Climate Change

Enough about programming for a moment. Here are some questions I have about climate change

1. Temperature measurements clearly show that the Arctic regions are warming up. Atmosphere measurements clearly show that the amount of carbon dioxide in the air is increasing. The physics showing that increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere can lead to increasing temperature are simple enough that I can understand them. This all hangs together nicely. It seems to me that people who argue that climate change is not occurring need to explain why increasing carbon dioxide does not make the earth warmer, and why the earth is getting warmer anyhow. That is, instead of having a neat explanation for what real measurements show, they have two puzzles. It does not seem parsimonious.

2. I’ve seen arguments that climate change may be occurring, but that it may not be due to human activity. To which I can only respond, who cares what causes it? We should still think about what to do about it.

3. I frequently see that it may be too costly to take the actions required to stop climate change. This argument seems like a misunderstanding of economics. Changes to the climate are a classic economic externality. Somebody has to pay for them, one way or another. If we don’t apply a carbon tax one way or another, then it will be applied for us later on. You can’t escape an externality by pretending that it doesn’t happen, the best you can do is push it onto somebody else. In our case we are currently pushing it onto future generations. That may be a rational choice, if we believe that future generations will be richer than we are. But we shouldn’t pretend that we can’t afford to stop climate change. We don’t have a choice about whether to pay for it.

4. In any case, adjusting for climate change only hurts the economy if we measure the economy in terms of consumption of natural resources. That is not a very relevant measure of the U.S. economy today. Shifting to different technologies will cost jobs in some areas and create job in others. We can grow the economy while using fewer natural resources. It’s entirely possible for us to shift to carbon neutral technologies without hurting the economy (that is, it is possible in an economic sense; it may or may not be possible in a technological sense). I’m not saying it will be easy, but it is certainly possible. The U.S. is currently letting countries like Germany and China get a significant technological lead in this area, but it’s probably not too late to catch up.

5. I really don’t understand why climate change has become a partisan issue in the U.S. There is nothing either Republican or Democratic about science, or about skepticism.

6. Freeman Dyson makes the very interesting point that about 8% of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is absorbed by vegetation every year. That means that biological processes can have enormous effects on carbon dioxide levels. We should be experimenting with biologically based forms of carbon capture. Probably people are already doing this.

7. The climate is already changing. I think the only interesting question now is whether we will prevent a significant rise in sea level. My current bet is that we won’t; history is definitely on the side of people avoiding dealing with environment issues until they are blatant. This is not a good time to invest in beachfront property.

15 Comments »

  1. fche said,

    January 11, 2010 @ 7:56 am

    By no means can I present a contrarian case fully, but here are some points:

    1. “Temperature measurements clearly show that the Arctic regions are warming up. Atmosphere measurements clearly show that the amount of carbon dioxide in the air is increasing. The physics showing that increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere can lead to increasing temperature are simple enough that I can understand them.”

    I think the hazard here is that because this explanation is grossly consistent with intuition supported by purported data, one might infer that it must be right. But that’s not so: a simplified explanation may list some of the relationships, establish some positive correlation between them, but still be grossly out of whack with respect to unknown factors, or indeed orders of magnitude when it comes to numbers.

    I recall reading the IPCC suggesting that such an explanation must be correct because we have no other explanations. Such reasoning seems like a cop-out.

    2. “I’ve seen arguments that climate change may be occurring, but that it may not be due to human activity. To which I can only respond, who cares what causes it?”

    It matters because the perceived causes & effects are so intertwined in the AGW theory (as I understand it). Predictions of how bad things may get (temperature or sea level rise wise) are based upon the same models that are built with the presumption of AGW (anthropomorphic CO2 effect dominating, blah blah). If the models skip other important factors (which is I believe pretty established), then their forecasts about the long term future need not be taken seriously. (Never mind that the ~decade of actual recent data that could be compared with predictions run 10 years ago do not consistently show great agreement.)

    3. “I frequently see that it may be too costly to take the actions required to stop climate change. This argument seems like a misunderstanding of economics. Changes to the climate are a classic economic externality. Somebody has to pay for them, one way or another.”

    The claim here may be that “stopping” climate change may be a fool’s errand, and that adaptation is a more practical measure that can be done when and where needed.

    4. ” In any case, adjusting for climate change only hurts the economy if we measure the economy in terms of consumption of natural resources.”

    Really? The economic “hurt” of dramatic energy-related taxes is obvious: everything relying on energy or transport or heavy industry would be penalized.
    There is also the “broken window fallacy” that may let one falsely infer that it’s unquestionably good to replace existing/working infrastructure. (Leaving coal or oil in the ground is not a “benefit” in economic terms, except perhaps to the owners of the respective lands as deferred future revenue.)

    5. “I really don’t understand why climate change has become a partisan issue in the U.S. ”

    I believe the worry here is that the more leftward parties worldwide see this issue as a hammer with which to beat the market. Global governance, UN carbon taxes, blah blah. are intimately connected, which brings up national sovereignty issues. Both these are totally partisan / ideological.

    “There is nothing either Republican or Democratic about science, or about skepticism.”

    True, however this can be turned around to suggest that “climate change science”, being such a political beast, is not a good exemplar of science or skepticism.

    6. n/c

    7. “The climate is already changing. ”

    Of course, it always has.

    “This is not a good time to invest in beachfront property.”

    The nice thing about the market is that you can put your money where your mouth is, and short-sell based on such predictions.

  2. Simetrical said,

    January 11, 2010 @ 8:45 am

    4) I’m not sure what you’re saying here. Of course we wouldn’t be eliminating jobs, but we’d be spending more of our resources on power than necessary, as long as fossil fuels are the cheapest energy source. These resources could not be used for other purposes, such as investment in luxuries or technology or whatever else society might want to spend money on, so we’d be poorer in real terms. The GDP would be lower, for instance.

    5) It’s a political issue because environmentalism is political. Liberals tend to think that interfering with nature is likely to be wrong or at least foolish. Conservatives tend to care more exclusively about people compared to non-people (like animals or locations), and are also often more confident in technology and human endeavor. Given this, conservatives suspect that liberals (including scientists) are too ready to believe that humans are harming the Earth by releasing CO2, and value their claims accordingly less.

    Also, less ideologically, conservatives are more tied to business than liberals. Businesses are usually hurt the most by environmental regulation in the short term. Even if they’d benefit too in the long term, profits mostly matter in the short term, because bonuses, hiring/firing, stock price changes, etc. all happen in the short term. You want to post quarterly earnings as high as possible.

    There are religious issues here too. Christians are less likely to believe that humans could greatly affect the Earth, because they feel humans are so tiny compared to God’s works. They also won’t believe that humans could really wreck up the Earth, because God said “be fruitful and multiply, fill the Earth and subdue it”. This also plays into anti-environmentalism more generally.

    Overall, it’s not at all surprising to me that this is a partisan issue. It’s not a matter of science, it’s a matter of ideology. The overwhelming majority of both conservatives and liberals have not the foggiest notion of the science. I recall a sign at my college encouraging us to recycle plastic bottles to reduce our carbon footprint — even though throwing out plastic is carbon sequestration, and recycling many types of plastic uses more energy that making new plastic.

    One interesting position I read about climate change is that of the Copenhagen Consensus on Climate. The basic argument seems to be that 1) we can cut more carbon overall if we research viable alternatives now so we can switch cheaply later, and 2) if things get bad we can always resort to climate engineering (e.g., cloud whitening) to halt warming much more rapidly than any carbon-cutting can do. So they feel we should invest now in research, and cut carbon later when it’s cheaper because alternative energy is cheaper.

    This appeals to me, because it seems like everyone agrees that there’s a lot of uncertainty about how cost-effective carbon cutting will be. The best way to resolve uncertainty is to wait and do more research. I wouldn’t worry about catastrophic sea level rises or such, because we could always cool the Earth fairly cheaply at short notice by climate engineering if needed, as long as we were prepared to deal with the side effects. E.g., just release enough pollution to reduce sunlight by one or two percent and you’ve easily reversed any warming. If the only way to slow warming were to cut carbon, maybe we’d need to start as soon as possible, but that’s not the case.

  3. jm said,

    January 11, 2010 @ 9:05 am

    Regarding (5) I think George Lakoff’s explanation makes sense:
    “Strict Father” morality sees a natural order of domination which is taken to have moral force: the dominion of God over humans, parents over children, humans over nature, etc. Alternatively, “Nurturant Parent” morality views humans as interdependent with nature. So there is a disagreement about whether pollution can even be a moral issue. (see Moral Politics, p. 212)

  4. ncm said,

    January 11, 2010 @ 7:08 pm

    We should be experimenting with biologically based forms of carbon capture. Probably people are already doing this.

    People sure are! They’re clear-cutting forests. Of course this might better be described as “experimenting with obliterating biologically based forms of carbon capture”. This method has the advantage that the obliterated forests are replaced with pasture, and much of the grass grown there is converted to methane, with 25x greenhouse value over pedestrian CO2.

    I’m deeply skeptical that broad political approaches to limiting global warming will have any useful effect. My expectation is that no effective progress will occur until an energy source is developed that can compete on operating price with coal. When that happens, the coal furnaces will be abandoned with great speed. The problem is that typical alternative energy sources can most economically be applied by making coal furnaces operate more cheaply, e.g. by injecting pre-heated or compressed air, or pre-heated water.

  5. ncm said,

    January 11, 2010 @ 7:15 pm

    Following up, that’s an argument for immediate huge investments into R&D of a wide variety of alternative energy sources and methods, instead of trying to change people’s behavior. Once the cheaper sources are ready, people will change their own behavior, fast.
    That’s not an argument against a carbon tax, though. It just means the purpose of the carbon tax isn’t to change behavior, it’s to provide funds for the investments. The reason a carbon tax won’t help with CO2 emissions is that as it drives down demand for fuel in one place, it will drive down price and increase usage everywhere the tax isn’t.

  6. Ian Lance Taylor said,

    January 11, 2010 @ 8:54 pm

    fche:

    1. Of course questions can and should be raised. That’s the nature of science. But you can’t just question; at some point you must put forward an alternate explanation, or at the very least demonstrate convincingly that the proposed explanation is wrong. Otherwise you are just being an obstructionist.

    2. I was trying to specifically address an argument I’ve seen made, which is that if humans didn’t cause climate change we don’t have to worry about it. That is completely false.

    3. Sure, we could decide that we can not stop climate change. But we shouldn’t decide that because stopping it is too expensive. We’re going to pay for it one way or another. If we can stop it, we should.

    4. The economic hurt of energy-related taxes is obvious. The economic benefit of creating new technologies is less obvious but just as real. Leaving coal in the ground is absolutely a benefit if we have less air pollution and less costs for adapting to climate change.

    5. Climate change did not start out as a political issue. The possible relationship between carbon dioxide and climate change was first pointed out over 100 years ago. I don’t know how it became so political. I have to say that I have not seen any serious proposals for UN carbon taxes or global governance to address climate change. The U.S. can’t even sign a treaty about it, the notion that any sort of global governance is going to happen here is laughable.

  7. Ian Lance Taylor said,

    January 11, 2010 @ 9:03 pm

    Simetrical:

    When you say that we would be spending more of our resources on power, and when you suggest that fossil fuels are the cheapest energy source available, I think you are assuming your conclusion. It takes quite a lot of effort to dig oil out of the ground these days; a big part of the reason it is cheap is that there is a hundred years of technological development in extraction methods.

    You may well be right that people confuse the issue of climate change with environmentalism, but they are not the same today, even if they once were. As you suggest yourself, our approaches to mitigating climate change likely to be the very opposite of environmentalism: they are likely to take us in the direction of far more interference and control over the environment, not less.

    I’m less optimistic than you about ways to quickly cool the earth, because of unanticipated side effects. I would rather be trying those things out now.

  8. Ian Lance Taylor said,

    January 11, 2010 @ 9:08 pm

    Hi Jonathan. I haven’t read Lakoff but that is a good point, which relates nicely to general feelings about authority. If we have dominion over nature then it will remain under our control. Unfortunately I think that control over such a complex system is well beyond our current abilities.

  9. Ian Lance Taylor said,

    January 11, 2010 @ 9:15 pm

    ncm: I’m not sure I agree. I think that people show a clear price sensitivity to fuel pricing, and that imposing a carbon tax would change people’s behaviour. And if we believe that climate change imposes a cost on society, then a tax is a good approach even if the money is not used to alleviate that cost directly. It can give people appropriate price signals for how much their actions really cost. This is similar to the way that cigarette taxes discourage smoking, and thus society’s health care costs, even though the money is not actually used for health care. But such taxes are definitely very tricky to administer.

    I agree with you that the best approach we can follow today is significantly increased development of alternative energy sources. I also think we need to provide a way to guarantee future returns on that development; one good way to do that is to set a floor on fossil fuel prices, and one way to do that is again a carbon tax.

  10. ncm said,

    January 12, 2010 @ 2:55 am

    The problem with changing behavior with a carbon tax is that it only changes the behavior of the people taxed. If India doesn’t tax carbon, then the lower global prices for oil that result from our burning less of it mean India burns it instead of us. For a carbon tax to really do any good, the money has to go to eliminating the value of coal and oil as fuel. To the degree that this succeeds, of course, oil prices will plummet, but oil exploration and development will collapse. Existing wells are very cheap to operate, and at reduced rates will take years to drain. Coal is probably as cheap to mine as it can ever be, so its price can only drop so far.

  11. Simetrical said,

    January 12, 2010 @ 7:43 am

    Ian:

    If we develop non-CO2-emitting fuels that are just as cheap as fossil fuels, of course there would be no cost to switch *then*, but for now it would indeed cost more. Am I misunderstanding you?

    I’ve noticed that conservatives (like me) who acknowledge climate change favor more perceived-anti-environmentalist measures like climate engineering or nuclear power. Liberals, including climatologists AFAICT, are more likely to reject such solutions out of hand. (Has the IPCC ever compared the cost-benefit of carbon cutting to any other solution?) This does suggest to me that the issue is perceived in environmentalist terms. Pollution has clear costs and benefits too, that doesn’t stop it from being a partisan issue.

    Cooling from volcanic eruptions, and the lack of warming until we installed rigorous pollution controls, suggest climate engineering is feasible with acceptable side effects. Of course we shouldn’t just ignore the problem, but research into alternative energy and climate engineering is probably a better way to address the problem than the short-term carbon-cutting ideas that have the most public support.

    If we do encourage carbon-cutting, a carbon tax would be most efficient. But it wouldn’t be as equitable as cap-and-trade, so many people favor the latter anyway.

    ncm:

    The wealthy developed nations release most of the CO2, so even if only they buy into a carbon tax, it will help. The idea is only to slow down emissions until we get a good alternative energy source. But the question remains whether it would be better to spend the money now on research or carbon taxes, because carbon taxes would cost money that could be spent on research.

  12. Ian Lance Taylor said,

    January 12, 2010 @ 8:02 am

    ncm: I think your argument assumes that the main thing holding Indians back from burning more fossil fuel is the price. If non-gasoline automobiles are cheaper than gasoline automobiles, then that is what people will use, even if gas is cheap. Also, there is a floor on oil prices: most oil these days comes from national producers, and they won’t act the same as a capitalist company when the prices goes down. They will set a floor themselves, with an eye on the future. In other words, it’s not pure supply and demand, and changing behaviour in rich countries can have a ripple effect on poor countries by changing the prices of the required infrastructure.

    Simetrical: I am probably misunderstanding you. Whether a change costs more depends on how you account for the costs of what we are doing now. To pick a dramatic example, if we send the Navy to save the people in Bangladesh from flooding, then we are paying a large and inefficient tax on our choice of burning fossil fuels. That payment is just as real as a carbon tax, it’s just harder to associate with the actions which caused it. The point of a carbon tax would be to take the externality and attach it to the action which causes it, rather than simply paying for the externality out of general funds. I concede in advance that making this work well in practice is quite difficult.

    I agree that cap and trade is better than a carbon tax, but I think it is even harder to get right in practice. Simple cap and trade approaches tend to reward the worst offenders. Complex ones are very vulnerable to corporate effects on the political process.

    I think lots of people are wary of large scale climate engineering because we understand so little. But plenty of people on both sides of the political spectrum are in favor of nuclear power. It’s clearly wrong to say that liberals are universally opposed to it.

    Is pollution really a partisan issue? I don’t think of that as being partisan either, though I agree that politics leads to different proposed solutions. Plenty of people were in favor of reducing acid rain, for example.

  13. fche said,

    January 12, 2010 @ 8:38 am

    1. “f course questions can and should be raised. … But you can’t just question; at some point you must put forward an alternate explanation … Otherwise you are just being an obstructionist.”

    Thing is, people have identified missing factors. They have identified cases where the models’ forecasts do not match later reality. This should be enough to invalidate parts of the theory, without having to shoulder the burden of proof to create an alternative theory. That too is science.

    2. “I was trying to specifically address an argument I’ve seen made, which is that if humans didn’t cause climate change we don’t have to worry about it. That is completely false.”

    Well, not completely. To the extent the changes are natural and precedented, “worry” need not be the kind of let’s-scare-little-children level of alarmism that had been recently on display. If the theory/models that forecast doom turn out to be based upon bad assumptions, people will be right not to worry – at least in a practical enough sense to cause dramatic economic shifts.

    5. “Climate change did not start out as a political issue. … I don’t know how it became so political.”

    Probably when political groups latched onto the issue, a decade or two ago.

    “I have to say that I have not seen any serious proposals for UN carbon taxes or global governance to address climate change.”

    I don’t know how serious is serious enough, but …

    http://www.google.com/#hl=en&source=hp&q=un+carbon+tax
    http://cdm.unfccc.int/index.html
    http://www.globalgovernancewatch.org/spotlight_on_sovereignty/un-agency-proposes-world-carbon-authority

    etc. etc. etc.

  14. ncm said,

    January 12, 2010 @ 8:26 pm

    Nations have much less flexibility in how they ration out their oil than one might think. Oil producing countries depend on the income, and face unrest or even overthrow if that income drops. In fact, that’s a large part of what triggered the collapse of the USSR in the ’80s, Reagan worship notwithstanding. Saudi Arabia has suffered recent shocks of that sort.

    Are non-gasoline-powered cars really cheaper?

  15. Ian Lance Taylor said,

    January 13, 2010 @ 5:28 pm

    Most of the oil producing countries are pumping as fast as they can, so if oil prices drop they are in trouble no matter what they do. Their rational move is going to be rationing to increase demand, not pumping to increase supply.

    Non-gasoline powered cars are not cheaper today, of course. A pure electric car is simpler than a gasoline powered car and can be cheaper–i.e., many fewer moving parts–but it depends on the price of the batteries. A hybrid car, on the other hand, will presumably be more expensive. All that aside, if everybody is producing non-gasoline cars and nobody is producing gasoline cars, then non-gasoline cars will be cheaper.

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