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Various comments to posts

I responded to various climate change posts over the last few days.

Before I mention them, let me mention Dave Robert’s astute political analysis. He pins the blame on the broken political processes in the Senate:

The U.S. Senate is already an unrepresentative institution: Wyoming’s two senators each represent 272,000 people; California’s two senators each represent 18,481,000 people. On top of this undemocratic structure is a series of rules that have been abused with increasing frequency.

The main one, of course, is the default supermajority requirement that’s been imposed by abuse of the filibuster. I’ll have much more to say on this soon, but suffice to say, the supermajority requirement has perverse, deleterious consequences that extend much farther than most progressives seem to understand.

For a complex, contentious, and regionally charged issue like climate change, the supermajority requirement presents a virtually insuperable barrier to action. I don’t think we would have the climate bill of our dreams if only 51 votes were required, but I’m fairly sure something along the lines of Waxman-Markey or stronger could have made it over the finish line.

The rest of the articles are about political realities and thus kind of boring. The key thing is that the US is not working towards any kind of consensus.. despite the increasing need to do so. I hate to get all partisan, but Republican obstructionism seems to be the primary cause of it. That leaves the EPA’s power  to regulate CO2 emissions. Obama and the EPA said they preferred a legislative (not an executive) solution, but do we have any other choice now?

Responding to a Douthat post about climate change and conservatism, Matt Yglesias made an outstanding post about climate change and the right:

if Republican members of congress looked at ACES and thought “nice try, but too many side deals” they were, of course, free at any time to introduce an alternative piece of legislation. They did not. And you can tell by the rhetoric of the broader conservative movement (”cap and tax,” “job-killing energy tax,” etc.) that there was no openness to this kind of effort to find more optimal ways of pursuing environmental goals. On the contrary, every move congressional Republicans have made—from adopting a House posture that made it necessary to forge costly side-deals with coal belt Democrats to adopting a Senate posture that ensures carbon regulation will be left primarily to the EPA—has tended to simultaneously undermine the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions while also making the economic impact of the regulations more costly.

I made this comment:

Sorry, guys, I hate to break the news.

China is number 1 in carbon emissions only because they manufacture a lot of products to import to Walmarts in the West. Taking that into account would absolutely make US the largest carbon emitter still.

Right now, the percent of carbon footprint for China which comes from manufacturing is huge. All western countries have done is to export their dirty carbon to factories in China.

Here in the US most of our carbon footprints come from transportation and our residences. It is totally different in China where manufacturing comprise the bulk of the carbon footprint. If I recall correctly, in US, it was something like 1/3 transportation, 1/3 home energy, 1/3 manufacturing. In China it was like 70-5% manufacturing, home energy 20% and transportation 5% (I don’t remember where I found these figures, but the relative ratios are right).

I don’t deny that over time China and India will be responsible for a larger percentage of carbon, but it is naive to point to China as the bad guys here. Ultimately the responsibility for these carbon emissions rests with the multinationals which feel no public accountability for their manufacturing methods. China’s proper response is to impose tougher environmental regulations. Let’s hope that there is enough political will in China to overrule the corporate influence of multinationals on policy.

Tyler Cowen responds to the same Douthat article, saying:

The bill seems to bureaucratize the energy sector, forgo most of the revenue opportunities, produce massive time consistency problems (postpone real adjustment and then give out more permits over time), and all without getting public buy-in to the idea of higher carbon prices (my emphasis).

I commented:

I don’t see how you can regard it as a libertarian rights violation issue, given the fact that the harms may not become apparent for a few decades after there is no time to reverse it(the same is true for tobacco, nitrates, etc). Sure, the transnational lawsuits may provide a kind of after-the-fact compensation for the (former) residents of Tuvalu and Bangladesh (see this Mother Jones article which states “the world’s 3,000 biggest public companies could be on the hook for $2.2 trillion—more than 30 percent of their profits—if they were made to pay for the fallout of their carbon emissions.” Even if compensation came, it would be too little, too late.

I have no love for cap and trade (although Stavins and Schmalensee seem to find it more palatable . But cap and trade was an attempt to deal with political realities (which have now collapsed).

What’s this about “might lead to a new green technology?” Innovation is happening all the time (even at BP and Exxon). Joe Romm has often said that existing green tech could go a long way towards our 2050 goal without having to gamble on carbon sequestration.

Who is saying that we ought to spend 1% of GDP? The estimates I’ve seen are a lot more modest (in the 100-200$ per year range, not including the social & economic benefits). Douthat/Manzi both present a false choice here.

Behind this statement is a feeling of hopelessness; Many people involved in climate change succumb at times to it; But it is not a valid excuse for inaction; we are still at the stage where we can make concrete changes and still have options. Saying that the burden of ecologists is to show a return on investment for energy technology misses the point; We are talking risk mitigation, not profit maximization; if anything fossil fuel industries should have the burden to demonstrate why their industry won’t contribute to further climate change.

The American political system is in denial about many things: the cost of war, the burden of fossil fuels, the cost of federal programs, American exceptionalism. One thing you mentioned was the need to get Americans to buy in to a solution. That is interesting; if it cannot happen post-oil spill under Obama and a congress controlled by Democrats, it’s hard to imagine it ever happening.

Speaking as an ecologist and not as an economist, I don’t care how carbon is reduced, just that it gets done and is effectively monitored and controlled. If the EPA announces that all coal plans are to be closed in 6 months, I would be fine with that (even though I recognize its disruptive effects on our political system). We are focused on outcomes, not process. We can’t understand why you policymaking and economics wonks/nitwits have such a hard time settling on a workable and politically viable solution.

I personally would be fine with an end to oil subsidies, tougher renewable energy portfolio standards, tougher CAFE standards and funds for infrastructure improvements to our grid.. but only if the plan provided reasonable certainty that carbon reduction targets could be met and continue to be met. Also, I’d like to see better disclosure about the carbon footprint of our manufacturing sector. A large percentage of Chinese’s carbon emissions are to produce the junk that ends up in US Walmart stores.

I can’t say where the political pressure to enact carbon reductions will come from. Up until now, it hasn’t come from our scientists.

To this post about  defending cap and trade, I responded:

As much as I like the idea of “market-based solutions,” there were a lot of concessions made to coal power plants and a lot of things put off the table (like agriculture) and probably other loopholes we never found out about.

I don’t deny the general point being made in the article, but cap-and-trade doesn’t seem intuitively appealing the way that across the board taxes or cap and dividend does. At least people understand what a tax is. (Mencken’s maxim that for every problem there is a solution that is neat, plausible and wrong may apply here, but he didn’t have to worry about getting things passed in the Senate).

I for one wish the rallying cry could be remove subsidies for the oil industry. I was shocked to hear on a podcast last week that the Senate opposition to a measure to remove oil subsidies was in the 2 to 1 range.  The fact that oil subsidies seem here to stay just amazes me.

I see good old-fashioned anti-corporatism playing a role here. Why can’t we fashion boycotts against the most egregious carbon emitters or put political pressure on university endowment funds to divest from dirty carbon companies? In Houston, one issue is charities and arts organizations accepting oil philanthropy money. We need to stop it because it gives us a stake in protecting our friends the Chevrons/Exxons/Halliburtons.

On the other hand, the fossil fuels are a very tough industry to beat; maybe some visible victories in smaller industries might establish a string of victories. Why aren’t we boycotting hamburger restaurants? Why aren’t we boycotting bottled water? Right now, there is no sense that the environmental movement is a force to be reckoned with. Right now there is no people power…just a bunch of lone crazies shouting and complaining. That needs to change.

{ 2 comments… add one }
  • JB 10/30/2011, 9:25 pm

    How are we going to control all the volcanoes? What if Mt. Pinatubo erupts again, and puts more CO2 in the atmosphere than man ever has, by multiple factors? What about the estimated one million vents and volcanos on the sea floor? How can we control the sun’s output? Do we even know what it has been, and has been doing? How do we know recent data (last 50 years) has not been affected by military experimentation and weather and climate manipulation?

  • Robert Nagle 10/31/2011, 6:24 am

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