July 20, 2004

Global Warming

The Telegraph (somewhat sensationally) reports on the latest studies about global warming. While I'd hesitate to say that we finally have "the truth about global warming," the study by the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Gottingen, Germany is definitely interesting. Basically, it claims that the sun is burning brighter and emitting more energy now, and over the last 150 years, than it has in over 1000. While it's unclear that this accounts for all or most of the global average temperature increase over the last century, it certainly could account for a significant portion.

In my mind, this is just another example of why the Bush administration was right to scrap Kyoto over the complaints of the transnationalists.

First, as this study shows, we don't know enough about the problem (how big it is, what causes it, the degree to which we can change it) to be imposing drastic, world-economy-shaking limits on carbon emissions. Hell, we've only been able to accurately measure temparature for a couple hundred years. It would suck to waste billions limiting carbon emissions only to find that solar output was the real driver and oh, by the way, it's about to drop and get much colder.

Second, while imposing significant costs, the accords were far from "reversing" the warming of the last century – in fact, they only promised to return developed economies to carbon outputs that were a fraction below 1990 levels.

Third, Kyoto neglected to put caps on developing nations like China and India, which are sure to provide the bulk of the increase over the next 25 years.

We are, in my mind, much better off with a growing economy that can afford the studies necessary to understand the scope of the problem and the R&D to design technology (like new methods of carbon sequestration and massive carbon sinks) to fix it. Human output of carbon has been growing quickly for 150 years and, even if we put the severest curbs in place today, will continue at high levels for decades, if not centuries. The limits of our knowledge and our technology now means that a "reversal" is practically impossible without destroying all of our gains in standard of living since the industrial revolution (which might be the point for some in the anti-globalist crowd).

I am reminded somewhat of supercomputers. Some very smart people at a government lab were working on some very hard modelling problems that require years of computer time to solve. They were trying to decide how big a supercomputer to buy with the money they had in their budget. So, being geeks, they plotted price/performance over time, extrapolated Moore's law and historical trends, and what they found was that they were actually better off not buying a supercomputer now, but waiting a year and buying one then that was much faster. They could then start their calculations 12 months later, but still finish before any computer they could buy today would be able. This is the weird logic of what's possible when the time frames of technological progress outstrip the time frames of the problem to be solved. (In fact, you might argue that this is the very definition of technology, or of a tool.)

There is, of course, a limit to this line of reasoning because if everyone decides to wait a year then the supercomputers of tomorrow will never be built, because no one will invest in them today. But the point still holds: except for the coordination problem, i.e. freeloaders, if we want to solve five-year problems today, we are probably better off getting together and investing in building faster computers for the first 2 years.

My belief is that the same dynamic holds with carbon output – we are better off waiting for the better technology, but we should make sure that some of the returns from our carbon-producing economies today are invested in the right technologies. Kyoto, and the rest of the chicken-little reaction, is not the answer.

Posted by richard at July 20, 2004 12:53 AM

I agree that the fact of global warming is far from established — and it's true that technology could ultimately prove capable of fixing the problem.

But I should think we are also agreed that even with global warming placed to one side, carbon emissions are a problem — not necessarily because New York might end up underwater someday, but because these emissions are not the friendliest compounds to have to breathe all the time, and because it's preferable not to give Industry free rein to settle a three-foot layer of soot over the Earth's surface.

And I'm not clear on how the supercomputer analogy applies. In that case you describe a problem that people wanted to solve; they performed studies and realized that the better solution to the problem is not to act immediately.

With carbon emissions you have a problem that resonates in everyone's lungs (or at least those of us in industrial centers: studies say breathing Boston's air has the carcinogenic effect of a pack-a-day habit), caused by people who don't have any tremendous interest in solving it.

So tell me again how scaling back regs and blowing off a mobilized international consensus on the subject gives American industry the R & D incentive to reduce its emissions — unless you mean that perhaps some study (perhaps funded by Exxon and Mobil, and perhaps not) will ultimately prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that all this air-flavoring is in fact good for us . . . or that it lowers the price of consumer goods enough to cancel out the harm.

Because otherwise I see the bright minds in the First World focusing instead on other projects: e.g., how to make sure no one on the New York Thruway ever has to touch a toilet handle. It's simple market economics here — your bailiwick — unless there is some tangible, realistic, significant cost associated with polluting like all hell, people are going to keep doing it. It becomes someone else's mess to clean up.

On an unrelated matter: how does Kyoto jibe with free trade? Does unilateral self-exclusion from an emissions treaty rise to the level of an unfair subsidy to American industry? Or are the other nations at fault for a protectionist gang-up here, knowing that America, as the biggest polluter, stood to lose the most from an emissions treaty — so that we were in fact affirming a free-trade principle by refusing to be guilted into a self-imposed regulation that hurts us most?

I raise this latter question because in my mind the same conundrum arises from American attitudes about oil consumption — whereas other countries voluntarily submit to heavy taxes on gasoline and commit government monies to development and maintenance of mass transportation, we begrudge every cent we spend on gasoline and shape our foreign policy (and arguably our military deployments) around our concern for keeping prices under $2.00 per gallon.

I've characterized that attitude as imperialist and arguably protectionist, and I'm not sure how our insistence upon burning stuff as much as we want is any different. On the other hand, maybe it's just a choice, and a different choice from what the Europeans have chosen — and possibly driven, at least in part, by the spatial layout of America and the necessities that arise therefrom. But even if it's not a less moral or market-oriented choice, it may not be the wiser one, as we now have to reap what we've sown in the Middle East, because of our disproportionate dependence on foreign oil (which, by the way, we burn to produce those carbon emissions).

Finally, while it read glibly enough, I don't think it's fair to say that anti-globalists want their pre-industrial standard of living back. The mature perspective of the left — which I admit, not all of these folks have — is that now that we've made the DVD player, we can focus on fixing glaring social wrongs and inequalities that were necessarily suffered to get to where we are today.

But that's a-whole-nother can of worms, as we worm-canners are wont to say.

Posted by: Brad A. at July 20, 2004 03:01 PM

I don't know Rich, it was like 105 degrees in Yakama, WA on Saturday. We had two fans on, but it was still extremely uncomfortable in Tom's double wide mobile home. It's hard enough putting down hardwood floors, but when your palms are sweating like that, it's much worse. We either need Kyoto and all its restrictions or, at the very least, some type of window A/C unit.

Posted by: Mike F. at July 20, 2004 03:05 PM

Brad, you raise a bunch of good questions, but I want to clarify one point. The major form of carbon that Kyoto would regulate is the emission of carbon dioxide. This isn't resonating in anyone's lungs – it's purely about global warming. Sure, carbon monoxide (CO – which is bad for people) and methane (CH4 – which is mostly caused by ranching) also contain carbon, but the main cost to industry would be curtailing carbon dioxide emissions.

There's plenty that can be, and is being, done (say with clean coal) to limit sulfur (which can cause acid rain as sulfur dioxide, SO2), ozone (O3 – which is good high up but bad at ground level) and soot emissions (which are bad for people's lungs) but none of these measures would help meet the Kyoto targets.

Posted by: richard at July 21, 2004 01:51 AM

My bad. I have to confess to not knowing the scope of Kyoto's coverage and probably unfairly equated excess carbon dioxide with carcinogenic filth. So I'll concede that point, to the extent that I'm not in a position to say that one side's studies on global warming/CO2 badness are better than the other's.

But while we're talking carcinogenic filth, do you think polluters would be finding cleaner-burning alternatives if there weren't any regs? It seems to me regulation is most appropriate in a situation like this, where the costs of one party's action would be spread over the population to the point where no one has an economic interest in correcting it. The regs adjust the equation so that it's less profitable to pollute, and wham-o! Results.

But I won't belabor that, because maybe we're in agreement on that point, and the divergence is only on whether it's a scientifically proven bad idea to load up the atmosphere with CO2 while simultaneously cutting down all the trees.

Posted by: Brad A. at July 27, 2004 05:34 PM

No, I think that pollution is an externality and the governments role is to create institutions that help internalize externalities. But, that said, I prefer market-oriented solutions rather than technocratic decrees (and not just in pollution).

I think pollution taxes, or better, tradeable credits, are a more effective way of aligning the incentives of corporations than regulations that cap output. Institutions can be crafted, like pollution credit trading markets, that channel decentralized profit motives in socially constructive directions.

The sulfur credits that have shown so much success in reducing "acid rain" are a great example.

That said, as you say, it's all predicated on knowing that the activity that you're trying to slow is actually bad, and knowing how bad it is. Given how little we know about the climate, I think we're a long way from that on global warming – but you'd never know that from the zealots....

Posted by: richard at July 27, 2004 05:55 PM