What next on climate change?

David Leonhardt has a very interesting column, here is one excerpt:

…history shows that government-directed research can work. The Defense Department created the Internet, as part of a project to build a communications system safe from nuclear attack. The military helped make possible radar, microchips and modern aviation, too. The National Institutes of Health spawned the biotechnology industry. All those investments have turned into engines of job creation, even without any new tax on the technologies they replaced.

“We didn’t tax typewriters to get the computer. We didn’t tax telegraphs to get telephones,” says Michael Shellenberger, president of the Breakthrough Institute in Oakland, Calif., which is a sponsor of the proposal with A.E.I. and Brookings. “When you look at the history of technological innovation, you find that state investment is everywhere.”

Here's the good news, sort of: we often hear, especially from left of center economists, that ideas are a public good which require subsidy, especially at the level of pure science.  This argument has a strong pedigree, most of all from Kenneth Arrow.  In that framework, if the relevant idea is a public good, a higher price of fossil fuels may not encourage its creation very much.  If oil and coal are more expensive, it's still not worth it for a single firm or institution to produce this public good.  If you think that technologically, we are fairly far from solving the problem (my view), you will be less crushed by the absence of a price incentive for something which is a public good anyway.

If you think we are fairly close to solving the technological problem — maybe souped up wind, nuclear, and hybrids can do it — then you should be quite disappointed by our inability to raise the price of fossil fuels.  The switch to the already-available technologies is at least partially a private good and a higher price for fossil fuels would help a lot.

There is a kind of "utility diversification" at work here.  If you are happy on "technological closeness," you are very unhappy on "policy implementation."  If you are unhappy on technological closeness, you are less unhappy about failures at the policy level.

I believe we are far at the technological level because of institutional constraints.  Wind and nuclear, whatever you think of them, run into fierce local opposition and they are not allowed to reach their potential.  It seems we're only going to adopt a solution which is quite easy and cheap in any case, and doesn't crash into NIMBY; maybe that's a much-improved form of solar.  And with that constraint in place, our inability to raise the price of fossil fuels may matter less than is sometimes suggested.  Maybe only really cheap solutions will be adopted in any case and the rate of their discovery may depend more on research subsidies than on prices at the user level.

In the meantime, it still makes sense to clean up dirty coal, limit cow farts by taxing meat, and spread better indoor heating and cooking technologies in the poorer countries.

Addendum: Here is more from Leonhardt.

Comments

If taxes on legacy goods were useful, wouldn't there already be valid alternatives in Europe?

People are better copiers than inventors. We don't need to worry about Chindia.

We have more energy than we need. Too many environmentalists looking out for the miniscule life on the deadest parts of the planet.
http://green.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/08/05/battle-...

“There are several endangered species, plant and animal, that would be affected by this project,” Ms. Sall said, adding that the “the side-blotched lizard” might also affected.

We didn't endanger those animals. The planet did it.

We simply need to determine the level of "public investment" that we want into alt.energy and then allow X% of investor losses made into alt.energy companies to be tax credits.

"Lost $100K? here's a credit for $40K off your future taxes."

This is preferable because it treats "pure science" as a charitable donation, all while letting the profit motive of "near tech" do the heavy lifting.

Run it this way.... forget guidance from the government, reduce bureaucracy... and the liberals can have ALMOST as much "public investment" as they want.

Why do we care?

Peak oil.

And as for Global Warming: I'll believe it's a crisis when the people who are claiming it's a crisis start acting like it's a crisis. No sign of that yet, eh?

What, you mean aside from advocating for strict limits on emissions, supporting alternative forms of energy, supporting lower-emission cars, and pushing for all kinds of collective action against the problem? Don't be an idiot.

The Defense Department gave us some networking basics. Cisco and Netscape created the Internet.

Please. ARPANET set the foundation for literally everything that followed, including the university-to-university networks that predated the opening up of the Internet to commercial traffic.

If you listen to those New Englanders who begged for turbines, they now regret it because of the NOISE! Turbines are also quite deadly on the bird population. Europe has had poor results with wind. With wind and solar power, you have to have continuous backup available. At this point, the only thing that fills that slot is fossil fuel. Nuclear is the only option for reliable, continuous, low carbon production of energy. Thanks to the 1960's anarchists, we don't have the number of reactors that would meet our needs. If we started building them now, it would take us decades to have enough. In case you haven't kept up, the science on CAGW is now officially UNSETTLED!!

Brett, when the ones screaming crisis will take my solution above: non-government directed solution seeking - you'll know they are serious.

It's the same way with guys moaning for Quantitative Easing - you'll know they are serious when they accept the new money is given directly to the people who already have savings in the bank - then they are serious.

Basically if the solution undermines the party they "seem" to be seeking to aid - then you know they have no ulterior motive.

"...history shows that government-directed research can work. The Defense Department created the Internet, as part of a project to build a communications system safe from nuclear attack."

Noooooo! Will this myth never die?

A carbon tax would encourage conservation even if you used coal.

Most of the new power plants in the US have been natural gas, a fossil fuel, but less dirty than coal and not a NIMBY problem.

Transportation fuel is still the harder half of the problem. There really isn't any substitute for it and it immediately affects people's quality of life.

Alternative sources of energy are not a public good. They are all private goods.

And they already exist. They have existed for decades. They are just not cost-effective.

If a stable climate is the public good you're talking about, then it takes weighty evidence and an accurate calculation of optimal emissions in order to determine the level of the public good. Neither exists right now. The costs and benefits of any remedy must be weighed against those of every other remedy, including the costs and benefits of doing nothing. That's the proper way to deal with a public goods problem.

Asserting the existence of a problem with weak evidence, dismissing alternative explanations, ad hominem attacks on dissenters, exaggerated claims of the benefits, understatement of the costs, and refusal to consider any remedy other than a predetermined remedy is not the way to deal with it.

Wind and nuclear, whatever you think of them, run into fierce local opposition and they are not allowed to reach their potential.

Are you saying that petroleum drilling rigs pulling onto the campus you teach are along with the pipeline crews to route the fossil fuels to a processing center would be cheered by all the residents, students and scholars, as a cheap mature technology that you all depend on because no alternatives exist?

Would you be standing in a counter protest defending the oil rigs as compatible with academias ivory towers, the spilled chemicals as no more unsightly than the mess that is left behind after the football game, the noise and disruption of drilling and pipeline operations no different than the traffic and noise of the homecoming game day?

Fossil fuel production faces fierce opposition in about 80% of the US, so much so that everywhere oil or gas might be found using technology developed in the past 50 years is off limits to even exploration, and coal mining depends on laws favoring corporate rights over individual landowner rights, with vast amounts of lobbying money spent to ensure these fossil fuel mining companies are allowed to pollute the waters and leave behind a wasteland.

people who really believe eating animals is wrong tend not to do so. people who purport to believe in climate change catastrophe still fly, drive, heat their homes, etc. if we were facing armageddon, those believers likely would change their lives, regardless of what the collective does. but they don't, which is telling. that's why many don't believe many of those who claim to believe it's a true crisis. (don't get me wrong, there are other folk who walk the walk, downsizing to tiny houses, living sustainably off the grid, riding bikes all the time, etc.).

Many comments claim that google, netscape and amazon created internet.. sorry... perhaps you were not born..

before the web, there was internet.. and mostly in the universities and research institutions.. NSCA came up with Mosaic (again in Univ of illinois).. the internet was alive and well. The Web-internet that you currently see is built upon millions of research dollars that was poured in by the Govt.

In case you are really curious.. the entire silicon valley was govt sponsored.. and grew out of govt money..
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZTC_RxWN_xo

'In the meantime, it still makes sense to clean up dirty coal, limit cow farts by taxing meat,'

If the price elasticity of the externality causing good is very high, then this may work as you say, but then it is bad to tax it for other reasons. If it is near or above one, it is just rent collecting by the state as those harmed by the externalities are not the ones getting the money from the Pigovian tax.

"A carbon tax would encourage conservation even if you used coal."

Yes, but voters hate new taxes. It takes money out of their pockets.

So I suggest a special tax. We could perhaps start with a tax only on gasoline and diesel fuel, and expand it later when the voters want to.

Tax gasoline and diesel when they are created or imported. Then take the money and distribute all of it evenly among voters. Give every voter a debit card which will double as a voter registration card. Every week, or every day if that's feasible, credit all the cards with their share of the tax. Pay for administering the gas tax out of the general fund, so that 100% of the money collected goes to voters.

All the gas that's burned by nonvoters (illegal aliens, corporations, etc) goes to subsidize voters. So the average voter comes out ahead. But voters who use much more gas than the average voter will pay more tax than they get back. They will have a strong incentive to find ways to conserve gas.

A voter who sees that gas costs $12/gallon but who finds his debit card pays for all his gasoline, will be happy with the tax. He will be fine with the tax getting even higher. Voters who use a lot of gas will pay a lot and will be very unhappy. They will be shouted down by patriots who want the USA to import less oil.

Every voter will have a strong incentive to conserve. If he uses one gallon less of gas, he has $12 he can spend on anything he wants. If he finds some way to travel with alternate energy, he'll get a nice little bonus every week, paid by the people who still buy gas.

So the tax provides an incentive, but it does not provide a hardship -- except to voters who buy more than their share of gas, and to nonvoters.

Chernobyl was not a hoax. There are parts of Wales where the livestock is still too radioactive to legally be sold for human consumption. Neither was Windscale nor Three Mile Island. Moreover, the cleanup costs of nuclear reactors are huge.

The government did not invent the internet that we find useful today. That is the real point here. As if networking computers was some eureka moment that noone else would have ever thought of, like the Amazon Shopping Cart (it's even called a "shopping cart!"). The government did not invent the concept of communication. And they will not actually invent the end result energy system that ultimately replaces what we are doing today. Maybe they just had enough money to buy the computers and spread them across the country requiring communication more than anyone else at the time. They can do fundamental research...no, scratch that. They can FUND fundamental research, just like they did with the primitive internet. The government does macro, not micro.

Anyway, the statement "Clean energy advocates are in a war against a politically entrenched, well-financed, and fairly monolithic status quo." is not really true. They are in a war with the fact that they don't have any workable ideas themselves and can't rethink their identity to allow the workable ideas that do exist.

I think the whole environmentalist hostility to nuclear power is an example of political coalitions not being logical things. Positions that hold your political coalition together are often inherently contradictory, and many sensible things you could do to achieve your claimed coalition-wide goals break your coalition.

I don't think this reflects a lack of belief on the part of some significant subset of greens, but rather an acknowledgement of political reality. Greens worried about CO2 emissions don't support nuclear power for the same kind of reason that pro-lifers don't support a massive campaign to blanket teenagers with cheap, effective contraceptives.

J Thomas: Well played.

"Coal doesn't make any economic sense without net subsidies (by government paying for environmental damage by coal), and "clean coal" is a distraction."

I disagree. Coal production in the US (something I know a little about) is very cheap currently and the sheer amount of coal that can be used makes it sensible to use it and not waste it.

Coal is differentiated according to various attributes. Power plant engineers since the late 80s have been making efforts to burn coal in a cleaner way, many of them successful. Coal mining companies are also participating in this. These technologies have also used, and been used in, various countries around the world.

J Thomas's "hoax" comments were obviously tongue-in-cheek.

He's still way off base, though. Nuclear power has killed fewer people in its entire existence, even counting the most pessimistic Chernobyl estimates(*), than coal does in a year.

Support for nuclear power is a good litmus test for whether someone is honestly concerned about human welfare with respect to climate change, or really just wants more of the type of government they like.

I'm pretty convinced that the mechanism of global warming is plausible, though I'd like to have more data before spending trillions on it. But the fact that we're just sitting on the solution in favor of tax and subsidy schemes for vested interests makes me disinclined to worry about it.

(*) Which you shouldn't as there's a lot of guesswork involved and reason to suspect upward bias in estimate.

>limit cow farts by taxing meat

How is taxing chicken going to limit cow farts?

@Finch

"Nuclear power has killed fewer people in its entire existence, even counting the most pessimistic Chernobyl estimates(*), than coal does in a year."

There may be a lot of selection bias there. It's easy to count coal mine accidents and black lung deaths. Hard to count deaths from low-level radiation. They tend to become the baseline....

But more than that, we don't know how likely it is to get an accident much bigger than Chernobyl. We can't get good estimates about that until after we have a few of them. And anyway the distribution might have a fat tail.

We don't know how dangerous nuclear power will be. It could possibly be very very bad. So to my way of thinking it makes sense to hold off on that if we have the prospect of some other approach that's adequate. But if fission is our only way to survive as a culture, then accept the unknown risks -- better an unknown risk than certain disaster.

Coal does have a certain amount of radium etc which is likely to cause us problems. We can discuss how bad coal is and how we need alternatives to that. We get the same result -- switch to nuclear if we can't get an adequate choice and must accept a probably-bad one. Switch to something else if we can.

As for the idea that coal is cheap so we ought to use it up quick, consider the carbon cycle. This is carbon which has been out of the ecosystem for a very long time. Dump it in quickly and what happens? Nobody knows, but it's likely to be a game-changer. Imagine that you're playing monopoly and suddenly every player gets an extra $5000. That's going to change your strategies in unsubtle ways, won't it? We are taking a lot of mineral carbon, and mineral phospates, ad mineral sulfur, and dumping them all into the ecosystem fast. I don't know what result to expect, whether the label "global warming" will fit, but it would be silly not to expect big effects.

It would be only prudent to speed our science and slow down our large-scale mass technological change until we get a clearer sense what's going on. But nobody's in charge at that level and so I don't know how we could make that choice.

Game theory. Some in the environmental movement think if they apply enough pressure to fossil fuels and nuclear power, they will eventually get their solar and wind power.

It might work, if solar and wind become economical in time. But if they don't, there seems to be no backup plan.

Well, the backup plan seems to be "we will just stop burning fossil fuels." Depending on the strength and depth of their echo chamber, they might think that would happen. But unless rocks labeled "GLOBAL WARMING" start falling from the sky and crushing people to death, that won't be what happens. People will continue to burn fossil fuels rather than give up a high standard of living, global warming be damned.

Nuclear, on the other hand, works. We have over a thousand reactor-years of experience with them and they easily go into the grid. France has demonstrated how to get 80% of your electricity from them. They substitute for coal plants very easily in grid management.

I think solar and wind might very well work. They aren't on all the time, but there are ways of dealing with that. It will take mathematical modeling and engineering experience. But first we need to get experience with a little bit of them, and we can't bet the planet that it will work. Americans can be pretty complacent but they won't stand for weekly brownouts.

There may be a lot of selection bias there. It's easy to count coal mine accidents and black lung deaths. Hard to count deaths from low-level radiation. They tend to become the baseline....

Coal pollution kills tens of thousands of people a year. You won't find anything even remotely close to this for people living near nuclear plants.
http://nextbigfuture.com/2008/03/deaths-per-twh-f... has links to many sources about just how many people each power source kills per unit energy.

The problem here from my point of view is that we tend to forget the price attached to those developments. Yes, the Departement of Defense brought up the BEGINNINGS of the Internet, BUT the cost not only to develop it but to maintain the Departement is very high. Also, it was NOT apparent that this would be a success, so how many projects must the state sponsor before he makes a hit like the internet.
It is hard to see how we could quantify it and even if we could I'd say we would have a big net loss, even more so if you have to consider opportunity costs.

Also, we would finally reach moral grey area. Yes, the military made RADAR possible (though the ideas were known long before then. The German's worked on a radio frequency modulated detector for quite some time without success) and microchips, but at what price? Most of those inventions were triggered by war (WW II f.e.) and thus shouldn't really be lauded as prime examples.

And that the NIH jump-started biotech is something I can't accept, because the first discoveries in the genetic area where actually not NIH, but we could trace it to several universities (private and state funded). The question is (since most elite universities behave like corporations) whether the state is really necessary for this or not.

"Chernobyl is not relevant to the nuclear power discussion. We are discussing the wisdom and safety of nuclear power in the U.S., not in poor nations with collapsing systems of government."

How long will your reactor last before it has to be decommissioned? Twenty years?

So when you build one you are betting that for the next 20 years the USA will not be a poor nation with a collapsing government. Does that look like a safe bet to you?

And then, how about that oil rig? Surely we know how to run a lot of oil rigs without having an accident like that. But somehow we did have one. Of course we figure it's safe to go on drilling everywhere since the oil companies are all more careful now and will never repeat that mistake. We need the oil.

We don't have nearly enough data about US rates of reactor failure. All we know is that for the number of reactors we have, we haven't had a significant failure yet. (TMI etc were not significant failures. In each case we were able to rationalize that the amount of radioactivity leaked was not important, that the cost of cleanup was not very important, that it was an isolated incident which will never happen again. After a significant failure we will shut down our nuclear power plants.)

We have not yet had a significant failure, so how long will it take to get a significant failure when we have 50 times as many nuclear power plants? About 2% as long as it would take if we kept the same number, maybe? And the new plants won't be comparable. They will be new designs that ought to be cheaper and safer but might not be.

We have utterly inadequate data to judge the safety of new nuclear power plants in the USA. We cannot say how long it will take to have an accident so severe that we shut down all the plants and absorb their costs. All we know is that it has not happened yet.

"I think the fear of nukes is weird because it only seems to apply to new nukes. I've never seen anything that suggests you get less money for your house if it's near a nuclear plant, unless it's so near that you can see the scary towers. But if you're ten miles away, no problem. Why on earth would everyone be fine with existing plants, but terrified of building new ones?"

I think people notice how hard it is to change plans that are set in stone. Decommission a plant early and it costs a lot of money, the power company raises rates, etc. They won't agree to it without a tremendous fight, and there's a pretty good chance you'll still be fighting when the original schedule calls for decommissioning the plant.

But they think they can stop new nuclear plants. A giant expense that is unlikely to pay off, and it gets a lot of public opposition, maybe it can be blocked.

Is there an alternative? The more that power companies get invested in nukes, the more effort they put into popularizing and building nukes, the less they'll have left for anything else. So if we do nukes too quick we won't have an alternative because the choice is already made.

"Some in the environmental movement think if they apply enough pressure to fossil fuels and nuclear power, they will eventually get their solar and wind power.

"It might work, if solar and wind become economical in time. But if they don't, there seems to be no backup plan."

Yes. That's a serious concern.

"Well, the backup plan seems to be "we will just stop burning fossil fuels." .... People will continue to burn fossil fuels rather than give up a high standard of living, global warming be damned."

It depends. If the US balance of trade stays too bad, before that crisis hits us we might become a net oil-and-coal exporter. We would have to find ways to conserve, a high standard of living would not be in the cards. Of course, somebody would be burning the stuff. Just not us.

"Nuclear, on the other hand, works. We have over a thousand reactor-years of experience with them and they easily go into the grid. France has demonstrated how to get 80% of your electricity from them. They substitute for coal plants very easily in grid management."

And they are very expensive. But maybe cheaper than all known alternatives when the fossil fuels are unavailable, assuming we don't face a gambler's-ruin catastrophe from nukes.

I'd say, figure out how fast you can build nuclear plants. Put it off as long as possible, and then if nothing better shows up then do it.

"Coal pollution kills tens of thousands of people a year. You won't find anything even remotely close to this for people living near nuclear plants."

Cancer rates are up. We don't know why. I think it might have something to do with 2 million new organic compounds that we didn't used to have at all. It might have something to do with carcinogens from fossil fuels. It might have something to do with the increased background radiation. We can't compare much because it has become the new background. I think it's encouraging that living close to a nuclear plant is often safer than living in the middle of a carcinogen-harboring city. But we don't know how much death worldwide to attribute to low-level leaks from nuclear plants. It's a complex question.

I know you're only playing around, but for other readers that don't get your irony I want to make clear that coal dumps a whole lot more radiation into the environment than nuclear, to say nothing of CO2 or more simple poisons like NOx.
http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=...

"We are taking a lot of mineral carbon, and mineral phospates, and mineral sulfur, and dumping them all into the ecosystem fast"

well, certainly for sulfur and nitrogen, the rate at which the bad stuff has been going back in has been slowed over a matter of a couple of decades. then also you have the fact that the power plants in China and India 50 years from now are probably going to be a lot cleaner than even the existing ones in the US today.

I'm willing to bet that burning wood or charcoal a couple of hundred years ago was doing the same thing, if not more.

So I'm going to say that although this is a good argument it's not good enough.

@k

In ecological terms, taking things that have been in mineral form for 100,000,000 years or more and dumping masses of them into the ecosystem over a couple hundred years, is a sudden shock. The lead, arsenic, mercury, etc might make a difference.

And the carbon is a great big deal.

Very often ecosystems are limited by one factor, typically a material, very often potassium or nitrogen. Carbon is not usually the limiting factor for growth (except for plants which often grow faster as CO2 concentrations rise to perhaps 20%). But having considerable new carbon would still have unpredictable results. Some species will get an advantage from it that others don't, and that could be enough to make dramatic shifts in which species dominate our ecosystems. No way to tell which results would matter. Like, if our croplands wound up with a lot more ants and a lot fewer rodents, would we care?

When we burned wood we took minerals that had been locked up in that wood for up to 200 years and released it to be used primarily by more plants, often by new trees. Very different from introducing new minerals. Also the scale was a lot smaller.

"So I'm going to say that although this is a good argument it's not good enough. "

I am arguing from ignorance. I don't know what will happen and you don't either. We might get something that's reasonably labeled "global warming" and we might get something very different.

We really ought to slow down our big changes while we figure out what's going on. But I see no practical way to do that short of reducing the population drasticly. And it would be hard to develop a consensus for that.

So I'm not clear what to argue for. I guess I should argue for limited attempts to reduce our carbon output and for living more on what we can recycle etc. But I can't point to the costs of not doing it -- we won't know them until it's too late. I can't claim any particular half-measure or quarter-measure or eighth-measure will be effective. I can't expect people to rearrange their lives for a threat that isn't certain and that might not show up in their lifetimes.

I guess mostly my best choice is just to wait, and if I live long enough I can say "I Told You So".

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