Dispatches from the Creation Wars

My Take on Global Warming

Mark Drapeau, a Fellow at the Center for Technology and National Security Policy of the National Defense University, was kind enough to send me a link to an op-ed piece that he and another military analyst wrote recently about a new Pentagon report on global warming as it relates to national security. It’s certainly very interesting that the Pentagon is taking global warming more seriously than the administration is. But it has also prompted me to offer some thoughts on global warming, something I’ve never done before because I just haven’t taken the time to really study the science of it.

Let me first say this: the consensus among qualified scientists certainly is that global warming is real and it is substantially man-made. Yes, there are some dissenting scientists who argue that global warming is a natural, perhaps cylical process, that has little to do with human activities. Because I haven’t really done the study necessary to really be able to evaluate such arguments, I don’t make strong claims either way. I have no strong reason to doubt the consensus opinion, but by the same token I have no strong reason to dismiss the dissenters out of hand either.

But here’s the key for me: I don’t think it matters. I know that probably seems like an odd statement given some of the doomsday scenarios some have offered – a vast increase in destructive weather patterns, global water shortages, rising sea levels destroying coastal cities, etc. But it seems to me that whether those worst case scenarios happen or not, and whether they are caused by human activity or are natural processes out of our control or not, have little effect on wise public policy choices.

What is the solution being proposed by those scientists arguing for global warming? The solution is to reduce our use of fossil fuels to generate energy and to reduce the use of technologies that add significant amounts of greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere. We can do that in lots of different ways, some of which involve conservation and some of which involve investments in new technologies that either use less, pollute less or use different sources of energy to run, sources which don’t put more carbon into the atmosphere.

Forget global warming for a moment and ask yourself this: shouldn’t we be doing those things anyway? Reducing our use of and dependence on fossil fuels for energy can only be a good thing for the world for a huge range of reasons. Even if global warming is one giant myth, the pollution that results from the burning of coal, oil and gasoline is real and unhealthy. Even if no city is ever flooded due to a rise in sea levels, investing in new technologies to generate power is going to have a hugely positive effect in terms of technological spinoffs.

Just think of the geostrategic benefits alone. If the US was able to cut its dependence on fossil fuels in half, the Middle East becomes a mildly interesting place where people don’t like each other rather than a geopolitical powderkeg that could destroy our economy. As it stands, the entire world economy is at the mercy of OPEC and with China ramping up its economy the cost of oil isn’t going to go back down any time soon.

Developing solar or wind power generating technologies means less pollution, less reliance on fossil fuels, new technological spinoffs that can create new industries and jobs, more economic security due to lower inflation and much more. Even if global warming is the biggest myth anyone has ever dreamed up, the solutions being proposed are no-brainers. We should be doing those things for a thousand other reasons anyway. Besides, if Spinal Tap believes in it, who am I to argue?

Comments

  1. #1 Brandon
    April 27, 2007

    There is exactly one reason why we haven’t been lowering our reliance on fossil fuels: the people in charge are making too much money off them. The Bush administration and the former Republican Congress had made it very clear that environmental policy was not on their list of priorities.

    I am interested in seeing what happens with a new administration and a new Congress in 2008. Every major presidential candidate has said we need to reduce our dependance on foreign oil, and all of them (except for McCain, bless his heart) wants out of this war. When 2008 rolls around, will we see true progress and a recovery of American values, or will it just be politics as usual?

  2. #2 daenku32
    April 27, 2007

    I might say that most arguments I’ve been in, there are always people claiming that “doing something” to reduce CO2 emissions will destroy this great country. It is surprising how many people actually believe the proposition, that humans are contributing to global warming, as a conscious effort to destroy US.

  3. #3 Perry Willis
    April 27, 2007

    Your take on this is much like mine Ed. I would add that whatever government does to address this problem is very likely to be the wrong thing, and full of of corporate welfare. The answers will come from technological innovations driven by the price system and the profit motive, and issuing from thousands of labs all over the world. The answer will not come from Congress or the President. The solution will be bottom-up, not top down.

    Meanwhile, I have just replaced all of the light bulbs in my house, because energy prices and technological innovations have made it possible for me to do so at a profit.

    Perry

  4. #5 Greg
    April 27, 2007

    Thank you. I’ve never understood why this particular point hasn’t been put forth before. Energy independence, environmental concerns, and climate change are related issues. I’m surprised that no major political figure has been presenting these issues as one. I believe the vast majority of Americans, regardless of their political views, support energy independence. Many, if not most, are coming to understand that climate change is real and needs to be addressed. While “the environment” has been turned into a political dirty word in some quarters, environmental issues still have significant if not very vocal support.

    The major hurdle to doing anything about these issues is economic, the idea that reducing energy use will undermine the American way of life. There are two separate arguments against this idea. First, there are economic costs to ignoring these problems. We’ve absorbed the cost of $3 a gallon gas, as well as a major natual disaster (Katrina), but how high can gas go and how many disasters can we face before our economy suffers. Secondly, we can look at these isssues as a challenge not a problem. Developing new technologies and new products to reduce fuel use and CO2 production can stimulate our economy. We cleaned up our air and water without bankrupting our country. We can do the same with today’s issues.

  5. #6 Perry Willis
    April 27, 2007

    High gas prices? Not really, when adjusted for inflation. See here:

    http://www.fintrend.com/inflation/images/charts/Oil/Gasoline_inflation_chart.htm

    Perry

  6. #7 Jim Ramsey
    April 27, 2007

    I think the Bush administration policy makes sense only one way. It is a policy designed to maximize short term profits for energy companies generally and oil companies in particular.

    In the really long term the oil companies will likely be able to sell all the oil they find. If it isn’t used to run SUV’s, it will be used to make plastics. There are many applications.

    For that matter conservation means that consumers get what they need while buying less oil (one way or another).

    Thus, an administration that demeans conservation and encourages the purchase of bigger and bigger cars and trucks clearly has one goal — make oil companies as profitable in the short term as possible.

  7. #8 David C. Brayton
    April 27, 2007

    In my last two years of high school debate, I had a counterplan I would run occasionally–I proposed that we convert to nuclear power produced by fast breeder reactors and other newer technologies.

    It worked against a majority of cases (especially squirrely ones that claimed the horrors of nuclear war) because it made sense for so many reasons.

    The problem with this counterplan was that too many judges simply substituted their own arguments about why nuclear power would be a bad idea as opposed to actually listening to the affirmative team’s arguments. One judge wrote a full critique/opinion that never recognized the affirmative’s arguments at all.

    True, that was at the Tuesday night league, so the judging was bound to be inferior, but I had a simiar response at the state championships. We split that debate because Dave Bassett was there and actually listened to the arguments. He was a cool guy. But we had Southfield on the ropes–they started the debate cocky as hell but when the 1AR got up, there was a lot of worry in his eyes. At the end, he threw down his flow pad and would have surrended if that were an option.

  8. #9 Raging Bee
    April 27, 2007

    There is exactly one reason why we haven’t been lowering our reliance on fossil fuels: the people in charge are making too much money off them…

    Actually, there’s more than one reason: reducing dependence on polluting fuels would require both self-sacrificing change at the grass-roots, and significant intervention of some sort by governments; both of which are absolute anathema to taxophobic anti-government “conservatives” and “libertarians.” The pro-business faction despise non-economic popular action (“Socialism!!!”); the faux-libertarians (most of whom are still clinging to the GOP’s trouser-legs despite their decidedly un-libertarian actions) are scared to death that their “gummint never done nothin’ good” world-view will come to be questioned; and lots of lazy, uncaring “conservatives” simply don’t want to be bothered to even THINK about a problem of this magnitude, let alone actually get off their asses and change their consumption or make any extra effort to solve the problem.

    This is not about profits; it’s about certain people being too terrified of change to address the problem. If it were only about profit, there’d be pro-business people jumping on the bandwagon to put the US at the forefront of a new wave of technological advancement.

  9. #10 Chuck
    April 27, 2007

    On the question of whether global warming is cyclic or man-made, the answer is that it is both. The data cannot be accounted for by human activity alone, nor certainly by natural processes alone. Picture a very shallow slope steadily increasing since the last glacial peak, and at the end of that curve picture a steep rise in temperatures in the last 100 years, and especially steep in the last 30 years. That tail is manmade. The slow steady rise is cyclical.

  10. #11 Perry Willis
    April 27, 2007

    Raging Bee, when government comes to take action on this do you really think the final policy will be weighted more strongly toward the general interest than toward special interests? If so, why?

    I read legislation and policy studies all day long, and I just don’t see what you see. This is not to say that government policies don’t end up serving the general interest at least partially, or even that government execution is always piss poor. It’s not so black and white. But the evidence, in my humble opinion, seems to lean heavily in the direction of government getting it wrong far more often than it gets it right.

    I’m sure you can point to many benefits of centralized (read federal) government action, but have you really weighed the costs against those benefits? It’s easy to sneer at those of us who distrust government action, but we do have our reasons. We aren’t trying to be thick, dense, or evil, anymore than you are.

  11. #12 Ed Brayton
    April 27, 2007

    David-

    A nice stroll down memory lane. When we had our “dinosaur’s reunion” a couple years ago, Dave Bassett was there. He’s still coaching, as is Pete Shaheen, who was there with him. It looks like we’re going to have another reunion dinner in August. Liz Holcomb is going to be attending the YearlyKos convention, flying in from Rome where she lives now, so we’re trying to get everyone together. Wayne Tang is already in Chicago (he coaches the team at Maine East and is a hotshot attorney) and Ilan Lauer is in the area as well. We’re trying to arrange a time when the Detroit gang (Mickey Blashfield, Derek Gaffrey, Terri Fischer, Dean Groulx, etc) can get over there for a dinner that first weekend of August. I don’t know how much you would remember some of those guys. Derek, Liz and Ilan were on that tremendous Southfield team around 87-88 that John Lawson coached and Dean was an assistant there. You probably remember the legend of Wayne Tang, who is actually older than us. Oh, and hopefully Jeff can make it, I gotta give him a call about it.

  12. #13 Stuart Coleman
    April 27, 2007

    Between you and Chad and PZ I think that there’s someone who has already articulated one of my opinions better than I ever could. I lean a bit more strongly to “it’s probably anthropogenic” than you seem to, but I definitely think it’s irrelevant. Look at this Science article, the earth has survived drastically worse warming from natural causes before, and there’s no reason to think life will end because of this one. It certainly won’t, even if does get uncomfortable.

    And the only way to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels is to come up with alternatives, we just can’t cut our power usage. It won’t happen. And the free market incentive for clean energy is so great that people are working on it. News about better and cheaper solar cells seems to come out every week, and those are our only real long-term option. Once we have good solar power, we’ll be set forever.

  13. #14 Steve Reuland
    April 27, 2007

    Because I haven’t really done the study necessary to really be able to evaluate such arguments, I don’t make strong claims either way. I have no strong reason to doubt the consensus opinion, but by the same token I have no strong reason to dismiss the dissenters out of hand either.

    I’ll save you the effort. Global warming denialists are on about the same intellectual and ethical plane as creationists.

  14. #15 CJ Croy
    April 27, 2007

    …the earth has survived drastically worse warming from natural causes before, and there’s no reason to think life will end because of this one. It certainly won’t, even if does get uncomfortable.

    I don’t claim to have read every opinion about global warming, but I don’t remember ever reading an actual, literal Global Warming Will Be The End Of The World scenario that didn’t involve nuclear war. That doesn’t mean global warming couldn’t potentially lead to a breakdown of society as we know it. There are some scenarios that lead to, for example, world-wide famines. Yes, Life will continue to exist but our way of life might not.

  15. #16 Ed Brayton
    April 27, 2007

    Steve-

    While that may well be true, it really doesn’t save me any effort. I just don’t believe in taking those kind of cognitive shortcuts, or at least believe that we should avoid them as much as possible and not make positive claims if we’ve reached them by that process. If I was to accept that proposition and repeat it myself, I would have no way of backing it up – again, because I just haven’t done the study necessary to reach a rational conclusion. And it’s not rational to reach such a conclusion solely because people I agree with on other matters tell me so. This is precisely the same cognitive shortcut that so many creationists take when they believe someone like Kent Hovind; they figure he’s a good Christian and he claims to be a doctor, so he must know what he’s talking about. They then believe him and repeat his nonsense without ever bothering to do anything to confirm it.

    For me, it’s a matter of intellectual honesty – don’t take positions that you haven’t taken the time to research so that whatever conclusion you reach makes sense and can be defended rationally. Which is not to say that I think you’re wrong; I suspect you’re right and I have no good reason to doubt the scientific consensus. But that’s not nearly enough for me to make a positive claim one way or the other. Still, the point of this post is that it really doesn’t matter. We should be working toward alternative energy sources, less reliance on fossil fuels and conservation for a thousand other reasons even if global warming is completely false.

  16. #17 itchy
    April 27, 2007

    There is exactly one reason why we haven’t been lowering our reliance on fossil fuels: the people in charge are making too much money off them…

    Actually, there’s more than one reason: reducing dependence on polluting fuels would require both self-sacrificing change at the grass-roots, and significant intervention of some sort by governments

    Bee, governments already are interfering; they’re just doing so to the benefit of the energy companies. It would be a helpful step if they’d just stop interfering and open the playing field for competing ideas.

    If it were only about profit, there’d be pro-business people jumping on the bandwagon to put the US at the forefront of a new wave of technological advancement.

    And there would be a corrupt administration and Congress quelling those ‘threatening’ bandwagoners by propping up the existing business interests who put them into power. Oh, wait …

  17. #18 Perry Willis
    April 27, 2007

    The fact remains that in spite of the unlevel playing field created by preferential government policies there are thousands of . . .

    ” . . . business people jumping on the bandwagon to put the US at the forefront of a new wave of technological advancement.”

    Look around. You’ll see it. Progress is being made every day. But first you have to stop assuming that all business people are evil, and all politicians disinterested public servants.

    Perry

  18. #19 Raging Bee
    April 27, 2007

    It’s easy to sneer at those of us who distrust government action, but we do have our reasons. We aren’t trying to be thick, dense, or evil, anymore than you are.

    That depends…does “we” include all the uncaring Republicans and faux-libertarians who ignore the government programs that worked, scream the blues about the taxes they have to pay to make those programs work, loudly insist that government programs never work, then vote to pack the government with idiots who can’t make anything work?

    No government program works perfectly or without some measure of corruption; then again, neither does any business program. So let’s get past the “business is perfect, gummint sucks” mantra.

    Also, let’s get past the hypocritical complaints, and intentional blindness, about the “failure” of government programs. People who bitch and scream about how guumint never gives us anything for our tax-dollars, conveniently ignore the programs from which they benefit every day: the highways, railroads, telecom infrastructure, banking system, utilities, and military-driven technological advancements that at one time put us ahead of the rest of the world in some pretty important areas (aviation, electronics, space, etc.).

    As for what sort of program our government will cobble up to promote alternative energy, that depends on who gets active in politics. If we expect, and demand, the best, we’re more likely to get it; but if we sit on our asses, expect lameness, and ridicule everyone who tries to push for improvements, then our elected government will happily live down to our expectations. That is, after all, how we got in the position we’re in today.

  19. #20 Chris King
    April 27, 2007

    Well put.

  20. #21 Thomas Lee Elifritz
    April 27, 2007

    The slow steady rise is cyclical.

    Which obviously explains why it was slowly falling before it began rising precipitously :

    http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Image:Holocene_Temperature_Variations.png

    http://www-bprc.mps.ohio-state.edu/Icecore/Abstracts/masson.pdf

  21. #22 K. Signal Eingang
    April 27, 2007

    In re the whole free market thing, I strongly believe that without external incentives, a truly free market would happily guzzle up the last drop of oil before it started innovating. Innovation is a gamble – it costs money and there’s always a chance you’ll pick the wrong line of research and wind up the Stanley Steamer of your industry. Most manufacturers are always going to pick the safe choice – what sells now, regardless of whether or not it’s viable in the long term. In order to get them to make the *right* choices, something has to tilt the playing field in that direction.

    It’s arguable that a “truly free” market would do better than the US currently is… Part of the reason we’re behind most of the world in terms of renewable energy research is that our government has actively interceded in keeping the price of oil down — releasing oil from the strategic reserves, making sweetheart deals with the Saudis, etc. The Europeans and Japanese pay a huge premium on gas over what we do, which helps explain why they’re way ahead of us in renewable energy technology, and why Toyota and Honda now basically own the hybrid car market.

    But the argument works the other way, too — those countries are ahead of us because their governments chose not only higher oil prices but higher gas taxes, and then funneled that money into research and initiatives to reduce their dependence on oil. They made the choice to press the issue before it reached the level of a crisis. Even here in the US, hybrid car sales really took off when the federal and some state governments introduced tax breaks for people who drove them. The rising price of gas had a lot to do with it too, of course, along with the peak oil scare, but I believe that if we wait for market forces like these to drive innovation, the innovation is going to come too late for most of us. I don’t want the government necessarily doing the research directly, or deciding what specific technologies to research, but I absolutely do want the government using its power to drive, and fund, alternative energy research, providing the foresight and sense of human priorities that the blind idiot hand of capitalism lacks.

  22. #23 David C. Brayton
    April 27, 2007

    K. Signal–I disagree with the statement that people will guzzle up the last drop of oil before innovating. In a prior career, I did a bit of M&A and venture capital work. There are literally tens of billions of dollars waiting to be invested in super high risk areas in hopes that i will be the next Google or Microsoft. And for each moderately successful start up, there are about 50 failures. Look at the Internet wave / dot com bust of the late 90s–this is the perfect example of high-tech innovation.

    Established companies tend to innovate incrementally. They have established shareholders to please and it is very important for companies to meet the quarterly forecasts, so they go with safe bets.

    Revolutionary technology is usually developed by start up companies. These are where the big bets are placed because there are few shareholders to please and the ones who do invest understand that it is a very high risk investment.

    And having a government bureacracy decide to drive a technology is about the most certain way to ensure total failure. Look at the nuclear industry. Extremely heavily regulated and a new plant hasn’t been produced in decades. Crap, we can’t even get the government to build a disposal site for the waste. What a mess.

  23. #24 Raging Bee
    April 27, 2007

    And having a government bureacracy decide to drive a technology is about the most certain way to ensure total failure. Look at the nuclear industry. Extremely heavily regulated and a new plant hasn’t been produced in decades. Crap, we can’t even get the government to build a disposal site for the waste. What a mess.

    That’s not wholly the fault of the government — it’s the fault of the owners, builders and operators of nuclear power plants, who exploited the whole “national security/nuclear secrecy” atmosphere of the time to ignore the people’s concerns, cover up mistakes, and pretend they didn’t have to answer to a bunch of silly hysterical consumers and neighbors. Their arrogance and slipshod performance undermined the trust the people placed in them (and the technology they said would make everything wonderful), and led directly to the fear, hysteria, inertia and regulation that’s hobbling the nuclear industry today.

    The government trusted the nuclear business, and the nuclear business betrayed that trust. They have no one to blame for the consequences but themselves.

  24. #25 Chuck
    April 27, 2007

    Thomas,

    I’m not an anthropogenic global warming denier, so there is no need to get snarky. The decline you were showing was arguably localized to the last several hundred years; the overall trend for the last 12,000 years has been a (very) small increase in global average temperatures. The function describing that rise is very, very shallow. The increase in global mean temperatures since industrialization, on the other hand, has been exponential.

  25. #26 Chris Hyland
    April 27, 2007

    The problem I see is this: assuming the climate scientists are right, simply waiting for new technologies is not good enough, it will still involve a massive reduciton of our energy use for at least the next couple of decades. For example no matter what else happens the number of plane journeys each year will need do be drasticaly reduced, and it is this kind of thing that people complain about. Unfortunately this leads to the kind of ‘I don’t want feel guilty about flying on holiday, therefore I will assume that the science is wrong’ mentality.

  26. #27 K. Signal Eingang
    April 27, 2007

    @David

    First off I agree with Bee’s point above — the early nuclear industry in the US was radically mismanaged, and a lot of that was due to the private corporations that were selling prototypes as finished products. There’s plenty of blame to go around on that one, not least due to the unique complications of nuclear power technology. That’s one area where we paid the cost of being on the cutting edge — now the US is stuck with a bunch of inefficient and obsolete plants while the rest of the world gets to build on what we found out the hard way.

    My second point would be that there are some industries where there are *only* established industries, and a startup’s chances are slim and none until some era-defining event comes along to shake up the playing field. You could not have had a startup phone company in 1976, for example – now we’ve got cellular startups, internet phone startups, etc. Automobiles and energy production are another area where it seems like the startup is not going to be able to get so much as a toenail in the door unless it’s under the protective umbrella of a larger corporation. And all too often we’ve seen established industries use their clout to squash potential competition like a bug.

    I’ll readily admit these are complex arguments with no one-size-fits-all solution — which is exactly why I strongly disagree with the radical libertarian “free enterprise will fix everything” viewpoint. I’m all for capitalism, but I don’t trust it to work in everybody’s best interests, all the time, as the libertarians apparently do.

  27. #28 SLC
    April 27, 2007

    Re nuclear power.

    For the information of some of the commentators here, note that the much maligned France generates 70% of its electricity from nuclear power plants and has yet to have a Three Mile Island incident. No reason why the US can’t do the same.

  28. #29 David C. Brayton
    April 27, 2007

    @ K. Signal–There simply aren’t any industries where there are no start ups. Take a look at Kia and Hyundai. They were hardly on the map ten years ago. There are all sorts of automotive start ups right now that are working on alternatively powered vehicles. Not to mention that there are start ups that focus not on the entire vehicles but just on one system or technology.

    The next wave in VC investment is in alternative energy. There is all sorts of VC money being invested in this area. I think there was an article on the in Wired not long ago.

    Yeah, I just did a search there and pulled up a dozen or so articles about VC investing in these areas. The facts don’t even begin to support your thesis.

  29. #30 Jeff Hebert
    April 27, 2007

    [T]he earth has survived drastically worse warming from natural causes before, and there’s no reason to think life will end because of this one.

    The concerns over global warming don’t have so much to do with the long-term survival of the planet, which as you say will plug along just fine. The problem is us — humans — we’re the ones whose cities, economies, and well being are going to be impacted. Well, us and lots of other existing species as well, of course. Life in general is going to be just fine no matter what. It’s life in particular, i.e. you and me and our children, that’s going to get slammed.

    I think it’s generally a mistake for environmental groups to talk about “saving the planet”. Give the earth 200 years and it’ll be almost like humans never existed at all if we were to suddenly die out. The only ones who’d care would be us, not the cockroaches or whatever other species takes over once we’re gone.

  30. #31 James
    April 28, 2007

    Personally I doubt carbon taxes will help much. Unless the major carbon emitters (especially China and India) agree to the same tax the most likely effect would be for carbon-intensive industries to relocate to non-taxing countries. Actual reductions in emissions would be small,a nd would come at high cost.

    It seems to me that the most efficient method of dealing with whatever component of global warming in anthropogenic (not to mention neutering Iran and Saudi Arabia) would be for concerned governments to subsidise technological development is areas like economical carbon-neutral power and battery technology. To avoid the distortions created by interest group lobbying the money should be awarded as prizes for meeting specific, well specified goals.

    The market will provide the solution through private sector research eventually. All we need to do is speed the process up.

  31. #32 Perry Willis
    April 28, 2007

    I like the prize idea James. It would be a much better approach than funding research directly, for the reasons you state.

    I would also be fine with carbon taxes, especially if they were balanced by tax cuts in other areas. Carbon taxes aren’t perfect, for the reasons you mention, but they would help at the margins, and that may be all we need to provide time for research and VC to bear more fruit.

  32. #33 Trinifar
    April 28, 2007

    Perry Willis: But the evidence, in my humble opinion, seems to lean heavily in the direction of government getting it wrong far more often than it gets it right.

    Thing is, the govenment provides so many services that we tend to only notice screw-ups. If you have driven a car, flown in an airplane, consumed a cup of tap water, had a vaccination, taken medication, gotten an education, run a business, sued someone for breaking a contract, etc. you’ve directly benefitted from government services. Yeah, the government has a lot of problems. So do all organizations. Raging Bee has already said this — I’m just chiming in.

    The notion that the government usually screws everything up and usually serves only the powerful is just plain false. Sells a lot of papers and energizes the conservatives and libertarians, but it is still just plain irrational.

    When it comes to mitigating climate change, large scale federal action is the only way we are not going to destroy much of the richness of our planet and have any hope of maintaining what we’ve come to think of as modern life styles.

    K. Signal Eingang: In re the whole free market thing, I strongly believe that without external incentives, a truly free market would happily guzzle up the last drop of oil before it started innovating.

    That’s it exactly. The belief in an unconstrained free market responding to climate change appropriately carries as much intellectual weight as creationism.

    David C. Brayton: And having a government bureacracy decide to drive a technology is about the most certain way to ensure total failure

    The major thing government can do is tax carbon — that is not driving technology any more than disallowing toxins to be dumped in rivers.

    James: Unless the major carbon emitters (especially China and India) agree to the same tax the most likely effect would be for carbon-intensive industries to relocate to non-taxing countries.

    Nope. China and India have a host of environmental problems already (which they are struggling to find a solution for) and face the same rise in fossil fuel prices as the rest of us. Just wait for the Olympics in China. At that time the average American and European will become aware of the depth of the Chinese problem because so many will see the extent of the pollution and the news will report it. The Chinese government is struggling with water shortages and dead rivers as well as dramatic air pollution in it’s cities and the lost of topsoil and arable land.

    In addition, our carbon-intensive industries are so vast only an insignificant amount can be relocated. Then there’s the issue of rising transportation cost of goods and materials as fossil fuel cost rises. This is why the notion of localization is so important. It will happen as a result of market forces. We have to clean up our own act.

  33. #34 Bill Ware
    April 28, 2007

    It was 30+ years ago that TVA finished Watts Bar nuclear plant Unit #1 here in Rhea County, TN. I can see the steam rising from the cooling towers from my poarch overlooking the lake. Cost over-runs, lower energy use projections, etc, caused them to cancel plans for building Unit #2 at that time. Now we have this recent article in the local paper on 2/11/07:

    About 160 technical workers are arriving at Watts Bar Nuclear Plant to begin a $20 million design and engineering study to determine if the facility’s Unit 2 nuclear generator should be completed.

    So, it looks like building new plants is being given serious consideration.

    Here’s a free article from the Chattanooga paper with more details.

  34. #35 Perry Willis
    April 29, 2007

    Thanks for the correction trinifar, but I don’t notice only the screw ups. Neither do I think private entities always get it right. I merely think, based on a lot of study and a lot of experience, that government institutions are our least effective institutions, by far. It’s not even close.

    Even so, I do think that government is the best institution we have, no matter how bad an institution it is, for dealing with some aspects of environmental problems, as long as the type of interventions it is allowed to make are highly constrained and narrowly focused.

    Alas, when we get into claims such as “they will burn every drop of oil before they start to innovate” I feel like I am having a conversation with religious fanatics who really don’t care much about evidence at all, let alone the weight thereof.

  35. #36 Michael E
    April 29, 2007

    What’s wrong with burning every drop of oil before innovating? Then the problem is over with, and we have to get on to the next part: new forms of energy and clean up.

    We have to do those things anyway, so I think we should get started ASAP, but sometimes I think we should just guzzle away in order to get it over with.

    Oil is actually much more useful as raw material in manufacturing (including biotech) than it is an energy source, so there is no real worry on the part of the oil companies that they would lose money if people stopped burning oil. But right now, the energy uses of oil are so highly subsidized by the government and built into our infrastructure that the apparent cost of weaning ourselves from oil seems too high. And infrastructure is the government’s job (so far), so anything the government would do to change it would have to be paid for through taxation, which impacts the average person right in their pocketbook.

    The socialists like to blow off those who disagree with them as Republicans or pseudo-libertarians, but someone really needs to address the costs that will be born by the poor and working-wage people if massive changes are imposed by government fiat and paid for through increased taxation.

    An important reason why rich people are rich is because they have the insight, or can hire it, to figure out how to avoid taxes or to figure out how to pass them on to the consumer. Any energy taxes added to the economy would quickly be handed off to working-wage people or be mitigated by cutting government programs for those who have no way to defend themselves.

    Even if some kind of plan were made to try to save the poor, then that leaves the working-wage folks to fend for themselves. Feeling the weight of society on their shoulders yet again, the working-wage Atlas will shrug and reject having to pay for the dreams of the socialists. That rejection will take the form of votes against ever higher taxes and the politicians who impose them, meaning votes will swing towards the Republicans if they promise to help the working-wage mother keep enough money in her purse to buy groceries.

    If, on the other hand, someone can show how “going green” will save Joe Sixpack money right now, that he can use to pay his cable bill and buy a thicker steak, then “green” will become the mainstream in a very short time.

    Who’s more likely to figure out how to save people money: Government or business?

  36. #37 JS
    April 29, 2007

    The socialists like to blow off those who disagree with them as Republicans or pseudo-libertarians, but someone really needs to address the costs that will be born by the poor and working-wage people if massive changes are imposed by government fiat and paid for through increased taxation.

    The US does not need to tax its poor to support new government programs. It has one of the least progressive tax structures in the industrialised world. Tax the obscenely rich people living in gated communities. Or heck, give the IRS some teeth, that it may actually enforce the laws that are already on the books. Oh, and getting corruption down to at least British levels probably wouldn’t hurt either.

    Note to pre-empt the usual ‘capital moves, so you can’t tax it’ whine that usually ensues when you propose to tax capital gains: When it moves for purely tax-evading reasons, there is no reason whatsoever why you can’t crack down hard on it as it leaves. If the profit is generated domestically, you can tax it without breaking any WTO or other international agreements. Irrespective of any funny-money moving around between carribean slush funds. Several EU states do precisely that.

    – JS

  37. #38 Michael E
    April 29, 2007

    “When it moves for purely tax-evading reasons…”
    But, see, a smart person makes the move look like a different reason.

    The IRS already enforces all the tax laws on the books, it’s just that the tax laws are written with back doors and “loop holes” specifically designed to protect those who write tax laws.

    Who writes tax laws? Not poor or middle-income people.

  38. #39 Stephen Elliott
    April 30, 2007

    Surely a relatively simple first step to reducing fossil fuel dependency would be to move away from the car culture. Decent affordable public transport and heavy costs to use private vehicles in urban centres would be a start.

    Investment into wind, solar, and hydro power would be good. Possibly nuclear also. Tax breaks on making homes/offices/factories more fuel efficient are another possibility.

    While I do not consider it to be possible for an advanced economy to be totally independent of fossil fuel yet, surely it is a good idea to work on ways to need/consume less of it.

    IIRC. The USA comprises of 5% of the World’s population and produces 30% of the carbon emmissions. Until that is changed, it is hypocritical to complain about other countries behaviour in this area.

  39. #40 Greta Christina
    April 30, 2007

    “Besides, if Spinal Tap believes in it, who am I to argue?”

    Tut, tut, tut. Arguing from authority. Shame on you. :-)

  40. #41 Raging Bee
    April 30, 2007

    Personally I doubt carbon taxes will help much. Unless the major carbon emitters (especially China and India) agree to the same tax the most likely effect would be for carbon-intensive industries to relocate to non-taxing countries.

    If those taxes create incentives for Americans to develop clean energy technology, then other countries (especially the biggest polluters) will have more incentive to buy their clean energy technology from us. This is a case where government can help both the environment and help American business compete in a new field of business.

    …someone really needs to address the costs that will be born by the poor and working-wage people if massive changes are imposed by government fiat and paid for through increased taxation.

    What about the costs that are ALREADY borne by the poor and working-wage people as a result of industries poisoning our land, air and water with no intervention from the government? (Ever ask yourself who tends to live closest to all that poison?)

  41. #42 Michael E
    April 30, 2007

    …someone really needs to address the costs that will be borne by the poor and working-wage people if massive changes are imposed by government fiat and paid for through increased taxation.

    What about the costs that are ALREADY borne by the poor and working-wage people as a result of industries poisoning our land, air and water with no intervention from the government? (Ever ask yourself who tends to live closest to all that poison?)

    So…two wrongs make a right?

  42. #43 Raging Bee
    May 1, 2007

    Any energy taxes added to the economy would quickly be handed off to working-wage people…

    So would the benefits of whatever program was funded by said taxes, if we all got active and pushed for sensible and appropriate programs.

    When industries are forced to clean up their act, the lower classes benefit most, since the rich have already bought their own protection, in the form of posh mansions far from their plants’ smokestacks and dumping-sites.

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