybe?

It’s actually sort of interesting as I think the desal plant was the least popular measure during the Millennium Drought (apart from maybe at the time people didn’t know if the drought was ever going to end, I think it became even more unpopular after the drought broke), and the more popular measures did mostly involve a combination of State or regulatory intervention and public awareness campaigns to spur individual actions.

62

ZM 11.08.16 at 8:17 am

“and the more popular measures did mostly involve a combination of State or regulatory intervention “

and the more popular measures did mostly involve a combination of State or *public water utility* regulatory intervention

63

Tim Worstall 11.08.16 at 11:30 am

@ 53:

“Where did people like Tim Worstall get the idea that carbon taxes are intended to get the right type of emissions, and not to stop them? This is why economists shouldn’t be allowed near this subject.”

Well, that’s what the Stern Review says, what JQ says around here, what Mankiw says, William Nordhaus, Marty Weizman and all the rest too. Even seen Paul Krugman alluding to it.

This is the whole point about externalities. And the same logic in reverse applies to public goods too.

An act takes place which does not include the cost (or benefit) to people not involved in that act. Market prices do not therefore contain the information about the effects of that act on the third party. With an externality the solution is to put that cost into the market price – a Pigou Tax.

Now people taking part in the act, the market actors, are facing the true cost of their actions.

And that’s it.

The end result is that those actions which produce greater value than their damage still happen, those that create greater damage then their benefits do not.

Say, emissions from using a litre of gasoline. If that’s me going to get my lunch then perhaps the tax will make me thing about not fresh bread but instead toast yesterday’s. But the litre we use to power the ambulance taking the pregnant woman for a magnesium shot against pre-eclampsia produces rather more value than my fresh bread sandwich.

The damages of a litre of gas used are in the 50 cents to $1 range. We want to stop actions which use a litre for less than a $ in benefit (my lunch) and yet continue with those that produce more value (two lives saved for a buck).

A carbon tax is about having the right amount of emissions (the amount determined by the size of the tax) and of the right sort (where the value created is greater than the costs of the emissions).

That really is what it’s all about.

64

Nick 11.08.16 at 1:31 pm

Val and ZM, for reference the desalination plant in Gippsland cost $4.5 billion.

By comparison, Israel builds larger state of that art plants for about $500 million a pop.

65

anymouse88 11.08.16 at 3:23 pm

Tim Worstall,

63. That was excellent.

66

LFC 11.08.16 at 5:03 pm

Ram @12 and T. Worstall argue that carbon-emitting activities whose social benefits exceed their cost should continue and that a carbon tax will allow that while reducing carbon-emitting activities whose cost exceeds their benefit.

It seems to me a mistake however to say that the purpose of the tax is to internalize negative externalities, as Ram does in the opening sentence @12. No one cares if Tim Worstall internalizes his negative externality by paying a dollar if he drives to get fresh bread (unless that dollar is used for something like carbon sequestration, and see faustusnotes @53 on that). What we care about is Worstall not making the drive to get fresh bread: we care about his behavior.

Therefore Ram @12 seems wrong to say that “The purpose of a carbon tax is to internalize the negative externality associated with carbon emissions [emphasis added].” No: the purpose is to change behavior. Where internalizing a negative externality leads to the desired changes in behavior, the tax is serving some purpose; where internalizing a negative externality does not lead to the desired changes in behavior, as in the case of the billionaire who may not care about paying a great deal in taxes to continue his carbon-emitting activity, then the tax is not serving its purpose.

In short, internalizing a negative externality in this context (carbon) is a means to an end; it’s not an end in itself, which is what the phrase the purpose implies.

67

bruce wilder 11.08.16 at 6:50 pm

In the credits for the movie, carbotax.com is cited and a claim is made that the movie’s producers paid a voluntary carbon tax to offset the movie’s impact on climate change. I went to carbotax.com, where they have a calculator where you can get a score indicating your personal climate impact compared to “the average American”. I was below average, until I put in my air travel (which I think is pretty limited, but wdik?). They give visitors a chance to voluntarily cleanse their guilt feelings with a voluntary carbon tax — they suggested ~$30 / month for me — . . . to them, natch.

In the movie itself, as has been noted, Greg Mankiw, Harvard professor and textbook author, Bush II Chair of the Council of Economic Advisors, and Republican, is the face of a carbon tax advocacy. Leo, our Everyman, is amazed that a Republican would advocate a (gasp!) tax. Mankiw’s argument as presented in the movie — no one to my knowledge has ever accused Mankiw of being a deep-thinker: his economics textbook has been rightly ridiculed for its ten lessons printed on the flyleaf, ten platitudes with very dubious intellectual support — is simplistic in the extreme and consists of two parts: tax something and you will get less of it is part 1; part 2 is tax shifting; raise revenue from taxing a bad and you can reduce taxes on goods in a socially valuable tax shift — tax carbon and use the revenue to reduce taxes on wages and employment, for example.

The movie, as the OP notes, is focused on using visual images and personal narratives in service of a rhetoric of mobilization. The whole point is, we have to do something to turn away from what we have been doing which has put the earth and humanity on this path to living perdition. A carbon tax is something, one form or means of beginning to turn away.

It is interesting to me that a carbon tax could become a coordinating salient in the politics of climate change, attracting people who see the problem in ethical terms as well as, apparently, people like Mankiw who try to present things in the calculating and expedient pragmatism of technocracy — all can rally ’round. Pay in expiation of sin if you like; explore the wonky intricacies of externalities and the comparative merits of a system of saleable permits, if that’s your inclination.

I don’t doubt that we need some calls to action around which people of various worldviews can rally, without losing their rights to ambivalence and idiosyncratic ways of understanding. It would seem to be easier to act in concert, if we could all adopt a single common ideology for the duration of the crisis, but that may be too tall an order. Convincing everyone to think alike across some broad spectrum of issues cannot be a pre-requisite to mobilization. But, still somehow, while still thinking in many different ways, a persistent majority must form, able to reconcile itself to effective measures. So, maybe the ethicists and the technocrats agree on a carbon tax, coming to it from different points of view and ways of thinking thru social coordination, and are joined by the authoritarians and communitarians, the orthodox and heterodox.

I see the problem of political coordination and mass mobilization. As someone in the movie says, political leaders must often be, in fact, political followers of common sentiment. The kind of policy measures that are necessary need the legitimacy of common consent.

It does seem to me that while we are, at this late date in 2016, trying to bootstrap with hope and prayer and positive thinking, movement in the right direction, we are missing the critical thresholds. It isn’t enough to move in spirit in the putatively right direction.

That’s a subtext that I see in the movie: the dawning realization that we are not going to have done enough when we could have and the change to climate will move ahead. The Flood is coming and the time to repent is passing.

This movie is inevitably an update to An Inconvenient Truth. And, it is bad news all around.

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Zamfir 11.08.16 at 7:50 pm

A generic carbon tax is not internalising costs. We don’t have a clue what the exact ‘cost’ here is, in some dollar amount per tonne.

As Bruce W above says, meaningful cost internalisation would mean that someone is building a CO2 extraction mechanism (a real one, not a dodgy offset scheme), and for every tonne emitted you have to contribute to the running cost of that mechanism. But we don’t have that, and neither is the money somehow going to compensate those who suffer most from global warming. The cost internalisation is just a fiction.

In practice, a carbon tax only reflects the political balance between those who want to stop global warming, and those who don’t want to. Nothing more, nothing less, and there is no invisible hand optimising anything.

And please, let’s not pretend that we do this because of the ambulances. If we wanted to exempt ambulances, we would exempt ambulances. The great political advantage of a carbon tax (or carbon rights trade) is that it allows rich people to buy themselves out of the restrictions, otherwise they would torpedo the plans. I am OK with that deal, as long as the revenue doesn’t go to tax cuts for rich people.

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Val 11.08.16 at 8:13 pm

Thanks Nick. Terrible waste of money. I’ve heard from experts that the Labor government was advised there were a range of urban water saving measures that could have been just as effective, for less cost, and without using so much energy (and creating emissions) and causing salinity problems. Of course we’ve never had to use it so far, but it was one of those cases where ‘adaptation measures’ make the original problem worse.

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Tim Worstall 11.09.16 at 6:03 am

“As Bruce W above says, meaningful cost internalisation would mean that someone is building a CO2 extraction mechanism (a real one, not a dodgy offset scheme)”

We have one. Iron fertilisation of the oceans. No, not a total solution, but could soak up 1 billion tonnes a year of CO2 (this is direct from the last people to do proper research on it) which is about 2 x UK’s worth a year. Costs are in the low single figures dollar per tonne – something I regard as an over estimate given that I know rather more than the researchers about where to get the raw material, ferrous sulphate, needed. It’s an industrial waste, people will pay you to take it away.

Sadly, we don’t do it because, well, because.

If we really were serious about climate change being the biggest problem we face then we would be doing it. We’re not, thus it isn’t our biggest problem, worthy of any action to sort it out, is it?

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Kiwanda 11.09.16 at 7:09 am

Re iron fertilization, see also albedo modification via geoengineering. Desperation moves.

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Hidari 11.09.16 at 7:14 am

If anyone is still reading this thread, it seems that Trump has won. So I’m afraid that’s it over for the environment. Our children (and, still more, our grandchildren) will live in a radically different (and worse) world than ours.

Oh well.

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Val 11.09.16 at 8:14 am

@ 72
I hear how you feel, and I know that in the morning you will probably wake up and say, nup, this is not over, we have to keep fighting for the future, but I just want to say, let’s make the “Berniebros’ “* predictions come true – let’s prove that Trump is the final disruption, last gasp of the old order that leads to the collapse.

It’s really sad that a lot of bad things will happen because of it, but if we watch out for each other and those who are vulnerable, we might be able to minimise the harm till the tide turns.

*Joke ok? Please don’t delete me – I think there actually is something in this theory. In the 90s here, neoliberalism was going nicely, until we had a Premier who took it seriously and tried to privatise hospitals. So I agree extremists can destroy their own cause.

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ZM 11.09.16 at 9:22 am

Hidari,

You can’t give up on acting on climate change because Donald Trump won the election. If Hilary Clinton won the election it would have been likely that the Republicans would have won the next one in 4 years time anyhow. The main thing is convincing Americans to act on climate change, including people who vote Republican, and Republican politicians. Climate change will never be remedied if its just left to one side of politics anyway.

Donald Trump will have a lot of staff now, so maybe they can inform him more about climate change so he doesn’t think its a plot by China or whatever he said.

There are also court cases in the federal court in Oregon by youth plaintiffs taking the President to court for not acting sufficiently to preserve a safe climate for young people and future generations using the Public Trust Doctrine, which is in the Takings Clause of the Constitution of the USA and you don’t even need to modernise it (apart from including the atmosphere and climate in the Public Trust Doctrine which started out being for water and the air and things like that in Rome, the climate and atmosphere are pretty much the air anyhow so its just a bit more scientific terminology), so people who want action on climate change in America can get behind that http://ourchildrenstrust.org

And as well as that there is a non profit seeking people in America to volunteer next year campaigning around the country for a non-partisan climate mobilisation http://climateyear.org there logo is blue and red since they want both Democrat voters and Republican voters to support it

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bruce wilder 11.09.16 at 10:03 am

Kiwanda Desperation moves.

Still, moves.

The modeling of climate dynamics seems to have progressed toward increasing sophistication, where it is possible to identify and sort out causes and effects in a careful, nuanced way.

The economic analysis remains, imho, nothing but groundless idle and ill-conceived speculation. This may be a significant source of political paralysis: the economists assigned technocratic roles cannot analyze their way out of a wet paper bag. Carbon taxes may be necessary, but they can be no magic bullet and the deliberate planning of infrastructure systems still must go forward aggressively.

Iron fertilization and albedo enhancements might be cost-effective moves, while curtailing air travel or coal burning may have unintended consequences for warming the atmosphere that we will be ill-prepared to cope with. But we would need a far better economic analysis to sort out, for example, where we might be handicapping the productivity of the economy and where we might eliminate the waste of gross excess to save energy and entropy.

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ZM 11.09.16 at 10:36 am

bruce wilder,

“The economic analysis remains, imho, nothing but groundless idle and ill-conceived speculation. This may be a significant source of political paralysis: the economists assigned technocratic roles cannot analyze their way out of a wet paper bag.”

I would be interested in what you think an institutional economics* approach to climate change would be like?

I’m not sure if that’s the right language, but you’ve written a lot here about the importance of institutions in economics.

I think iron fertilisation is really dangerous, also we currently have a problem with ocean acidification since the ocean is a carbon sink. I think its important to try and restore the health of the ocean, not muck it up more.

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Tim Worstall 11.09.16 at 11:04 am

Iron fertilisation isn’t a desperation move at all. It’s something that already happens whenever the wind blows some of that red Sahara dust out to sea. We’d just be doing a bit more of it.

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john c. halasz 11.09.16 at 5:18 pm

Methane levels are nothing to worry about. It’s just what happens when organic matter decays.

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Matt 11.09.16 at 6:21 pm

Humans doing stuff that nature already does, but faster/bigger, has a long history of uncovering surprising and not always welcome side effects from scale. For one prominent example, see: burning stuff.

That said, I support iron fertilization experiments of gradually increasing scale to see what effects come about. I think that in the long run accelerated silicate weathering is going to be a significant component of atmospheric CO2 management, assuming that industrial civilization remains intact long enough to be capable of it. I think that sulfate aerosol albedo modification may be used as a stopgap stabilization tool while thermodynamically stable but slower carbon dioxide removal operations take place.

The IPCC was already invoking active carbon dioxide removal measures a few years ago for achieving the lower-range levels of warming. Low-emissions technologies are improving rapidly but not rapidly enough to keep below 2 C of rise sans active measures, even if we weren’t facing a Trump presidency. Global warming is not a 4 year problem, 10 year problem, or 100 year problem; without active countermeasures, it’s a 100,000 year problem. Human-caused emission rates have to fall significantly before active measures can begin to offset what we’ve already emitted, but without active measures effects are going to keep increasing for a very long time even if humans stopped burning fossils and eating ruminants within 10 years.

I believe that climate change is a dire threat to the future of human civilizations. Many posters on CT would probably profess to agree with me. Yet I also see a lot of people on CT and among my usual environmental allies who are stridently and pre-emptively against any active stabilization or carbon dioxide removal measures. They know that the cure will be worse than the disease even before the experiments have been performed. Sometimes these discussions sound like a farce on a farce; “Why the Bombings Mean That We Must Support My Politics” becomes “Why the Melting Icebergs Mean That We Must Support My Politics.” Christ.

The scale of anthropogenic emissions is absolutely enormous. Any effective response is going to be, likewise, absolutely enormous. It’s not really a contribution to observe that relevant numbers are scary-big and dismiss ideas as “unrealistic” on that basis. If humans didn’t organize to do things on absolutely enormous scales then we wouldn’t be facing this problem in the first place.

Los Angeles air would look like Beijing air if over the past 40 years Angelenos hadn’t had legislation enacted and enforced by hierarchies. Some of that legislation probably was somewhat regressive in economic terms; pollution controls didn’t add a whole lot to the cost of new cars, but rising costs for mass market goods affect the poor more than the rich. All the same I’m glad that legislators didn’t spend another decade dithering about how to mandate pollution controls on new cars and somehow prevent any economic hardship for the bottom two income quintiles of car buyers. (Global action is even easier to stymie with economic justice language: start with some universal proposal for environmental protections, show how it hurts small business millionaires more than big business billionaires, and continue to limit the proposal’s scope by induction until you’ve reached the poorest person in Burundi and found that you can’t change anything. This is basically the Lomborg environmental inaction plan: don’t regulate anything because making something a penny more expensive in the near term will hurt the poorest much more than the richest. But that’s just restating the definitions of poor and rich.)

If I’m snippier than usual, well, I’m pissed off about the elections and this post will probably be lost in today’s flood of Trump-talk.

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bruce wilder 11.09.16 at 8:51 pm

I am scarcely in a position to talk about the advisability of iron fertilization in detail — or albedo enhancement for that matter. The accelerated heating of the atmosphere that will result from a decline in air travel and its contrails or the reduction of particulate and sulfide air pollution that will accompany the decline in the use of coal is similarly outside the scope of my expertise, such as it is. If human beings are to construct political institutions and political processes that can begin to manage the earth’s climate and ecologies, such expertise will be needed and it will need to be applied in some kind of at least loosely coordinated umbrella framework that reconciles many disparate efforts into some sort of macro “equilibrium” where efforts at cross-purposes are proportioned to balance and some kind of technical control by feedback emerges.

The problems of climate change and resource depletion and overpopulation are, in the big picture profoundly and deeply, economic problems. They are problems of scarce resources on a finite planet and the emergent need for intelligent self-organization to manage those limits and their potential to destroy us and our pathetic civilization. The political economy as an emergent self-organizing system is what economics at its best is about; also unfortunately, what economics is at its worst.

The neoliberal idea of a carbon tax as a response to climate change is anchored firmly in the core misconceptions of neoclassical economics — that the political economy is in important respects like a system of markets loosely but sufficiently coordinating an efficient allocation of resources by means of a general equilibrium in market price. Price, in the whole system of consumer, commodity and financial markets, it is imagined, is a sufficient statistic for the discovery, revelation and distributing of information.

I think most mainstream economists realize that this conception of the political economy as a system of markets coordinated by price is in serious need of qualification, but they are trapped nevertheless in the epistemic closure introduced by the series of assumptions introduced to make theoretical analysis of this system of markets possible. One of these assumptions — “profit-maximization” — sweeps away most of the problems of technology and business management and general uncertainty (aka ignorance) and allows the analyst to focus on the problem of allocative efficiency to the exclusion of technical efficiency.

The idea of a market economy system achieving an efficient allocation of resources thru a system of radically decentralized decision-making coordinated by price is a powerful one and arguably one model of how of emergent self-organization might work. In theory. In concept. But, it is not how the actual economy works. Works in theory, not in fact — it is an old criticism of the thinking of economists. But, things are actually worse than that; if one takes the accumulated canon seriously, I think one has to conclude that economists in their collective scholarship have proven in a panoply of ways that a market economy could not possibly achieve a stable or efficient general equilibrium.

Clinging to the controlling idea of a market economy which doesn’t in fact exist and could not possibly work if it did puts economists into the civic religion business, providing mystification and legitimation services. Their stock and trade is magical thinking, and other idiocy useful to plutocrats. The classic revealing anecdote was a blogpost by a San Diego physicist, Exponential Economist Meets Finite Physicist

I am not saying that a carbon tax is a completely bad idea. I would say it is a radically insufficient idea that smacks of magical thinking. We do something symbolic — and a carbon tax is symbolic — and expect a morally valued response in the world.

In the imaginary theoretical world of a market system, a price is a sufficient statistic — it is all you need to know to coordinate with others. Set the right price for oil, and I think economists kind of imagine that the rest of the system will just grind out an optimal infrastructure, as other energy sources are substituted. It is not at all realistic. In the real world, elaborate technical systems have to be created to make rules and process feedback to control waste and error.

If we are going to create a system that manages the amount of carbon in the earth’s carbon cycle, then the price of carbon used in energy systems will have to finance ways of taking carbon out of the carbon cycle. Iron fertilization would be one such activity. There’s no magical price that would get the technically “right” level of anything. Iron fertilization would have costs and limits and side-effects just like any other human activity. It would have to be studied and managed and regulated.

This comment is too long and woolly as it is, but I want to close with one critical idea: the economists get one important idea about distributed decision-making right: agents are assigned a task of constrained maximization: they do the best they can with the resources and information they have to hand. Economists screw up by not thinking enough about how the constraints are chosen or about how information (feedback) is generated and supplied.

The “institutional” idea is that human beings cooperate in a socially constructed virtual reality; we operate the machinery of political economy from a distributed user interface composed of symbolic representation of levers and rewards. The virtual reality supplies meaning, but someone has to be checking to see what the functional consequences actually are of the virtual reality shaping our choices and behavior. Also, people will be gaming the system, any system.

My sense is that the assimilative capacity of the earth is being overwhelmed by the impact of human energy use — all human energy use. We have the technical capacity to satisfy our needs fairly abundantly with far less use of energy, but we would need to radically constrain all energy use. That cannot be done by making marginal use of energy expensive. The productivity of the economy and society needs networks at scale where the interactions between nodes are almost free. It has to be cheap to get from place to place or to communicate. And, very energy efficient in a technical sense. We can do that by deliberately designing infrastructure accordingly: compact cities, rail and ships and canals instead of cars and planes. Substitute LEDs for incandescents, but also just have many fewer lights, period. Eliminate a lot of marginally inefficient work effort by further constraining the hours of work. If you want to tax something, tax advertising and marketing.

There’s a kind of magical thinking abroad in the land not limited to economists that says “renewable” or “clean” energy is possible without constraint. I don’t think that’s true. All use of energy involves an impact on earth systems of assimilation and extraction. We will have to manage by mixing our poisons to some extent, but in the main, conservation has to lead. And, yes, we will have to find ways to reduce human population, too, if ways to reduce population are not to find us.

If you’ve looked at the IPCC reports, you know that a lot of the professional economics work on climate change is crazily abstract, without referents in the world of any kind. People take a Solow Growth Model as gospel and apply a straightedge to graph paper and imagine that people in a hundred years are 4x to 10x richer than we are. That’s magical thinking and it is used to argue for delay or that responding to climate change will cost “economic growth”. We need a better economics than that.

that was way too long and I apologize — anything to avoid thinking of the Donald is my excuse.

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faustusnotes 11.10.16 at 1:14 am

Oh Jesus Christ, Tim. You obviously don’t understand climate change. The goal of a carbon tax is to reduce emissions, not to prioritize some over others. The goal of climate policy, no matter what specific method we use, has to be electrification of the ambulance in your example, and decarbonization of the electrical generator. It is not, and cannot be the simple reduction of emissions, because that is not enough. If you don’t understand this, please research carbon budgets. We’re fast approaching our carbon budget, and the closer we get, the more rapidly we have to decarbonize that ambulance.

As for “we’re already doing iron fertilization, we’d just be doing a bit more.” Do you understand how dumb this is? The planet is already emitting carbon, we’re just “doing a bit more.” That “bit more” is the problem. This kind of glib answer shows you just don’t understand the problem at all.

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Tim Worstall 11.10.16 at 11:05 am

“As for “we’re already doing iron fertilization, we’d just be doing a bit more.” Do you understand how dumb this is?”

I am the guy who bothered to actually go and talk to the researchers (no, not that nutter off BC, the real researchers) about this, get an idea of costs, possibilities, dangers and so on.

You know, did the work to check it out?

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Faustusnotes 11.10.16 at 3:21 pm

Yeah Tim, and a bunch of people have shown that we’re already emitting carbon dioxide, it’s just a little more. The argument is nonsense. Do you have a better one or is that it?

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Tim Worstall 11.11.16 at 9:47 am

” The argument is nonsense. “

Which part of what argument?

My claim about iron fertilisation is a pretty simple one. It works, it has the capacity to soak up some 1 billion tonnes of CO2 a year and it is alarmingly cheap. The by-product is lots more fish.

It’s not a total solution to anything but it looks pretty good.

Your claim is what?

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john c. halasz 11.12.16 at 2:06 am

SO “iron fertilization” of the oceans is as yet a experimental idea and not a current live option and there may be severe drawbacks to ocean ecologies, which are not well understood anyway. For instance, toxic algae blooms and anerobic zones if they would drift too close to shores rather than deep ocean. And even if such a tested program were to prove partially viable, at most it could absorb only 1/6 of current carbon emissions.

More generally, grandiose schemes for “geo-engineering” miss the point that climate disruptions caused by AGW threaten diverse ecologies because biological systems, which adapt over time-scales of 10,000s years, can’t adapt at the pace of a few centuries. AGW is not somehow the supersession of the rampant environmental crises that traverse our planet, but merely their intensification, such that “heroic” efforts to surmount it scarcely address the full “force” of the problems. (The oceans are not over-fished or filled with plastic micro-particles because of AGW, etc.) A much more resource and energy efficient economy is required across the board if we are to avoid catastrophic collapse. Which would require changes in our institutional political economy and not just technological “fixes”. Engineer Matt rushes toward distant horizons in seeking ways to remove excess CO^2, while ignoring that reforestation and restoring top soil, (which is a carbon sink), from the depredations of industrialized agriculture are more urgent options. (About 5% of fossil fuel energy globally is used up in the Haber-Bosch process to manufacture nitrogen fertilizers, not to mention the nitrous oxide emissions involved, much more potent GHGs, when bacteria, if not killed off by pesticides and large-scale soil erosion, provide their “ecological services” for free). It might be a minor irony that decreasing coal burning will decrease the SO^2 that has been masking the warming effects of CO^2 emissions that have occurred concurrently, but that’s just part of the “price” that needs to be paid. Similarly, simplistic “cost/benefit” analysis, reifying current technologies and institutional arrangements, are scarcely adequate for dealing with the global scope of the issues.

OTOH B.W. is amiss when he derides carbon taxes as merely “neo-liberal”, (when it is rather cap-n-trade systems, which have been tried and largely failed, that have been the preferred neo-liberal “solution”). They are not a “free market” cure-all, but without such prices, curbing demand and shifting investments correspondingly, the task becomes all the more difficult. This doesn’t depend on any mathematical fantasy of perfect markets and price signals and one can readily acknowledge all the “market failures” that stand in the way. And certainly public investment and indicative planning would be required to transform our infrastructure and capital stocks to render carbon (or GHG) pricing effective. But let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water here. (I actually sat through a meeting in which it was objected that carbon taxes would hurt poor people, despite all the amelioratory features offered, and that stripping out fossil fuels subsidies would be better, despite the obvious fact that a) that would have the same sort of effect in raising prices and b) that is a complementary and not an opposed policy. Coherent thinking is often in short supply amongst the greenies, I guess). And Faustusnotes badly misses the point that it would take a lot of energy to build out the alternatives to a fossil fuel based economy and everything should be done to ensure that our limited budget of remaining fossil fuels is directed toward that end. Otherwise we are in danger of falling into the energy trap of having insufficient energy supplies to effect the required transition, while being forced to continue to rely on legacy systems that require fossil fuel energy, (since the EROEI of fossil fuels has itself been markedly declining anyway).

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Tim Worstall 11.12.16 at 12:13 pm

“More generally, grandiose schemes”

Sure. Which is why the only such scheme I give any credence to is this iron fertilisation thing. It mimics a natural process, it’s known, tested, and to do it we (and this is not hyperbole, it really is this simple) only need to shovel some ferrous sulphate over the side of a ship.

There’re two rather larger things to be done as well of course.

1) Stop the subsidies to fossil fuels, as the IEA says.

2) Carbon tax.

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Matt 11.12.16 at 9:44 pm

Engineer Matt rushes toward distant horizons in seeking ways to remove excess CO^2, while ignoring that reforestation and restoring top soil, (which is a carbon sink), from the depredations of industrialized agriculture are more urgent options. (About 5% of fossil fuel energy globally is used up in the Haber-Bosch process to manufacture nitrogen fertilizers, not to mention the nitrous oxide emissions involved, much more potent GHGs, when bacteria, if not killed off by pesticides and large-scale soil erosion, provide their “ecological services” for free).

Increasing soil carbon stocks and promoting tree growth is a large part of what I have in mind for carbon dioxide removal. The largest CDR schemes that seem in the realm of plausibility to me involve changing how agricultural soil is pH-balanced and has its fertility maintained.

The horizons I’m looking to are no more distant than, say, a change in global institutional political economy sufficient to end over-fishing or plastic trash reaching the oceans.

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