29 June 2015

Some thoughts on public policy, global warming edition

I've been fairly well persuaded over the years that this is a) a serious problem for the flourishing and survival of future human generations, b) a serious problem for which human action is both responsible and possibly needed to ameliorate if not reduce or prevent it and c) a political problem.

What I am finding from discourse is that it often seems that many of the people capable of explaining and understanding the science involved very quickly assume that strong central government controls will be needed to resolve this, and that this agenda is often, let's say, poorly received and reflects upon the capacity of people to accept the underlying scientific information. One problem I think that's involved here is that many scientists are not public policy experts. They do not study economics. They do not study political movements. They just see a (very large) collective action problem and assume a certain set of policy interventions must be needed. It's possible they may be correct in some elements, but they've overlooked something: politics is messy. People disagree and rent seeking interests can easily prevail over disparate action needs. We ended up with corn ethanol subsidies and sugar import restrictions as a consequence of politics. Both of those are net contributors to the problem rather than sources of resolution. We could very well, by relying on the political process solely or largely, end up with something much worse, or much less efficient than what we have now even. I worry about this as a probable effect given what we have seen so far as a response at the policy level is often not encouraging.

But I'd also say that observing the more quasi-libertarian response, if it even takes this seriously as a problem (which is itself a problem), we aren't going to get very far that way either. Suppose we say that if we removed government and its distorting subsidies, we could get reasonably cheap and cleaner sugar-ethanol instead of burning corn, we could stop subsidizing coal and oil production and infrastructure production (more roads), or make it easier to set up smaller scale hydroelectric power or nuclear, or stop subsidizing water for agricultural production in what amounts to deserts (in California or Arizona or Nebraska), and push agriculture into more water friendly arable parts of the country (the SE for example). Many of the more-free market approaches have an undeniable appeal toward pushing toward cleaner energy production because there are still costs associated with fossil fuels (pollution for example) that aren't associated with wind or solar in the same way. But all of these approaches still rely on fixing the existing political process first or at least the political process associated with these interests. This seems unlikely. Popular support for agricultural subsidies is still overall around 50%, much less industry support with a concentrated political voice. We are not going to succeed in sweeping away these problems as theoretical concerns when the arrayed interests are against it. A cost needs to be imposed to make those interests less concentrated and action more possible.

Where I think we are probably better served as a model is, strangely enough, observing how the rights of homosexuals have dramatically and swiftly been altered. It was barely a decade ago that it was legal to criminalize private sexual behavior at the state level and to invasively police such conduct. Now not only is that legal, but the rights of consenting adults who wish to do so with an intimate partner can have this recognized if they wish to do so as marriage, complete with the variety of set rights available to "ordinary" marriages. This change did not in fact happen in just a decade. It happened over many decades. And it had a number of cultural markers and markets in which to compete over time to change hardened minds, make it easier for same sex couples to announce their affections to each other and to family and friends, no longer have this treated as a form of psychological deviancy, and so on. Almost none of those changes involved changes to underlying and easily available empirical information on the nature of homosexuality in human beings. Almost all of these changes were perception changes, and necessary steps to make other changes available later. They snowballed into an avalanche of social change to the point that a majority of the country now recognizes that civil same-sex marriage should just be "marriage", not a distinct civil institution. This culminated in a series of civil actions and court rulings recognizing this change, and a few ballot initiatives that were supportive in a very short period of time.

For global warming policy advocates, this suggests that there's a path forward for change, but it's unfortunately slower. That there are lot of individualist appeals to conservation and charity that should be made and which will appeal to many Americans but that people may have to learn to speak in a slightly different language to make what governmental changes are needed palatable and possible. Information should still be communicated, but also an understanding of what can be done at the local or personal level.

For more free-market advocates, what I think this highlights is the improbability of using the "get government out of the way" mantra as a club for defeating arguments of what government is or is not doing. For the case of marriage rights, a popular argument often circulated that "government should get out of marriage". At a practical level however, marriage doesn't exist without government. At least not as most people understand it with the complications of immigration status, medical visitation and living will rights, inheritance and tax policy, and so on. Each of these rights and benefits extended to marriage contracts by governments would have to be argued down and eliminated as a casual default benefit rather than a simple "get government out of it" arrangement as is commonly argued. The problem for such arguments in climate change policy is to say "there is a problem, and government isn't helping by making it worse", and to then focus attention on places where government policy should be abolished or diminished in making it worse. This is even easier if such policies have other distorting effects.

With that in mind I would propose a few policy and cultural priorities

1) Phase out the home mortgage interest deduction. This is heavily distorting to the housing market, mostly flows to upper-middle class incomes and realtors (by inflating housing prices), adds a level of decreased mobility to residents of cities and metropolitan areas alike, and is an inefficient way to help poorer people to provide themselves with either income mobility or housing, and even distorts K-12 education and policing strategies (more aggressive in poorer more isolated communities). That's before getting to the global warming problems: it is anti-densification (dense urban areas would be more efficient to power and provide with water and food than suburban and exurban sprawl promoted by the HMID), does not help public transit, helps fund inefficient highway construction, wastes time and fuel on commuting, increases production of automobiles needed for said commuting, and so on. There's not much support for this as a policy measure, but I'm not sure there isn't a more damaging environmental policy we conduct presently as Americans and it comes with a complete package of other fucked up effects. It must end as a result for us to continue to flourish as a country.

2) Push for more recycling or food waste collection methods. Ideally push for less waste generation (especially with food), but start with these. There are many otherwise cultural conservative people where this has a certain appeal, crunchy cons or granola conservatives so to speak, who accept the general notion of leaving the Earth in better or no worse condition for their children and grandchildren as a steward of the planet argument even if they don't accept the science of global warming. One problem here is waste disposal. In dense urban areas, probably the most efficient method available right now is incinerating garbage. This is probably not something we'd like people to be doing from an environmental perspective, but it's almost certainly better than the alternatives that are being used (trucking or shipping garbage hundreds, if not thousands, of miles to landfills in other states or countries). Convincing environmentalists to get people to accept marginal improvements rather than total scorched earth improvements is also a problem here as it is typically environmentalists that oppose building garbage incinerators on the theory that "people must recycle" instead. They could do both.

I'd also advise doing things like cleaning up the "Pacific garbage patch" (the massive floating island of garbage in the central Pacific Ocean). This is a collective action problem with a variety of solutions (including innovative technical research and private market actors) that will provide a good model for other more severe problems with the environment.

3) Avoid pushing mostly localvore solutions. These are typically less environmentally friendly than buying cheaply produced groceries from halfway around the world. Chief among some of the environmentalist movements problems is that it often gets wrapped up (by opponents) as anti-globalisation and anti-capitalist. If you want this to be resolved, you're not going to get there by alienating powerful elites who depend upon on globalisation and capitalism for wealth and prosperity. Where you have to annoy such people, it should be because the methods being promoted would actually improve the environmental situation unequivocally (such as by increasing the price of burning coal or gasoline, say). And not by doing things that make the situation worse by forcing agricultural production in less than productive areas of the globe. This would also mean endorsing and supporting at least some forms of GMO production for agriculture for similar reasons. This too is a too common environmentalist rant is to oppose scientific tinkering with the food supplies. "Organic" and "natural" are useful marketing terms but their automatic relevance and connection to environmentalist causes seems suspect at best. Gardening is a recreational hobby that can be encouraged, but large scale farming for local purpose seems unlikely to be a positive net gain for the environmental problems we are facing. GMOs offer another way out of that problem.

4) Push for broader immigration reforms. One of the problems is that we will probably encounter a number of amelioration needs even under optimal policy responses. Since we aren't getting optimal policy responses, more aggressive ameliorating methods will be needed. One of these will be the ability of people to flee countries where the effects of drought, flooding, coastal sea water rises, and general poverty or inability to respond to such problems are most severe. Providing aid and assistance if it will buy time and ease suffering in the meantime through charity and foreign aid is certainly advisable also. But some number of countries and their residents and citizens are basically fucked if we do nothing, or even if we do the barest minimum to help them in the meantime. They will have to be able to pick up and leave to go somewhere better off if they wish. This will be vastly cheaper than making them stay where they are because of a national boundary. The US in particular should be prepared to accept as many as 100 million immigrants over the next 50 years (~2M/year), if not more. EU should be in a similar circumstance, and Australia or Canada should probably look forward to potentially doubling its population. Developed countries have the resources to provide some levels of adaptation and accommodation with environmental problems that extremely poor countries do not. There are hundreds of millions of people at risk here therefore living in places that may not functionally exist as countries (much less landmass) in 100 years and something will need to be done about that. Ideally peacefully.

5) Allow for some amount of geo-engineering tests, particularly by the scientific community to examine these as options. These are potentially problematic in that they would produce their own negative effects and may conceal problems rather than solve them. But if they will help buy time until more effective policy and market solutions come online, and we may need time for such things to happen, we should endorse it as a short-term solution.

6) Push for phasing in a basic carbon/energy tax. This could be done in a "net zero" fashion to encourage both businesses and individuals to reduce coal or gasoline consumption and also make the price of solar or wind (or nuclear) power more attractive without distorting subsidies. I'd also favor doing this over regulatory schemes (which could be overturned by unfavorable court rulings or blocked by Congressional action, or receive inefficient carve-outs), a carbon trading scheme (sources of carbon are difficult to price in the way most industrial pollutants are and don't seem to produce a favorable reduction over general energy reforms), fuel efficiency standards for automobiles (fuel efficiency will rise if low efficiency cars are less popular because the costs of fuel are too high), and so on. This would also require more monitoring of things like fracking, to determine any leakage of carbon fuels for example.

7) Push for more market prices on water. A basic water allowance for living needs could be made, but this would increase the price of water use in agriculture, or lawn care, such that irrigation and water forcing to shift water hundreds of miles would be more and most costly and less and less profitable. There is no automatic reason that farmers and farming interests in California should be producing rice, cotton, almonds, broccoli and so on in large amounts. Parts of the state this may be more viable than others. Some parts however, not so much. There's similarly little reason that people living in West Texas or various parts of the American Southwest should demand lawns and pools and other extravagances. If they can afford them fine, but the price of water should reflect its relative scarcity. It would remain pretty cheap in the Eastern part of the country. It's pretty dry in much of the west however.

8) Take into account adverse regulatory effects. I do not mean just the cost of enforcing and complying with a regulation, though that may be a concern. I rather mean that if a state or local government applies a certain regulation, business or local concerns wishing to construct something will probably take their money (and pollution/energy/water demands) elsewhere rather than nowhere if it's otherwise a productive economic venture. If people want to build a lot of stuff in California to make cars or computer chips, or to live in homes there, let them, within reasonable strictures. California's mild climate is pretty good for that. West Texas or Arizona is not. Forcing people to move their interests into environmentally unfriendly or undesirable areas is not a good idea. I say "forcing" not because the regulatory compliance costs are too high, but because often there's a court ruling saying they can't build it there at all in NIMBY fashion, and a concern or housing development gets built somewhere else instead. Pyrrhic victories are not helping.

9) Make individual signaling about the environment more efficient. Example. People often buy solar panels and display them on the street side of their homes even if that does not receive much sunlight. Make it easier to signal that you are doing really cheap environmentally friendly things: installing insulation, designing a home that provides for good air circulation for heating and cooling, buying energy efficient appliances or automobiles, etc. One of the problems I think is that many individuals seem to be presuming that this is or has to be a collective action problem, but that the actions are mostly to be undertaken by other people. Make it easier for local communities to find ways to compete to reduce waste or energy consumption or suburban sprawl into forests or wetlands and signal and casually enforce these as communal values.
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