Andy Skuce has an SKS article (with which I largely agree) disagreeing with a previous article that Myles Allen wrote for the Mail in May 2013. And now MA has an article in the Graun saying similar things. At Wotts, Rachel has an article approving of MA’s piece; Wotts himself seems rather more dubious, and I’m with him.
MA does say some things with which I agree (e.g. if you suppose that the annual UN climate talks will save us, forget it. I met a delegate at the last talks in Doha in December who told me he had just watched a two-hour debate that culminated in placing square brackets around a semi-colon). But in his frustration with that process, he flails about and settles on something that won’t work. Its almost as though he is using a (non-applicable) process of elimination: we carefully examine X, Y and Z: none of those solve our problem, so lets do W, which we’ll carefully avoid examining.
The current-context for this is the rather confused state of the UK’s “green” policies: a few years ago, the govt of the day decided it would be a wizzard wheeze to dump a pile of costs (for home insulation, solar-panel subsidies, and the like) on fuel bills. But this wasn’t heavily advertised. The thinking (I’m guessing) was that any subsequent rise in process could be blamed on the fuel providers. Alas, now that times are tight and people are whinging about their fuel bills, the energy companies have decided it would be a wizzard wheeze to blame all their price increases on the govt-imposed surcharges. The debate around this is hopelessly muddled and the details are not terribly relevant. But the Key Insight I take from this is that trying to hide taxes – imposed, perhaps, for good reasons – isn’t a good idea. Because people will eventually find them, and there will be little or no support for them. You have to build the support upfront. Which can only be done if they aren’t hidden.
I think MA’s fundamental point (this is from May, but I don’t think its changed) is:
Subsidising wind turbines and cutting down on your own carbon footprint might mean we burn through the vast quantity of carbon contained in the planet’s fossil fuels a little slower. But it won’t make any difference if we burn it in the end… There’s been a lot of talk about ‘unburnable carbon’ – the carbon we shouldn’t burn if we are to keep global temperature rises below 2C. A catchy phrase, but can we really tell the citizens of India of 2080 not to touch their coal?… If you’re using fossil carbon to drive a car or fly a plane, you just have to pay someone else to bury CO2 for you.
Which I parse as: if carbon taxes (etc.) just mean you burn the carbon slower, you have the same problem. Therefore, we need CCS.
We need to distinguish two viewpoints here, which I’ll call “taxing” vs “prohibition”. I was going to call them the more natural names “economic” vs “scientific”, but if I did that you’d naturally assume the “scientific” one was correct, whereas its just a label (like “skeptic”, which in the GW debate actually means “credulous”).
The “taxing” viewpoint is that if a thing is bad (like CO2 emissions) we should discourage it by a tax in order to pay for the bad effects [* sigh. See below]. That doesn’t apply to all bad things – e.g. murder – but it does work for things where the chief problem is uninternalised externalities: or, in plainer words, emitting CO2 is free: someone else will pay the costs. There is very little disagreement that the “standard economic response” to this is taxes, in order to reflect those externalities. There is, of course, plenty of disagreement about what the level of those taxes should be, whether this is really fair, is it politically feasible, and so on.
The “prohibition” viewpoint, which I often see from science-types like MA, is to decide that CO2 is damaging, and some (semi-arbitrary) level like 2 oC should be a limit, and then effectively prohibit exceeding this limit. Coming back to MA’s fundamental point, that fits in as “we’re going to exceed the carbon emissions for 2 oC, so we need to bury the excess carbon”.
The “taxes” reply to that is: “but the costs we’re imposing by taxation are those costs that are calculated as the damage; we’re trading costs against benefits. If we imposed your solution, the overall costs would be higher”. And the prohibition reply (if they reply at all, MA doesn’t) is something like “but you can’t reduce everything to money”.
I’ve argued, before, that we should not try to solve GW as an issue of morality.
MA, in the Graun, frequently talks of solve the problem of climate change as though we’re all agreed what the “problem” is. But we’re not, and writing it in this shorthand disguises a lot. In this case, it disguises MA’s assumption that 2 oC (or something) is a limit. It isn’t. There is no real justification for that rather arbitrary number. MA doesn’t engage with the “taxes” viewpoint at all: all he does is state that it won’t “sovle climate change”. I’m sure that’s what he believes, but he needs to clearly say exactly why; and to do that, he’s going to need to understand what his “neoliberal colleagues” are saying.
[* From above: I "paraphrased" uninternalised externalities, which is correct, into in order to pay for the bad effects which is wrong (or at least, Timmy says so in comment 3, and he's probably right). This happens often when people talk about things they don't fully understand.]
* CCS implies over-regulation as I’ve said before.
* The world will one day adopt a carbon tax—but only after exhausting all the alternatives
* Quick Recap of COP19 from a Geoengineering Perspective from Geoengineering Politics