environment


In the sequel to Freakonomics, titled Superfreakonomics, the authors have a chapter on global warming. I haven’t read it yet so I can’t give a fully educated opinion. But one can pick up a few facts from the blogopshere.

Essentially, the authors of the book, Levitt and Dubner discussed some creative solutions to global warming as an alternative to massive carbon taxes or imposing a cap and trade system. One approach is this:

The hose-in-the-sky approach to global warming is the brainchild of Intellectual Ventures, a Bellevue, Wash.-based firm founded by former Microsoft Chief Technology Officer Nathan Myhrvold. The basic idea is to engineer effects similar to those of the 1991 mega-eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippines, which spewed so much sulfuric ash into the stratosphere that it cooled the earth by about one degree Fahrenheit for a couple of years.

So why did Levitt and Deubner get so much criticism in the blogosphere? They prefaced the chapter with a few pages that seemingly understated global warming’s potential cost and even referred to the often-overhyped instance of scientists warning of “global cooling” in the 1970s. In fact, not many scientists actually believed global cooling was coming and the reports of such are cited nowadays by global warming deniers as reason to doubt current climate science. Because of this, the authors understandably lose some credibility.

But people like Ezra Klein, Paul Krugman, and others, I think, mistakenly dismiss everything Levitt and Dubner say about solutions to global warming. Innovative solutions like geo-engineering might possibly be a more effective way to control the world’s temperature rise and/or live with the consequences, as Bjorn Lomborg’s Copenhagen Consensus concluded.

From what I can tell, Levitt and Dubner don’t deny global warming or the need to do something about it. They only give solutions that involve neither total government takeover of industry nor intrusion into the intricacies of people’s lives. For this, they are considered intellectually bankrupt. While they may have misrepresented the climate science out there, I still think that people need to consider alternative solutions to global warming a little more seriously.

Read Dubner’s response to many of the criticisms here.

I know, it might sound weird coming from someone who really doesn’t like taxes, especially taxes that are passed-off as “well-intentioned”. The British government is calling for a raise in taxes on motorists to cut carbon emissions and I personally support the move.

Taxes on gasoline are an economically justified and effective way of correcting a harmful externality (CO2 emissions) by accounting for the social cost of gasoline consumption. A gasoline tax, for this purpose – and not for the purpose of raising revenues – is an example of a Pigouvian tax.

A Pigouvian tax – named after Arthur Pigou and championed most recently and enthusiastically by Greg Mankiw – is a tax that corrects externalities by making it more costly to participate in the said action. Pigouvian taxes are meant to be revenue neutral by being enacted side-by-side with an equivalent tax cut in another area.

Whether this proposal by the British government is a Pigouvian tax or just an outright tax increase remains to be seen. As long as it is Pigouvian, I throw my hesitant support behind it.

In a recent editorial from Investor’s Business Daily, they ask,

If the world is running out of oil, why do we keep finding more of it?

This quote is obviously a reference to peak oil, which has received a boost in popularity because the top economist at the International Energy Agency insists that we’re going to reach the point of no return a decade sooner than most previous predictions. The problem, I think, stems from a misreading of history.

The Peak Oil Theory traces its origins to geophysicist M. King Hubbert, who was specifically looking at oil within the United States. For the most part, he was correct about the production of oil within a given field or region, there is a bell shaped path. But as this science went from the lab to the public, a good deal of contextual information was left out. As noted on this website about peak oil,

In this regard, the ramifications of Peak Oil for our civilization are similar to the ramifications of dehydration for the human body.

But what is missed by those that are filled with paranoia about peak oil is the role of technology (and also a good dose of economics).

Technology, believe it or not, has taken a giant leap forward since those first models. Oil that was once out of reach at 20-30 dollars a barrel, now looks appetizing. Capture rates have also gone up. But advances have not just been made in drilling.

Drilling technology has advanced to the point where offshore rigs can take the full force of Category 5 hurricanes and spill barely a drop of crude.

In other words, the risk of obtaining this oil in terms of environmental damage has gone down.  Thus, the overall costs to society have also taken a dive.  Regardless, even if we do take production as a static or declining number, we have to assume no one is going to try to develop a substitute for an commodity that, in the US alone, is worth 1.4 trillion dollars a year.  In a world based on profit incentives, its foolish to think we will not switch to some other more  efficient substitute when oil gets too costly.

Moral of the story to peak oil paranoids: don’t believe everything you think.

A French study has challenged the findings of a well-publicized British report that said organic food offers no conclusive health benefits. Maybe organic food is healthier for you, maybe it isn’t. I’d just regard it as inconclusive at best.

While the media might be focusing on the death of Patrick Swayze, we’d like to draw your attention to the death of a man who was a truly influential and positive force in the world. Norman Borlaug, father of the “Green Revolution” and winner of the 190 nobel peace prize, died Saturday at the age of 95.

Borlaug’s accomplishments involved the tremendous work he did in revolutionizing agriculture. By recognizing that organic farming could not exclusively feed the world’s population, Borlaug developed genetically modified foods. These foods, among other things, could resist disease, had a higher yield with fixed inputs, and utilized “dwarfing”.

The results were higher yields and food being grown in places where it wasn’t before – more people were eating because there was more food. As the Wall Street Journal points out:

Today, famines—whether in Zimbabwe, Darfur or North Korea—are politically induced events, not true natural disasters.

Borlaug’s only obstacle to universally renowned heroism comes from environmentalists. Some environmentalists claimed that growing more food would mean roads would be built over wilderness. I don’t think I need to address the elitism of that argument. But also, because of the unknown consequences of using chemicals like non-organic pesticides and genetically modifying foods, environmentalists saw Borlaug as a figure who introduced dangerous food into every agricultural industry in the world.

It’s true that we don’t know all the consequences of Borlaug’s work – just like we don’t yet know the consequences of society staring at computer screens for 7 hours a day. But we need to weigh the possible risks with the enormous benefits. Borlaug was credited with saving the lives of 1 billion people. Not a typo – billion. Those are 1 billion people that would have starved to death. As Borlaug said, it’s easy for people to criticize his work for being possibly dangerous because they all have “full bellies”.

Potential benefits of global warming are frequently overstated for ideological convenience.  However, there’s an interesting article in today’s New York times about how rising temperatures in the Arctic have begun to melt the ice that blocks ships from traveling through the Arctic Ocean when voyaging from East Asia to Europe.

[T]he Russians hope that the transit of the German ships will inaugurate the passage as a reliable shipping route, and that the combination of the melting ice and the economic benefits of the shortcut — it is thousands of miles shorter than various southerly routes — will eventually make the Arctic passage a summer competitor with the Suez Canal.

Seems like good news overall, although it highlights one of the major impediments to global compliance on climate change mitigation policy:  there are some countries (particularly Russia) for whom global warming will probably have a net positive effect.  How can you get these northern countries to make economic sacrifices for the sake of the countries that global warming will hurt?

Globalization and rising incomes, critics charge, necessarily yield more environmental harm. In In Defense of Globalization, Jagdish Bhagwati makes an argument for the opposite – that growth, measured by increased incomes, can actually help the environment. This might seem counter-intuitive. After all, as we make more money, we consume more, which means we cause more pollution and create more trash.

But think about it for a second. As people satisfy their basic needs of food, shelter, water, etc., they become less concerned with an extra dollar and care more about things like parks and pretty things.

This bell curve, essentially a Kuznets curve for the environment, demonstrates the idea:

Gene Grossman and Alan Krueger, two economists, found that peak sulfur dioxide levels in various cities around the world were when median income was around $5,000 to $6,000. Once a city made more than this, the locals not only switched to cleaner technology but also became more concerned with the natural environment. Bhagwati adds:

Several historical examples can also be adduced: the reduction in smog today compared to what the industrial revolution produced in European cities in the nineteenth century, and the reduced deforestation of the United States compared to a century ago.

One need only look to China, where pollution is horrible but arguably necessary to get to a certain level of wealth in order to “clean up”. Similarly, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and Scandanavian countries all have very impressive environmental records; these developed countries, over centuries, have reached a point in their GDP where clean water/air and national parks are more desirable than 50 more bucks. However, the marginal difference in income for developed countries is relatively huge for developing countries, so the developing countries are more willing to put up with a degree of environmental harm.

While I personally agree with the idea that growth can help the environment, I think the lingering question is whether that “peak” level of things like CO2 is permissible or whether we must stop pollution from even reaching there.

The Copenhagen Consensus, headed by Bjorn Lomborg and featuring several nobel prize winners, has evaluated the effectiveness of various climate change-fighting measures in comparison to their costs. They ranked their findings in the following table:

copenhagenchart

I’m sure the report has gotten some valid criticisms, so I’m not taking their findings as indisputable facts or anything. But the low score for carbon taxes surprises me most. The “adaptation” idea also intrigues me.

Elizabeth Kolbert chronicles some absurd enviro-stunt books in the most recent New Yorker.  One highlight is from a book by Colin Beavan called No Impact Man: The Adventures of a Guilty Liberal Who Attempts to Save the Planet and the Discoveries He Makes About Himself and Our Way of Life in the Process:

For a year, [Colin Beavan] and his family would attempt to live, in his words, “as environmentally as possible”…. They would try to live in a ninth-floor apartment in Greenwich Village without producing any environmental impact whatsoever…. [Beavan] insists that the family give up toilet paper and keeps hassling his wife to forswear tampons. He decides that they can eat only seasonal food grown in the Northeast, which eliminates coffee. Michelle, a devotee of Starbucks quadruple shots, develops a debilitating caffeine-withdrawal headache. Beavan spends a lot of time worrying about the family’s—i.e., Michelle’s—lapses. When he finds a Sunday Times lying on the table, he accuses her of betrayal. “Are you taking this project seriously?” he demands. “Are you buying newspapers when I’m not around?”

A huge problem with doomsday progressive environmentalism is that, taken to its logical extreme, it demands an all-consuming devotion to minimizing one’s environmental impact.  As Beavin’s book seems to vividly illustrate, actually following through on this conviction turns people into huge douchebags.

So what if you are somebody (like me) who worries about possible catastrophic consequences of global warming and wants to contribute to keeping the planet healthy and habitable?  It’s frustrating, because it’s really hard to know what to do.  You don’t want to turn into a Beavin, who eschews all other pursuits in life for the sake of minimizing environmental impact.  But it takes a lot of time and energy to figure out what your most environmental damaging activities are and what you should do to reduce your carbon footprint.

A lot of people try to be more environmental by buying local food, but there’s evidence indicating that, despite its appealing simplicity, being a locavore isn’t particularly sensible if you’re trying to reduce your environmental impact.  Same with recycling, or eating organic:  a lot of popular environmentally friendly activities don’t actually do a lot for the environment, and a lot of activities (like not eating red meat) that aren’t widely know as environmentally friendly actually do make meaningful reductions in individuals’ environmental impacts.

The problem is, because so much information is necessary, it’s hard to make environmentally responsible decisions, which is a huge impediment to more people making them (since fortunately, most people don’t want to be like Beavan).  If only there was a way to compile and synthesize all this information, and convert it into one, easy-to-understand number that would inform you of the overall costs of your purchasing decisions.  Fortunately, there is: prices!  This is why it’s so important to have a carbon tax, and why progressives who care about the environment should be much more passionate in their support for one.  If carbon were priced, I wouldn’t have to worry about whether or not eating local, or organic, or recycling, or taking the bus instead of the metro instead of driving actually reduces carbon output.  Prices would make all those decisions for me, and I could go about my day with one less thing to worry about.

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