Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Saving the World Through Sloth, Ineptitude, Hornswoggling, and the Carbon Tax

Many people fear that human activity is changing the climate in ways that will prove catastrophic. Others hold that fear to be overblown or entirely mistaken. Some even claim that because of the rising concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide, the world is becoming a better, more productive place. For example, because of fertilization by carbon dioxide, crop yields are rising, while because of the gentle carbon dioxide-induced warming of the planet, crop lands are extending Northward, while rainfall is increasing in the dry lands to the South of the Sahara. As a result, starvation in the poorest parts of the world is being held at bay.

The disagreement about climate change has long been intense, and positions have become deeply entrenched. The scientific debate has become rancorous. Scientists have been accused of data manipulation and fraud. Scientists have sued one another for libel. And a leading scientist recently quit the climate science field because of its "craziness."

In the public domain, the debate has become highly politicized. Former US President, Barack Obama, has claimed that climate change "is a threat that may define the contours of this century more than any other" (Whatever exactly the contours of a century may be.). Former US Vice President Al Gore has likened denial of climate change to racism. NASA's former top climate scientist and Director of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies, James Hansen, has been arrested repeatedly as a participant in protests against pipeline development, tar sands development, and coal mining.

On the other side, journalists such as the irrepressible James Delingpole, whose work has appeared in the The Telegraph, The Daily Mail, The Wall St. Journal, etc., together with prominent quasi-scientists such as ex-banker, Vicount Matthew White Ridley, British peer of the realm, Christopher Monckton (Third Viscount Monckton of Brenchley), Danish social scientist Bjorn Lomberg and many others who ridicule climate alarmism have spread their message of derision across acres and, indeed, square miles of newsprint, and throughout the world via the Internet.

Who, then, to believe? What, then, to do?

The English philosopher, Bertrand Russell, argued that when the experts disagree, no opinion can be regarded as certain by a non-expert, a principle of judgment that is all very well if the matter upon which the experts disagree is a fine point in philosophy, or an obscure theological question about which judgment can be held indefinitely in abeyance. But what use is such advice when the point in question concerns the need for immediate action to secure the future of mankind?

In reality, as the Canadian economist, John Kenneth Galbraith, observed, "in politics, one has to decide," and that is what most people engaged in the climate debate have done. And having decided, their arguments are liable to be more dogmatic, and their preconceptions more firmly rooted, than those of even the most opinionated expert.

Thus any contribution to the public debate about the dangers or otherwise of human-caused climate change are unlikely to change any minds or or earn the author any respect. For that reason, it was without pleasure that I received for comment a copy of the book Unprecedented Crime: Climate Science Denial and Game Changers for Survival by Peter Carter and Elizabeth Woodworth, Clarity Press, 2018.

It is the case, however, that whatever one's position on the science of climate change, there is a  question arising from that debate that can surely be discussed in a productive way, and it is this: what to do, given the mere risk — a risk of unknown magnitude, of catastrophic human-caused climate change?

Even this question, it is true, is dismissed by many of those skeptical about human-caused climate change, but their contempt for what they deride as the "precautionary principle" is in fact shared by few. Moreover, to proceed without precaution where science suggests the risk, however small, of a great catastrophe is plain foolishness.

It was with those thoughts in mind that I initially flipped through Unprecedented Crime, and in so doing caught sight of a Forward by the above-mentioned, James Hansen, the former NASA scientists on a mission to avert a climate catastrophe.

Having corresponded with James Hansen some years ago, and indeed having published an article by him (slow server but good article, worth waiting for) in the now sadly defunct Internet magazine, naturalSCIENCE, I knew him to be a scientist of exceptional competence, and a person I believe to be of integrity. Thus, I paused immediately to read Hansen's contribution and was delighted to find in it a clear and unambiguous statement of what is surely the fastest, cheapest and most certain means to contain whatever danger derives from human-caused carbon dioxide emissions:
The most fundamental requirement for moving to clean and carbon-free energies is a rising carbon fee ... Products based heavily on fossil fuels will become more expensive and lose out. Economists agree that this is the most efficient way to phase down fossil fuel use, and the only way to get global emissions to decline rapidly. 

Encouraged by Hansen's endorsement, I turned to the index of Carter and Woodworth (the inclusion of an index is always a sign of a conscientious author) and to the term "carbon tax," which directed me to this statement:
The only effective way to control emissions globally is for the wealthy nations of the global North to implement an international carbon tax on themselves, in combination with placing a port-of-entry carbon tax on goods arriving from countries who have no similar national carbon tax.
Excellent. And the inclusion of a countervail on imports not subject to a carbon tax in their country of origin, a measure that the EU is now considering, is vital, since without such a tariff, a carbon tax in one country will promote offshoring of carbon-emitting industry to countries without a carbon tax. Thus, as I advocated in naturalSCIENCE more than twenty years ago:
The failure of Kyoto to establish national quotas effectively limiting global greenhouse gas emissions indicates the need for a different approach. The best alternative is a carbon tax. A carbon tax would cost little to implement, because most fossil fuels are already taxed. Generally, therefore, the tax could be imposed simply by increasing the rate of an existing tax. Even if introduced without international coordination, a carbon tax could serve as an effective restraint on global greenhouse gas emissions provided that countries applying the tax imposed countervailing duties, if necessary at a punitive rate, on imports from countries without a carbon tax. Faced with the alternatives of seeing duties on their exports flowing to foreign governments or enhancing their own revenues by a carbon tax, most countries might be expected to opt for a carbon tax.
And Carter and Woodworth add some useful comments about a carbon tax, concerning its administrative efficiency, its economic efficiency in directing investment to minimize carbon emissions at the lowest overall cost to the economy, and it effectiveness in promoting research and development aimed at carbon emissions reduction.

Specifically, Carter and Woodward advocate, with James Hansen, a revenue neutral carbon tax, which is to say a tax that is equaled by cuts to income tax, etc., precisely the model already adopted in Canada's province of British Columbia. That way, we would get less of what we don't want, namely, carbon emissions, while having more of what we do want, i.e., money to spend on things that don't cause massive carbon emissions. Moreover, the tax would allow reduction in carbon emissions to any level reached on any timescale simply by adjusting the rate.

So far, so good. However, carbon taxes are by no means the sole or primary focus of Unprecedented Crime. There are chapters about how to cut carbon emissions, which, as a person involved in technology development for a good part of my life, is stuff I enjoy. Windmills, solar cells, hydro power and geothermal, plus carbon sequestration, energy efficiency, etc. — all a technologists delight. But also dangerous stuff. It is the kind of thing that goes to the heads of interventionist politicians in a hurry. It's what happened in Germany where a rush to achieve massive replacement of nuclear power with alternative energy resulted in energy shortages, massive energy cost increases, and the counterproductive construction of several dozen coal-fired power plants that have made Germany among nations most heavily dependent on fossil fuel for electricity generation.

Oddly, such failures of state direction of industry prompt no reflection by our authors. On the contrary, they want more of the same, much more. Indeed, they want a "WWII-type emergency mobilization to reduce emissions..." They want a rush to nuclear power, such as the Chinese-financed, French-designed reactor now being built in Britain immediately upwind of the English cities of Bristol, Oxford and London. They want a phase out of "industrial chemical-intensive" agriculture and a switch to subsidized "regenerative organic mixed agriculture, integrating woodland," all of which schemes and others that they promote, seem not only ill-advised, but bound to defeat the purpose of the carbon tax.

The key advantage of a carbon tax is that decisions leading to a low-carbon economy are made by experts in the affected industries operating in response to price signals in a free competitive market, not by bureaucrats, mostly without a clue, laying down the law without a firm grasp on the economic realities or the limits of technological feasibility. Thus, although Carter and Woodworth advocate a carbon tax, their hearts are not in it. What they really want is every socialist's heart's desire: top-down economic dictatorship.

Given the book's title,  Unprecedented Crime, one is not surprised to find chapters of this book devoted to the damnation of climate deniers, a demand for the punishment of corporate "criminals," and for divestment from big oil. However, it is difficult to see merit in this line of thought. Corporations, in general, operate within the law. Therefore, where their legally permitted actions are detrimental to the public interest there is a need not for damnation, flagellation, or divestment, but new laws. In particular, what is needed with respect to the risk of detrimental climate change, is a carbon tax, as major energy companies, including Exxon, BP and Shell, advocate.

Concerning the first part of the title for this review: Saving the World Through Sloth, ineptitude [and] hornswaggling, I wanted to raise this question: How do individuals, through life-style choices reduce their carbon footprint? Mostly, they are poorly equipped to do so. How, could they be otherwise? How could the mass of busy people assess the carbon cost of their every economic decisions: their food choices, their modes of transport, the size of their home, their vacation plans, their investment decisions, or anything else? Clearly, they cannot. Inevitably, therefore, people will continue to make choices chiefly according to personal preference and relative price. It is by providing a signal, in the price of everything that people buy, that a carbon tax affects everyone's economic behavior in rational ways that tends to lower their carbon footprint.

But concern for the environment, and in particular concern over climate change, is to many people more than just a technical question: it has the character of a secular religion. For that reason, many are driven to judge, and as necessary punish, behavior they believe harmful to the environment. What's needed, therefore, is an outlet for the environmentalist's moral fervor, and in thinking about this, I was inspired by the example of very smart you person with whom I once worked. She was trained in astrophysics and, like so many people in such fields, she was prone to obsessive behavior. Among her obsessions was the avoidance of waste, in particular, the waste of paper. Thus, she would retrieve from the recycle bin sheets of paper printed on only one side, and feed them by hand into the printer, thereby achieving re-use. This had several negative consequences. First, one would often be confused in reading reports, page proofs, whatever, as to which side of the page one was supposed to be reading. Moreover, there was a high cost to this form of recycling, since it cost dollars in time spent feeding paper by hand into the printer, to save mere pennies in paper otherwise wasted.

At the time, I considered this a classic instance of environmentalist penny wisdom and pound foolishness, since if conducted on a large enough scale, such action would mean hiring more people to do the same job and thereby consuming more resources to accomplish the same end. On reflection, however, I realize that this is the wrong way to view things. Rather, it is the case that the more time people spend futzing about saving paper, or recycling paper clips, the lower will be the overall productivity of the nation, and hence the lower will be the GDP, including all of its energy components, and hence carbon emissions. Thus, chit-chatting around the water fountain, doing personal email on company time, or otherwise hornswoggling the employer, is, if properly understood, clearly a good thing. It won't get you a raise, obviously. It may even get you fired. But it will help lower the GDP and hence it will lower national carbon emissions.

Looking at things this way reveals the fallacy of those who think it virtuous to become a vegan, drive a Toyota Prius, or ride a bicycle to work. What, after all, do people do with the cash they save by eating tofu instead of prime rib, or saving gas by riding a bike, or buying a hybrid automobile? In most cases, they surely spend it in some way: on a holiday cottage, perhaps, or a Hawaiian holiday. And if they don't spend what they save, so what? Suppose they flush it down the toilet? All that that will achieve is a tiny deflationary pressure on the economy, providing the government a little more scope for inflationary finance. Or if they invest their savings, the money will be spent by someone else, drilling for oil, perhaps, or buying a car on credit.

So next time you see someone putzing about at the office, reading twitter or the Onion, or leaning on a shovel at a work-site, or otherwise cutting the overall productivity of labor, recognize that they are doing God's work of reducing the nation's carbon footprint. Meantime, governments could aid those slackers in their efforts with a mandatory reduction in the work week. With, say, three five-hour days a week, we'd have the climate-change challenge licked.

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