Solving the wrong problem

The anti-sex crowd doesn’t like condoms as a way of solving the AIDS problem.
The enviros don’t like increasing the albedo as a way of solving the global warming problem.
Separated at birth?

Problems are precious in politics. If you can just convince everybody that your pet idea is the solution to a widely recognized crisis, you’re in like Flynn. As Lyndon Johnson once said of Hubert Humphrey: “Poor Hubert! He’s got solutions no one else has problems for.”

But there’s always a threat that someone will come up with a different solution to your problem, one that leaves your pet idea out. That creates a pretty overwhelming temptation to ignore the alternative, laugh at it, or gin up a “think tank” report proving it won’t work.

Take AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, for example. To those with fanatical religious commitments to (especially female) sexual purity, AIDS was &#8212 if you’ll pardon the expression &#8212 a godsend. As C.S. Lewis acknowledged a long time ago, once the invention of effective contraception separated nonmarital sex from most of its practical consequences, unchastity, unconnected with imprudence and injustice, didn’t seem like much of a sin to non-theologians. (That’s the unacknowledged fact behind much of the fury about abortion.)

But AIDS gives sex back some of its terror, and thus chastity some of its potency. And of course AIDS does double duty by making male homosexual activity especially risky, thus supporting an otherwise pretty obviously pointless taboo.

So sex-only-within-heterosexual-marriage has found its problem, and the Federal government is spending millions in the name of public health to spread the &#8212 pardon me again &#8212 gospel of abstinence.

Of course, barrier contraception, practiced carefully, is an alternative solution to the STD problem. Thus it becomes essential to laugh at condoms, to emphasize their failure rate, and when possible to ban their distribution.

Most of my readers, I suspect, will find this example uncontroversial, even banal. (The remaining few will be outraged by it and accuse me of insulting their religion.)

But here’s another one, which will seem less banal but which seems to me equally clear:

To those who dislike a social system based on high and growing consumption and the economic activity that supports high and growing consumption and maintains high and growing demand (a dislike with which I have considerable sympathy), to those who think that the market needs more regulation by the state, to those who think that international institutions ought to be strengthened in order to limit the scope for national selfishness, and to those (an overlapping but not identical group) that thinks current attitudes toward maintaining the planet we inhabit are much too casual and insufficiently reverent, global warming is a Gaia-send. It means that the current pattern of activity is unsustainable, and it requires fairly drastic public action on a worldwide scale. Their eagerness to believe the worst (cf. An Inconvenient Truth) is just as evident as the right wing’s denialism. That’s not to say the two sides are equally wrong, just that neither side starts from an impartial position in examining the science.

To those dreaming happily of all the new taxes and regulations that will be necessary to contain energy consumption, chortling at the consequent discomfiture of Humvee owners and ExxonMobil’s tame politicians, and hoping for a new era of environmental consciousness, a solution to global warming that didn’t involve reining in consumption and imposing new taxes and regulations would be as welcome as rain at a picnic.

Take geoengineering, for example. It would take only a very small reduction in incident solar radiation (i.e., an increase in the Earth’s albedo) to completely offset all the anthropogenic warming now on the horizon. And it turns out that there are several plausible approaches to achieving such a reduction: funny-sounding high-tech ones such as putting a bunch of aluminum-coated Mylar in low earth orbit, lower-tech and possibly scary approaches such as detuning aircraft engines to put a little bit more sulfate into the stratosphere (with the disadvantage that some of it would come back down as acid rain), and the astonishingly low-tech and safe-sounding move of spraying seawater into the clouds over the oceans, making them somewhat shinier. Seawater-on-clouds is especially attractive because the effect doesn’t last long (and is therefore easily reversible by simply stopping the spraying) and because it’s hard to get upset about making the rain that falls back into the oceans a little bit salty.

I don’t claim that any of these is now known to be feasible, affordable, or adequate, or that there may not turn out to be insuperable objections to each of them, and to any other albedo-increasing plans. I do claim that the public discourse that has largely ignored this approach is, to that extent, defective.

Given how expensive it would be to fix global warming by reducing emissions, we ought to be looking for alternatives. A couple of billion dollars a year is probably more than the field of geoengineering could now profitably absorb, but it would be absolutely trivial compared to the costs we might avoid if we could make it work.

So why is this still a fringe topic? Partly, of course, because of the stupidity of the anti-environmentalist right and its corporate sponsors, for whom denying the existence of any environmental problem is by now strongly conditioned reflex. (As liberals discovered about crime in the late 60s and early 70s, once you’re identified with denying that a problem exists you don’t have much cred when you insist that you have a better, less costly solution to it.) But largely, I submit, because the people who think Earth in the Balance was one of Al Gore’s accomplishments rather than one of the strongest reasons to doubt his fitness to be President really don’t want a non-Gaian, non-regulatory solution to their most precious problem.

Now as it happens I like some of the most important proposed steps toward controlling global warming, on other grounds. We need to burn less oil to stop funding terrorists, and less coal to stop breathing particulate, and creating urban areas where mass transit is an attractive alternative to driving sounds like heaven to me. So I’m all for a heavy carbon tax, or a gasoline tax, or anything else that makes fossil-fuel use more expensive. Anyway, we need the revenue to do lots of other things I’d like to see the government do. And I’m convinced that shrinking material consumption among the prosperous could make all of us prosperous folks better off, though of course any individual who consumes less risks falling behind in the status race.

Still and all, it seems to me that denying (or ignoring) the potential of albedo-increasing approaches to control global warming isn’t much more sensible than denying global warming itself, or denying that increasing condom use would decrease HIV transmission.

Al, I’d like you to meet my friend Benedict. Benedict, this is Al. You guys have a lot in common.

Update: Reason’s Cathy Young comments.

I respond: no, I don’t think Al Gore is nearly as wrong as Exxon Mobil.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

39 thoughts on “Solving the wrong problem”

  1. I for one am all in favor of seawater spraying or whatnot (don't know about going around causing acid rain though), because global warming is just too scary not to take any and all feasible measures against. And yes, a lot of the other proposals for dealing with it are good for many other reasons. (And I find the existence of a status race to be a sad thing indeed)
    The solution for a problem thing almost certainly does come into play with global warming, I agree, cause how the heck else can a lot of people be convinced to go about adopting all these positive measures? Sort of a tough call on whether that's good or not, in my mind.
    But what the heck, let's start firing up the Mylar!

  2. Any post that could go on at this length about the completely unproven field of geoengineering without once mentioning carbon sequestration is showing a tremendous gap in policy knowledge. If you're going to hit Al Gore this hard, you better know what you're talking about. Try again.

  3. Yes, I've heard of sequestration. Might work. Might be a good idea. Sure to cost an arm and a leg. And of course it's already on the table, along with lots of other expensive and complicated ideas. I'm asking why a set of potentially cheap and simple ideas aren't on the table.

  4. The interesting thing about Mark's proposals here are that they wouldn't come about as a result of the usual market-based economic incentives one considers: carbon taxation, emissions caps & trades, etc. Carbon sequestration, nuclear power, efficiency and conservation — all of those "just happen" once you have the economic incentives in place. So you really do need an extra little push for seawater and the like.
    Mark, I'm not sure you have the psychology right here — people don't automatically take those ideas seriously because they *are* off-the-wall crackpot crazy. They're longshot instant fixes for a serious, huge problem. They sound like mad science. That said, by all means, fund them! Throw money, billions of dollars, at them. It would be incredible if any of them could actually work — and incredibly great for the world.
    But you shouldn't blame us for being skeptical.

  5. I've got no problem with researching any of those potential solutions. I'm not sure widely touting them before they are proven would be a smart thing to do.
    Our collective skepticism of easy solutions that "sound safe" is born of bitter experience. Many of us have been around to see antibiotic cure-alls turn into resistant diseases, simple insect control turn into mass elimination of species, etc. How much salt would have to stay suspended in those clouds until they get over land to seriously affect our ability to grow crops on that land in 10 years or 300?
    Is global warming the only potential problem associated with us changing the makeup of our atmosphere? Other than generally decreasing global warming what are the likely consequences of decreasing the amount of sunlight that reaches the surface of the oceans under those saltwater clouds?
    Given the complex systems involved, it's safe to assume that we can only partially answer those kinds of questions.
    You don't have to be a rabid, rabble-rousing environmentalist or a politician looking for a killer problem to ride to think that the safest way to rectify a problem that we are causing is to cut down on the things we are doing that cause it.

  6. After reading the articles to which Prof. Kleiman provided links, I think two points need to be made in response to the post itself:
    1) Skepticism about proposals for geoengineered solutions to global warming appears to be quite widespread within the scientific community. Thus the simplest answer to the question of why this is still a fringe topic politically, is that it is still a fringe approach scientifically. It sounds like Prof. Kleiman is suggesting that our political enthusiasm for these types of possible solutions should get out in front of the scientific community's confidence in them. That strikes me as highly unlikely to lead to good policy outcomes.
    2) Among scientists calling for more research into geoengineering as a way of reversing global warming, there seems to be widespread agreement that such measures would at best be temporary fixes, designed to "buy time" until carbon dioxide emissions could be brought under control. Their chief advantage seems to be the assumption that they would prove less politically difficult to pull off in the short run. That may or may not be correct. So far as I could see, however, no one in the scientific community is suggesting what Prof. Kleiman seems to be suggesting here — that geoengineering may actually be the better (cheaper, more effective) solution to the problem.
    For these two reasons, I think that the analogy Prof. Kleiman tries to make (between lack of enthusiasm for geoengineered solutions to global warming and lack of enthusiasm for non-abstinence-dependent solutions to the spread of HIV/AIDS) is forced.

  7. I think it's a perfectly sound argument and I'm not going to require Mark to do the geoengineering–which seems at this point, to be at a somewhat promising, but speculative , stage.
    I do, however, share doretta's concerns about addressing symptoms rather than the source of the symptoms.
    Still, to pick up on Mark's analogy, I should say that–as the father of a 10-year old daughter–I'm coming to the point of view that abstinence has a place, along with barrier and pharmaceutical technology, in the management of VD and inopportune conception.
    Finally, I do think Mark needs to elaborate on his remark citing 'Earth in the Balance' as "one of the strongest reasons to doubt [Gore's] fitness to be President."

  8. "To those dreaming happily of all the new taxes and regulations "
    – are you saying this is Gore? if not, who are describing? if not, isn't this a straw man?
    If so, can't we leave this kind of rhetoric to the Republicans.

  9. I know people with the mindset Mark is decrying here, but I don't understand why he's picking on Al Gore, when the poster child for this is James Howard Kunstler.

  10. Mark:
    Wow. What a bizarre post.
    It conflates a number of issues; and includes a bizarre throwaway line at the end.
    I haven't seen or read any of Al Gore's books or films, so any pretend introduction of Al Gore to Benedict Arnold seems creepy and unrelated to the point of the post.
    I am bothered by this post mainly because as someone reasonably aware of political and global issues, I still had not heard of some of these options and would rather have had the information presented as a list of options with pros and cons for each, and with links for more information.
    Rather than a subtly snarky "see here what options the partisans discredit without a fair shake" piece, couched with polite circumlocutory name calling, why not present the crucial issue of the immediate need and logic of finacially and institutionally supporting all kinds of possible solutions and/or ameliorations to the inevitability of climate change.
    That struck me as your point…. unfortunately, I had to wade through all your finger pointing to find it.
    Keep talking and writing, nevertheless: it's important.
    But either way, we will find a solution, or a solution will find us.
    Stephanie

  11. Uhh, Stephanie: I don't think the late Gen. Arnold was the "Benedict" Mark was referring to in his tagline… my guess (given the HIV remark) that it was the old German guy in the white yarmulke he meant to reference… you know, the one with the Roman numerals after his name…

  12. I think that one of the reasons that geoengineered solutions are hard-to-digest is that they inhabit an entire field-of-endeavor which a) talks a lot and b) has never actually accomplished anything. Global warming ideas which are promoted by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (which, thanks to its 20 years of work towards the *incremental* problem of energy independence, not the tipping-point-crisis problem of warming) are *more credible* than ideas being promoted by the Terraform Mars Now PAC, or by the space elevator enthusiasts, or by the people who write to "ask-a-scientist" websites every hurricane season and propose sending huge pumps into storm eyewalls to cool them.
    So, it's not that there's a technical problem with albedo solutions; it's that there's no existing, credible body of expertise behind it. Not yet, anyway.

  13. 1. offsetting CO2 and GHG emissions into the atmosphere with another pollutant (SO2) will *not* restore the atmosphere to its original state.
    – outcome is unpredictable (forcings, plus and negative, are not perfect offsets)
    – SO2 leaches out of the atmosphere (hence acid rain) in days, CO2 lasts in the atmosphere for 100 years
    http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/200
    2. there's very little data on other geoengineering solutions. I worked out what coating a signficant portion of the earth's surface with mylar would cost: it was a big number. Land is 30% of the planet, so if we coated say 5% of the planet with mylar, that is 1/6th of all land.
    (and people worry about the impact of 1 million windmills which is one Socolow 'wedge'!)
    saving some of the ice cap would in practice be a lot cheaper
    3. there were experiments with salting the oceans with iron pyrites to increase algae growth and carbon sequestration. The results weren't promising.
    4. we could genetically engineer algae to increase carbon sequestration. There are lots of challenges (an algae bloom across the surface of the oceans could kill everything else in the oceans)
    but in practice we will probably do something on this
    5. Carbon Capture and Storage (Sequestration) is another Socolow 'wedge' and a promising one
    http://www.colloqueco2.com/IFP/en/CO2site/present
    (excellent summary!)
    *but*
    – it's an environmental pollutant, with all the issues that nuclear waste brings re NIMBYism etc– remember 1500 people dying in Cameroon from CO2 leakage?
    – we have to engineer power plants *now* so when that technology is deployed, it is easy to retrofit them.
    In practice, that means a coal gasification technology (IGCC Intermediate Gasification Combined Cycle) which produces a pure stream of CO2 which is easy to sequester.
    Utilities (being conservative beasts) are fighting being forced to adopt this technology tooth and nail, even though the technology is up and running on 20 sites worldwide. That said, American Electric Power has asked the Ohio Regulator to allow the additional construction costs on 3 plants (about 20% per plant) to be passed on to the consumer.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Integrated_Gasificat
    (a little too pessimistic)
    http://arch.rivm.nl/env/int/ipcc/pages_media/SRCC
    (the uber study)
    TXU is taking the opposite stance and going for 10 new large conventional coal stations– probably gambling that they will be 'grandfathered' allocated CO2 permits as and when CO2 emission trading comes in. And of course the Chinese are building a new power plant every month.

  14. 1. offsetting CO2 and GHG emissions into the atmosphere with another pollutant (SO2) will *not* restore the atmosphere to its original state.
    – outcome is unpredictable (forcings, plus and negative, are not perfect offsets)
    – SO2 leaches out of the atmosphere (hence acid rain) in days, CO2 lasts in the atmosphere for 100 years
    http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/200
    2. there's very little data on other geoengineering solutions. I worked out what coating a signficant portion of the earth's surface with mylar would cost: it was a big number. Land is 30% of the planet, so if we coated say 5% of the planet with mylar, that is 1/6th of all land.
    (and people worry about the impact of 1 million windmills which is one Socolow 'wedge'!)
    saving some of the ice cap would in practice be a lot cheaper
    3. there were experiments with salting the oceans with iron pyrites to increase algae growth and carbon sequestration. The results weren't promising.
    4. we could genetically engineer algae to increase carbon sequestration. There are lots of challenges (an algae bloom across the surface of the oceans could kill everything else in the oceans)
    but in practice we will probably do something on this

  15. 5. Carbon Capture and Storage (Sequestration) is another Socolow 'wedge' and a promising one
    http://www.colloqueco2.com/IFP/en/CO2site/present
    (excellent summary!)
    *but*
    – it's an environmental pollutant, with all the issues that nuclear waste brings re NIMBYism etc– remember 1500 people dying in Cameroon from CO2 leakage?
    – we have to engineer power plants *now* so when that technology is deployed, it is easy to retrofit them.
    In practice, that means a coal gasification technology (IGCC Intermediate Gasification Combined Cycle) which produces a pure stream of CO2 which is easy to sequester.
    Utilities (being conservative beasts) are fighting being forced to adopt this technology tooth and nail, even though the technology is up and running on 20 sites worldwide. That said, American Electric Power has asked the Ohio Regulator to allow the additional construction costs on 3 plants (about 20% per plant) to be passed on to the consumer.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Integrated_Gasificat
    (a little too pessimistic)
    http://arch.rivm.nl/env/int/ipcc/pages_media/SRCC
    (the uber study)
    TXU is taking the opposite stance and going for 10 new large conventional coal stations– probably gambling that they will be 'grandfathered' allocated CO2 permits as and when CO2 emission trading comes in. And of course the Chinese are building a new power plant every month.

  16. 5. Carbon Capture and Storage (Sequestration) is another Socolow 'wedge' and a promising one
    http://www.colloqueco2.com/IFP/en/CO2site/present
    (excellent summary!)
    *but*
    – it's an environmental pollutant, with all the issues that nuclear waste brings re NIMBYism etc– remember 1500 people dying in Cameroon from CO2 leakage?
    – we have to engineer power plants *now* so when that technology is deployed, it is easy to retrofit them.

  17. (CSS cont'd)
    In practice, that means a coal gasification technology (IGCC Intermediate Gasification Combined Cycle) which produces a pure stream of CO2 which is easy to sequester.
    Utilities (being conservative beasts) are fighting being forced to adopt this technology tooth and nail, even though the technology is up and running on 20 sites worldwide. That said, American Electric Power has asked the Ohio Regulator to allow the additional construction costs on 3 plants (about 20% per plant) to be passed on to the consumer.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Integrated_Gasificat
    (a little too pessimistic)
    http://arch.rivm.nl/env/int/ipcc/pages_media/SRCC
    (the uber study)
    TXU is taking the opposite stance and going for 10 new large conventional coal stations– probably gambling that they will be 'grandfathered' allocated CO2 permits as and when CO2 emission trading comes in. And of course the Chinese are building a new power plant every month.

  18. (CSS cont'd)
    In practice, that means a coal gasification technology (IGCC Intermediate Gasification Combined Cycle) which produces a pure stream of CO2 which is easy to sequester.
    Utilities (being conservative beasts) are fighting being forced to adopt this technology tooth and nail, even though the technology is up and running on 20 sites worldwide. That said, American Electric Power has asked the Ohio Regulator to allow the additional construction costs on 3 plants (about 20% per plant) to be passed on to the consumer.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Integrated_Gasificat
    (a little too pessimistic)

  19. (CSS cont'd)
    http://arch.rivm.nl/env/int/ipcc/pages_media/SRCC
    (the uber study)
    TXU is taking the opposite stance and going for 10 new large conventional coal stations– probably gambling that they will be 'grandfathered' allocated CO2 permits as and when CO2 emission trading comes in. And of course the Chinese are building a new power plant every month.

  20. Interesting, provocative post. That's a good thing. Mark, I was with you until your thowaway comment implying you believe that An Inconvenient Truth should disqualify Al Gore from being president. Perhaps I misunderstood your point. Could you elaborate? Me, I thought An Inconvenient Truth was invaluable. In any event, I tried searching your site for a previous post on the film, but couldn't find one.

  21. Valuethinker has the point. Geoengineering solutions are temporary bandages. The excess CO2 concentrations generated by fossil fuel consumption will remain in the atmosphere for hundreds of years. Thus the cost is cumulative. Mitigation (carbon sequesterization, reduction of emissions, etc.) are one time costs. There is a recent IPCC report on sequesterization.
    The whole issue is not a good place to venture without some serious background unless you have done a lot of reading. The risk of appearing foolish is unity otherwise.

  22. There is clearly strong scientific evidence that anthropogenic global warming is taking place. As a liberal, I would prefer to see policy solutions that have the lightest possible impact on the middle class, which has been battered and bruised for nearly 30 years now. (Median incomes have barely budged since 1973.) Thus, I'm skeptical about gas taxes and "conservation" measures that would force middle-class consumers to sacrifice further. Carbon sequestration and geoengineering certainly deserve to be looked into; I would be interested to hear more from scientists in the relevant fields before committing to either, though. However, there are a few partial solutions that should really be no-brainers.
    * Nuclear power (with reprocessing of waste). The arguments against this have always struck me as incredibly flimsy and motivated more by emotion than scientific fact. Don't compare nuclear to some hypothetical perfect alternative; compare it to coal, which is what is actually used for about half of America's power needs. I'd rather have small quantities of high-level waste that can be turned into glass and shoved in a hole in the ground than huge quantities of low-level coal particulates that go into the air and into people's lungs. Modern plant designs are quite safe; I don't recall ever hearing about a meltdown in France, Canada, or Japan, all of which extensively use nuclear power. The arguments that reprocessing will lead to nuclear proliferation seem bogus; Bush's advocacy of preemptive war and the attempts to build new nuclear bunker-busters are far more likely to spur proliferation than the use of a specific technology for peaceful power generation.
    *Higher CAFE standards. This should really be a no-brainer. It helps save gasoline – which is important not only to help stall global warming, but also, as noted, to avoid funding dangerous and unstable regimes. And it puts the burden where it belongs – on car companies, not the middle class.
    *Mass transit where appropriate. It's not really feasible in much of the U.S., due to geography (cue the old joke about America, Europe, times, and distances). But it should be used where it can be, and that isn't often being done.
    *Revitalized rail net to replace long-haul semi trucks. Ideally, there should also be research into non-emitting (probably nuclear) engines.
    *Nuclear-powered cargo ships. A huge amount of incredibly dirty "bunker fuel" is burned by cargo container ships. Let's switch these to nuclear; the technology exists and is used on many military vessels.

  23. really bizarre post. I'm sure there are some fringe lefties who hate geo-engineering because they love regulation, but really its the hard lessons we have learned about pollution control over the last 40 years that breed the skepticism. There have been many engineering solutions that promise quick and cheap solutions to environmental problems and end up being problematic. I.e. Santa Monica now imports water because MTBE in gasoline (designed to reduce air pollution) contaminated the water supply. While certainly a wide variety of ideas like geo-engineering should be heavily funded we should be very cautious about further larg-scale experiments with our own climate. Engineering cheap fixes usually turn out to be partial solutions that need regulation as a complement or at worst they backfire causing further problems. I suggest that you are far out of your field of expertise.

  24. Yes, I've heard of geoengineeringn. Might work. Might be a good idea. And of course he nuts love it because it means they don't have to do anything, and it means the scientists really are part of a liberal cabal.

  25. Hi Mark,
    Very interesting but I see two mistakes. First, you accurately describe the views of both a segment of the anti-capitalist / ultra-environmentalist left, and the climate change-denialist right. But those of course aren't the only two 'sides' in the debate. Many liberals, I would go so far as to say most liberals, and some conservatives fall into a third camp, the same as you: they view GW as a problem but are not anti-capitalist/anti-materialist enough or "Gaian" enough to actually desire to get poorer in solving it. Most scientists, at least in my personal experience, tend to fall into this camp.
    Second, geoengineering solutions tend to have quite a few problems with them. As sort of a meta-problem there's the fact that we only have one planet to experiment on; if a geoengineering solution unexpectedly fails or shows serious side effects later on, we could be in a very bad situation. And since CO2 lasts so long in the atmosphere, whatever solution we had would need to either be 1) quasi-permanent or 2) constantly applied in ever-larger amounts. #1 is rather dangerous and #2 might be very costly. Add to that the fact that, should a successful geoengineering solution be found, we could always halt emissions-reductions efforts once it was shown to work. But if we do have to stick with emissions reductions, we really need to start with them soon; especially since the more gradual the reductions the cheaper the transition will be.
    I do think you'd find many people happy to consider geoengineering solutions *if* one was found that was cheap, effective, safe, and reversible. But for these reasons it's not surprising that people aren't paying close attention to it now. Note that 'engineering' solutions like carbon sequestration, which don't carry the same risks, are quite popular and very actively researched.

  26. I should have been more specific. i didn't mean to denigrate 'engineering solutions' in general to pollution, every solution of course requires technical know how and fixes. what I was referring to was the type of solution that promises a cheap and easy fix to a major pollution problem without significant regulation. that we have reason to doubt. Sequestration of say, certain power plant emissions, is expensive and would require quite a bit of regulation to implement fully.

  27. Analogy: You have cancer. There are some treatments in phase I testing that could cheaply and easily cure your disease *if* they pan out.
    There is also a proven treatment for your cancer, but it's expensive and debilitating. But it works most of the time. And if you wait to see if the new treatments work, you'll risk bypassing the window where this treatment will work for you.
    Are you seriously suggesting that you'd be waiting to see if the experimental treatments work out, rather than embarking on the proven treatment now?
    Other than a tiny fringe of luddites (whom I think you magnify far beyond their numbers) no one *wants* economic pain. But it's past time to recognize that the responsible decision is to sacrifice a certain amount to ensure that things do not become very, very bad.
    (Also, Europe has demonstrated that reducing CO2 emissions is not such a terribly painful process as the right makes it out to be- you've studiously avoided the nonsense of the luddites, but you've swallowed the Exxon exaggeration about the pain of the treatment hook, line,and sinker…)
    (Actually, I suspect we'll end up going with a geoengineering solution. I just Fing hope that, for the sake of people, it *works*. Science has done some wonderful things, but I don't like betting this much on it, especially when it wouldn't take that much to avoid making the bet in the first place).

  28. Josh
    Global Warming is a global problem. A solution that hits the American 'middle class' hits the top 1% of incomes on the planet.
    There is no solution for Global Warming that does not include a significant reduction in Greenhouse Gas emissions, on the order of 60-70% by the developed nations, by 2050.
    That means there is no solution for Global Warming that does not include significant changes to the lifestyle of the developed world: *all* the developed countries. We produce over 2/3rds of the Greenhouse Gases, and about 80% of the CO2 out there is *ours*.
    That includes everyone from the homeless guy living on the street, to Donald Trump and Bill Gates.
    The good news is the total cost could be as little as 1% of GDP in 2050. It might be as much as 5%, or it could in fact be a negative number (the GDP created by new environmental industries offsets the GDP cost of pollution control– for the Clean Air Act, at least, there is evidence this is what happened).
    More good news: GDP (world) in 2050 will be 2.2 to 3.0 times current GDP. A cost of 5% of GDP will be like having the 2048 GDP in 2050, or the 2050 GDP in 2052.
    http://www.hm-treasury.gov.uk/media/999/76/CLOSED
    (4 page summary)
    http://www.hm-treasury.gov.uk/media/8AC/F7/Execut
    (27 page summary)
    All the measures you suggest are helpful, but without a meaningful, market-based incentive to reduction in CO2 emission (be it either a Pigovian Carbon Tax or emission trading) there is no hope of achieving them at an economic cost.

  29. Josh
    Global Warming is a global problem. A solution that hits the American 'middle class' hits the top 1% of incomes on the planet.
    There is no solution for Global Warming that does not include a significant reduction in Greenhouse Gas emissions, on the order of 60-70% by the developed nations, by 2050.
    That means there is no solution for Global Warming that does not include significant changes to the lifestyle of the developed world: *all* the developed countries. We produce over 2/3rds of the Greenhouse Gases, and about 80% of the CO2 out there is *ours*.
    That includes everyone from the homeless guy living on the street, to Donald Trump and Bill Gates.
    The good news is the total cost could be as little as 1% of GDP in 2050. It might be as much as 5%, or it could in fact be a negative number (the GDP created by new environmental industries offsets the GDP cost of pollution control– for the Clean Air Act, at least, there is evidence this is what happened).
    More good news: GDP (world) in 2050 will be 2.2 to 3.0 times current GDP. A cost of 5% of GDP will be like having the 2048 GDP in 2050, or the 2050 GDP in 2052.
    http://www.hm-treasury.gov.uk/media/999/76/CLOSED
    (4 page summary)
    http://www.hm-treasury.gov.uk/media/8AC/F7/Execut
    (27 page summary)
    All the measures you suggest are helpful, but without a meaningful, market-based incentive to reduction in CO2 emission (be it either a Pigovian Carbon Tax or emission trading) there is no hope of achieving them at an economic cost.

  30. c
    Nuclear power is one Socolow Wedge.
    Ie of the 15bn tonnes per annum of carbon emission (40bn tonnes CO2) in 2050 under a Business As Usual (BAU) scenario
    1 wedge = 1bn tonnes pa of abatement
    Socolow calculates we can get one wedge out of nuclear power if we increase current nuclear capacity to 1000 reactors (each 50% bigger than current reactors).
    That implies replacing the 480 or so currently running (they will be too old by then) and building 1000 larger 'Third Generation' reactors by 2050, or 30 a year if we get going– there are about 5-6 under construction worldwide now, I think.
    I think most of us would agree that that, if it happens, is a pretty big global commitment to nuclear power.
    Just to stabilise CO2 emissions at the current level (which is not enough, by the way, we need to reduce them by at least 40% pa), then, will require 7 or 8 of those wedges.
    So nuclear power, yes, but everything else as well: wind, solar, doubling fuel efficiency of cars, increasing the energy efficiency of homes, carbon sequestration, etc.

  31. Sorry that's 50bn tonnes CO2 pa
    15bn tonnes pa, BAU 2050 X 3.667 is approximately 50bn tpa
    vs. 7bn tpa or about 25bn tpa CO2 now

  32. Y'know, if you're spending every night at the casino, and you notice your money is running low, you don't start looking for bargains on tuna fish and thinking maybe you should drive a smaller car. If you're smart, you stop going to the casino.
    Few among us could not look out our window right now and say "Holy cow, this is one wasteful society". In fact, just about everything we do sets a benchmark for waste.
    How can interstates that parallel rail lines be clogged with long-distance truckers? How can enough commuters to clog a 5-lane interstate not constitute a viable market for mass transit?
    And, frankly, when people with children start to figure out that the status quo means no world for their child, I don't think a 'softly softly' approach is going to be real popular. At that point I expect a public mood that goes way beyond wht we saw in 1963, when people realized that 'world leaders' actually would roast all of us like peanuts to fulfill their bluff.
    That said, I'm all for the modest degree of abstinence that, combined with vigorous prophyllaxis, means I have no children to worry about. If I didn't remember the days when they planned to enlarge the Panama Canal with nuclear explosions, I would say "Go ahead and try the wacky ideas".
    But really, enough is enough. We've tried a lot of wacky ideas and it's time to start thinking about some real solutions.

  33. Valuethinker: "A solution that hits the American 'middle class' hits the top 1% of incomes on the planet."
    I find that statistic difficult to believe. The U.S. standard of living is relatively high, but not noticeably more so than that of Japan, South Korea, Canada, Australia, the UK, or a dozen or so countries in Western Europe. Add up the middle (and upper) classes in these countries and you're talking about maybe the top quartile, not the top 1%.
    Do you have a source for your claim?

  34. According to http://www.globalrichlist.com/index.php , the cutoff for the top 1% of global income is about $48,000 a year. Only 60 million people in the world make that much? Well, it's plausible if you consider that children, retired people, and nearly half of all married people don't work full time.
    But yeah, the developed world probably has a billion or so people in it, say 60% are at the level of the American middle class, that's 600 million or 10% of people. (Or say that the OECD has 1.2 billion people, about 50% are American middle class level…) These are charitable estimates, considering how much richer America is than any other country with a substantial population. So the American middle class is comfortably contained in the wealthiest 10%.

  35. Josh
    You are right- – I mistyped 1% when I meant to type 10%.
    US GDP per head is $41,600
    https://www.cia.gov/cia/publications/factbook/ran
    Let's say that 80% of the world's Greenhouse Gas Emissions come from Europe, Japan, North America, Australia and New Zealand, Taiwan, Singapore and South Korea. That takes you down to countries with GDP per capita as low as $15,000 (Slovakia and Hungary on that list).
    (if we stripped out rainforest deforestation and agricultural emissions, that would almost certainly be right).
    On that basis, the average American is almost certainly in the top 10% of the world in terms of income.
    (note I'm using mean GDP/head not median income. The US has a relatively skewed income curve, but no so skewed that the point doesn't apply)
    Put it another way, the average American emits 20 tonnes per capita of CO2 and equivalent greenhouse gases. The average Australian, Singaporean, Canadian are a bit above that.
    The average European or Japanese is less than half that. Other countries are lower still. China is a significant and growing factor, but on a per capita basis is still only 1/10th as much CO2 per person as the USA.
    You can see that the actual reduction in CO2 emission is going to be larger from Americans, than almost anyone else. To get anywehere near the sorts of reductions that are necessary to stabilise the world climate (stabilise it 50 years hence I might add, the warming from now to then is already 'locked in' by our previous actions).
    The point I am trying to make (not particularly well) is that the scale of the adjustments that are going to have to be made is very large, for the richest 1.2 billion people on the planet.
    And although Americans are only 1/4 of the richest people on the planet, and 5% of the planet as a whole, they are 35-40% of the greenhouse gas problem.
    There's no point anyone pretending otherwise, or that we can achieve this in a 'win win' fashion ie without significantly changing our lifestyles.
    The solution is partly about technology choice, but it has been shown again and again that trying to regulate that is supremely inefficient, and costs a lot of GDP. Government chosen technologies tend to reward the incumbent technology against innovation, and they do not equalise across the lowest marginal cost of abatement.
    The scale of what we have to achieve is so large that we will need to utilise the maximum free market mechanisms to price carbon as a pollutant, and to reduce its emission.

  36. I'd be interested to know how our greenhouse gas emissions are allocated. What percentage is for power generation, what percentage is automobile exhaust, and so forth.
    We generate half our power via burning coal. That has to be a huge chunk right there, and it's utterly indefensible. All of this should be replaced in the short to medium term with a combination of nuclear, wind, solar, and whatever other non-emitting energy sources we have available. This will mean higher utility bills for a while, but it will also mean a lot of new jobs in these industries. Replacing coal-fired plants should be considered low-hanging fruit. We can do it without severely impacting the American way of life.
    In the Sunbelt, I'd like to see subsidies for rooftop solar panels. These could help a lot on summer power generation needs (air conditioning!)
    By increasing CAFE standards and closing the SUV loophole, we can and should double the overall efficiency of our vehicular fleet by 2015. We have workable, efficient hybrid technology that has been in service for several years, yet most vehicles don't use it. That's nuts.
    All of these measures should be politically workable. Dramatically cutting the middle-class standard of living is not. Politics is the art of the possible, and we can't get caught up in pipe dreams like $3-a-gallon gas taxes. Morally, I think we have an obligation to have as much of the burden as possible shouldered by the government and corporate entities before we start altering the lives of ordinary Americans.

  37. PS I agree with you $3/gal gasoline tax is not a flyer.
    But the point about equalising marginal cost of abatement is implicit in that.
    I don't have the CO2 conversion to hand, but basically a $100/tonne carbon tax on electricity power generation, and aviation, is going to lead to a lot more abatement of emission than an equivalent tax on gasoline.
    You have to price across the *whole* economy.
    http://mit.edu/globalchange/www/MITJPSPGC_Rpt136….
    just skimming that, they reckon the proposed CAFE is equivalent to a $90/tonne carbon cost, vs. a proposed $30/tonne for a US 'cap and trade' system to be applied to large polluters (eg the electric power industry).

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