July 14, 2006

A cool world?

The New York Review of Books has published Jim Hansen's Threat to the Planet. Hansen argues that we are changing the Earth's climate for the worse and explains how to solve the problem. He also opens up his heart, showing us his xenophobia, his aversion to businesses making money (as opposed, I guess, to businesses losing it) and his preference for Strong Leadership. He misses some important details.

Most people are taking little notice because "intensive efforts by special interest groups [...] prevent the public from becoming well-informed." But animals are on the run, more than 50 percent of species may become extinct, ice sheets are disintegrating, and the sea may engulf Bangladesh. Calamities, devastation, desolation, disaster, global chaos, tragedy. We are at the critical tipping point. "Our children, grandchildren, and many more generations will bear the consequences of choices that we make in the next few years."

Hansen has the solution. First, eliminate government subsidies to fuel use. I
agree. Second, tax carbon emissions. That is not an awful idea. But, how big should the tax be to avoid calamities, devastation, desolation, disaster, global chaos and tragedy? Hansen does not say, but it looks like an important detail to me. Third, create efficiency standards. That is an awful idea. Fourth, subsidize alternative sources of energy. This is the way to start all over again to create artificial problems, environmental and otherwise.

A problem of carbon taxes and efficiency standards is that only Strong Leadership can set up and implement them. A superficial look at Hansen's text indicates that Hansen identifies this problem:
Economists agree that the potential [improvement of energy efficiency] could be achieved most effectively by a tax on carbon emissions, although strong political leadership would be needed to persuasively explain the case for [i. e., impose] such a tax to the public. [...]

Such improvements [in standards of fuel efficiency] are entirely possible, but strong leadership would be required to bring them about. [My italics]
A closer look reveals that he is actually for Strong Leadership. For example,
The government appears to be strongly influenced by special interests, or otherwise confused and distracted, and it has failed to provide leadership.
Hansen complains about short-term profits. "Auto makers oppose efficiency standards and prominently advertise their heaviest and most powerful vehicles, which yield the greatest short-term profits. " But then immediately complains about long-term profits. "Coal companies want new coal-fired power plants to be built soon, thus assuring long-term profits." So it is profits that are bad.

He does not want foreigners touching "American" money. "The US is hemorrhaging wealth to foreign nations in order to pay for energy."

Making profits is bad. Foreigners suck blood. Strong Leadership is good. Maybe we are heading for a warmer world, but Hansen's alternative does not look cool to me.


  1. I blogged the Hansen piece too, and I have to say I think you have missed the crucial point, which is that we may be on the edge of some pretty strong positive feedback effects. In other words, if we do nothing now, we may not be able to do anything in the future. That's the sense in which generations will pay for our idleness.

    Strong leadership is needed to ensure that people do not entirely discount the future, their own or their offsprings'. Just as in many places pension-style saving is compulsory, because if it were not there would be even more destitute pensioners, so too people need to be helped to see the value of, say, a carbon tax now.

  2. Thank you Jeremy.

    "Doing something" is not enough. We have to do something that has a net positive effect. Hansen has not convinced me that his vague proposals would do more good than harm. In particular, strong leadership may be good for some specific policies but has very inefficient, if not fearsome, side consequences. The stronger the leadership the more fearsome the consequences.

    I do advocate making radical changes that would reduce oil use. I would do all this and I would also eliminate fisheries subsidies, price controls on energy, anti-trust regulations of power companies, and urban zoning regulations that favor low-density sprawl.

    Future generations will inherit the largest human capital ever and will thus be in a better position than we are to solve any problem, environmental or otherwise. Strong Leadership, however, can seriously undermine that capital.

    Sacrificing our well-being for the good of future generations would probably represent, in the best case, a transfer of wealth from the present poor to the future rich. In a worse case, it could mean leaving a more depauperate world to our offspring.

    Finally, and least importantly, I take hypothetical catastrophic nonlinearities with a grain of salt.

  3. No, thank you!

    I was, as you recognize, being a bit too brief. I would do all you advocate, and more. Not just fisheries subsidies, farm (and forest) subsidies too. especially the ones that make tractor fuel cheaper. Others too, I'm sure we could think of. Least cost solutions, and negawatt trading, encouraged.

    The Strong Leadership need not be political. It could be exhortatory or exemplary. The kind of education, if you will, that might help people make decisions for themselves, as individuals. Of course there will be free riders, but maybe fewer of them with time.

    As for the "hypothetical catastrophic nonlinearities" I just wonder about the downside of being wrong on this particular set of CHNs