From derp to denial

by John Quiggin on September 23, 2014

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve seen four major reports (details over the fold) from very different sources, all making the same point: decarbonizing the world economy will involve economic costs that are
(a) small; and
(b) far outweighed by the benefits
And, the empirical evidence so far is strong. The EU and US have both reduced CO2 emissions significantly, at negligible or even negative economic cost. The measures announced by Obama, including vehicle emissions standards and restrictions on coal-fired power stations appear set to achieve further substantial reductions, again while yielding net economic benefits.

Against the expectations of doubters, wind and solar PV are steadily increasing their share of electricity generation, to the point where they constitute the majority of new installations in many countries. Again, the costs have been trivially small: in Australia’s case, made up almost entirely of the reduction in asset value imposed on existing generators.

There is as far as I am aware, no credible analysis to support the opposite claim (call it the economic armageddon hypothesis) that decarbonization will involve economic costs sufficient to greatly reduce living standards, or, for poor countries, prevent catchup to the developed world. (Again, more detailed argument over the fold.

Nevertheless, past experience suggests that lots of people are sufficiently wedded to the economic armageddon hypothesis that neither this, nor any other evidence will change their minds. I have previously analyzed this unwillingness to respond to evidence in terms of Noah Smith’s Bayesian definition of “derp“: “the constant, repetitive reiteration of strong priors”.

But I no longer think this is sufficient. A central concept of Bayesian decision theory is the separation of preferences from beliefs. That is, your subjective belief about the probability that a proposition is true should be independent of whether (because you have bet on it, or for some other reason) you want it to be true. This is the opposite of what is often called “motivated reasoning” or, less politely, “wishful thinking”.

This, I think, is the central distinction between “derp” and “denial”. Both involve the rejection of factual evidence that would (to a person without strong preconceptions) be overwhelmingly strong. This must involve strong prior beliefs. Denial differs from derp in that these factual beliefs derive from preferences, and are unlikely to undergo any updating. If anything, denial may be strengthened by evidence of the proposition being denied.

This in turn suggests different possible cures. Derp may eventually, if very slowly, be overcome by an accumulation of evidence. By contrast, denial can only be addressed by changing the source of wishful thinking; for example, by convincing rightwingers to stop being rightwingers.

That brings us to the question of why, if the case is so overwhelming, the political resistance to action on climate change has been so strong, and whether it can be overcome. I have a go at this in another post on my blog, where this one was already posted. It might be worth reading the comments threads to these posts before jumping in here.

As promised above, here are my sources for the proposition:

First, there’s Pathways to Deep Decarbonization an international collaborative project under the auspices of the UN.

Second, the Better Growth Better Climate report from the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate

Third, this report on Green Growth from the Center for American Progress (covers the US only)

And, most strikingly, this report from staffers at the International Monetary Fund, long the guardian of fiscal rectitude has concluded that for most countries, the local side benefits of reducing pollution would be sufficient to offset the costs for carbon prices up to $50/tonne.

There are lots more analyses making the same point, which can easily be checked with an upper bound calculation.

On the other side, I haven’t seen anything that comes close to being a credible source for the economic armageddon hypothesis. What I have seen are

* Lawyerly quibbles with evidence, not internally consistent and always supporting one side of the case (these are too numerous to bother linking)
* Attempts to make small numbers look big, for example by converting annual flows into present values
* Amateur exercises by committed non-experts, riddled with errors. Ted Trainer is probably the archetypal example
* Rectal extraction: confident pronouncements based on nothing whatsoever

All of these are, of course, the standard argumentative practices of climate science denialists, who are entirely consistent in their treatment of economic issues. Unfortunately, there are also many who, like Trainer, regard themselves as being on the environmental side of the debate but give aid and comfort to its enemies by backing their bogus claims of economic armageddon. At these point, it is necessary to extend the denialist label to cover this group as well.

{ 158 comments }

1

random stranger 09.23.14 at 11:15 pm

The “derp” link is hysterical. “That twerp just herped a flerp of derp!”

2

Peter Dorman 09.23.14 at 11:35 pm

John, this is not the place to get into the details of specific reports. I did a bit of this on my co-blog over here. But I do want to make a few general comments.

1. I’m a former believer that meeting our carbon goals would not be very costly. I expressed this publicly in reports I wrote and talks I gave, and I saw it as an argument against those who were against taking action. Being able to make the case with reference to credible studies (McKinsey, the “energy efficiency gap”, etc.) allowed me to act as a friendly economist allied with environmental organizations. It was only very reluctantly, and with quite a bit of resistance, that I changed my mind. I’m willing to change again! I miss being part of team green, and it’s always nicer to be an optimist. But I need the evidence to convince me, and I haven’t seen it yet.

2. I’m not moved by the institutional aura surrounding the studies that claim low costs. In the specific areas I think I know the most about (certainly assigning monetary values to lives lost, also the prospects for stabilizing GHG gases via reforestation), the reports have no credibility. Of course, it wouldn’t be the first time that prominent politicians, executives and economists were wrong about matters of importance.

3. The key words in your post may be “regard themselves as being on the environmental side of the debate but give aid and comfort to its enemies by backing their bogus claims of economic armageddon.” Alas, you are right that, if decarbonization is expensive, the politics will be more difficult. I honestly regret this. (Of course, I don’t think we face an “armageddon”, just a difficult transition during which a substantial portion of wealth will be devalued, with macroeconomic consequences. My point of comparison is 1989, when the ex-Soviet Bloc countries woke up and discovered they had the wrong capital stock.) Is it unreasonable to suspect that the desire to deny comfort to the enemy influences the economic studies of decarbonization you cite? (Repeat: it used to influence me.)

4. I find the second post on your blog site singularly unconvincing about the politics. If you are right, political economy in the ordinary sense (influence of economic interests on political outcomes, the interplay of wealth and power) has essentially no bearing. Once again, I hope you’re right, but I would be amazed if this were the case. Surely, if you have followed the ups and downs of the EU ETS you will have noticed a rather substantial impact of business interests on the scope of the system and the extent of the permit allocations, not to mention its overall structure. As I mentioned in my blog, weak tea as the ETS is, there was nearly unanimous support in the US (including Obama) for legislation to prohibit US airlines from participating. Our dispute about costs is also a dispute about the political barriers to effective action against climate change and the strategy needed to overcome them.

5. All that said, we are in agreement on the irrationality of the armageddonists. I get attacked by them too, and all they seem to offer is repetition of the faith, not serious argument. In the absence of any rational basis for their belief it’s reasonable to look for psychological explanations. I’m not happy, however, that you would extend that approach to people—like me, I hope—who make a good faith attempt to weigh the arguments. I’m sure I have all sorts of psychological quirks and disabilities, but as far as I can tell they don’t intrude on the position I take in this debate.

Once more, just in case someone missed it: I really want to be wrong about the cost of stabilizing at 2º. Maybe in the next year or two we’ll get good news on that front, and I can go back to being a green in good standing.

3

ZM 09.23.14 at 11:55 pm

“First, there’s Pathways to Deep Decarbonization an international collaborative project under the auspices of the UN.”

I have mentioned this on John Quiggin’s blog already. But I am reading this report in my spare moments – and the report quite plainly states its scenario goes over 2 degrees , only reducing carbon emissions by 45% by 2050 and ignoring methane and nitrous oxide. So it is quite a useless report to use if you are looking for a source on the costs of staying within 2 degrees.

4

Sandwichman 09.24.14 at 12:30 am

“Against the expectations of doubters, wind and solar PV are steadily increasing their share of electricity generation…”

…Aside from the fact that fossil fuel consumption continues to increases, supplemented by an increasing share of wind and solar. In short, we haven’t turned the corner yet where the increasing wind and solar is replacing fossil fuel consumption.

Leaving aside Bayesian decision theory there is no credible analysis to support the expectation that corporate and neo-liberal political decision makers will suddenly start taking the hard POLITICAL choices and institutional changes that are needed to control emission, whether the costs are high or trivial. Assume that the costs are low. The low cost control of emission can only take place by eliminating the current regime of cost shifting. The folks who are in power are the ones who benefit from that cost shifting.

I wish I had said, “Environmental externalities are not ‘market failures’ but cost-shifting successes.” but it was Joan Martinez-Alier.

Do any of those reports listed address cost shifting? Based on past experience with these kind of reports, I predict they don’t. It’s just “throw all the costs into one big pot and stir.” I’ll have a look and report back.

5

BruceJ 09.24.14 at 12:40 am

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!” –Upton Sinclair

Follow the money on denial and it always leads back to the fossil fuel industry, large parts of whom have spent decades building the conservative unreality bubble. By now it’s ingrained into their thinking.

Peter, “costly” is a relative term. No matter what de-carbonizing is going to be cheaper in the long run than not decarbonizing.

And the benefits “Yaaay! We get to continue existing as a technological civilization, and maybe not wipe out most of the rest of life on the planet” versus “Booo! We’re skirting extinction, and we’re killing everything else, too!!”

6

Thornton Hall 09.24.14 at 1:05 am

@5 Funny, but I think that Upton Sinclair quote is actually about the economists who don’t understand that adding up costs is totally useless for policy making. The obsession with the things that can be counted is a huge part of the problem and it only gets worse when people who want to fight climate change join in the counting game. But they are paid to count, so good luck telling them that counting is a waste of time that helps the bad guys.

The simple reality is that doing something about climate change is a political fight between interests. Economists imagine that by calculating “costs” they can help us balance the interests. But this goes wrong two ways:
1. Politics ends with a balance, but each individual battle has one winner and one loser. Sometimes those battles are line by line in the US Code, but no interested party comes to the table looking for “a balanced bill”.
2. Everything important can’t be measured. Saying that this is true in a footnote does not help. It just points out the truth of the Upton Sinclair quote. Even people who know something is wrong will keep believing it if their job depends on it.

7

themgt 09.24.14 at 2:05 am

2°C will with each passing year we fail to act become an increasingly impossible target. I take seriously Kevin Anderson’s math, and it basically says we need to turn the global economy on a dime now and decarbonize to have even 50/50 odds. By the time the next US president is sworn into office, it will probably be too late for 2°C

But the worst possible choice would be to give up and just go all the way to 500-600ppm, because the science is increasingly showing us the extent to which that will be a real Monty Python Black Knight moment for the planet. Life would continue; human civilization would not.

8

Matt 09.24.14 at 2:06 am

“Against the expectations of doubters, wind and solar PV are steadily increasing their share of electricity generation…”

…Aside from the fact that fossil fuel consumption continues to increases, supplemented by an increasing share of wind and solar. In short, we haven’t turned the corner yet where the increasing wind and solar is replacing fossil fuel consumption.

Globally this is true. And in the end the global picture is all that matters; California gets the same level of CO2 in its atmosphere as Texas or Germany or Malaysia. But there are large regions that have decreased use of fossil-based energy both in proportional and absolute terms and I think there are enough examples that they can’t be dismissed as flukes. Portugal, Spain, Germany, Denmark, and California, for example.

Germany has been used as a gleeful “I told you so” example for climate denialists and pro-nuclear pundits because it is shutting down nuclear reactors and continuing to invest in coal plants and mining, creating new headwinds for its decarbonization efforts. What those I-told-you-sos never mention is that use of coal electricity has still decreased overall in Germany since it introduced renewable feed in tariffs in 2004, and that times of surplus renewable electricity production in Germany are also pushing fossil fired electricity off the grid in neighboring countries. Coal plants in and around Germany are losing money, globally integrated coal producers are losing money, and pro-coal shills are talking out of both sides of their mouths. Coal is king, and it’s here to stay! And it’s hemorrhaging money and jobs because Big Green has money and nefarious influence the likes of which Peabody Energy, BHP Billiton, and Anglo American plc can only dream of!

Um. None of that last paragraph was directed at you, Sandwichman. I just think we may be on the cusp of an inflection point regarding the relative trajectories of coal and renewables in the world energy system, one that I wouldn’t have predicted 10 years ago on even my most optimistic days.

9

Greg vp 09.24.14 at 2:17 am

No matter what de-carbonizing is going to be cheaper in the long run than not decarbonizing.

Er, no. Not “no matter what”. At present we have only one technology we can deploy rapidly enough to reliably keep warming under two degrees, the level where Bad Stuff Starts To Happen. It’s the H-bomb.

10

temp 09.24.14 at 2:40 am

The costs of funding a political campaign or think tank or media outlet is extremely cheap relative to energy company profits. The energy companies can have a massive influence negative influence on the climate debate even if they have only a modest preference for the status quo.

11

Greg vp 09.24.14 at 3:22 am

For the record, if I could write as well as Peter Dorman, I would have said what he said.

To my sorrow, I have found nearly every argument to be full of lacunae, the exceptions being a few of those that rigorously follow Kaya’s identity and use acknowledged experts’ best estimates for the various parts of it.

If you do follow Kaya and plug in the numbers, as Joergen Randers has done, you are led to the conclusion that carbon emissions will peak around 2033, plus or minus 5 years. Great news, but not great enough, unfortunately. (Randers is one of the original authors of Limits To Growth. Download his spreadsheet and make your own assumptions. Please.)

Sadly, Kaya’s identity only takes us part of the way. In nearly every study, again, there are implicit ceteris paribus assumptions. These are mostly a cover for ignorance, specifically of the level of investment we will be forced to make to deal with the already-present and accelerating effects of climate change and our other depredations on ecosystems and resource stocks. Investments to pipe water to where there isn’t enough, to purify it, to prevent water flooding places we don’t want flooded. Investments to remediate polluted and desertified agricultural and silvicultural land, to strengthen structures against storms, to rebuild harbours, and so on.

I don’t have any better knowledge than anyone else about these forced investments. I do believe (on the evidence so far) that DICE and its ilk (still) seriously underestimate them. I therefore believe that the share of economic output allocated to investment will rise significantly, and that this is the context in which we should consider the feasibility of further investment to remove the causes of climate change.

(For those who can’t remember Macro 101, lecture 1: if more of GDP is allocated to investment, then less is available to households for “consumption”. The thing that economists call “real household income” will fall, unless growth compensates.)

12

Sandwichman 09.24.14 at 3:37 am

Matt @8 “I just think we may be on the cusp of an inflection point…”

I hope so. And I am glad you recognize that reaching the inflection point is really what matters… well, not exactly all that matters but until we reach the inflection point, we are not getting better — just getting worse more slowly. And getting worse more slowly is not good enough.

Thornton Hall @6

That makes two of us.

13

Peter Dorman 09.24.14 at 4:11 am

Just to be clear: I think there is an urgent need to stabilize carbon concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that minimizes the risk of catastrophic outcomes. I take my cue from the likes of Weitzman on this. The possibility of uncontrollable positive feedback mechanisms, especially releases of stored methane, are impossible to put a number on but are so immense in their consequences that the prudent path is to steer clear of them as much as possible. As a lowly economist, I heed the advice of natural scientists who say we should target a 2º increase over pre-industrial times. The question I raised earlier is not should we do it, but how much do we expect it to cost?

In fact, my approach to costing is intrinsically hawkier. Rather than defining the program to be costed as a set of investments which may or may not achieve (to use the lingo, could be “consistent with”) adherence to an appropriate carbon budget, I prefer to consider a program that compels a given society to restrict its fossil fuel use to a given cumulative amount over the planning horizon (e.g. 40 years), and then cost this. Hard core. But, in my view, dictated by the balance of risks we face.

14

ZM 09.24.14 at 4:32 am

Peter Dorman,

“I heed the advice of natural scientists who say we should target a 2º increase over pre-industrial times. ”

I went into some detail on john Quiggin’s blog some weeks ago on how the 2 degrees target actually originates with the economist Nordhaus’ economics work in the 1970s and is a political and economics target, whereas scientists like James Hansen say we need to get back to 350ppm because 2 degrees is too risky

15

Peter Dorman 09.24.14 at 4:46 am

I’ve seen the argument made by a number of people that two degrees is excessive. But there are other scientifically informed people, not all of them in the thrall of Nordhaus, who think it’s a valid target. Personally, that’s a call I don’t feel qualified to make. In principle, economists should be able to do a cost analysis of any carbon budget. I pick 2º because it has become an international bright line and doesn’t seem irresponsible to me.

It’s obviously the case that there is no strict threshold for catastrophic risk, and how much we are willing to entertain is a judgment call.

16

Sandwichman 09.24.14 at 5:04 am

“no strict threshold for catastrophic risk, and how much we are willing to entertain is a judgment call.”

I’d prefer either to make that call myself or leave it to someone whose judgement I trust.

17

ZM 09.24.14 at 5:17 am

On the politics and commerce barriers to effective action, this MSSI paper recently came out. “Barriers to effective climate change mitigation: the case of senior government and business decision makers” by Lauren Rickards,1∗ John Wiseman1 and Yoshi Kashima2

http://sustainable.unimelb.edu.au/files/mssi/Barriers_to_effective_climate_change_mitigation_Rickards-et-al.pdf

I have not yet had a chance to read it though it looks interesting.

Peter Dorman,

If you have time – Since you are an economist and think these low cost estimates are not very convincing – what do you think of the idea of going to a war-time-mobilization-style economy?
I think this looks to be the best way , because then we can set targets and carry out whatever is needed to achieve them. But as I am not an economist I am not sure what all the mechanisms would be in a war-time-mobilization-style economy.

One mechanism I do know is bonds – then when people oversubscribe to the bond program the town gets a nice plaque or statue or new community building depending on their needs. Another mechanism is taking volunteers or if there is too few then conscripting some people to carry out the tasks needed. But what are the other economic mechanisms we could use?

18

themgt 09.24.14 at 5:25 am

With the increasing evidence of the danger from permafrost/methane hydrates, the fact that Greenland is a criss-crossed archipelago, the dramatic loss of sea ice over the last 10 years, etc – there are fewer and fewer scientists who would be willing to call 2°C “safe”.

Nonetheless, we almost certainly can’t stop there anyway, so we need to start talking seriously about the future we’re committing ourselves to. I find it astonishing that the feds are helping lower Manhattan build a $4 billion wall against sea level rise while basically all the other communities that’ll be going underwater just keep hearing the same old debate.

When do the feds start having to draw up the plans for climate change refugee camps? Maybe locate them near the areas they’re not planning on building walls for. What’s the southmost part of Florida that’s 3, then 6, then 10, then 20 feet above sea level?

19

The Raven 09.24.14 at 5:55 am

“that decarbonization will involve economic costs sufficient to greatly reduce living standards, or, for poor countries, prevent catchup to the developed world.”

The truth of the matter is we don’t know. This is a complex system with many interlinked feedback loops. As if this is not enough, carbon is not the only global environmental problem: the loss of biodiversity and habitat are probably ultimately as dangerous. Truth of the matter, so far as I can tell, we have too many people for a sustainable comfortable standard of living. Think what that implies.

And Dorman is right. Back at the beginning of the current depression, Prof. Krugman pointed out that politically we would only get one chance at stimulus: there would be no second opportunity. He was right. Similarly, we will only get one chance at budgeting for climate change; best not to be cheap.

(My thoughts on this topic from over four years ago.)

As to a CO2 goal, I suggest 350ppm; Hansen’s been right about just about everything in the physical science of this matter.

20

cassander 09.24.14 at 6:08 am

> why, if the case is so overwhelming, the political resistance to action on climate change has been so strong, and whether it can be overcome

Because “action on climate change” has largely been defined to mean “implement programs that the progressive left wanted to do before climate change was ever an issue.” If you want people to your right to start doing something about climate change, you are going to have to stop using climate change as an excuse to do things to their left.

>Against the expectations of doubters, wind and solar PV are steadily increasing their share of electricity generation, to the point where they constitute the majority of new installations in many countries.

this comment rather brilliantly illustrates my point. PV is an utterly insignificant share of total electrical generation, it’s about 1/2 of 1/10 of 1% of global generating capacity. But because solar power has been a progressive cause for several decades (wind is only slightly better, it’s about 1% of global capacity), it gets trotted out as a “solution” despite being completely and utterly marginal, while actual potential solutions that the left doesn’t like, e.g. nuclear power, get ignored.

21

John Quiggin 09.24.14 at 6:29 am

“Because “action on climate change” has largely been defined to mean “implement programs that the progressive left wanted to do before climate change was ever an issue.”

As usual from you, this is entirely false. The idea of pricing carbon, rather than engaging in prescriptive regulation, came from market-oriented economists, and was initially resisted by the environmental left. The left was ultimately convinced that prices would work better than controls, and assumed that this would provide a basis for bipartisan agreement. Of course, just as with the individual mandate, the right dumped their own idea as soon as their tribal enemies adopted it. It was only when the Repubs blocked Waxman-Markey that Obama was forced to take the regulatory route.

Similarly with nuclear: Obama backed it to the hilt (the “all of the above”) strategy, at least partly in the hope that people like you would give him some credit for open-mindedness. But, as I point out above, that’s impossible; not only is there no bipartisanship, there’s a continued claim that he is anti-nuclear. The reality is that the market is the most anti-nuclear force working today.

There is no value in reasoning with the cassanders of this world. We just have to hope that you and your mostly elderly co-thinkers die out fast enough to put you in a permanent minority before you destroy the future.

22

John Quiggin 09.24.14 at 6:32 am

“Hansen’s been right about just about everything in the physical science of this matter.”

But the choice of target isn’t a physical science matter. The only physical issue here is climate sensitivity: everything else is about ecological, agricultural and socio-economic systems.

I have to say that as a policy expert, Hansen makes a great academic scientist. He thinks there is a fundamental difference between carbon taxes and emissions trading schemes, which is nonsense. And now he’s flogging the dead horse of nuclear power.

23

ZM 09.24.14 at 6:48 am

John Quiggin

“And now he’s flogging the dead horse of nuclear power.”

Tristan Edis was doing this in Climate Spectator yesterday in his inaccurate article “Banishing the Hippies…” – because if people do not like renewable energy because of hippies Mr Edis recommends they can support nuclear . I wrote to the editor and Mr Edis to point our the inaccuracies they published in the aforementioned article about the Deep Pathways to Decarbonisation paper and asked them to correct it quickly – but so far they have not corrected it disappointingly. If they don’t correct it I can happily forward my complaint to the press council to investigate since it is such an blatant inaccuracy. But hopefully they might correct it if it was not on purpose but because Mr Edis never got to page 11 of the report when he read it?

24

John Quiggin 09.24.14 at 7:18 am

ZM, you’ve had an extensive say on my blog, and I’d prefer it if you kept your comments on this topic there.

25

Matt 09.24.14 at 7:53 am

Back when PV modules were too expensive for anything but scientific projects and the off-grid homes of millionaires, I got to read the conspiracy theories of people who thought that everyone would go solar if not for the nefarious meddling of Big Oil/Big Nuclear/Big Banks. Now the conspiracy theories are on the other side, the same Mad Lib narrative with different words filling in the blanks. At Hinkley Point C in the UK, new nuclear power is guaranteed an inflation-adjusted £92.50 per megawatt hour, for 35 years. Olkiluoto 3 is going to be at least 9 years late and €4.3 billion over budget. Turkey’s power purchase agreement with Russia for the Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant guarantees that 50-70% of the output, depending on how many reactors are built, will be sold for $123.50 per megawatt hour for 15 years.

Meanwhile, average power supplied to the CAISO system by utility scale wind and solar projects — actual average power for the month, not just nameplate capacity — went up by 2000 megawatts between August 2011 and August 2014. Brazil’s latest wind power auctions cleared at under $60 per megawatt hour. Solar developers are building PV plants in Chile with no long term contracts, no government loan guarantees, no special feed in tariffs. They’re just going to sell straight into the wholesale spot market.

Of course nuclear power is the non-fossil energy source with the lowest cost and the best ability to scale up quickly. These truths never change even if the facts on the ground do. And if nuclear power seems like it’s not really living up to those promises, it is all due to the machinations of Big Green Leftism. Ontario, South Carolina, England, France, Finland, Turkey, Pakistan, India… anywhere you hear that a nuclear project is over budget or behind schedule, leftist politicians and their granola baron allies made it so.

26

The Raven 09.24.14 at 9:44 am

Matt, then explain why vegetation around Chernobyl doesn’t even rot.

27

The Raven 09.24.14 at 9:48 am

Here’s Hansen’s reasoning on the 350ppm target. It is straightforward and easy to grasp.

We define a target CO2 level by considering several specific climate impacts:

Civilization is adapted to climate zones of the Holocene. Theory and models indicate that subtropical regions expand poleward with global warming (2, 65). Data reveal a 4-degree latitudinal shift already (66), larger than model predictions, yielding increased aridity in southern United States, the Mediterranean region, Australia and parts of Africa. Impacts of this climate shift (69) support the conclusion that 385 ppm CO2 is already deleterious.

Alpine glaciers are in near-global retreat (69, 70). After a flush of fresh water, glacier loss foretells long summers of frequently dry rivers, including rivers originating in the Himalayas, Andes and Rocky Mountains that now supply water to hundreds of millions of people. Present glacier retreat, and warming in the pipeline, indicate that 385 ppm CO2 is already a threat.

Equilibrium sea level rise for today’s 385 ppm CO2 is at least several meters, judging from paleoclimate history (31, 17, 30). Accelerating mass losses from Greenland (71) and West Antarctica (72) heighten concerns about ice sheet stability. An initial CO2 target of 350 ppm, to be reassessed as the effect on ice sheet mass balance is observed, is suggested.

Stabilization of Arctic sea ice cover requires, to first approximation, restoration of planetary energy balance. Climate models driven by known forcings yield a present planetary energy imbalance of +0.5-1 W/m2 (5), a result supported by observed increasing ocean heat content (73). CO2 amount must be reduced to 325-355 ppm to increase outgoing flux 0.5-1 W/m2, if other forcings are unchanged. A further reduced flux, by ~0.5 W/m2, and thus CO2 ~300-325 ppm, may be needed to restore sea ice to its area of 25 years ago.

28

The Raven 09.24.14 at 10:13 am

Hansen’s concerns about ice sheet stability have proven well-founded by the later work of Joughin et al—the West Antarctic Ice Sheet collapse is under way. Arctic ice is melting faster than expected as well, and the clathrates are bubbling.

John Q@22: “everything else is about ecological, agricultural and socio-economic systems.” That means, the destruction of much of the physical culture of humanity, the deaths of millions (well, what do you think happens when agriculture collapses during a population boom?), and mass extinction. You seem to think these are economic considerations. To me, they sound like the wrath of god.

29

Guano 09.24.14 at 10:34 am

There are risks in saying that the costs of de-carbonisation are low. Later stages of de-carbonisation may be more costly than the present stages. The present stages may be the low-hanging fruit.

Re-configuring North American cities so that travel distances are reduced may turn out to be necessary and expensive, for example. That may not be economic armageddon and it may be a great deal cheaper than adaptation to a world with a rapidly changing 50 years from now: but it may not be as cheap as the present, marginal changes in energy supply towards renewable energy sources.

30

J Thomas 09.24.14 at 10:37 am

#28 The Raven

John Q@22: “everything else is about ecological, agricultural and socio-economic systems.”

That means, the destruction of much of the physical culture of humanity, the deaths of millions (well, what do you think happens when agriculture collapses during a population boom?), and mass extinction. You seem to think these are economic considerations. To me, they sound like the wrath of god.

In context, he’s saying that Hansen may have been right about physical science, but these other areas are the important ones, areas where Hansen does not show great expertise.

You reply that these are vitally important areas, and we all agree.

31

The Raven 09.24.14 at 10:51 am

J Thomas, @28: My objection is to the belief that 2°C warming is acceptable. That number was an arbitrary goal chosen at Kyoto, not based in physical reality. 350ppm may be wrong—though, really, Hansen has been right about damn near everything in this field and he himself calls for monitoring and adjusting of goals—but it is at least grounded in physical reality.

I don’t agree with Hansen on policy either, but I am not sure that he is wrong.

32

J Thomas 09.24.14 at 11:24 am

My objection is to the belief that 2°C warming is acceptable.

That seems to me like something reasonable people can disagree about.

Suppose we agree on a goal that’s too low. We get started on that, and as we see bad results and we see that what we need is cheaper to do than expected, we can expand the goal.

That’s a good thing if we can’t in fact agree ahead of time on the right goal.

It’s bad if the result is that we don’t do enough soon enough. On the other hand if we will not agree on an adequate goal until it’s too late, that’s bad too.

I dunno. We’re real good at doing mission creep on military stuff. Would we know how to do it on this?

33

cassander 09.24.14 at 11:30 am

>As usual from you, this is entirely false. The idea of pricing carbon, rather than engaging in prescriptive regulation, came from market-oriented economists, and was initially resisted by the environmental left

That the environmental left has realized the revenue potential in carbon control is not proof that it is any less left. If the left were truly serious about carbon control, they would be pushing carbon taxes as a replacement for other taxes, not in addition to them. The left wants to stop global warming, it seems, but only if they get to raise taxes in the bargain.

>Of course, just as with the individual mandate, the right dumped their own idea as soon as their tribal enemies adopted it.

Even if you accept that the entire republican caucus was on board with such a plan in 1993, which was most definitely not the case, and accept that one publication by one think tank as defining the position of the republican party, which would be absurd, the heritage plan of which you speak had virtually nothing in common with the ACA. You should try actually reading it. Unlike the ACA, it was designed to be budget neutral without new tax hikes or offsetting cuts to medicare. Unlike the ACA, it did away with the group insurance market entirely, transitioning everyone into the individual market to ensure that the individual market would be robust. Unlike the ACA, it didn’t merely throw money at the current system, but actually reformed how it would have operated. Now, I have considerable doubt about how these reforms would have worked in practice, and politicians being what they are, I have little doubt that much political opposition to the ACA is opportunistic. What I don’t understand is why you, john, are lowering yourself to their standard rather than engaging in honest debate about the issues?

>It was only when the Repubs blocked Waxman-Markey that Obama was forced to take the regulatory route.

this is sheer delusion. waxman marky was passed by the house in 2009, it was the 58-60 vote democratic senate and Harry Reid that refused to bring it up. Republicans had nothing to do with it.

There is no value in reasoning with the Johns of this world. Those who would wish death on people for the sin of disagreement are far to fervent believers to ever be converted to heresy. We just have to hope that they never again come into power and generate the mountains of corpses that such thinking bought the 20th century.

34

Barry 09.24.14 at 12:25 pm

Guano: “Re-configuring North American cities so that travel distances are reduced may turn out to be necessary and expensive, for example. That may not be economic armageddon and it may be a great deal cheaper than adaptation to a world with a rapidly changing 50 years from now: but it may not be as cheap as the present, marginal changes in energy supply towards renewable energy sources.”

Note that we spend great sums right now on maintaining the current configuration. Massive road, electrical grid and other construction, moving vast sums of water,…

35

Guano 09.24.14 at 2:04 pm

Barry:- “Note that we spend great sums right now on maintaining the current configuration. ”

Yes, I agree. The capital cost of reconfiguration in a short time period would be high. The benefits in reduced running costs and maintenance would also be high, but I don’t think we should pretend that this is as easy as installing solar panels.

36

The Raven 09.24.14 at 3:27 pm

J Thomas@32: “Suppose we agree on a goal that’s too low. We get started on that, and as we see bad results and we see that what we need is cheaper to do than expected, we can expand the goal. […] We’re real good at doing mission creep on military stuff. Would we know how to do it on this?”

I think it’s more like economic stimulus than military spending; if we set the goal too low, we won’t get a chance to raise it. As if that is not enough, setting the goal too low makes it likely that irreversible damage will be done before we can prove it is too law.

The problem with the 2°C goal is that it always was uncertain, and further research seems to show it was too high. The last time the Earth’s temperature was 2°C warmer than now was during the Eeemian period, when sea levels were typically 4-6 m higher than presently.

I’m tired & cranky right now. Maybe more later.

37

John Garrett 09.24.14 at 3:41 pm

If you talk to people in the energy business, they tend to dismiss solar etc. in their professional lifetimes, and the only important fact, transforming everything, is the plummeted and still dropping price of natural gas. I don’t know enough to suggest how this plays here, but would appreciate it if someone who understands the greenomics of this could comment.

JG

38

Omega Centauri 09.24.14 at 4:50 pm

Another motivation (for motivated thinking) is that its tough to think of policy solutions that aren’t left leaning -at least as determined by the present rightwing. So they have to fight against even the concept that the science might not be outright fraud, becuase to admit it as reality opens an anti-libertarian wedge. Even a carbon tax that is designed to be revenue neutral allows some government entity to have some previously non-existent or weak control levers.

John,
Natural gas prices do go up and down. There was a period of over-hyped investment in fracking for natural gas that created a temporary glut. The prices have been generally rising the past couple of years, as the market attemppts to find a new equilibrium, between the increqsing intrinsic toughness of new supply, and advancing extraction technology. The recent price rise led to some emissions backsliding, as some utilities switched some consumption for nat gas to coal.

We are finding more and more things about fracking, that make it sound harmful to the local environment. Potential ground water contamination and increased seismic activity being the most dramatic. A number of jurisdictions are banning fracking, so how far this technological mini-revolution in extraction technology will carry us is uncertain. If we had any sense, we would stop investing in it, but I don’t see that happening.

And I do think that there is shortterm economic danger, from the bursting of the carbon equities bubble. If we are really to de-carbonize, -even if the new forms are ultimately cheaper we will still have to deal with the economic disruption caused by the write-down of a lot of previous investment.

39

someguy88 09.24.14 at 4:55 pm

Wow. I am a conservative but even I am not that big of a supply sider.

I support a Carbon Tax but reducing emissions will cost a ton of money. End of story. We should do even though it will cost a ton of money.

The local side benefit in the IMF Report that pays for everything is the assumption that a Carbon Tax is collected instead of another set of more distorting taxes. It is classic, non napkin, supply side economics.

Read Peter Dorman’s link at 2 even if you do not agree with all of it is good

Money quote –

‘In short, the IMF’s economic benefit from taxing carbon and cutting taxes on everything else is the product of an ideology that reasonable people—like Paul Krugman—would no doubt reject if it were put to them directly.’

40

J Thomas 09.24.14 at 5:06 pm

“We’re real good at doing mission creep on military stuff. Would we know how to do it on this?”

I think it’s more like economic stimulus than military spending; if we set the goal too low, we won’t get a chance to raise it.

You could easily be right. Why should it be more like economic stimulus than military spending? When we get into a war and we lose a lot of HumVees, they never say we can’t rush out and buy a lot of MRAPs to replace them. We need a way to make it more like military spending than economic stimulus.

As if that is not enough, setting the goal too low makes it likely that irreversible damage will be done before we can prove it is too law.

That one is clearly a trade-off. If it takes us an extra 10 years to agree on a higher (meaning lower temperature) goal compared to a lower goal, that delay will increase the irreversible damage too. But it isn’t easy to predict how long the delay will be, that’s probably harder than predicting how much irreversible damage it will be for any particular delay. So I don’t know what’s best.

41

Bob 09.24.14 at 5:08 pm

Thank-you for this post. There is an incredible amount of low hanging fruit in climate mitigation: just stop rent seeking activities that harm both the climate and the economy.

Cassander noted above that “” “action on climate change” has largely been defined to mean “implement programs that the progressive left wanted to do before climate change was ever an issue.” If you want people to your right to start doing something about climate change, you are going to have to stop using climate change as an excuse to do things to their left.”” This comment accurately represents the political debate, which is now almost completely detached from reality.

The potential for environmental tax reform to both reduce pollution and lower the economic cost of taxation is referred to as a double dividend. The environmental dividend is the increase social welfare from reducing pollution. The efficiency dividend is the increase in social welfare from increasing economic activity. Economic activity is increased because the reduction of pre-existing distortionary taxes reduces the deadweight loss of the tax system as a whole. The efficiency dividend can be used to reduce economic inequality, further increasing social welfare. The double dividend is possible but not certain, and each proposal must be evaluated on its merits.

The economic dividend is contingent on the presence of economic inefficiencies and conditions including: labour market rigidities (Proost 1995), level of involuntary unemployment (Schob 2003), level of pre-existing taxes on labour and capital, (Bayinder-Upmann 2004), monopolies in the economy,(Bayindir-Upmann 2000), consumption patterns (Bayindir-Upmann 2004), level of welfare benefits compared to wage levels (Schob 2004), pre-existing regulations, deviation of current taxes from economically optimum rates (Fullerton 1998) and the design of the environmental tax reform.

Despite the theoretical ambiguity and technical difficulty, environmental tax reforms for the United States that generate the double dividend have been proposed. These tax reforms have the potential to maintain inequality at a socially acceptable level. (Metcalf 1999),(Bento 2009). Both dividends are likely to materialize under relatively general conditions. (Koskela 1999), and the consensus is that the economic dividend would be realized when environmental tax revenues are recycled through social security contributions (Bayindir-Upmann 2003, 2005), (Glomm 2008).

Eight OECD countries implemented environmental tax reforms in the period 1990 to 1999. The tax reforms reduced pollution and increased employment in the short term. The eight OECD countries outperformed the United States on measures of economic, fiscal and social welfare over the periods 1990-1999 (Boquer 2001) and 2000 – 2010 (Howard 2014).

Environmental tax reform is consistent with improved outcomes over both the short and long term. This result is not consistent with the hypothesis that countries that undertake environmental tax reform suffer long term economic, fiscal, or social harm.

42

david 09.24.14 at 6:21 pm

“He thinks there is a fundamental difference between carbon taxes and emissions trading schemes, which is nonsense.”

Nonsense only if you don’t take into account the different mechanisms through which they’d be enforced.

There’s a sneaking suspicion on the part of people that emissions tradings systems in the world will be more open to gaming. Nuts, these people.

43

Peter Dorman 09.24.14 at 6:55 pm

A minor point: JQ (#22) says that Jim Hansen “thinks there is a fundamental difference between carbon taxes and emissions trading schemes, which is nonsense.”

Yes and no. There are important differences, but they work in exactly the opposite way from what Hansen believes. This post, from The Road from Carbonville, spells out the main differences. Incidentally, it omits (for simplicity) the issue of multiple equilibria, which are likely to arise in an energy transition and which also favor a permit approach.

So I suppose I agree with JQ that Hansen, despite his brilliance in his own field, doesn’t grasp the economics of this issue, but disagree that taxes and permits are interchangeable. This may be a matter of language; he might not think the differences I point out are “fundamental”. No point quibbling about adjectives.

44

Bruce Wilder 09.24.14 at 7:02 pm

There’s no point in arguing the case for the “minimal costs” of climate change mitigation measures against those who favor continued business-as-usual. We can’t afford business-as-usual and it’s not on the menu anymore. Walking through the looking glass into a wonderland of counterfactual projections, where the standard of comparison is a projection of continued growth through business-as-usual was always a mug’s game.

The framework, which insisted that curbing greenhouse gas emissions was going to have “costs” relative to a counterfactual projected growth-thru-business-as-usual scenario, was a special form of palsied political rhetoric.

The optimal path forward, logically, is going to balance costs and benefits, and so, if it is actually optimal, is going to be “cost-less” on net. All projected deviations from the optimal path have costs, or additional costs and reduced benefits relative to the optimal path. So, the sensible and logical framing is to advocate for the optimal path, and to attribute (additional) costs to the alternatives, particularly to the business-as-usual counterfactual, which should be avoided, precisely because of its higher cost, and reduced economic growth, etc. Not to argue that the preferred path has only “minimal” costs compared to business-as-usual, or that following the preferred path involves trading away only a “little” growth.

To the extent that the “new optimism” of the reports cited by JQ represents a shift away from the view that responding to climate change, peak oil, etc., involves paying an insurance premium out of continuing globalization of the industrial revolution with no change in direction, to the view that a change in direction is required to remain on an optimal path, it may represent some break with the narcissism of the looking glass. I fear that JQ’s derp to denial path is proposing to fight denial with denial.

Are we really going to pretend that meeting the combined challenges of climate change, peak oil, ecological collapse, etc — resource limits and limits to the assimilative capacity of the environment — isn’t going to involve wrenching change? Are we going to pretend we don’t understand why the Kochs are motivated to defend the sources of their wealth? Or, why millions of people in the exurbs are similarly motivated in their politics?

45

Will Boisvert 09.24.14 at 7:04 pm

@ John Quiggin:

James Hansen “flogging the dead horse of nuclear power.”

I think “dead horse” is a bit much. So far this year 6 reactors with 5.5 gigawatts capacity have come on line. That’s not much, but assuming they have an 85 percent capacity factor, the global average, those six will generate more low-carbon electricity every year than the entire output of Germany’s current solar power sector. More are due on line this year (knock wood!), and deployment rates will accelerate in coming years as the industry gets into gear. So new nuclear is clearly making a major contribution to decarbonization, and one that’s growing.

Also, Obama has been at best luke-warm on nuclear. He hasn’t blocked it, and 4 new reactors have started building on his watch. But he’s definitely tilted towards renewables. For example, he recently issued an executive order requiring Federal agencies to source a portion of their electricity from low-carbon renewable sources; nuclear was not included in that preferment.

46

John Quiggin 09.24.14 at 7:08 pm

@41 (gaming) That’s a design issue, not a fundamental difference, and there is plenty of opportunity to game a carbon tax, most obviously with activities which sequester CO2 and therefore attract rebates/subsidies. The differences are so minor that when Australia had a fixed-price emissions permits scheme, it was an issue of violent controversy (central to the defeat of the government) whether it was, or was not, a carbon tax. To repeat, Hansen has zero expertise on this stuff: he is working on the false assumption that emissions permits are necessarily given away free, while taxes are not offset by exemptions.

Contra Cassander, virtually all analysis of carbon taxes (or auctioned emission permit schemes) assumes the revenue is used to reduce other taxes (as mentioned @39). There’s a gigantic literature on the “double dividend” that might be achieved by reducing distorting taxes. And this was the case in Australia, with zero effect on the reflexive hostility of the political right.

I was writing on this back in the 1990s.
http://www.tai.org.au/documents/downloads/DP10.pdf

as was Krugman (the suggestion @ 39 that he would reject the idea is wrong)

http://web.mit.edu/krugman/www/green.html

There are good reasons for this, pointed out be Krugman. The problem of how to deal with carbon is logically separate from that of how much of national income should be allocated to public expenditure, and the revenue from a carbon tax is going to be modest. So, it makes sense to treat saving the planet as a revenue-neutral exercise, and debate the appropriate aggregate level of tax and expenditure separately. Unfortunately, given that we are dealing with Republicans here, that hasn’t worked.

47

John Quiggin 09.24.14 at 7:09 pm

Will, you’ve had plenty of chances to debate nuclear power on my blog. Please, nothing more in this thread (and others, please, don’t let this derailment proceed)

48

Bruce Wilder 09.24.14 at 7:13 pm

Debating carbon taxes v permitting schemes as if either would be sufficient, in the absence of more comprehensive and directive planning policies, seems to me to be an odd distraction.

Whether you talk about multiple equilibria or non-convexities or use other economic jargon, there’s a deep rut carved out by an industrial revolution powered by petroleum, and digging out of that rut is going to be hard to do. There have to be commitment mechanisms in place, that both prevent backsliding and compensate for or ameliorate some of the short-term disruptive effects of higher energy costs on the overall system. I do not see how that can be done without planning and deliberate public good investments, particularly in regard to energy generation, transportation and communication infrastructure, etc.

49

Thornton Hall 09.24.14 at 7:16 pm

@43 Reading today in the philosophy of science/economics literature has convinced me that there is a destructive academic circle jerk going on here. Simple errors of reasoning are rendered into page after page of Greek letters and mathematical notation. There is a psychological phenomenon at work here where expertise gets channeled into minutiae that is wonderful for generating journal submissions but absolutely totally beside the point.

Thinking about the notion of costs (see, http://thorntonhalldesign.com/philosophy/2014/9/15/learning-in-comment-threads-the-double-meaning-of-cost) I’m taken by their ubiquity. And also how the term “cost” is basically interchangeable with the word “choice”. Economists get so caught up with the counting that the fail to realize the emptiness of their conclusions:

We face a choice, and depending on which way we go, we will either face choices or choices.

50

John Quiggin 09.24.14 at 7:29 pm

Peter Dorman @43, that’s a very good summary

Bruce Wilder: there’s certainly a role for regulation, as with light bulbs and car fuel efficiency. But prices (or quasi-prices like those associated with renewable mandates) are going to have to do a lot of the work. Energy is too pervasive for a centrally planned solution.

Thornton Hall; again, we’ve been over this “cost” stuff before. Please take it somewhere else, such as the “sandpit” post on my blog.

51

The Raven 09.24.14 at 7:43 pm

J Thomas@40: “We need a way to make it more like military spending than economic stimulus.”

That is the political problem in a nutshell. If we become willing to do what it takes regardless of cost, we have a much better chance of succeeding. Maybe we should declare war on global climate change.

Um.

Maybe we should. People “get” war.

The discouraging thing for me is we are arguing over goals, neither of which is part of a straight-line projection of the future. We are on-track for 4°C or more warming by the end of the century.

Cue the wrath of the god(s)!

52

Rich Puchalsky 09.24.14 at 7:44 pm

“The left was ultimately convinced that prices would work better than controls, and assumed that this would provide a basis for bipartisan agreement. Of course, just as with the individual mandate, the right dumped their own idea as soon as their tribal enemies adopted it.”

If you’d prefer a poem about this, I have obliged. Never say that the Internet fails in its production of texts surplus to requirements.

53

Matt 09.24.14 at 7:47 pm

Hydropower and intermittent renewables are actually very complementary energy sources when hydro is the traditional sort with big reservoirs. Hydro plants have a modest capacity factor. The Three Gorges Dam is around 50%, the Hoover Dam is around 25%. They don’t go near 100% capacity because at most times of the year continuous full-power operation would soon deplete the head of water that spins the turbines. But hydro plants are extremely dispatchable. They can ramp up and down even faster than open cycle natural gas plants.

Extreme flexibility, reservoir storage, and inability to run flat-out all the time make hydroelectric power a great match for intermittent wind and solar sources. When the wind blows hard or the sun shines brightly you hold back more water in the reservoir and pass less through the turbines. When it’s dark and the air is still you let more water through the turbines. Operating hydroelectric power to complement wind and solar fluctuations firms up intermittent sources without building any new storage. Building wind and solar power allows grids using hydroelectricity to better deal with drought conditions. CAISO has cited recent rapid growth of solar power in California as one factor that has allowed it to maintain summer reserve margins despite severe drought curtailing hydro output.

The story is different for run-of-river hydro installations, which have some more favorable ecological characteristics but can’t do much in the way of water banking. But most of the world’s installed hydro capacity is not run-of-river and can help support further growth of wind and solar power.

54

john c. halasz 09.24.14 at 8:09 pm

@53:

It should be possible to build pumped water storage using wind generation. Pumped water storage loses 20% of the energy, but the very high efficiency of hydro generation partly compensates for that loss, compared to virtually any other conceivable mode of storage. Such reservoirs could be built above existing dams, above rivers or even on steep coasts, such that additional rivers needn’t be dammed, with the environmental/ecological disruptions that result and “head” drops could be lengthened well beyond the height of the reservoir, increasing the kinetic energy available per unit of water. Though not a unique solution to the storage problem, this strikes me as likely the cheapest and most readily doable approach.

55

Bruce Wilder 09.24.14 at 8:17 pm

JQ: Energy is too pervasive for a centrally planned solution.

Energy is too pervasive to do be mastered without constraints imposed by central planning.

You should not put the artificiality of taxes up against the economic rents built into the centrally planned structures of the system, and expect the taxes (or tradeable permits) to win, unless you are also changing the centrally planned structures by central planning.

We are in some very deep ruts, and we are going to crash if we keep steering back into those ruts, as we will be prone to do. We need to pave a road that heads in a feasible direction, and not depend solely on the price of gas to steer us. The price of gas doesn’t steer a real automobile, and it won’t steer the world economy, either.

56

Thornton Hall 09.24.14 at 8:41 pm

@JQ 50 You can say I’m saying the same old thing, but I’m not. I clicked on your first link, the pathways to deep decarbonization. In the executive summary, I learned we need to do three main things:
1. Energy efficiency and conservation.
2. Low carbon electricity
3. Fuel switching.

Ok. Let’s do it.

But, you say, what are the costs?
I say, really? Why? Do you ask the cost before they take out your appendix and you have cadillac insurance?
And you say…

57

Plume 09.24.14 at 8:51 pm

Naomi Klein, in her new book, This Changes Everything, is far closer to the mark than any mainstream American economist ever gets.

It’s the system, stupid.

58

Enopoletus Harding 09.24.14 at 9:21 pm

Has anyone noticed that the U.S.’s CO2 emission stagnation has coincided with a stagnation in real compensation per worker? This probably wasn’t entirely through a price shock; it must have been partly through an effective demand shock. Still, the strong correlation between real labor compensation growth and CO2 emissions remains.
Also,

Thus even using the worst case IPCC concentration pathway, and using the biggest damages from the IPCC’s table of published estimates of the amount of global warming in question, we saw that both in 2050 and 2100, the IPCC’s own estimate of the economic cost of compliance with the policy goal was greater than the estimate of the climate change damages from “doing nothing.”

http://instituteforenergyresearch.org/analysis/using-ipcc-defeat-un-climate-agenda/

59

someguy88 09.24.14 at 10:11 pm

John Quiggin,

In the link you provided Krugman concludes that even with the offsets the tax probably would be a net negative.

In any other context Krugman would down play the supply side offsets.

Based on a very quick skim of the CBO. If national income decreases by 1% for a 25 – 30 ton tax, 300 billion a year in revenue, in order to pay for itself the offsetting tax cuts need to generate 50 cents of extra income for every 1 dollar in tax cuts. I don’t see that happening.

The cost estimates of the tax are probably understated. The offsets are over stated. IPCC estimates of what it will take to keep to target temperature goals are probably well understated. When you add in China and India this is even more true. The costs will be very large. Those working assumptions don’t make someone a denialist.

Everyone you disagree with is not evil and stupid.

60

John Quiggin 09.24.14 at 10:18 pm

The question of whether we should be aiming at 350 ppm or 450 ppm is really orthogonal to the point of the OP. Since we’ve already passed 400 ppm we can’t get to 350 except by stopping net emissions somewhere near 450 then starting to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. That’s not going to happen until the second half of this century and will require technologies entirely different from those needed to decarbonize energy systems.

61

John Quiggin 09.24.14 at 10:24 pm

@58 The double dividend argument is nothing to do with supply side effects (at least in the sense this term is usually taken to apply in the US). The point is simply that if you tax carbon and use the proceeds to reduce other, inefficient taxes, you will get a net welfare gain. The net macroeconomic impact is, up to a first approximation, zero.

On your broader point, I really can’t see what you have presented to justify “as a working assumption, all the experts who have studied this problem are probably wrong”.

62

Will Boisvert 09.24.14 at 10:48 pm

@ Matt 53,

Right, hydro is great for balancing wind and solar. And it’s true that during a drought, if wind and solar are going strong, they can help relieve hydropower shortages. But you can also get weather conditions where all three weather-dependent sources slump together. When that happens it might be good to have some other kind of low-carbon energy source that’s more reliable and dispatchable and not weather-dependent, like geothermal or something.

And it’s also true that wind and solar power can let you “bank” the hydro. But that’s not a reliable storage method. For example, wind power is strongest in the spring, when hydro is also usually in spate. When the reservoirs are full, you can’t bank excess wind or solar. So, weather-dependent sources are very imperfect complements to each other. At high penetrations of wind and solar, there will be a lot of redundancy and wasted power even with hydro backup.

More fundamentally, hydro resources are geographically limited. In Brazil, for example, while they have tons of it, there is growing resistance to boosting it more because of problems with flooding the Amazon Basin. The Brazilian grid is growing fast, and if hydro growth is limited in the future they may need some other kind of dispatchable source to back up wind and solar if they are added at large scale. That’s why they have built dispatchable generators like geothermal and are planning a lot more.

So, even though geothermal is more expensive from an LCOE standpoint than wind, it could make sense for Brazil and other countries to grant it a price premium because of it’s reliability–dispatchable low-carbon sources like geo simply provide a better quality of power for many uses, including decarbonization.

It’s possible that dispatchable low-carbon technologies like geo could come down in price to where they are cheaper than intermittents and even coal; I think China and South Korea have had some startling success with that.

63

Sandwichman 09.24.14 at 11:16 pm

Enopoletus Harding @ 58: “Has anyone noticed that the U.S.’s CO2 emission stagnation has coincided with a stagnation in real compensation per worker?”

Yes.

Unpacking the decoupling tautology

I have tried to point out that neither the automatic reabsorption of workers displaced by machinery nor the rebound of fuel consumption as a result of improvements in fuel economy, considered separately are inevitable “laws.” But their interdependence poses a dilemma that conventional economic analysis seems unwilling to consider.

You want it cheap, you want it now and you want it right? Pick two.

64

Alex B 09.24.14 at 11:18 pm

The idea that bayesian decision theory would, if followed correctly, force people with different priors to eventually come to the same conclusion given enough evidence is unfortunately not true, as pointed out by Jaynes in ‘Probability Theory, the Logic of Science’ (pp126-132), also partly reproduced here: http://www.variousconsequences.com/2009/11/converging-and-diverging-views.html
Jaynes argues that rational people are forced by evidence to come to the conclusion only if deception is ruled out. If there is significant prior probability that deception is possible, it is individually rational for opinions to diverge.

65

emmryss 09.24.14 at 11:21 pm

What do folks think of the point Robert Heinberg makes over at the Post-Carbon Institute: “The rapid build-out of renewables constitutes an enormous infrastructure project that will itself consume significant amounts of fossil-fuel energy. New solar panels won’t immediately pay for themselves in energy terms; indeed, research at Stanford University recently showed that all solar PV technology installed until about 2010 was a net energy sink. It will fully ‘pay back the electrical energy required for its early growth by about 2020,’ but if we hasten the transition, energy break-even gets delayed: it is only once solar build-out rates level off that the system as a whole will start to turn a significant energy profit. That leads to the deep irony that we’ll be powering the energy transition largely with fossil fuels. The faster we push the transition, the more fossil fuels we’ll use for that purpose, and this could lead to the extraction of more tar sands, fracked tight oil and shale gas, deepwater oil, and Arctic oil (we’ve already used up the cheap, conventional oil; what’s left will be expensive and dirty—and expensive oil is itself a drag on economic growth).”

66

Matt 09.24.14 at 11:27 pm

Will,

I agree that the challenges are greater as intermittent renewables penetration increases. The springtime coincidence of snowpack melt and strong winds is well known to me: I live in Washington and follow the BPA’s delicate balancing of winds-and-dams with great interest. I don’t know if that applies so much nearer the equator, where seasonal changes aren’t so dramatic.

I don’t think existing dams can get us close to 100% renewables, but I think they can help extending the ramp for renewable integration and at low costs. I don’t really expect or hope for developed countries to build many new traditional hydro facilities with storage reservoirs; we’re running out of locations and they are bad for rivers in other ways even if they don’t spew air pollution.

The other big, cheap, still easy-to-expand storage mechanism is thermal storage for climate control in buildings. Cool or heat a big tank of water when renewable output is high, run it through an air heat exchanger to cool/heat the building hours later. It only works for temperature control but that alone accounts for something like 40% of building energy use in the US. It’s a lot cheaper than pumped hydro/flywheels/batteries and it’s already commercialized. It’s a great match for regions where peak loads are correlated with summertime cooling and it can also help, though less dramatically, with winter heating. California’s electricity use peaks on late afternoons in summer, for cooling, while PV output peaks earlier in the day and wind usually peaks during the late night. Being able to time shift electrical consumption even by part of a day adds a lot more flexibility for renewable use.

67

J Thomas 09.24.14 at 11:52 pm

You want it cheap, you want it now and you want it right? Pick two.

Or say you want nuclear.

You want it nuclear, cheap, soon, and right? Pick one.

68

Peter Dorman 09.24.14 at 11:58 pm

The question of the effect of taxes, especially income taxes, on things like investment and labor supply is important and has some bearing on climate policy. Most economists, whatever else they may disagree on, want to see either taxes on fossil fuels or carbon permits auctioned off. Either way there’s a revenue flow coming in to the government. What to do with it?

There are three options, which can be mixed of course: (1) Rebate it back to households, presumably on a per capita basis. (2) Reduce existing taxes by an equivalent amount. This is the IMF proposal in the paper JQ cites, and the option endorsed by Krugman in the piece he linked to. (3) Increase public spending, presumably on investments to spur the energy transition or adapt to unavoidable climate change.

This is an immense topic, one that has interested me for a long time and goes way beyond the scope of this thread. The one point I want to mention is that option (2) is justified by the double dividend argument JQ alludes to. This says that taxes reduce the incentive to do whatever is being taxed, and, since incentives are assumed to be right for most activities absent these taxes, taxes in themselves are welfare-reducing. Naturally, government spending is usually welfare-increasing, so this is not an argument against all taxing. Rather, it says that if we get an opportunity to tax something that doesn’t have this bad property (doesn’t disincentivize “good” behavior) and can use the money to reduce taxes that do, we should go for it. That, in a nutshell, is also the Georgist case for a single tax on land. (Yes, I know the Ricardian faith of the Georgists is a big oversimplification.)

What I question is whether income taxes are as “bad” as claimed. Economic models (like CGE, computable general equilibrium) that assume the optimality of individual choices absent price interventions like taxes just beg the question, but they are often relied on by economists to put a number on the deadweight loss of the income tax.

Really, there are two questions. One is whether taxless choices are more welfare-improving than taxed ones. If people are somewhat less inclined to take higher-paying jobs when income is taxed, how bad is this? Are all lower paying jobs worse for the world than higher-paying ones? How would we know (and by how much)? The other question is whether the response of taxpayers is as incentive-driven as the models assume. I admit that I’m biased in this respect. I spend a lot of time in both Germany and the US, where marginal tax rates are significantly different. The state takes more of your income in Germany, but I don’t see Germans as less willing to work on this account (they might be on others), less ambitious, or less willing to get training or education to improve their skills. True, this is completely unscientific, but I go into this question doubting whether the neoclassical models are right, and looking for evidence on the matter, rather than just making the usual assumptions and getting on with it.

I should even add within-US evidence to the international comparisons I mentioned in an earlier comment. In response to supply-side claims, there have been many studies of marginal tax rates and effort supply using US data, and to my knowledge they find little response over common ranges. This is also why Piketty et al. can argue for an optimal top marginal rate of 80%.

So, to get back on track, what does it mean that the IMF study would invoke assumptions about welfare losses due to tax disincentives in order to show that carbon taxes would be good for growth? And what does it mean that green boosters (of which I consider myself a member despite my apostasy) go along with them in order to drum up support for carbon permits or taxes? (OK, most people who cite the IMF study haven’t read it. But still.)

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Thornton Hall 09.25.14 at 1:29 am

@67 and JQ
So when Dornan says it, that’s ok?

So, to get back on track, what does it mean that the IMF study would invoke assumptions about welfare losses due to tax disincentives in order to show that carbon taxes would be good for growth? And what does it mean that green boosters (of which I consider myself a member despite my apostasy) go along with them in order to drum up support for carbon permits or taxes? (OK, most people who cite the IMF study haven’t read it. But still.)

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Sandwichman 09.25.14 at 1:38 am

J Thomas @ 67

Now that I’m informed of your uncommon perspicuity and business sense, I have a bridge for sale you might be interested in… a once in a lifetime opportunity…

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John Quiggin 09.25.14 at 1:53 am

@Peter I don’t think the double dividend argument works with income taxes. What you need to do to make it work is to find some highly inefficient and/or regressive taxes and put up a policy package that uses carbon tax revenue to scrap them. That isn’t always possible, so the general conclusion I get from the literature is that you can’t always get a double dividend.

But the IMF study is mainly about something different. The key point is that the local negative externalities of coal are so great that we should be taxing it heavily even before we start thinking about CO2. That’s the same conclusion reached by Muller, Mendelsohn, and Nordhaus, and (in a different way) by the Chinese authorities when they banned coal-fired power stations in urban centres.

While I’m on the topic of Nordhaus, the Robert Murphy paper linked by Enopoletus Harding @58 is wrong in all sorts of ways. Most obviously, it cites lots of papers by Nordhaus in support of a conclusion that Nordhaus himself repudiated some years ago. Estimates of the economic costs of BAU aren’t really useful for a bunch of reasons, which is why there aren’t many of them, and they are mostly produced by economists who are less enthusiastic about rapid mitigation (eg Nordhaus and Mendelsohn) than others (eg Stern) .

So, we might expect that the accompanying estimates of the cost of stabilization would, if anything, be on the high side. In fact, the estimates for the cost of stabilization are all very small, a few per cent off global consumption, set against a likely doubling or more over the next century.

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J Thomas 09.25.14 at 2:34 am

#70 Sandwichman

Should I be insulted? Everybody thinks that offers to sell bridges are scams.

You should instead try to sell a nuclear power plant. A lot of people haven’t caught on about those yet.

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Peter Dorman 09.25.14 at 2:41 am

John, the IMF paper uses both items, the presumed double dividend and monetized health co-benefit. I tracked down the references (and the references of the references).

The double dividend does indeed come from a representative agent utility maximization exercise (Parry and Williams), although it apparently used plausible labor supply elasticities for marginal tax rates. (I still wonder whether some modest reduction in labor supply wouldn’t be a good thing.) (And this is entirely separate from shortfalls in labor demand, which should be rectified forthwith.)

The monetization of health co-benefits comes from an OECD meta-analysis of contingent valuation (stated preference) studies on mortality risk. User discretion advised! Note also that, since the monetizations are expressed as percentages of per capita income, this generates the well-known result that lives are correspondingly more valuable in higher income countries. In any case, my problem is not only the methodology of monetization, but the notion that the sums representing a putative monetary equivalent of increased mortality risk based on willingness to pay can be used to determine the “economic growth” impact of climate policies. It’s not like we’ve gone back and corrected all our prior economic growth for the externalities we’ve endured in the past. In the end, NIPA and its measurement of economic growth is the wrong tool for that sort of job. It’s a market price instrument, period.

Of course, I agree entirely that we all need to get away from coal as fast as possible, not only because of climate change, but also because of all the other uncompensated externalities.

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Greg vp 09.25.14 at 3:45 am

Ah, the ABARE report from the sunny, far-off days of 2007. Sigh. We were expecting real incomes to double, at least. It seems like a lifetime ago.

Let’s bring Piketty into the mix.

Piketty tells us that sans the reintroduction of punitive inheritance taxes and top marginal tax rates, the bottom 80% or so of households in OECD countries can expect their real incomes to decline over the next thirty years — yes, ceteris paribus.

When this sinks in, and I think it is starting to, there will be strong resistance in the OECD to any additional burdens. Yes, the burden might be only a ten percent loss of real income (a five percent reallocation of spending to investment, and a five percent income loss due to higher food, transport and energy costs). But that ten percent will be significant, coming on top of an already-existing loss of ten percent.

Again: the background is a real income decline of ten percent or so, nota doubling of real income. In this context, a further cut of ten percent, or even five percent, is very significant for the majority of households.

Of course this does not apply to China, if the Party can grow bottom-quartile household income at a healthy clip. But it does apply throughout the OECD and probably in India.

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Omega Centauri 09.25.14 at 4:09 am

emmryss@65.
The argument about seed energy to build renewables (or any energy resource) has been around for a while.Every energy resource has its energy payback time, the time required to generate as much energy as its creation required. With improving technology this payback period has been dropping strongly for both PV and wind. The later is under a year, and the growth rate of wind is unfortunately well below 100% per annum, so wind is generating a large surplus. The last figure I hasd seen for PV which is several years old was three years. But since then the cost per watt of PV has dropped severalfold. Assuming monetary cost has some bearing on energy cost, the PV payback period should now be quite a bit less than the current e-folding time of deployment. So we have in fact arrived at a point where a decently fast buildout of renewables can be accounted for by the energy output of the same technology.

As penetration rates increase, I would expect additional costs (energy as well as dollar) to rise, i.e. as penetration increases a marginal increase of a kilowatt of PV will require the construction of some combination of longdistance transmission, energy storage, and/or demand management, each of which will have its own energy cost. But also as penetration grows the logarithmic growth rate will decrease, so longer breakeven times can be tolerated.

Obviously before long maintaining exponential growth of the buildout will become more challenging. Indeed even now, with the nameplate capacity of renewables additions exceeding that of fossil fueled plants the list of planned build to replace is getting short. So in the near future any substantial increase in the rate of renewables buildout will require not just the replacement of newconstruction generation, but the early retirement of fossilfueled plant (or the downgrading of the capacity factors of existing plant (i.e. swtiching a power plant from baseline, to peaker status).

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David J. Littleboy 09.25.14 at 5:48 am

“But the IMF study is mainly about something different. The key point is that the local negative externalities of coal are so great that we should be taxing it heavily even before we start thinking about CO2. ”

This is important. Burning coal (and oil) for energy is incredibly stupid even without climate change because of the health effect negative externalities. China is a major disaster and even in the US, there’s a lot of excess pulmonary disease thanks to coal and oil.

The right (and especially the libertarians) love to ignore negative externalities, and hate paying their fare share of the costs they incur.

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Bruce Wilder 09.25.14 at 5:50 am

JQ: . . . the estimates for the cost of stabilization are all very small, a few per cent off global consumption, set against a likely doubling or more over the next century.

Enopoletus Harding @ 58: “Has anyone noticed that the U.S.’s CO2 emission stagnation has coincided with a stagnation in real compensation per worker?”

Gvp:. . . the burden might be only a ten percent loss of real income (a five percent reallocation of spending to investment, and a five percent income loss due to higher food, transport and energy costs). But that ten percent will be significant, coming on top of an already-existing loss of ten percent [in the OECD countries].

As I recall the recent IPCC climate change mitigation summary, the 900 economic studies they supposedly summarized guestimated increases in incomes over the course of the 21st century of 4x to 10x. I’m not sure what it even means to estimate a change in income over the course of a century of rapid technical advance and population growth, but for the U.S., as long as you don’t look too close, a reasonable number for per capita U.S. growth in the 20th century — assuming that any single number is a reasonable representation, when it cannot possibly be (a reasonable representation) — might be 3x. Median per capita incomes have not increased in the U.S. in more than 30 years and currently are on a path of secular decline, as Greg vp implies. Half the U.S. population is in, or near poverty; there’s some evidence of declines in life expectancy and height for significant subsets of the population, height being a good proxy for general health and nutrition.

One way to reduce carbon emissions is to reduce aggregate emissions and resource consumption by the simple expedient of impoverishing people, possibly followed in due course, by population reduction. Do we know that that is not the path “we” (not us, of course, but those with actual power) have chosen?

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Sandwichman 09.25.14 at 6:10 am

“Do we know that that is not the path ‘we’ (not us, of course, but those with actual power) have chosen?”

No. But I’m reasonably confident that the powers that be would only go down such a path by default and abdication, not choose it by conscious intention — if only because they could have no assurance of being able to manage the violent social turmoil that would be likely to result.

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William Timberman 09.25.14 at 6:38 am

Sandwichman @ 78

It’s the not by conscious intention part of this formulation that bothers me. If one looks at the radical infrastructure of social control designed, marketed (to officialdom, and to the electorate) and put in place in the last 20 years or so — in the U.S. at least — one has to wonder. If there’s no intention here, what would intention look like? Are we to consider that all this is some sort of instinctual death wish that’s suddenly and inexplicably overcome all the nominal lovers of democracy we thought to rely on?

Frankly, I don’t know which is worse, the idea that Keith Alexander, Charles Koch, and a whole host of others are evil sonsabitches, or that they’re lemmings. (I also wonder whether there’s any practical — i.e. political — difference worth considering any longer than it takes to raise an eyebrow, or a fist.)

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William Timberman 09.25.14 at 7:15 am

Sandwichman @ 78 continued….

On reflection, I should add that I don’t think for a moment that right-wing authoritarians deserve all the blame for our miseries. If we’re making lists, we certainly have to include Bill Gates, Sergey Brin, Larry Page, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, et al. As near-perfect paragons of the dark side of otherwise lovely ideas like entrepreneurial capitalism, their example may well have more to teach us than we can learn from the commonplace liberal demonology of malefactors of great wealth and bloody-minded generals.

And here, of course, the problem of intention gets a whole lot murkier. It’s hard to blame these emperors of the digital domain for much more than obeying the imperatives imposed on them by the evolution of complex technologies, but if they haven’t the time or inclination to consider the perils of unintended consequences, we’ll have to do it for them.

If I could play free-market devil’s advocate for a moment, I’d ask would we have the personal computer revolution if Bill Gates didn’t play a dirty trick on IBM? Would we have the benefits of universal access to information that Google affords us if Page and Brin hadn’t figured a way to pay for their server farms by selling us to the marketers of underarm deodorant and the snoops of Homeland Security? Maybe not. The fact is, though, that when we got the gee-whiz good stuff, we also got the bad stuff. They don’t worry about that very much, I’m sure, and won’t unless and until a million or so of us show up under their balconies with pitchforks and torches. This, if we can pull it off, should confirm for us that a) there are good reasons why some folks think that democracy has enduring value, b) nothing in human affairs is ever over and done with, and c) the good should be applauded, the bad should be fixed, and even geniuses sometimes have to be taught the error of their ways.

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albert 09.25.14 at 11:06 am

@20 PV is an utterly insignificant share of total electrical generation, it’s about 1/2 of 1/10 of 1% of global generating capacity.

That’s wrong on fact too. PV meets about 0.85% of global demand.

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J Thomas 09.25.14 at 11:41 am

“@20 PV is an utterly insignificant share of total electrical generation, it’s about 1/2 of 1/10 of 1% of global generating capacity.”

That’s wrong on fact too. PV meets about 0.85% of global demand.

And growing exponentially.

Increase the rate of exponential growth and that nearly-1% could add up pretty quick.

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Barry 09.25.14 at 12:02 pm

Seconding Timberman here. The police have become heavily militarized, and an incredible system of surveillance set up, over this period.

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Sandwichman 09.25.14 at 4:06 pm

79, 80 and 83.

My epistemology is to never attribute to malice and cunning what can be sufficiently explained by stupidity and stubbornness. I don’t assume that such an explanation is the truth but in the absence of unimpeachable evidence to the contrary, it shields me from being paranoid or being called paranoid. The one exception is Nassau W. Senior, who was clearly spawn of the devil.

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William Timberman 09.25.14 at 4:25 pm

Sandwichman @ 84

A prudent epistemology, if not always a wise one, I would say. The problem with waiting for unimpeachable evidence, at least on the scale we’re talking about, is that barring some unanticipated and miraculous evolution of our technologically-assisted cognitive abilities, we’ll be waiting an awful long time, long enough, indeed, to conclude that for all practical purposes, such evidence will never be forthcoming. If we want to know what it is that seems to be stabbing us in the back all the time, we’ll be forced to wing it, to black-box it, to rely on some crisply modern, and therefore presumably unimpeachable version of by their fruits ye shall know them. This alternate epistemology may be neither prudent nor wise, may in fact be partly or wholly mistaken, but at least puts another variable into play.

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Plume 09.25.14 at 4:27 pm

@80,

Are you trying to say that the list you give isn’t right wing? Gates, perhaps, could be called left of center. But the rest? Bezos is a propertarian, a right wing libertarian, and the Google boys fit in there as well. Zuckerberg had his company in ALEC until recently, so it’s unlikely that he’s left of center. Most of the Internet billionaires are right of center on economic issues, and a bit left of center on some social issues. Just some. A good way to see the broader context of that is to Google things like leftist, Marxist and Socialist and you’ll typically get a host of heavily critical links. Do the same for something like Austrian Economics and you’ll more likely get links to those who favor those views.

Apple? Do a search in the Itunes store for Marx and you’ll likely find an incredibly biased account by the Von Mises institute.

Sometimes this is very subtle. Other times not so. But, basically, our media tilt to the right as does the Internet overall. The folks who own that make sure of it.

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Bruce Wilder 09.25.14 at 4:39 pm

the powers that be would only go down such a path by default and abdication

I was talking idly with a friend the other night, and he offered an observation that his father had made, to the effect that sometimes a dictator was the best choice. We had been weighing the frustrations of neighborhood politics, and how committees can seem prone to be stupider than any one of their members.

I proceeded to defend democracy. (I actually think he wanted to make the point that leaving Saddam Hussein in power in Iraq might have been the better choice, but we were drunk and sitting in a warm swimming pool, and the conversation was . . . wide-ranging.) Democracy, when it works well, is the superior political method, because it is deliberative, because it forms collective intention. Working democracy is committees that are smarter than any of their individual members, and even if “smarter” is not wiser, working democracy results in a state that can mobilize society in a powerful way on behalf of shared purposes, because everyone cooperating together knows what they are doing and why.

Democracy, to work well, requires deliberation, and deliberation requires reason and entails, for lack of a better term, the raising of consciousness. Collectively, we wake from our slumbers and think. On another thread, there’s a discussion of Arendt and Eichmann; Arendt thought Eichmann couldn’t think. It’s requires a non-intuitive understanding of what it means to “think” to even understand, but it is relevant, here, because Eichmann was committed to dictatorship and the blood spirit of the volk. Thinking and feeling are social activities. Getting to a place, where one can think realistically and adaptively about public purposes and Kantian rules requires deliberation and reason.

The discussion of climate change, resource limits and the like, I view as a struggle to deliberate, to reason about what is happening to us collectively, as a society and as a civilization, and by dint of deliberative reason building consciousness, to gain some control of our shared direction and velocity. To gain control of a process requires a model; we’re building that model. To cooperate effectively, we need a shared understanding of what we are about, so that we recognize the right thing to do as the legitimate thing to do.

It’s a frustrating activity, this deliberative reasoning and imagination — there’s effort and a lot of mistakes and failure and falling short. It’s an activity, about which most of us feel considerable ambivalence.

Political economy is something humans do. The Hayekian market economy, the neoliberal market economy — these are myths, of course, but in operation, as the globalized market economy we live, these are slime molds. There’s an adaptive intelligence distributed about its greedy little neural net, but neither much central direction nor deliberative reason. Our political economy is a slime mold that’s about to overrun its petri dish. If we, collectively, can evolve politically, so that we are a bit smarter than a slime mold, we — that is, civilization — might find the means to continue, to manage our petri dish. Otherwise, our highly organized political economy will fall apart and a large part of the slime mold will sicken and die.

So, yeah, this has been a long-winded way of affirming that, yes, the powers-that-be may be going down a path destructive to the whole, and going down that path by default and abdication.

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Bruce Wilder 09.25.14 at 4:40 pm

My epistemology is to never attribute to malice and cunning what can be sufficiently explained by stupidity and stubbornness.

My epistemology is to try not to get hung up in a hypnotic trance, trying to differentiate what may well be two aspects of the same thing.

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Bruce Wilder 09.25.14 at 4:44 pm

And, if you’re not paranoid, you’re not paying attention.

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J Thomas 09.25.14 at 5:01 pm

#84 Sandwichman

My epistemology is to never attribute to malice and cunning what can be sufficiently explained by stupidity and stubbornness.

I like to try it both ways, and then see if there’s some way I benefit by choosing between them.

I don’t assume that such an explanation is the truth but in the absence of unimpeachable evidence to the contrary, it shields me from being paranoid or being called paranoid.

What do you care what other people think? Some of them will think you’re evil and others will think you’re stupid, and how does it matter either way?

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Plume 09.25.14 at 5:11 pm

Methods, being an aspect of epistemology . . . hmm. Well, brevity is helpful in that regard. Never say in a thousand words what could be said in 200 — at least when it comes to the comment portion of Internet blogs.

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William Timberman 09.25.14 at 5:11 pm

Plume @ 86

To the extent that some of these young men have a political philosophy, what you say about it is true. Given their successes, and perhaps even more, their lack of experience with failure, wouldn’t we sort of expect them to profess some sort of libertarianism? Later on, they may grow into the sort of classic evildoing we’re familiar with from the Koch brothers, but for the moment what they think about politics is less worrisome, in my opinion, than changes they’ve collectively wrought on the infrastructure of our civilization.

As for some of the older paragons — I’m thinking principally of Bill Gates — one wonders how to balance interventions like his bull-in-a-china-shop meddling with public education with those like his support for immunization programs in the underdeveloped parts of the world. The problem with money and power concentrated almost by accident in the hands of what amounts in many ways to an idiot savant, is that almost certainly it would be better exercised if it were more widely distributed.

Democracy again, and management, and the feedback between them is what this amounts to. How their interactions are to be optimized, is, I suspect, what makes Bruce Wilder an institutionalist, and leaves me wondering how, even with the best will in the world, it’s taken me 71 years to get nowhere much at all.

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Plume 09.25.14 at 5:18 pm

William,

Well said.

I agree. What they’ve done is subtle in a lot of ways, and they’re not yet in the Kochistan category. Bezos now has the Washington Post, and recently put a Reagan hagiographer in charge, so it’s likely to change the paper quite a bit. But it was already a neocon outfit in some ways, at least on its Editorial Page. I don’t know if the changes there will be so subtle.

I’m in my 50s, but I understand what you’re saying about treading water. I suspect you’ve done quite a bit in other areas of your life to more than make up for the lack of “success” as society sees it, if that is the case. The success part, etc.

What we need is to redefine what “success” means, of course. The current idea strikes me as toxic. With or without the current wave of libertarian billionaires . . . . though I think they make it worse.

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William Timberman 09.25.14 at 5:32 pm

Plume @ 93

Individuals have their part to play, be it ever so humble or grand, but it’s the health of the collective that matters. At the moment BW’s slime mold metaphor (I’m perhaps overly fond of the capitalism-as-cancer metaphor myself) seems uncomfortably apt. Expecting the Obamas and Clintons of the world to give us a hand with such things is, I think, an act of self-lobotomization — and that’s being charitable.

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Plume 09.25.14 at 5:44 pm

William,

I’m partial too to the cancer metaphor, and it has personal resonance many times over. Metaphorically and literally. Both via the effects of capitalism and the effects of cancer. As a survivor without closure of both. Both being seemingly incurable in my case . . . and in the case of so many others.

Hillary or Obama as “saviors.” I like a lot of what Hal Draper says here, referring to the two souls of socialism. But the same could be said when it comes to most any political ideology. The delusion of the great man or great woman, swooping in, deux ex machina style, to save the day.

It’s corny and a cliche beaten to within an inch of its life, but it’s true: It’s really up to all of us, not the Obamas and Hillarys of this world.

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Sandwichman 09.25.14 at 6:15 pm

@85 & 87-91

Let’s just say I don’t exclude the possibility of malice and forethought, I just weigh the chance of getting a guilty verdict from “the jury,” whoever that may be.

To return to the topic at hand, I find the climate denialists and the economic armaggedonists less worrisome than green growthers, who I definitely do not suspect of malice. The right wingers at least are consistent in magical thinking. Green growth is science motivated by magical thinking. Bill Rees points out that GDP growth could grow indefinitely — in theory — “if it weren’t linked to something real.” Green growth finds all its eggs in that basket of “theory” and then proclaims, “if we had some sustainability bacon, we could have some sustainability bacon and growth eggs, since we’ve got some theoretical eggs!” This confuses the logical “if… then” with the empirical “since… therefore.” But those growth/eggs are a proposition of logic — a tautology, not an empirical fact about the world.

“Theories which make a proposition of logic appear substantial are always false.” — Wittgenstein.

By the way, this confusion of pure theory and empirical substance is not at all limited to green growth ideology but is endemic in the hypothetical method of economics, as T.W. Hutchison pointed out some 78 years ago.

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Trader Joe 09.25.14 at 6:37 pm

“Democracy, to work well, requires deliberation, and deliberation requires reason and entails, for lack of a better term, the raising of consciousness.”

Let me start with a confession – when it comes to climate change topics I’d like to have the confidence that JQ and many of the other defenders here have, but frankly I don’t. The noise has outweighed the signals even though the signals are critically important.

I don’t know if 450 or 350 or any other number of PPM is the right answer.

I don’t know if 2 degrees or 1.8 or 2.31745 or any other rational or irrational number is correct.

The sea will rise by an inch or a foot or three feet – Yes? Surely one of these.

I read decarbonisation estimates that range from “potentially negative” costs to “potentially trillions” of costs and become fully confident the range has been captured, but the median is unknown.

I do think the scientists are correct.

I don’t think the deniers are.

I can’t tell with the economists. I just can’t, despite more than ample education and more than a few efforts to try.

For those engaged on this topic the acceleration is 0 to 60 in about 1 minute to a degree of minutae that just boggles the average guy who memorized lists to pull a B- in science class.

Years of listening to “scientists” tell us that eggs are either good or bad or both good and bad for our heart leave us just as confused as those telling us that solar will be good or bad or both good and bad for carbon dependency.

BW nails it – Raising the consciousness is what will make politicians do something, anything.

Right now raising consciousness for the average guy = recycling your beer cans, driving a higher MPG car and turning off the light when you exit a room. The rest just seems like being polite.

Saying something will happen at anytime post-October 2014 if we don’t do X is not going to stop the TV from toggling between ESPN and E! network.

Signed,
A frustrated economist, ecologist, wanna be Earth improver.

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Sandwichman 09.25.14 at 6:44 pm

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Omega Centauri 09.25.14 at 7:05 pm

sandwichman:
I don’t think your giant aversion to green-growthers is sensible. I’m fully aware that the exponential growth that our current political-economy feels is essentail has a sell-by date. But I think of the green-growth movement as more of a marketing gimmick for policy changes that at least move us in the right direction, than a good-for-all-times blueprint. Green growth “in our time” might be possible, I’m happy to leave “green-steady-state” for future generations to figure out.

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Sandwichman 09.25.14 at 7:28 pm

Omega Centuri: “I think of the green-growth movement as more of a marketing gimmick…”

I’ve considered that. It’s a plausible argument. I also consider the messages and the results. Content analysis — Message-Audience-Purpose-Situation kind of thing. Actually there is a whole academic industry that revolves around looking at that sort of thing. There was a really interesting paper by Robert Cluley and Stephen Dunne published in 2012 in Marketing Theory. It didn’t look specifically at green growth but at the social marketing of “ethical and sustainable consumption.”

Leaving aside Cluley and Dunne’s somewhat gloomy conclusions, the point is that to be effective a “marketing gimmick” has to be well conceived. Being a gimmick doesn’t exempt a strategy from evaluation of whether it is achieving what it is intended to achieve. My “giant aversion” is not simply to the “idea” of green growth but particularly to the flippant refusal of green growthers to engage with — or often even acknowledge — critical evaluations of their strategy or their tactics.

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J Thomas 09.25.14 at 7:47 pm

Being a gimmick doesn’t exempt a strategy from evaluation of whether it is achieving what it is intended to achieve. My “giant aversion” is not simply to the “idea” of green growth but particularly to the flippant refusal of green growthers to engage with — or often even acknowledge — critical evaluations of their strategy or their tactics.

But for a gimmick that would be suicidal. It’s important to be able to ignore critical evaluation.

Consider Reagan’s “voodoo economics”. It was indefensible, so he never tried to defend it.

Or his “Star Wars”. The analysts all said that it could not work. The technology was not there, then. Reagan deployed it anyway, with no thought for his own analysts.

Consider the buildup for the Iraq war. It was important to shout down the analysts, if we got bogged down in thinking about exit strategies and such we’d never get started.

There are probably people somewhere doing serious planning, who would welcome constructive criticism. But when it’s a marketing gimmick that’s designed to get people to think it will work, they have no use for somebody who has a counter-marketing gimmick who wants to emit soundbites to make people think it won’t work. You want to shut them down, so they want to shut you down. There’s no hint of honesty on either side, because that isn’t what that game is about.

I like to get in that sort of attack and make honest appraisals of the arguments on both sides, because that confuses them. But I can’t really hope to have real effect from it.

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Bruce Wilder 09.25.14 at 7:48 pm

the economic armageddon hypothesis: decarbonization will involve economic costs sufficient to greatly reduce living standards, or, for poor countries, prevent catchup to the developed world

I still haven’t figured out if I am an economic armaggedonist (is that going to be a word?).

Please, anyone, advise.

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J Thomas 09.25.14 at 8:06 pm

I still haven’t figured out if I am an economic armaggedonist (is that going to be a word?).

Please, anyone, advise.

If we burn all the fossil fuels that will be extractible at reasonable cost, they will run out pretty soon. Poor countries will get a little bit of it because as prices rise they can’t afford more than a little bit. Then it will be gone.

If we leave some fossil fuels in the ground, that is wealth that we otherwise could burn up. So there will be less wealth total than there would otherwise be. The little sliver of it that poor nations would get will not go to them. If rich nations feel poorer because they don’t get to burn every last bit of the fossil fuels that they expected and intended to, they might look harder for ways to extract more wealth from poor nations. That would make the poor nations even worse off.

I think it’s central that this is a one-off thing, and not a continuing one. It’s like — if Brazil were to choose not to clear-cut their entire rain forest, then their poor people lose out on the economic benefits of cutting down the last tree. That’s a sacrifice for poor people who could make good money using chainsaws. But if instead they do cut down every last tree then it’s over and the poor people will have to do something else. They get a short temporary reprieve that couldn’t last long. Strictly temporary.

If we find something that does give them sustainable wealth — jobs, stuff to buy, etc — that would make the temporary boost kind of irrelevant. Like, if we get photocells that are cheap enough, eventually people might be cutting down the rainforests so they can have more places with good light. With enough good cheap energy they won’t care a whole lot about the dregs of the dirty fuel that’s running out.

So that seems like a good goal to me. I don’t know how attainable it is. But if it fails, then we’ll still have to face the music as the fossil fuels gradually run out, just a little later.

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Sandwichman 09.25.14 at 8:18 pm

armaggedonist (is that going to be a word?)

One hopes not. But it almost rhymes with hedonist.

What we see today is a schism in the bipartisan crackpot-realist camp. One faction escalates the crackpottery and the other emphasizes the realism. There is nothing more vitriolic that a fight between factions. Mimetic rivalry.

105

Matt 09.25.14 at 9:18 pm

There are at least two ways to be a decarbonization economic armageddonist. The first is, as you said, to believe “decarbonization will involve economic costs sufficient to greatly reduce living standards, or, for poor countries, prevent catchup to the developed world.” The second is to believe that economic armageddon is a proven but brutal means of decarbonization.

I am not the first type of armageddonist but the second seems proven beyond doubt. The most rapid decline of CO2 emissions seen in the postwar West was shortly after the Great Financial Crisis hit. Even more spectacular and prolonged was the economic suffering — and corresponding drop in CO2 emissions — seen after the breakup of the USSR.

There are too many people now living and projected to be living this century to give them a decent life without completely trashing the biosphere, at least if we continue to rely on combustion technologies as in the past. I don’t think that killing the living or ‘nudging’ them toward shorter lives is an acceptable solution either, though declining fertility rates will help in the long term.

On another topic, which is really the same topic: how can people live good lives within low carbon budgets? And without positing a technological deus ex machina?

I don’t like the Cuban restrictions on speech and politics*. But Cuba is a wonder when it comes to providing for present and future human needs on a modest carbon budget. It emits about 2.4 tonnes per capita, less than half the world average. It achieved sub-replacement fertility rates 35 years ago. It has a Human Development Index of 0.815, significantly higher than its carbon-intensity peers like Egypt, Tunisia, Botswana, Grenada, Lebanon, and North Korea. On HDI it surpasses or matches China, Russia, and Bahrain — while those countries emit 3.0, 4.6, and 8.6 times as much CO2 per capita, respectively. Cuban life expectancy at birth is on par with that of Denmark and Chile, its rates of literacy and primary education completion are world-class, and it has achieved this without technological wonders and despite decades of harassment from the United States.

*Nor do I like the USA’s attempts to control the politics of Cuba, either, in case any one was wondering.

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cassander 09.26.14 at 2:43 am

@ albert

>That’s wrong on fact too. PV meets about 0.85% of global demand.

not according to the international energy agency.

http://www.iea.org/publications/freepublications/publication/KeyWorld2013.pdf their figures arre .06% for PV solar

@j thomas

>And growing exponentially.

first, it most certainly is not growing exponentially. second, even if it were, it’s easy to put up big numbers in percentile terms when you are growing from nothing. as always, there is a relevant XKCD.

http://xkcd.com/1102/

@Matt

Putting the ugliness of the cuban regime aside, you are leaving out the elephant in the room, the cuban climate. It’s a hell of a lot easier to not use energy when you live in a place where the temperature rarely dips below 70 or rises above 80 degrees. the same energy use in a russian or korean winter would flat out kill people.

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John Quiggin 09.26.14 at 7:12 am

@106 The link in your post doesn’t appear to contain the figure you cite. It gives non-hydro renewables (solar, wind, geothermal etc) 4.5 per cent of total electricity supply as of 2011. That number has obviously grown a lot since 2011, and wind and solar have about equal shares in recent additions.

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Matt 09.26.14 at 8:17 am

I believe that 106 is referring to the share of world primary energy rather than electricity. This is a problematic comparison for wind, hydro, and solar PV though. ‘Primary energy’ includes all thermal energy released in converting fuels to useful work. Most of this primary energy is wasted; only combined cycle gas turbines and very large diesel engines can regularly achieve above 50% conversion of fuel chemical energy to useful work.

Since hydro, wind, and solar PV operate off of direct kinetic tapping of fluid flows and the photoelectric effect respectively, and not as heat engines, they look deflated in an accounting of primary energy. If you make a megawatt hour of electricity from coal, and the same megawatt hour of electricity from wind, they’ll show as the same in electrical production but the coal system will look bigger in primary energy accounting, since it produced a lot of extra (and usually wasted) thermal energy along with the useful electricity. The less efficient the conversion of heat to work, the bigger a system looks in terms of primary energy.

Some energy reviews try to correct for the difference between heat engines and other means of energy production by back-inflating the numbers from hydro, wind, and solar PV for primary energy comparisons. That means that, for example, they’ll estimate that the average heat engine is only 33% efficient, and so make solar PV count for triple in the primary energy figures to put it on a level playing field with heat engines. I think BP’s Statistical Review of World Energy does back-correction in roughly this way. I’m not sure what the convention is with the IEA report.

Really there is no way to do an apples-to-apples comparison here. Reporting the raw primary numbers gives a shrunken view of renewable energy progress and back-inflated renewable numbers are unphysical. If all energy services could be provided from wind power instead of the current mixture of energy sources, it would look like the world suffered a devastating loss of primary energy production in raw statistics. But the part of primary energy production that ‘went away’ would only be waste energy.

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J Thomas 09.26.14 at 9:26 am

I looked at the whole thing and didn’t see any data about solar or wind energy. They were bundled into “other”.

A lot of the numbers came from 2011 and some from 2010, so if they had included data about those things it would have been obsolete, since wind and photovoltaic use is increasing exponentially. I noticed they listed the USA as importing twice as much oil as China, while today those are about even.

Maybe this was not the link you were looking for.

110

Brett Bellmore 09.26.14 at 10:09 am

“If you make a megawatt hour of electricity from coal, and the same megawatt hour of electricity from wind, they’ll show as the same in electrical production but the coal system will look bigger in primary energy accounting, since it produced a lot of extra (and usually wasted) thermal energy along with the useful electricity. ”

OTOH, if you have a nameplate capacity of a megawatt in coal, and a nameplate capacity of a megawatt in wind or solar, they’ll show up the same in some accountings, but the coal will actually give you a heck of a lot more energy. Especially if you take into account the fossil fuel powerplant that’s sitting there with its turbines spinning, wasting perfectly good energy, just so that it can take over if a cloud passes in front of the sun.

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The Raven 09.26.14 at 3:01 pm

John Garrett@27: “If you talk to people in the energy business, they tend to dismiss solar etc. in their professional lifetimes”

There are really two different businesses with two different business models: selling fossil energy and gathering energy sustainably; they meet at distribution. “The energy business” largely consists of selling fossil energy, so that is the business people know.

For this reason, also, I am very dubious of claims of competitiveness for sustainable energy. I don’t see how there can be anything like as much money in selling the equipment that gathers and distributes energy as there is in selling the energy itself.

112

Martin Bento 09.26.14 at 3:05 pm

John, I’m not seeing your argument here. The reports you point to argue that 2% over pre-industrial baseline is probably achievable while maintaining more-or-less contemporary living standards in the developed world and continued growth in the rest. 2% is a target settled on in international negotiations partly because it was thought to be achievable. That doesn’t in itself mean it is sufficient. Many here have pointed to credible sources like Hansen saying that 2% is not low enough to prevent catastrophe. You respond that Hansen doesn’t understand the economics. So what? This is a scientific question, and if the science says that 2% is not adequate, it doesn’t matter what the economics says: science trumps.

Then you say this:

“The question of whether we should be aiming at 350 ppm or 450 ppm is really orthogonal to the point of the OP. Since we’ve already passed 400 ppm we can’t get to 350 except by stopping net emissions somewhere near 450 then starting to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. That’s not going to happen until the second half of this century and will require technologies entirely different from those needed to decarbonize energy systems”

The argument of the OP is that the climate crisis can be solved without requiring the living standards of the developed world to decline much from where they would be were there no climate crisis and without forcing the developing world to develop much more slowly than it would otherwise. You argue further that this is so incontrovertibly proven that any who doubt it must be arguing from some irrational commitment to priors. Your primary evidence is the reports you cite. How can it be irrelevant whether the target those reports claim can be met is adequate to prevent catastrophe? If it is not, everything in the reports could be correct and the “armageddonists” could still be right. And the fact that meeting the lower targets will require new technologies beyond what the reports address argues against the adequacy of their solutions not for it.

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The Raven 09.26.14 at 3:06 pm

This morning’s news also brings

sediment cores from below the Red Sea bolster two key tenets of climate experts, scientists reported Thursday: A three-foot sea level rise in a century is by no means extreme, and once ice sheets start to melt, that process is likely to accelerate for several centuries.

We’re f—d, we’re so f—-d.

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The Raven 09.26.14 at 3:07 pm

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cassander 09.26.14 at 4:34 pm

Matt is correct about primary energy. and they include a conversion table for various forms of energy in the appendix for doing what you describe. As for the fact that solar is bundled, they have more detailed studies if you prefer, but you shouldn’t need them. other is 1.5 percent of total, and since considerably (i.e. orders of mag) more wind and geothermal power are made than solar, you it’s not possible to get to the 1% figure you guys were claiming. If you want the detailed figured, you can go deeper into the website.

And lest anyone object, primary energy is a better measure than electricity because it captures all of the work done in non-electrical generation, e.g. transportation. If you want an accurate picture of what ended fossil fuels would look like, you need to include them as well.

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Plume 09.26.14 at 4:49 pm

Brett @110,

First. Solar energy can be and is stored. Backup systems don’t have to come online immediately. Second. Backup systems don’t have to and don’t generally run parallel to the main energy systems. They kick on when needed. And we’ve long had the technology for that.

In my former place of work, I sat very close to the power backup. It was silent until our electrical system would go offline, for one reason or another. Then it would (automatically) roar into action. And this was a pretty crude sort of set up, but it worked to supply power for a large building — well, really three good-sized connected buildings. There are certainly more sophisticated systems available, which would monitor the power usage of the main generators, and get the backup ready to kick in in a seamless way. If our very crude system allowed for no more than a hiccup in continuous power, better systems definitely exist to completely mute that hiccup.

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J Thomas 09.26.14 at 6:00 pm

As for the fact that solar is bundled, they have more detailed studies if you prefer, but you shouldn’t need them. other is 1.5 percent of total

That was 1973. For 2011 this report calls it 3.4%. And it’s been growing exponentially and is higher now.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_Energy_Agency#Critics
Various people criticize the IEA for being too optimistic about coal and too pessimistic about alternatives. I haven’t compared to other sources to see how much criticism they get, nor have I made any attempt to find out how must justification there is for the criticism.

A 2008 EWG report compares IEA projections about the growth of wind power capacity and finds that it has consistently underestimated the amount of energy the wind power industry can deliver.[18]

For example, in 1998, the IEA predicted global wind electricity generation would total 47.4 GW by 2020, but EWG’s report states that this level was reached by the end of 2004.[19] The report also said that the IEA has not learned the lesson of previous underestimates, and last year net additions of wind power globally were four times greater than the average IEA estimate from its 1995-2004 predictions.

A consistent record of failed predictions doesn’t say that it would publish incorrect data for 2011.

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Matt 09.26.14 at 6:23 pm

In the United States at least, according to LLNL’s energy flow charts, electricity generation is the single largest consumer of primary energy, at 38.2 quads, while transportation is number two at 27.0 quads. Total primary energy does cast a wider net since it includes things like industrial furnaces, home furnaces, and transportation. I think that the difference between a combustion-heavy Business as Usual scenario and a heavily electrified scenario cannot be captured by a simple conversion factor. Switching a large fraction of US passenger vehicle travel from internal combustion engines to electric vehicles would lead to a primary energy consumption drop of several quads annually, even without changing the current composition of the electrical generating mix or reducing useful energy services delivered.

There are a handful of energy services provided by fossil fuels that would particularly difficult to replace with electricity. They still look large in absolute terms, but account for only a modest fraction of current fossil fuel use:

-Metallurgical coal and, to a lesser extent, natural gas, used to reduce iron ore (and to a lesser extent, other ores) to metals
-Fuel for aircraft, ships, heavy trucks, military and agricultural machinery

That’s about it. Trains, buses, light trucks, and passenger vehicles can be electrified. Process heat can come from electric heat. Heat for climate control can come from direct electrical resistance heating or, more efficient in all but the very coldest conditions, electrically driven heat pumps. Mining operations use a lot of diesel fuel… to power generators for their electrically driven equipment. Large quantities of natural gas are used to make artificial nitrogen fertilizers, but the gas is really just a source of hydrogen, also obtainable by water electrolysis.

Fossil fuels are still useful for making organic chemicals, but those aren’t exactly energy services; neither a plastic deck chair nor a bottle of detergent is expected to heat your house in winter or propel a vehicle. In the longer run, people will run out of fossil fuels even if they are only used to make chemicals, and will have to turn to biomass and electrically produced synthesis gas for basic organic chemical building blocks. It’s possible to make gasoline or jet fuel starting from nothing but water, air, and electricity. But it’s also a lot more expensive than the historical process starting with crude oil, so people will probably look for ways to minimize use of liquid fuels first.

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Omega Centauri 09.26.14 at 6:47 pm

Brett@110, the talking point about older fossil generators losing efficiency because they are idling (or running at less than full arted output) in favor of variable renewables is massively overstated. It is true however that coal plants cannot be quckly turned on/off -and thermal cycling does create thermally induced mechanical stresses on equipment. But most ramping is done by natural gas generators, not coal, and the newer designs are specically designed to handle fast ramping (15minutes).
Interesting anumber of so far small battery storage facilities are now being built. It seems storage batteries can compete with the cost of some current peaking technology (i.e. the capital cost of the batteries, plus the power used to charge them, is less per kilowatt than an infrequently used fossil peaking generator.

Raven @111
“I don’t see how there can be anything like as much money in selling the equipment that gathers and distributes energy as there is in selling the energy itself.”
Most renewables, with the exception of distributed solar is in largish scale installations, such as windfarms and utility scale PV plants. These are in the business of selling pwer. The usual opportunity to collect rents by using capital to generate power for the markey still applies. The cost balance between capital cost and operating expense is changed however.
And even for distributed generation solar, a popular financing scheme is corporate power purchase agreements. The customer gets power at a prenegotiated rate, and the capitalist gets a stable revenue stream.

120

The Raven 09.26.14 at 7:05 pm

Plume@116: there is enormous and intense research in what is called “grid-scale energy storage“–that is, vastly improved battery technology. There is the new Joint Center for Energy Storage Research at Argonne. Also, of course, electric car manufacturers have a huge interest in improved energy storage.

So, unless the reactionaries stop it, it’s going to be done. Question is, will it be done quickly enough? And, BTW, if the Republicans take the Senate, I expect they will defund the JCESR, so that’s one more reason to get out and vote.

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The Raven 09.26.14 at 7:28 pm

Omega Centauri@119: there’s no need to spend anything to gather fossil energy—geological processes have already done that. I still wonder how there can be more profit in sustainable energy gathering than in fossil energy and mining.

Matt@118: “[Petroleum is] still useful for making organic chemicals.” Petrochemical feedstocks are byproducts of fuel production, which is paid for by the energy market. Without the support from fuel production, is any cost advantage in drilling for oil as opposed to using sustainable biological sources? That also connects something else I have been writing about: if we are to use biomass as a major input to our economy, it comes into competition with crop production. A hard question: can our current population be maintained in comfort by sustainable means? And, to address a solution you advocate, does nuclear power even solve the problem? Easily available inexpensive energy would make it easier to exhaust other resources, and the raw materials of the world are finite.

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Brett Bellmore 09.26.14 at 7:34 pm

“Brett@110, the talking point about older fossil generators losing efficiency because they are idling (or running at less than full arted output) in favor of variable renewables is massively overstated. ”

I don’t think it is so much “overstated” as “prospective”: It isn’t a real problem yet, because there’s so little of the unreliable, low duty cycle ‘renewable’ on the grid as yet, but could become a problem if wind and PV really did ramp up to become more than a couple percent of production.

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Plume 09.26.14 at 7:35 pm

The Raven,

Thanks for the links.

I can’t see the Dems holding the Senate at this point. And, IMO, they have no one to blame but themselves for that. Obama and they had every chance in the world in 2009 to show the country there were dramatic, essential differences between the two parties, but they decided to go the “safe” route and play Republican Lite instead. They’ve been doing this, pretty much, from the Carter years on, with blips here and there of actual integrity and principle.

This is why they will likely lose the Senate and why they lost the House in 2010. Instead of exciting the populace — especially the young — they chose timidity, spinelessness and hoped they could win on “not as bad as the Republicans.”

Demographics and turnout favor their return to power in 2016, but what will they do with it? My bet is more of the same Republican Lite. They aren’t as bad as a the Republicans, but it sure would be nice to vote for a party that was head and shoulders above the rest.

I do have to give Obama major props on this recent development, though, and it was more than a pleasant shock to read about it:

Barack Obama to create world’s largest ocean reserve in the Pacific

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cassander 09.26.14 at 8:46 pm

@jthomas

>That was 1973. For 2011 this report calls it 3.4%. And it’s been growing exponentially and is higher now.

On page 6, it reports other as 1% energy production. the 3.4 figure you cite is energy consumption. Their consumption appears to be production minus what is consumed by power plants and some other costs. You could argue that it’s a better measure, but then you would have to face the fact that it shows OECD other production as only 1.8%. since solar power is overwhelmingly produced in the OECD, their other category is largely dominated by non-solar sources.

>A consistent record of failed predictions doesn’t say that it would publish incorrect data for 2011.

If you have some alterantive, equally thorough study, I’m happy to look at it, but I doubt it will be off by much.

@matt

>Trains, buses, light trucks, and passenger vehicles can be electrified.

They can be, but there are large efficiency losses in generating that power, transmitting it hundreds of miles, then transfering it to a moving vehicle. this means that you need more overall capability than you had before.

>Process heat can come from electric heat. Heat for climate control can come from direct electrical resistance heating or, more efficient in all but the very coldest conditions, electrically driven heat pumps. Mining operations use a lot of diesel fuel… to power generators for their electrically driven equipment. Large quantities of natural gas are used to make artificial nitrogen fertilizers, but the gas is really just a source of hydrogen, also obtainable by water electrolysis.

Again, you can, but only with substantial lossess of efficiency, to say nothing of the immense cost of replacing all of the legacy equipment we have now with new electric models.

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Matt 09.26.14 at 9:13 pm

Petrochemical feedstocks are byproducts of fuel production, which is paid for by the energy market. Without the support from fuel production, is any cost advantage in drilling for oil as opposed to using sustainable biological sources? That also connects something else I have been writing about: if we are to use biomass as a major input to our economy, it comes into competition with crop production. A hard question: can our current population be maintained in comfort by sustainable means? And, to address a solution you advocate, does nuclear power even solve the problem? Easily available inexpensive energy would make it easier to exhaust other resources, and the raw materials of the world are finite.

If there is no accounting for externalities, most polymers and chemicals made starting from gas/oil/coal will still be cheaper to make from fossil sources than from biomass, at least for the foreseeable future. If we are accounting for externalities… I don’t know. There are large negative externalities from using fossil fuels. There are also large negative externalities from most large biomass projects to date. Clearing land for oil palms, growing huge monocrop stands of eucalyptus, turning corn into fuel — these are all pretty bad in their own ways, and not all of the problems are easily expressed as CO2-emission-equivalents.

I think nuclear power can help some problems. It does not “solve the problem.” In fact I have a major gripe against people whose solution to every environmental ill is “install nuclear, problem solved.” Nuclear power entails lower GHG emissions and lower morbidity/mortality from pollution than energy production from coal, oil, or gas. It doesn’t really help with destruction of rainforest, loss of topsoil, loss of biodiversity, pesticide and fertilizer runoff, methane emissions from ruminant herds, toxic emissions from mining and metal refining, endocrine disrupting chemicals in the environment, or a dozen other environmental issues. It’s also pretty expensive. Nuclear energy so cheap that it makes trashing the rest of the biosphere a lot easier does not seem likely, to me.

The raw materials of the world are finite but very few of them actually get used up permanently. Nuclear fuels do get used up permanently; there is no way to reassemble uranium from its fission fragments. Fossil fuels get used up effectively-permanently; we can actually turn natural gas combustion products back into methane, but that costs more energy than the original fuel supplied. Other mineral resources, happily, do not get used up. All of them can be reclaimed from products at the end of life. Without pricing in externalities it is still cheaper to throw away the old and use new virgin raw materials in many cases, though. I see environmental challenges not as primarily about raw materials running out but of natural systems being overwhelmed by our ability to produce “stuff” of all sorts in vast quantities.

FWIW I don’t believe in infinite growth, at least not of the sort that holds at some fixed percentage, the kind that economists mean when they say things like “China is expected to grow at least 7% annually through 2020.” The Earth is finite, the Solar System is finite, even the visible universe is finite. A paltry 2% growth of anything means reaching physical impossibilities in a few thousand years. That which can’t go on forever, won’t.

Contrary to many economic approximations, human wants are not infinite either. At some point consuming more-of-the-same actually makes you worse off; nobody wants to drive 20 hours a day or eat 10 kilos of shrimp. At some point our ability to produce qualitatively different things to consume is also limited, by the laws of nature if nothing else. We are already several years in to the waning of Moore’s Law, that most optimistic of observations/metaphors/faiths, and most industries will never come close to the kind of growth curves the microelectronics industry enjoyed.

Can our current population be maintained in comfort by sustainable means? I think that it can, in the sense that no natural laws stand in our way. In the same sense children could have stopped starving to death generations ago. Yet that hasn’t happened. I think that a terrible environmental overshoot followed by bloody chaos and brutal, unfair wrenching back toward equilibrium is more probable than an orderly transition away from environmentally and socially destructive practices. I don’t think industrial civilization will disappear but I wouldn’t rule out gigadeaths later this century or early in the next. I would be happy if events come to prove me overly pessimistic on this point.

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cassander 09.26.14 at 9:48 pm

>Nuclear fuels do get used up permanently; there is no way to reassemble uranium from its fission fragments

in the event that lack of uranium ever becomes an issue, there are a number of possibilities, first breeder reactors and fuel reprocessing then by alternatives uranium fuel cycles, such as thorium.

> In fact I have a major gripe against people whose solution to every environmental ill is “install nuclear, problem solved.

this, to me, is one of the saddest things about the climate change movement, the way it has diverted energy, effort, and public attention from more immediate environmental problems, like overfishing.

>The Earth is finite, the Solar System is finite, even the visible universe is finite.

Finite, sure, but also very large. Arguing that we should give up on growth now because it can’t possible last for more than 10 thousand years strikes me as the ultimate example of putting the perfect before the good enough.

>Contrary to many economic approximations, human wants are not infinite either.

the desire for shrimp might be finite, but the desire for positional goods is, while not exacltly infinite at least insatiable, because competition in positional goods is zero sum.

>In the same sense children could have stopped starving to death generations ago.

Well, they did stop starving to death generations ago in the west. they largely stopped starving to death in large parts of asia, south america, and central europe in the last generation or so, largely because of the green revolution and the end of communism. the places where children still starve to death are now a decided minority.

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Omega Centauri 09.26.14 at 9:51 pm

“no need to spend anything to gather fossil energy—geological processes have already done that”
That was true in the early days before things got picked over. Why is the oil/gas industry spending $650Billion per year to create/maintain production? It requires ever increasing sophistication (and usually expense) to get the dregs that are left over out. It costs several million dollars to frack a well, and the production is much less than those old glory holes where you just had to poke a hole in the ground.

Loss of efficency due to curtailment from variable renewables has just not been a problem. Some substaintal sized places have much more than a few percent renewables, and are getting by just fine (such as Germany). The real people taking the hit are the owners of coal plants, since they no longer have pricy demand spikes to sell into. The real issue with renewables messing up fossil fuel generators, isn’t that the later can’t operate efficiently in swingproducer mode, its that they can no longer make a profit.

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Omega Centauri 09.26.14 at 10:42 pm

“They can be, but there are large efficiency losses in generating that power, transmitting it hundreds of miles, then transfering it to a moving vehicle. this means that you need more overall capability than you had before”
The efficency razor cuts the other way. Oil energy suffers many loses on the way to torque on a wheel. There is often substantial energy input just getting it out of the ground, and separating it from the brine/water that is usually far more abundant than the oil. Then it must be transported often thousands of miles to a refinery. The refinery adds natural gas and electrical energy in substantial doses. Then the fuel must be transported to your local gas station. And the end efficiency of small scale gas/diesel powered engines is much lower than central powerplants. the only place fossils might have an advantage is combines heat and power, where the “waste” heat is actually a substantial part of the product. For vehicles this would be those applications and climates where a lot of heating is used. Add to that the fact that there is a lot of internal loses in engines/transmissions (this is largely a result of the fact that they are sized for peak horsepower, rather than cruising horsepower). The net well to wheels energy consumption of an EV is much lower than a gas powered vehicle.

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Brett Bellmore 09.26.14 at 11:41 pm

“Nuclear fuels do get used up permanently; there is no way to reassemble uranium from its fission fragments. ”

True, but largely irrelevant; Extraction of Uranium from seawater with an adequate EROI has already been demonstrated, and the technology can only improve. The oceans contain about 4.5 billion tons of Uranium, and ongoing erosion of rock on land adds to this faster than we would have to extract it in order to supply all our energy.

The bottom line is that nuclear will be available until erosion stops adding Uranium to the sea, and that means some time after plate tectonics ends. Which is projected to be after the Sun moves off the main sequence, and renders the Earth uninhabitable.

Granted, this isn’t an unlimited supply of Uranium, but I think it will suffice.

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Martin Bento 09.26.14 at 11:47 pm

Cassander wrote:

“the desire for shrimp might be finite, but the desire for positional goods is, while not exacltly infinite at least insatiable, because competition in positional goods is zero sum. ”

But for that very reason positional goods provide no net utility. There is a lot of cultural variation in how much good accumulation is the primary route to status, so a materialist acquisitive ethic is not a matter of fate, at least not to anywhere near the extent that it exists now. We would be better off consciously shaping culture to attach status to things of intrinsic social value: creativity, generosity (e.g., potlatch culture), etc. We do, of course, attach status to these things, but not to the exclusion of material accumulation, and we would be better off seeking such an exclusion.

131

Matt 09.27.14 at 12:14 am

True, but largely irrelevant; Extraction of Uranium from seawater with an adequate EROI has already been demonstrated, and the technology can only improve. The oceans contain about 4.5 billion tons of Uranium, and ongoing erosion of rock on land adds to this faster than we would have to extract it in order to supply all our energy.

I was not trying to argue that uranium supply constraints will put an expiration date on the nuclear age, only explain that nuclear fuel is the rare mineral resource that truly is single-use-only. Everything that is not transformed at an atomic level by use — indium, neodymium, copper, etc. — is even less use-up-able.

The dilute but vast resource of uranium in the ocean could indeed be exploited at EROI > 1. Getting high EROI or supplying all global energy from annual erosion of continental rocks requires breeder reactors. The more common once through fuel cycle will not do it, nor even the halfway measure of conventional reactors plus fuel reprocessing. Every breeder to date has been more expensive than once-through reactors of the same generation, and the once-through reactors aren’t the cheapest items going either. I think it is an interesting question whether more energy will be supplied by fission or PV by mid-century, but I don’t think fuel constraints on either technology will have much to do with the answer. For intermittent renewables the million dollar question is how low you can get the storage cost (or equivalent coping mechanism), to accommodate high penetration. For fission the million dollar question is if it can reverse the ‘negative learning curve’ and start delivering on schedule, within a budget that doesn’t break the bank, like proper engineering. Oh, and if it can overcome the enormous acceptance problem it now faces from both accountants and the public at large.

132

Collin Street 09.27.14 at 12:19 am

The real issue with renewables messing up fossil fuel generators, isn’t that the later can’t operate efficiently in swingproducer mode, its that they can no longer make a profit.

But this is a general rule: if competition drives sale price down to marginal-cost-of-production + a small, essentially fixed percentage, then high-fixed-cost processes, including capital-intensive ones, can never make enough money to cover their running and setup costs.

133

J Thomas 09.27.14 at 1:05 am

But this is a general rule: if competition drives sale price down to marginal-cost-of-production + a small, essentially fixed percentage, then high-fixed-cost processes, including capital-intensive ones, can never make enough money to cover their running and setup costs.

Yes, but how likely is it that competition will be important enough to interfere? We’ve gotten very efficient at anti-competitive practices.

134

The Raven 09.27.14 at 1:32 am

Matt@125: “If there is no accounting for externalities, most polymers and chemicals made starting from gas/oil/coal will still be cheaper to make from fossil sources than from biomass, at least for the foreseeable future.”

Even if the easily-burned fractions of the petroleum cannot be marketed as fuel? Has this been studied? Not trolling you. I really don’t know.

“There are also large negative externalities from most large biomass projects to date.”

Of course there are. One can only take so much out of an ecosystem, even the artificial ecosystem of agriculture. And we need to preserve wilderness as well. An ecosystem that is turned totally to human use is not sustainable in the long term.

“Contrary to many economic approximations, human wants are not infinite either. ”

All they need to be is too much.

135

The Raven 09.27.14 at 1:38 am

Plume@123: the Senate may not be as bad off as you fear. The Princeton Election Consortium, who called 2012, says it’s balanced on a knife edge. So what happens in the next month is going to be determinative.

136

The Raven 09.27.14 at 1:42 am

Omega Centauri@127: “[gathering fossil energy was easy] in the early days before things got picked over. Why is the oil/gas industry spending $650Billion per year to create/maintain production?”

Good point. As you point out, fracking is fracking expensive, and the tar sands goo takes a lot of effort to extract. Maybe renewables win this fight. Do they win this fight if they have to power heavy industry in China, though?

137

John Quiggin 09.27.14 at 1:51 am

@133 This is a really tricky question. In principle, electricity spot markets can deal with all these problems. The swing suppliers get back their capital on the handful of occasions when electricity is in critically short supply and the price goes through the roof (in Australia, up to $10 000/MWh). In practice, that’s very fragile, open to manipulation etc

138

Barry 09.27.14 at 2:00 am

Matt: “For fission the million dollar question is if it can reverse the ‘negative learning curve’ and start delivering on schedule, within a budget that doesn’t break the bank, like proper engineering. Oh, and if it can overcome the enormous acceptance problem it now faces from both accountants and the public at large.”

Having a hundred or so plutonium production sites might be a pain to deal with….

139

J Thomas 09.27.14 at 2:33 am

Having a hundred or so plutonium production sites might be a pain to deal with….

Lots of stuff that will be a pain to deal with, but we can do it.

We’ve never had a really big nuclear power accident yet, but I’m pretty sure by the time we have three of them we’ll get it sorted out and we’ll be reasonably safe from then on.

140

john c. halasz 09.27.14 at 2:52 am

“We’ve never had a really big nuclear power accident yet,”

Whaaa?

141

J Thomas 09.27.14 at 3:51 am

“We’ve never had a really big nuclear power accident yet,”

Whaaa?

Depending on how you count, the biggest so far is either Chernobyl or Fukushima.

These are small compared to the size of potential accidents.

Other things equal, if the probability of an accident in one nuclear plant in a year is x, then the probability of not getting any accidents in 100 plants is (1-x)^100 and the probability of no accidents in 1000 plants is (1-x)^1000.

The more nuclear power plants we build, the faster we will get through the learning curve of operating them safely, because we will have more accidents early.

But of course, other things are not equal. The more nuclear technicians we train, the better we will get at training them. It will become more of a routine. So on the one hand, we’ll get good at teaching the things we know are important. On the other hand we’ll get complacent. Similarly with construction etc. Various factors will increase or reduce the risks, so past performance does not etc.

But if the risk is very small per plant, and if it doesn’t change much, the rule of thumb is that if you have a moderate-size accident like Fukushima every 30 years or so with N plants, then with 10*N plants you can expect one about every 3 years.

142

J Thomas 09.27.14 at 9:22 am

And the unknown probability of a large accident — which we cannot estimate at all because it’s never happened yet — will also go up about ten times.

143

cassander 09.27.14 at 9:21 pm

>Martin Bento

I don’t think you can do much to stop people from going after positional goods. sure, you can stop any one particular positional good, the long history of Sumptuary law attests to that, but people are status seeking creatures and if you stop one method of expression they’ll just find another. And it isn’t always easy to distinguish positional goods from goods. Sure, there are some obvious examples. Ancient athens at one point regulated how much stuff you were allowed to burn on your funeral pyre, but most cases are not so clear cut. Cars, for example, clearly have intrinsic value to them, but can also be positional. can you imagine how convoluted it would be to try to regulate the position out of them while preserving the people’s freedom to buy cars they genuinely love?

144

The Raven 09.28.14 at 8:30 pm

A last note on this.

John Quiggin@60:

The question of whether we should be aiming at 350 ppm or 450 ppm is really orthogonal to the point of the OP. Since we’ve already passed 400 ppm we can’t get to 350 except by stopping net emissions somewhere near 450 then starting to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. That’s not going to happen until the second half of this century and will require technologies entirely different from those needed to decarbonize energy systems.

We need to start now. We’d have done better to have started back when Al Gore published Earth in the Balance back in 1991.

Something I said above haunts me, when I wrote about a war on climate change. We need to make the kind of all-out effort on climate preservation we usually only make for wars. We need to be willing to do what it takes regardless of cost. See, telling people “We can do this, it’s cheap,” does not persuade. At the level of the wealthy and powerful they see this as something done to them, as personal offense. The whole economic argument is a distraction: the people in charge, they don’t care about costs—they just make that argument to persuade people who do care about cost. They don’t even really care about they physical reality, many of them, because at some deep-down level they think it’s just one more thing their vast wealth will resolve.

I don’t seem to have a conclusion here, beyond the two I have been pushing all along. We need to get started. We need to give it our all.

145

john c. halasz 09.28.14 at 8:32 pm

@144:

Yep.

146

Plume 09.28.14 at 8:46 pm

The Raven,

To me, it was always a bad strategy to put so much on “warming.” This just made it too easy for troglodytes to counter with some variation of the radical, “natural” changes in temperatures through the planet’s history. The far better tact would have been holistic. To look at all the ways in which human pollution destroys our habitat. And since all too many people couldn’t really care less about some little bird, or turtle, or even polar bears, it needed and needs to be put forward in terms that demonstrate effects on us. On human health and longevity. On our habitat.

Not just warming, or climate in general. But in toxicity levels, the destruction of the atmosphere, our rain forests, our seas, our fish and food supplies, our water supplies, the increase rates of cancer, asthma, ALS, MS, autism, etc. etc. Everything.

And it wouldn’t hurt to throw in the aesthetics of it all, either. Show the loss of natural beauty, shoreline, blue skies, forests, mountain tops and the like.

It never should have been about weather and climate, about warming, etc. etc. Even though farmers tell us it’s happened, birds tell us it’s happened, bees, polar bears, ice sheets, mountain tops, etc. etc. There is no mistaking that it’s happened and is getting worse. Severity of storms, droughts, floods, hurricanes, tsunamis, and on and on. But too many people look at all of that and see something “natural” still. Or, “the will of god.” As if it’s a punishment for the existence of gay people, feminists and liberals.

People need to be confronted with something so concrete, so in their face, they can’t possibly turn away. The warming of the planet really doesn’t do that, though it should. At least not yet.

147

Omega Centauri 09.28.14 at 9:45 pm

Raven @144, yes. But, these claims that it will be hugely expense, they are malicious misinformation designed to prevent or at least delay, the needed start. So we need to keep swatting down the mis/disinformation. I see the same with false claims about wind/solar being worse for the environment than fossil fuels -and similarly for EVs versus fuel powered transport….

We need to bring the public to the point where they realize these people have been lying to them about almost everything.

148

Bruce Wilder 09.28.14 at 10:36 pm

The Raven @ 144

Of course, we have started. Late. And, slowly.

Some writers — particularly those who focused on peak oil — have tried to make the point that the industrial revolution was a walk up a mountain, powered by expanding use of fossil fuels, and now we are past an inflection point, past the summit if you will, from now on, we will be descending the slope on the far side of our fossil fuel mountain of industrial plenty.

It’s not that we have to get started descending the slope. We are going to descend, like it or not — we get no choice in the matter of qualitative direction. Down is where we are headed. And, it is as if an invisible hand of depletion is pushing our descent.

The thing that is hard for some people to fully grasp is that, if civilization is not to collapse as we tumble down the slope, then we have to get ahead of our descent.

I wish I could come up with a better metaphor, but ascent and descent are the best I can come up with. When one is climbing a mountain, one builds the next step, before mounting it. One looks up, ahead, and plans the ascent, plans where to put one’s foot, where to anchor the safety lines. Such investments have the reward of enabling the ascent, but, if one delays or makes an error, it just slows the ascent. Delaying the ascent to find a safer, surer path, as conservative instincts might recommend, can be a good thing. The promise of the summit beckons, but never forces the pace.

When descending a mountain, the task may seem less challenging, but it is also less rewarding. Still, every step must be planned and prepared, just as surely as on the ascent. Failure to plan and prepare, especially when the descent becomes forced and involuntary, is to risk losing all control of the descent: to fall, with all the damage done that that implies.

The conservative impulse to delay and dither doesn’t serve us well on the descent, as it sometimes did on the ascent. It just increases the risk that we go tumbling down in uncontrolled free-fall.

That’s how I interpret the important difference between the pitch of John Quiggin on the one hand, and Peter Dorman on the other. Dorman is worried about the ways in which delay may bring us into contact with the forceful hand of depletion, hurrying our descent, and the ways in which a failure to plan and prepare might cause a stumble and slide, maybe in the form an economic depression or violent conflict over resources, which conflict itself consumes vast resources.

To have control over our descent, we have to get ahead of the consequences of the ascent that are now forcing that descent. We have to descend faster, at least for a time, to gain that control. And, that we are not doing.

Some of reasons why we do not want to descend faster are pretty obvious: most of us do not “want” to descend at all. Going higher was rewarding in manifest ways that going lower can not promise. “It doesn’t have to be that bad” is not much a rallying cry, but our reluctance to embrace our descent realistically shows up in our fantasizing about being able to rapidly replace coal power plants with solar pv and gasoline-powered automobiles with electric-powered ones, without really having to change anything, let alone everything. Some neo-hippies will embrace a simpler life, but others will reject it with vehement resentment. Some will look forward to a new singularity, in which the technology god rescues us from oblivion; personally, I think it more likely to deliver oblivion in gift-wrap, but that’s another comment.

The projections of economists that the IPCC summarized, which projected income gains (independent of climate change [or anything other than magic technological advance apparently]) by the end of the century of 4x to 10x, seem to me to entirely miss the mark concerning why we need to act now. They think we humans will continue to gain in power and capability over this century as we did in the last two centuries, despite having exhausted the earth’s assimilative capacity with the exercise of the power and capability we now have. I wish I live on their imaginary planet, instead of this real one.

149

Omega Centauri 09.28.14 at 11:01 pm

Bruce. I’m not so sure the peak oil analogy is such a good here. The problem, as I see it is the huge investment in improving the technology of fracking has apparantly opened up the next worst uqality of resource, one which is an order of magnitude larger than the conventional oil that is almost used up. So now rather than facing a conversion that was going to be forced on us because of a lack of oil, we now face the more subtle need to not use that oil because of the planets assimilative limits. We now have the option of a life-extension to the oilage, which would be disastrous to the ecosystem.

150

emmryss 09.28.14 at 11:08 pm

ZM@17 — ah yes, going on to a war-time mobilization economy —

You say Global Warming’s such an obvious catastrophe
Portending planet-wide chaotic instability
A greater threat to national security
Than invasion occupation or tyranny
The world we co-evolved with simply blown away

So where’s our sense of over-riding urgency
Why haven’t we declared a nation-wide emergency
Why haven’t we declared World War III

Where’s our Manhattan Project for carbon sequestration
And alternative energy innovation
Where’s our mass conscription
Total mobilization
Where’s our holy crusade to save civilization

Well …

To wage war we’d need an enemy
Of implacable hostility
And ruthless ingenuity
The mastermind behind the globalized conspiracy
To seize control of our whole fossil-fueled economy
And turn its engines of growth & prosperity
Into mass destruction weaponry
To raise the heat however many degrees
It takes
To trash our poor planet’s liveability

‘Cause without the spectre of this sinister foe
We got no one to fight
We got nowhere to go
We’ve had our War on Terror
Had our War on Drugs
Now we need his carbon-bombing
Troops of thugs
Out there raising the level of our seas
Spreading drought famine pestilence & tropical disease
Inciting heat waves wildfires
Hurricanes and floods
Or else … What??
We’re gonna turn on a dime
And wage war on us???

Line up our cars and trucks shoot ’em all in the head?
Stomp our air con units till they’re gasping for breath?

151

Rich Puchalsky 09.29.14 at 12:55 am

Good one, emmryss.

152

The Raven 09.29.14 at 1:19 am

emmryss@150: excellent. “In the alcoholic’s ‘battle with the bottle,’ just what is supposed to attain victory over what?” (Gregory Bateson)

153

JW Mason 09.29.14 at 2:19 am

We are already several years in to the waning of Moore’s Law

Do you have a cite/source for this? It would be nice to be able to make this claim in other contexts.

154

Matt 09.29.14 at 8:50 am

A decent overview on the petering out of Moore’s Law:

http://www.extremetech.com/computing/178529-this-is-what-the-death-of-moores-law-looks-like-euv-paused-indefinitely-450mm-wafers-halted-and-no-path-beyond-14nm

Or look at computer technology available in the mid 1990s and compare what’s available now, 20 years later. I recently calculated that if random access memory capacity had continued to grow at the rates considered normal in the mid 1990s, a workstation computer could now have several terabytes of memory. But the maximum workstation capacity I could find now actually topped out at 512 GB (0.5 terabytes) of RAM.

You can see symptoms in the consolidation of semiconductor device manufacturing too. There used to be dozens of manufacturers all in rough parity at the cutting edge of process technology. Now there are a just a handful of companies working with the latest processes: Intel, Samsung, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC), and GlobalFoundries. IBM is out of the game*. The whole nation of Japan is out of the game. The entire European Union is out of the game, unless you count fabs owned by one of the 5 foreign-headquartered companies named above.

Moore’s Law was an observation about economics and about engineering. Transistor count in a fixed area was regularly doubling without increasing prices. There are a lot of people who are whistling in the dark, proposing more expensive ways to keep Moore’s Law going longer. But if you actually have to charge more to increase transistor density, that’s no longer Moore’s Law. The magic of microprocessors was that they kept getting a lot better and cheaper at the same time.

*Meaning the construction and use of latest-generation lithographic processes. IBM and many other manufacturers have semiconductor fabs still operating on older processes, but they can no longer afford to keep pushing forward. If they need chips made on the best current process technology they need to contract out the actual manufacturing to one of those giant 4 companies that are still competitive.

155

ZM 09.29.14 at 2:48 pm

emmryss,
“ZM@17 — ah yes, going on to a war-time mobilization economy –
You say Global Warming’s such an obvious catastrophe

Or else … What??
We’re gonna turn on a dime
And wage war on us???
Line up our cars and trucks shoot ‘em all in the head?
Stomp our air con units till they’re gasping for breath?”

Thus was a Commenter-in-Exile Stirred from Her Rueful Lamentations to Issue a Rejoinder — in the form of a Sestina — to emmryss — who Addressed Rhyming Verse about a War Economy to the Aforementioned Commenter*

September’s winds preface Summer’s drought
as — exiled from comments betimes — I now stir
from chill’d restraints imposed, to sally hotly
forth again — since emmryss sings, and sings of war —
well, of war economies — in a song addressed to me!
— though Professor Quiggin bid I silent be.

Season of quince blossom and honey bee —
pray intercede for me that this drought
doth end and commentary be restored to me!
O sing — emmryss — do sing — of rage, rage to stir
against an enemy mastermind to war
on — O do rage and stir — blood boils so hotly.

But emmryss — pardon me (do take care, now — not too hotly) —
at #17 I spoke not of an enemy — do be
fair to me — or do declare of war
whereof I spoke therefore. Though there’s no drought
of war; as we speak the armies stir —
but emmryss — you shan’t attribute war to me!

“Wage war on us” ourselves — you say to me!
— so scornfully! — while the trees bend, branches hotly
thrashing in the breeze. The parked cars stir
their heads — they have heads? — ’twas said to be
a sci-fi tale — and, emmryss, now you say air-con — o’er used in drought —
breathes in and out? King Ludd — to war! to war!

But — seriously now — I’ve no want for war —
just pleasant thoughts of a mobilised economy remain dear to me!
emmryss, surely even you can see, the drought
of peace in the world today? Why bellow so hotly
when I simply say low-cost estimates appear to be
inadequately fitted to our task? Why stir,

emmryss, and mock poor me? So now I stir
in turn and write back to thee — of war,
and war economy, and the differences therein that be,
between these and — so at least it seems to me! —
a mobilised economy. O emryss, they say so hotly
changed will the weather be — and so enduring the drought

that surely we must wake, must stir / — O emmryss, it is a dagger to me!
believe me! this use of the word “war”! — / ; surely our hearts must one day hotly
be moved enough so as to be / ready to end this doubt & that day flood Action’s Drought.

*That I write comments in verse was requested previously by commenter Val, but I am poor at finding good rhymes so I did not try my hand at a limerick as she suggested. Comments in verse do take extra time compared to comments written normally, so I will not try to write a draft fixing up the inconsistencies in metre, especially since it might be deleted anyhow – although hopefully my exile was such a time ago that it is over now so all my versifying is not for naught?

156

John Quiggin 09.29.14 at 7:22 pm

@154 Thanks Matt. That’s consistent with my subjective experience, but a solid analysis is much more useful. (note to self: this really deserves a full-scale post).

157

BruceJ 09.29.14 at 9:46 pm

Tom Tomorrow runs with the ‘Let’s call it a war!’ .

Nothing substantive to add to the discussion but some levity. Related, I keep waiting for Michelle Obama to emphasize the importance of breathing to our health. With luck some of the wingnutariat will find ways not follow her evil socialist nanny-state advice…

158

BruceJ 09.29.14 at 9:57 pm

@156 John,

Beware of pushing Moores law too hard…it was, after all, a rule of thumb, and is constrained by a variety of factors. For instance the reason that so many companies that used to be in the fab business aren’t anymore is due more to economics than R&D.

Prices for electronics have plummeted to the point where it’s not profitable, and what we have is ‘good enough’.

The current line of attack is less ‘sheer numbers of transistors’ than ‘making them all sip a lot less power’; the real work today is in low power consumption rather than sheer cpu firepower.

Also, what do we need for terabytes of memory on our computers? The applications drive development, not vice versa.

When we went from 16-bits (8086) to 32-bits (Pentium and PowerPC) we got comparatively large increases of addressable memory that fit real-world uses (like photographs and video)..there were enormous increases in performance.

Going from 32 to 64-bit systems there were lesser improvements…performance was not doubled.

Huge strides have been made in GPU’s because this is one area where there is a need for better performance…video cards can now do real-time raytracing and rendering techniques. OS’es can make use of GPU’s to speed up certain classes of operation enormously.

We haven’t done the same for CPUs and memory because we just haven’t needed it.

This, more than a ‘failure’ of moores law is what’s behind the slowdown in development.

After all Apple now includes a 64-bit chip that’s as powerful as any desktop cpu…in a phone.

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