17 October 2009

superfreak(onomics. )

I've got the book on pre-order, but I suspect some of the skepticism I share with the authors on this issue is directed at "what is the most economically efficient and environmentally realistic solution" and not on "is this something we can control".

A straight carbon tax is probably okay. If it is invested in low or non-carbon generating energy infrastructure and development generally. Cap and trade doesn't impress me that it will work for carbon in the same way it works for industrial byproducts like sulfur for example, simply because carbon is produced by things like agriculture, deforestation, transportation and private energy consumption in ways that sulfur isn't. It's everywhere in the economy and so a general tax on it is probably smarter. You can just slash the income or corporate income taxes instead (and dump the subsidies on, agriculture, oil, and coal).

The problem to my mind isn't that the solution is hard to come by for policy concerns. It's that the solution is hard to come by on political concerns. Moving the American economy to a lower energy footprint just isn't going to happen quickly enough to make a difference on the need for carbon. The cities aren't designed that way. The infrastructure isn't set up for anything useful, and isn't very efficient. As a result the geo-engineering solution is one that some countries, though it appears perhaps not us, will take seriously. In part because there are no international rules to the contrary (there are in effect no meaningful international rules because Kyoto doesn't seem to have been enforced by the signatories anyway).

Of course, the other issue is that these guys like examining tough solutions to see what actually and clearly has an impact. I remember all the fuss over the simple conclusion that abortion bans have drastic correlations with rising crime rates over the next 15-20 years after they take effect (or when they are relaxed, with lower rates). Global warming has taken on for policy considerations a highly emotionally charged nature for debate. Even health care, with its silly "death panels", is not a subject that Americans equivocally disagree needs to be done and argue over. Global warming by contrast is a scientifically based debate that has a wide range of adaptations that it proposes doing, and yet is somehow more disagreeable than an ideological struggle over the range of policies for health care. It's more like the debate over evolution (the public debate, not the scientific one in both cases) in that regard, with these somehow fixed and rigid positions on all sides that are unmoved by new analysis and facts and end up projecting policies that are hostile even to mild amendments toward something in between that better acknowledges the present realities of energy production and use patterns in developed countries and the needs for such in developing countries.

I guess it would be nice if we could re-engineer American society such that it wastes less energy, water, or other natural resources, or that it encourages personal recycling. But it doesn't appear that there's any political will to do anything like that and there's a gap between the science and the public in as far as explaining the need to do any of those things. There's still some sort of absurd belief that water and energy waste is controlled by rationing better than the market (even a slightly rigged market involving punitive end-consumer or Pigovian taxes) for example. Even though it does clearly work: when energy or water prices are allowed to go up, people and businesses will use less. For whatever reason, people and some businesses have decided it is more important to keep prices low than to use (and by extension waste) less. That has to be overcome somewhere and somehow.
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