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An open letter to Steve Levitt

Filed under: — raypierre @ 29 October 2009

Dear Mr. Levitt,

The problem of global warming is so big that solving it will require creative thinking from many disciplines. Economists have much to contribute to this effort, particularly with regard to the question of how various means of putting a price on carbon emissions may alter human behavior. Some of the lines of thinking in your first book, Freakonomics, could well have had a bearing on this issue, if brought to bear on the carbon emissions problem. I have very much enjoyed and benefited from the growing collaborations between Geosciences and the Economics department here at the University of Chicago, and had hoped someday to have the pleasure of making your acquaintance. It is more in disappointment than anger that I am writing to you now.

I am addressing this to you rather than your journalist-coauthor because one has become all too accustomed to tendentious screeds from media personalities (think Glenn Beck) with a reckless disregard for the truth. However, if it has come to pass that we can’t expect the William B. Ogden Distinguished Service Professor (and Clark Medalist to boot) at a top-rated department of a respected university to think clearly and honestly with numbers, we are indeed in a sad way.

By now there have been many detailed dissections of everything that is wrong with the treatment of climate in Superfreakonomics , but what has been lost amidst all that extensive discussion is how really simple it would have been to get this stuff right. The problem wasn’t necessarily that you talked to the wrong experts or talked to too few of them. The problem was that you failed to do the most elementary thinking needed to see if what they were saying (or what you thought they were saying) in fact made any sense. If you were stupid, it wouldn’t be so bad to have messed up such elementary reasoning, but I don’t by any means think you are stupid. That makes the failure to do the thinking all the more disappointing. I will take Nathan Myhrvold’s claim about solar cells, which you quoted prominently in your book, as an example.


As quoted by you, Mr. Myhrvold claimed, in effect, that it was pointless to try to solve global warming by building solar cells, because they are black and absorb all the solar energy that hits them, but convert only some 12% to electricity while radiating the rest as heat, warming the planet. Now, maybe you were dazzled by Mr Myhrvold’s brilliance, but don’t we try to teach our students to think for themselves? Let’s go through the arithmetic step by step and see how it comes out. It’s not hard.

Let’s do the thought experiment of building a solar array to generate the entire world’s present electricity consumption, and see what the extra absorption of sunlight by the array does to climate. First we need to find the electricity consumption. Just do a Google search on “World electricity consumption” and here you are:

GoogleElec

Now, that’s the total electric energy consumed during the year, and you can turn that into the rate of energy consumption (measured in Watts, just like the world was one big light bulb) by dividing kilowatt hours by the number of hours in a year, and multiplying by 1000 to convert kilowatts into watts. The answer is two trillion Watts, in round numbers. How much area of solar cells do you need to generate this? On average, about 200 Watts falls on each square meter of Earth’s surface, but you might preferentially put your cells in sunnier, clearer places, so let’s call it 250 Watts per square meter. With a 15% efficiency, which is middling for present technology the area you need is

2 trillion Watts/(.15 X 250. Watts per square meter)

or 53,333 square kilometers. That’s a square 231 kilometers on a side, or about the size of a single cell of a typical general circulation model grid box. If we put it on the globe, it looks like this:

Globe

So already you should be beginning to suspect that this is a pretty trivial part of the Earth’s surface, and maybe unlikely to have much of an effect on the overall absorbed sunlight. In fact, it’s only 0.01% of the Earth’s surface. The numbers I used to do this calculation can all be found in Wikipedia, or even in a good paperbound World Almanac.

But we should go further, and look at the actual amount of extra solar energy absorbed. As many reviewers of Superfreakonomics have noted, solar cells aren’t actually black, but that’s not the main issue. For the sake of argument, let’s just assume they absorb all the sunlight that falls on them. In my business, we call that “zero albedo” (i.e. zero reflectivity). As many commentators also noted, the albedo of real solar cells is no lower than materials like roofs that they are often placed on, so that solar cells don’t necessarily increase absorbed solar energy at all. Let’s ignore that, though. After all, you might want to put your solar cells in the desert, and you might try to cool the planet by painting your roof white. The albedo of desert sand can also be found easily by doing a Google search on “Albedo Sahara Desert,” for example. Here’s what you get:

GoogleSand

So, let’s say that sand has a 50% albedo. That means that each square meter of black solar cell absorbs an extra 125 Watts that otherwise would have been reflected by the sand (i.e. 50% of the 250 Watts per square meter of sunlight). Multiplying by the area of solar cell, we get 6.66 trillion Watts.

That 6.66 trillion Watts is the “waste heat” that is a byproduct of generating electricity by using solar cells. All means of generating electricity involve waste heat, and fossil fuels are not an exception. A typical coal-fired power plant only is around 33% efficient, so you would need to release 6 trillion Watts of heat to burn the coal to make our 2 trillion Watts of electricity. That makes the waste heat of solar cells vs. coal basically a wash, and we could stop right there, but let’s continue our exercise in thinking with numbers anyway.

Wherever it comes from, waste heat is not usually taken into account in global climate calculations for the simple reason that it is utterly trivial in comparison to the heat trapped by the carbon dioxide that is released when you burn fossil fuels to supply energy. For example, that 6 trillion Watts of waste heat from coal burning would amount to only 0.012 Watts per square meter of the Earth’s surface. Without even thinking very hard, you can realize that this is a tiny number compared to the heat-trapping effect of CO2. As a general point of reference, the extra heat trapped by CO2 at the point where you’ve burned enough coal to double the atmospheric CO2 concentration is about 4 Watts per square meter of the Earth’s surface — over 300 times the effect of the waste heat.

The “4 Watts per square meter” statistic gives us an easy point of reference because it is available from any number of easily accessible sources, such as the IPCC Technical Summary or David Archer’s basic textbook that came out of our “Global Warming for Poets” core course. Another simple way to grasp the insignificance of the waste heat effect is to turn it into a temperature change using the standard climate sensitivity of 1 degree C of warming for each 2 Watts per square meter of heat added to the energy budget of the planet (this sensitivity factor also being readily available from sources like the ones I just pointed out). That gives us a warming of 0.006 degrees C for the waste heat from coal burning, and much less for the incremental heat from switching to solar cells. It doesn’t take a lot of thinking to realize that this is a trivial number compared to the magnitude of warming expected from a doubling of CO2.

With just a little more calculation, it’s possible to do a more precise and informative comparison. For coal-fired generation,each kilowatt-hour produced results in emissions of about a quarter kilogram of carbon into the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide. For our 16.83 trillion kilowatt-hours of electricity produced each year, we then would emit 4.2 trillion kilograms of carbon, i.e. 4.2 gigatonnes each year. Unlike energy, carbon dioxide accumulates in the atmosphere, and builds up year after year. It is only slowly removed by absorption into the ocean, over hundreds to thousands of years. After a hundred years, 420 gigatonnes will have been emitted, and if half that remains in the atmosphere (remember, rough estimates suffice to make the point here) the atmospheric stock of CO2 carbon will increase by 210 gigatonnes, or 30% of the pre-industrial atmospheric stock of about 700 gigatonnes of carbon. To get the heat trapped by CO2 from that amount of increase, we need to reach all the way back into middle-school math and use the awesome tool of logarithms; the number is

(4 Watts per square meter) X log2(1.3)

or 1.5 Watts per square meter. In other words, by the time a hundred years have passed, the heat trapped each year from the CO2 emitted by using coal instead of solar energy to produce electricity is 125 times the effect of the fossil fuel waste heat. And remember that the incremental waste heat from switching to solar cells is even smaller than the fossil fuel waste heat. What’s more, because each passing year sees more CO2 accumulate in the atmosphere, the heat trapping by CO2 continues to go up, while the effect of the waste heat from the fossil fuels or solar cells needed to produce a given amount of electricity stays fixed. Another way of putting it is that the climate effect from the waste heat produced by any kind of power plant is a one-off thing that you incur when you build the plant, whereas the warming effect of the CO2 produced by fossil fuel plants continues to accumulate year after year. The warming effect of the CO2 is a legacy that will continue for many centuries after the coal has run out and the ruins of the power plant are moldering away.

Note that you don’t actually have to wait a hundred years to see the benefit of switching to solar cells. The same arithmetic shows that even at the end of the very first year of operation, the CO2 emissions prevented by the solar array would have trapped 0.017 Watts per square meter if released into the atmosphere. So, at the end of the first year you already come out ahead even if you neglect the waste heat that would have been emitted by burning fossil fuels instead.

So, the bottom line here is that the heat-trapping effect of CO2 is the 800-pound gorilla in climate change. In comparison, waste heat is a trivial contribution to global warming whether the waste heat comes from solar cells or from fossil fuels. Moreover, the incremental waste heat from switching from coal to solar is an even more trivial number, even if you allow for some improvement in the efficiency of coal-fired power plants and ignore any possible improvements in the efficiency of solar cells. So: trivial,trivial trivial. Simple, isn’t it?

By the way, the issue of whether waste heat is an important factor in global warming is one of the questions most commonly asked by students who are first learning about energy budgets and climate change. So, there are no shortage of places where you can learn about this sort of thing. For example, a simple Google search on the words “Global Warming Waste Heat” turns up several pages of accurate references explaining the issue in elementary terms for beginners. Including this article from Wikipedia:

WasteHeatWiki

A more substantive (though in the end almost equally trivial) issue is the carbon emitted in the course of manufacturing solar cells, but that is not the matter at hand here. The point here is that really simple arithmetic, which you could not be bothered to do, would have been enough to tell you that the claim that the blackness of solar cells makes solar energy pointless is complete and utter nonsense. I don’t think you would have accepted such laziness and sloppiness in a term paper from one of your students, so why do you accept it from yourself? What does the failure to do such basic thinking with numbers say about the extent to which anything you write can be trusted? How do you think it reflects on the profession of economics when a member of that profession — somebody who that profession seems to esteem highly — publicly and noisily shows that he cannot be bothered to do simple arithmetic and elementary background reading? Not even for a subject of such paramount importance as global warming.

And it’s not as if the “black solar cell” gaffe was the only bit of academic malpractice in your book: among other things, the presentation of aerosol geoengineering as a harmless and cheap quick fix for global warming ignored a great deal of accessible and readily available material on the severe risks involved, as Gavin noted in his recent post. The fault here is not that you dared to advocate geoengineering as a solution. There is a broad spectrum of opinion among scientists about the amount of aerosol geoengineering research that is justified, but very few scientists think of it as anything but a desperate last-ditch attempt, or at best a strategy to be used in extreme moderation as part of a basket of strategies dominated by emissions reductions. You owed it to your readers to present a fair picture of the consequences of geoengineering, but chose not to do so.

May I suggest that if you should happen to need some friendly help next time you take on the topic of climate change, or would like to have a chat about why aerosol geoengineering might not be a cure-all, or just need a critical but informed opponent to bounce ideas off of, you don’t have to go very far. For example…

GoogleMap

But given the way Superfreakonomics mangled Ken Caldeira’s rather nuanced views on geoengineering, let’s keep it off the record, eh?

Your colleague,

Raymond T. Pierrehumbert
Louis Block Professor in the Geophysical Sciences
The University of Chicago

807 Responses to “An open letter to Steve Levitt”

  1. 651

    Well, I said I would update RC if I received more from Dr. Bill Woods on his research with terra preta. Today I received from him a copy of Woods & McCann (1999). Here’s the bit about the regenerative properties of terra preta:

    “Field observations at Oitavo Bec, an interior plateau site where the TM (terra mulatta, a “mixed” type of dark earth) with embedded zones of TP covers over 120 hectares, suggest this regenerative quality. This extensive zone of clay-rich, 60 cm deep dark earth is quarried for use as potting soil in the city of Santarem. After the vegetation is cleared and burned, the soil is typically removed by hoe and shovel. The bottom third (20 cm) of the dark zone is intentionally left intact. Dorival Lucas de Castro, who has worked the site for over 30 years, explains that this practice is necessary for the soil to “grow.”

    “According to him, in approximately 20 years, the dark zone will reestablish its original 60 cm depth, primarily through the downward darkening process explained above. Apparently, at some
    threshold level of biotic activity and soil nutrient retention status, dark earth attains the capacity to perpetuate – even regenerate itself – thus behaving more like a living “super” organism than an
    inert mineral. If the dark layer is entirely stripped, however, regeneration does not occur because the biotic innoculate is lacking. In two adjacent areas quarried six months prior to our visit, we
    noted that the one which had been scraped by machine to the underlying yellow latosol was nearly devoid of vegetation. In contrast, the area mined by hand, which had retained its 20 cm of
    dark earth, was covered with thick regrowth.

    “At Catarina, on another dark earth site (TM) overlooking the Arapiuns River, a series of leaf cutter ant mounds which had been abandoned sequentially over a 25 year period also demonstrated the regenerative properties of these soils. The young mounds were composed of orange, highly weathered material brought up by the ants from the subsoil. Without any organic inputs applied by people, the progressive melanization of the mound matrices was apparent. Within 20 years the color had become indistinguishable from the surrounding TM.”

    So it is essentially the soil type that regenerates, not necessarily the elevated carbon content. The microorganisms in the soil colonize outward, coating the soil particles with the bio-oils that give the soil its color and ability to retain nutrients.

  2. 652
    Anne van der Bom says:

    Eric Rasmusen,
    9 November 2009 at 10:01 AM

    Its point is that their production generates lots of carbon dioxide.

    The CO2 from production is a total non-issue, about the same level of insignificance as the albedo effect. According to his figures, it takes only 2.75 years to undo those by means of prevented emissions from fossil fuel generation.

    I posted a comment there to point it out. By using Excel you can easily do an estimation of how serious the ‘problem’ of up-front CO2 emissions from solar panel production actually is. The emission prevented by already produced and installed panels quickly overshadow those from the production of more panels.

  3. 653
    janama says:

    coming in late to this discussion I haven’t had a chance to read all the replies but has some one pointed out that solar cells only operate for approximately 6 hours of the day therefore the black square would need to be 4 times larger. Oh – and the sun would need to be in cloudless skies for those 6 hours.

  4. 654
    Mark says:

    The original post, factually and rhetorically was impressive. I learned from it and found it well-written and well-reasoned.

    Yet, I confess I find the tone surprising. I would expect colleagues to call each other, have lunch or coffee, or (the google map path can be followed in reverse) even stop by the office to discuss something like this. I don’t think that sort of conversation would obviate the need of others to read a post like this, but it might encourage a civil and productive dialogue between you and Levitt. Hard for me to see that happening now.

    I have colleagues that have from time to time published absolute tripe, and I have strongly and publicly disagreed with them. But, I have done so after at least engaging with them a bit and trying to understand why they were either impossibly wrong or I had misunderstood them. I suppose I feel that’s one of my duties as part of an academic community.

  5. 655
    Josh says:

    There’s a nice writeup in the New Yorker that references your letter.

    http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/books/2009/11/16/091116crbo_books_kolbert?currentPage=all

  6. 656

    Elizabeth Kolbert at The New Yorker gives Superfreakonomics a scathing review and mentions this thread.

    http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/books/2009/11/16/091116crbo_books_kolbert?currentPage=1

  7. 657
    Steve Fish says:

    janama (~#653, November 2009 @ 6:05 PM):

    Gavin, inline in #387 has partially addressed your criticism.

    David B. Benson (~#647, 10 November 2009 @ 3:06 PM):

    There are always ways to make plants grow if you have enough water, but it is expensive in poor soil. When one cultivates a monoculture, then a lot of oil is needed for pest control, and when the soil is poor, a lot of natural gas is required for fertilizer. This includes the Imperial Valley. A proposal that dodges these realities is disinformation.

    I think the tree farm carbon sequestration proposal is interesting, but it would be very, very big, and there are a lot of agricultural, ecological, and geopolitical problems to deal with before it could be a primary solution. Perhaps more important, we don’t need any big projects that would provide excuses for supporting business as usual. For the first 50% of the solution there are many much simpler, and less expensive, things to do.

    Steve

  8. 658
    Lynn Vincentnathan says:

    BIOCHAR:
    I know I’ve been touting it, but if you read the info on it at http://www.biofuelwatch.org.uk , you will see some of the concerns. Such as — charcoal dust from it blows away during transport and application on fields, and during soil erosion — which is very bad for health and the earth. There are not enough studies on its possible downsides. And if at all it has a place in combating GW, it is only a very small place.

    The main issue is that countries should not be able to use biochar as carbon offsets — we just need to keep on reducing our GHGs period. There is not silver bullet, no geo-fix.

    Hopefully biochar will prove a help in mitigating GW, and we need ALL the help we can get – big or small.

    See: http://www.biofuelwatch.org.uk/docs/biocharbriefing.pdf

  9. 659
    Nikhil says:

    Ike Solem (# 643)says, “put economics under the academic control of science departments, not business schools, and make economists learn basic science – such as thermodynamics, conservation of energy, etc. – and then you might see science-based economic arguments moving to the fore, rather than this kind of blatant industry propaganda

    How about “put science under the academic control of business and law schools, and make scientists learn real life, the basics of budgeting and finance, rule of law, importance of precedents – and then you might see reality-based scietist arguments on policy moving to the fore, rather than this kind of blatant, infantile drooling”?

    Do scientists ever reflect on themselves from outsiders’ perspective? Do you folks realize just how ludicrous you look with paper calculations of this and that and imagining all kinds of pies in the sky?

    Sorry to be this blunt, but all I see in scientist views of energy and environmental policy is speculation. (For example, those generating cost comparisons for new power sources in California. It would help if someone actually went and looked at actual costs, and realized that for the next 20 years, a large incremental of new generating capacity is for replacing the existing capacity, which will best be done by mere refurbishment and upgrading of the coal, nuclear and gas power plants, not IGCC, solar etc.? For planning purposes, variable costs of coal at 2-3 or at most 4-5 US cents/kWh is the number to keep in mind, unless there is a political agreement to kill US coal industry.)

    And guess what – when you drive the US coal industry into the ground, China and India are waiting in the wings to buy up those coal properties and export coal to – yes, their own lands.

    Fancy speculation on my part, yes; but heck, it seems so much easy to speculate in the company of scientists.

  10. 660
    Richard Steckis says:

    625
    David B. Benson says:
    9 November 2009 at 2:56 PM

    “Richard Steckis (598) — Then by all means go for it!”

    DBB. If we could get our government off this ridiculous ETS and start actually doing something constructive about GHG mitigation then it would be a great thing. Instead of wasting tax payers money on lavish achieve nothing schemes perhaps an investment of a few hundred million dollars into further research into the improvement of soil structure and fertility by carbon retention and enrichment will be far more productive and beneficial.

  11. 661

    janama #653: this factor was taken into account in the calculation.

  12. 662
    Doug says:

    Rather than counting on Steve Levitt to see raypierre’s response to his letter on Real Climate, I hope those that have Levitt’s e-mail address can send it to him, (including raypierre) so that we’re sure that he sees it. In fact maybe keep sending it once a week until he does respond. Anyone game?

    [Response: Please don’t do this. Harassment of academics is a bad idea whoever does it. – gavin]

  13. 663
    Jesse says:

    Nikhil (659) —

    The huge difference, I think, between scientists and what economists currently do is that all that “speculation” as you call it, is testable. And it can give a kind of upper and lower limit. You are drawing a false equivalence.

    For instance, if you know the rate at which metal transfers heat, and the efficiency at which gasoline converts chemical energy (combustion temperature and rate of reaction) you can get a pretty good idea of the upper limits (and lower limits) of an internal combustion engine (or at least have a basis to do those calculations).

    The problem with economists is that one of the central premises is that growth is infinite and technology will always find a way. But the world doesn’t work like that. And the laws of physics and chemistry care nothing for budgets or rates of return.

    Here’s a real-world example: much of the farming economy in the Midwest is based on the premise that water will be available forever. It won’t. Yet there was no cost built into that, there was no economist I am aware of who ever said “hey, we should charge for food based on the fact that the water use, at current rates, will empty the Ogalalla aquifer by X date.”

    Economists habitually ignore the “externalities” and part of the reason they do it is that many of them haven’t got a good grasp of basic physical sciences — and in fact it is ignored in most economic theories I am familiar with. It isn’t because they are evil, just that they aren’t exposed to other ideas and economics has never incorporated them the way other sciences have.

    This has been going on a long time and it’s why a business major and a scientist will look at a problem very differently. A scientist will say “we can build a power satellite to provide energy, and here’s what is physically required to do it.” A business major might ask what the cost is. That doesn’t make what the scientist says wrong, per se, and the business major isn’t wrong either.

    But if we’re going to call economics a science, then we should ask that economists get at least a basic grounding in the physical sciences, the same way we ask that of biologists and doctors — who may never refer to their intro physics class again.

    Economics, especially, is grounded in real, ohysical things — or should be. If you assume infinite growth then you are living in a world that doesn’t exist. The universe is finite, you know, and the second law of thermodynamics, conservation of mass/energy and various chemical processes all exist.

    When economists ignore these things they are doing themselves, and the rest of us, a bit of a disservice, IMO. Perhaps a century ago we could afford to ignore them (and in some cases were not aware). There is no such excuse now.

    Let me put it another way: one of the central tenets of economics is continued growth, which in many cases depends on growth of population. A 1% growth in population per year means a population of 118 billion by 2300 or so. There is no way to feed that many people even if we cultivated every single inch of land, and there is no way to magically create food out of constituent parts without gigantic energy inputs. Does technology move forward? Yes, but there are real, strict physical limits even if you assume direct energy-to-matter conversion or some kind of nanotechnology that converts rock to food somehow.

    Or take oil: if we assume the Earth’s crust was a 1 meter thick layer of the stuff, and we increase usage at, say, 2% per year (much less than what it has been) how long would it last? ABout 100 years. I did that calculation, and about 2120 would be the date that it would all be gone, every bit, assuming we converted it at 100% efficiency.

    But I have yet to see any economist even do that back of the envelope calculation, and realize that no matter what, if you keep using oil it runs out eventually. Even if we suck out every bit perfectly. And I made the assumption of an ocean of oil far larger than anything so far discovered (and physically impossible as well).

    end OT rant.

  14. 664
    Jim Galasyn says:

    Fwiw, I tossed a little hand grenade into the Best Science Blog thread:

    http://2009.weblogawards.org/nominations/best-science-blog/index.php#comment-21998

    “With the release of the revised statement by the American Association of Petroleum Geologists in 2007, no remaining scientific body of national or international standing is known to reject the basic findings of human influence on recent climate change.[71]”

    Please remove WUWT from the Best Science Blog category.

  15. 665

    A million thanks for the measurements and for spurring this discussion. How can we value or understand the impacts without same?

  16. 666
    Ike Solem says:

    Nikhil, perhaps you can provide some examples of what happened in countries in which your advice was followed, that is:

    “…put science under the academic control of business and law schools, and make scientists learn real life, the basics of budgeting and finance, rule of law, importance of precedents…

    My favorite examples include the rise of Lysenkoism within the Soviet academic hierarchy – although if you look at the pattern of academic dismissal and appointments in German academics, 1930-1940, well, that’s interesting too.

    The problem with academic economists is that they rely heavily on precedent and tradition and scripture, and when their notions conflict with reality, they ignore it. Take econometric models based on the standard “laws of economics.” If climate models were so wildly inaccurate, the entire profession would be a laughingstock, and people would admit that they’d gotten something fundamentally wrong. However, since economists are not scientists, they feel no need to compare theory to observation.

    What are they, then? Are they lawyers? The law is not like science – for example, there is no legal question that cannot be answered in a court of law, and in a court of law, precedent does play a big role, which is probably why you emphasized it.

    Precedent does not play the same role in science. Just because everyone agrees that such-and-such is true, does not make it so. For example: early twentieth century observations showed that distant galaxies were red-shifted, meaning that the universe was expanding. Previously, the universe had been believed to be static. Einstein had actually written down equations which predicted an non-static universe, but he found this unbelievable, and so introduced an artificial correction factor – what he called his “biggest mistake.” The point is, the longstanding precedent – the belief in a static universe – was irrelevant.

    So, if you could show that CO2 didn’t absorb infrared, or that CO2 levels in the atmosphere were not increasing, or that the CO2 didn’t come from fossil fuels, or that projected temperature effects were wildly off-base, then the entire issue would have to be revisited. Despite the best efforts of legions of fossil fuel industry-funded skeptics, nothing has come up – and the other side of the coin is that even if you don’t like the result, you have to accept it. You have the right to question anything, but then you must accept the answers, no matter how distasteful or economically disruptive they may be.

    Better not to look, huh?

  17. 667
    David B. Benson says:

    Steve Fish (657) — I don’t view the Ornstein et al. proposal as supporting BAU; afterall somehow the scheme must be paid for and should be by fossil carbon burners. Eventually, one hopes, there is little enough fossil carbon burning being done that the scheme becomes carbon negative. The sooner that happens the better IMO.

    Lynn Vincentnathan (658) — Those concersn about biochar are extremely minor; much more worrisome is the air pollution caused by burning carbon-based fuels, fossil dervied or otherwise. While using biochar as offsets is not ideal, I’ll certainly settle for such an interim solution; afterall it drives up the price of fossil fuels.

    Richard Steckis (660) — I certainly think so, but so far the US government has done rather little towards further understanding and promoting of biochar. I wish the best of luck in convincing your government.

  18. 668
    Rod B says:

    Jesse (663):
    While you’re hitting around the edges and making good points, I think your basic assessment of economic analyses is flawed because you attribute to them objectives way beyond their true objectives.. Everyone is well aware that economic analyses do not account for long-term externalities. But that is not a criticism of economics. Economics, which is premised on reasonable accurate measurable-in-dollars events, has no possible way to account for, say, the demise of the Ogalalla aquifer. If some political influence were added (say the government passes a law that says the price/cost of corn must include the cost of the eventual loss of the aquifer according to some algorithm that is also legalized — governments can do this and it needn’t necessarily be anything close to physical scientific reality) economists would then include that factor in spades because the cost is accurately measurable. Or they could certainly draw their own speculation based on what-ifs — that would still be speculation. Same goes for unending growth. It is not a premise of economic theory; it is a no op. Without some clear and present knowledge that this commodity or that resource will expire in the near term, it must be ignored. Would a credible economist of financial consulting recommend that his clients sell their Microsoft because there’s some good chance it will not exist sometime in the next 50-100 years?

    Forcing them to learn a lot of detailed science is a waste of time. It’s not their job to make scientific assessments on their own. They are more than capable of accepting what the current science says with just a basic sniff test understanding. Farmers can say it costs $1.67 current dollars to grow and harvest a bushel of corn; that’s good enough for the economist; he doesn’t need a doctorate in agronomy. This doesn’t mean they’ll take your or my assessment of the end of the aquifer or the demise of fossil fuels. There is no way we can give them the near-term precision required for economic analysis.

  19. 669
    Rod B says:

    PS, a follow-up to address one of Ike’s assertions. Economists rely heavily on precedent only because their “science” is nowhere near as rigorous as physics, say. Physics has F=ma; economics has nothing even close. This is not a criticism of economics — it’s just the way it is and we all have to respond accordingly.

  20. 670
    CTG says:

    #664 – WUWT has been nominated in the “Best Humor Blog” category. Get voting!

  21. 671
    Patrick 027 says:

    Re 650 tharanga – yes.

    Re 643 Ike Solem
    “Trapping and permanently storing the carbon emissions would use as much energy as could be obtained from the fossil fuel. ”

    It depends on how you do it. From what (albeit a small amount) I have read, coal CCS would work and produce net energy. It still wouldn’t beat out solar or wind, etc, though, in CO2eq emissions per unit energy, and the somewhat greater coal input per energy output would exacerbate other problems. There would also be an increase in cost, increasing the fraction of renewable energy strategies that would be cost-competitive.

    However, it’s concievable that it might be a good idea to have some coal CCS plants operating in a belt from West Virginia up to New England, and some other high latitude cloudy places with high population densities (depending on wind resources), replacing a portion of current coal electricity, while the remaining coal power plants across the nation and the world are mostly displaced by solar, wind, etc, and then, as the costs get even lower and the efficiency gets higher (including storage/transmission methods), eventually the coal CCS will be wound down to zero.

    Eventually we may want to start sequestering CO2 via anthropogenic silicate rock weathering – in situ or otherwise, producing carbonate minerals – solid or dissolved. Concievably this may be more economical than CCS directly from coal power plants (I have yet to read through all the literature that other commenters have provided references to), or on the other hand, might allow a residual coal industry to survive in cold cloudy areas where coal mines and mafic/ult-ramafic rocks are geographically close – though eventually inhabitants might wish to switch to renewables and sell the sequestration service.


    “The only way this would not be true is if up-front and maintenance costs for wind and solar plants were far higher than for coal – but that’s not the case, is it?”

    The up-front costs are still high. There is payback, but it is often in the long-run. There is a capital cost associated with investments with payback expected later – it’s not trivial. Nonetheless if we put up the cash now we could be doing our children and granchildren and great grandchildren a big favor and not necessarily just by way of mitigating climate change but also from more direct economic savings.

    ——-
    Re 644 Jim Bullis

    “I have to agree with you on the “ungainly” part, though it might be more a matter of what we are used to looking at than anything else. It is truly an impediment to widespread acceptance that I have to face. I think it will turn out that fashion and style are the enemies in the anti global warming campaign. I would not be against making things look nice, but when they are done based on the fashion designer’s misconceptions of aerodynamics, as is the prevailing practice in the auto industry, that has to be limited.”

    “But I see economics as a major system design consideration. My approach does not require people to buy extra stuff, rather they would be replacing stuff they now have with something that better meets their needs.” … “Cogeneration is very effective if all the heat is used, and in fact the system is operated in that mode only when all the heat can be used. This is possible with machines in a household, but why not use the machines that are sitting outside and you already have paid for?”

    Actually, what I was thinking of when I wrote ‘ungainly’ was that instead of plugging in a car, you’d be both plugging it in and attaching a thermal connection. You’d have to buy the thermal connection equipment anyway and reconfigure thermal energy ‘circuits’. Whatever scenario we play out, we’ll be changing some infrastructure around.

    Certainly there is room for improvement in transportation, but I really think people like to ride side-by-side in a vehicle – it’s not just force of habit that you’re fighting to make 1-by-1 seating cars.

    PS is it easier to control non-GHG pollution from fixed sources than from mobile sources?

    ——-
    Re 648 Jim Bullis
    “I saw a guy in a booth at a farmers market in Oregon last week from PGE talking about selling green credits. I kept on walking since I had looked at this before. Of course, if they want people to advance them money to build wind mills that is fine. However, it does not mean that when these folks plug in a car that the electricity will come from wind mills. In fact, whatever the windmills produce will be used regardless of the plug-in car. So when the car is plugged in, it will draw from the available reserve capacity, which will be coal, even in Oregon.”

    Re 649 Jim Bullis
    “It looks like it is the case when you include the need to keep back-up generation ready to cover the variability of wind and solar as well as count the cost of investment money that has to be put out up front, as well as the things you mention.”

    This is where I really disagree. If you make the investment in wind power than you’re adding wind power. If you plug in a car, you’ve eliminated the gasoline and the cost thereof, and an EV might cost you for batteries but it might save you on maintenance. If you’re drawing more electric power overall, but the change is equal or less than the share of wind power that you’ve boughten, then you’ve reduced your petroleum/ethanol use and avoided replacing it with coal/natural gas and perhaps even reduced your coal/natural gas usage. It doesn’t matter how the new load matches the new supply until a lot of people do the same, at which point the cost of buying sufficient wind power will increase, until it justifies spending on energy storage and/or longer-distance transmission, etc.

    There are storage methods more economical than batteries. The impression I’ve gotten thus far is that costs of compressed air energy storage (CAES) and HVDC transmission are not that great compared to the power plants themselves. Plus there’s using hydroelectric power, geothermal, and biofuels as dispatchable back-up sources. Hydroelectric power can be turned up and down fast enough to make up for diurnal-cycle mismatches between solar + wind supply and load.

  22. 672
    Steve Fish says:

    David B. Benson (~667, 11 November 2009 @ 3:04 PM):

    It appears to me that big coal and its supporters have embraced coal-CCS, even though in practice it would very likely price their product out of the market, as a future carrot so that they can continue their profitable operation during development of the process, but if it actually works, dodge. I say BAU-wow to the idea that tree-CCS wouldn’t also be a distracting football! I do, however, agree with your sentiments as to who should be responsible and– “The sooner that happens the better…”

    Steve

  23. 673
    Nikhil says:

    Jesse (#663)

    I think there are misunderstandings about what economists do. But good to start a dialogue. Response in ** below.

    “The huge difference, I think, between scientists and what economists currently do is that all that “speculation” as you call it, is testable. And it can give a kind of upper and lower limit. You are drawing a false equivalence.”

    ** Agree, up to a point. Economics doesn’t have the luxury of experimentation, say, about a trillion dollar bailout. But nor does geophysical chemistry. Models can say x emissions to y concentrations to z temperatures but we’ll have to wait 30-50 years to test. In the meantime, some economists would say the costs are c1, c2, c3 and benefits are b1, b2, b3.. Not worth the bother. Economists don’t know enough, and nor does anybody else to put such numbers. **

    The problem with economists is that one of the central premises is that growth is infinite and technology will always find a way.

    ** Not true. In fact, much of economics is about business cycles, destructive disturbances, and frankly, economic theory about technology is infantile. The most economists can say is that “technological change” is the “residual”, the part of growth that they cannot otherwise explain (with rather useless aggregate measures), a measure of their ignorance. So don’t let economists fool you. **

    But the world doesn’t work like that. And the laws of physics and chemistry care nothing for budgets or rates of return.

    ** True, but budgets and finance determine what gets done. Without disturbing the laws of physics and chemistry. **

    Here’s a real-world example: much of the farming economy in the Midwest is based on the premise that water will be available forever. It won’t. Yet there was no cost built into that, there was no economist I am aware of who ever said “hey, we should charge for food based on the fact that the water use, at current rates, will empty the Ogalalla aquifer by X date.”

    ** I don’t know about the Ogalalla aquifer, but in fact much of economic theory development was centred around research into the economics of water. I am trying to rememeber – Harvard had a water resource program that employed Robert Dorfman and a few others in 1950s, out of which came a lot of microeconomic theory. Water in the US West and in India have been studied by economists for decades. (Scientists too; Roger Revelle of the climate fame worked on surface and ground water of the Gangetic basin back in the 1960s. But Revelle was not your academic economist.) **

    Economists habitually ignore the “externalities” and part of the reason they do it is that many of them haven’t got a good grasp of basic physical sciences — and in fact it is ignored in most economic theories I am familiar with.

    ** Now, now. Don’t forget the term “externalities” is from economic theory. But you are right, economists don’t know how to measure externalities and in part because they haven’t got a good grasp of basic physical sciences. “Externalities” aren’t ignored. The problem rather is that imputing costs is notoriously difficult. Then you also have the problem that economists who do work on ‘externalities’ mindlessly borrow damage functions from physical sciences (ignoring confounding factors) and control costs similarly (without allowing for multiple options for controls and uncertainties, interactions, path dependencies, what not). What’s more, they sometimes obsess about negative externalities and ignore positive externalities. I think the National Academies just came out with a report on energy ‘externalities’. From what I can tell, positive externalities of electricity use (air-conditioning, health and educational equipment) are ignored. So much for economics and economists. **

    It isn’t because they are evil, just that they aren’t exposed to other ideas and economics has never incorporated them the way other sciences have.

    ** You are too polite. Some economists are positively evil. Like Nick Stern. His idea of zero discount rate effectively means I am to value his great-grandchildren the same way as my brothers and sisters. Maybe that’s not evil, mere self-interest. **

    But if we’re going to call economics a science, then we should ask that economists get at least a basic grounding in the physical sciences, the same way we ask that of biologists and doctors — who may never refer to their intro physics class again.

    ** No argument. Economists don’t police themselves well if at all. **

    Economics, especially, is grounded in real, ohysical things — or should be. If you assume infinite growth then you are living in a world that doesn’t exist. The universe is finite, you know, and the second law of thermodynamics, conservation of mass/energy and various chemical processes all exist.

    ** Nobody assumes infinite growth, so don’t create strawmen. My post was a followup to another post that was rejected. I was annoyed at Pierrehumbert making simple arithmetical error of his own, then heaping scorn at Levitt for not knowing simple things. Anyway, let me tell an anecdote. Back in 1973 or so, Morris Adelman (an economist at MIT) replied to the hysteria about the finiteness of oil resources by, “Yes, of course the world oil resource is finite, but nobody knows what the limits are.” He was proven right, and not just because oil use became more efficient. Technology allowed higher recovery rates, and technology also allowed more discovery and production even at lower prices. So much so that the known reserves of oil in 1973 or so were depleted twice over and there are still greater reserves. Not to speak of gas. So, it’s not necessary to assume infinite growth and nobody does; 10-20 years is fine, and even that the economists are really reluctant to assume. As I said, they worry about business cycles and history a lot. **

    When economists ignore these things they are doing themselves, and the rest of us, a bit of a disservice, IMO. Perhaps a century ago we could afford to ignore them (and in some cases were not aware). There is no such excuse now.

    ** Oh, well. You can safely ignore economists who presume to say anything about future 20 years hence. Those ones are only into selling books and lectures. **

    Let me put it another way: one of the central tenets of economics is continued growth, which in many cases depends on growth of population. A 1% growth in population per year means a population of 118 billion by 2300 or so. There is no way to feed that many people even if we cultivated every single inch of land, and there is no way to magically create food out of constituent parts without gigantic energy inputs.

    ** Oh, I don’t know. Continued growth is not a tenet of economics, never was. Of course economic growth in part depends on population growth; we need labor and we need consumers. The real problem real economists deal with is that of not having enough working population in 20 years, including in China, not about having too many mouths to feed in 2300. Is there a way or no way to feed 11.8 billion people, leave alone 118 billion people? Who knows and who cares? **

    Does technology move forward? Yes, but there are real, strict physical limits even if you assume direct energy-to-matter conversion or some kind of nanotechnology that converts rock to food somehow.

    ** Nyah. I don’t do science fiction or economic fiction. **

    Or take oil: if we assume the Earth’s crust was a 1 meter thick layer of the stuff, and we increase usage at, say, 2% per year (much less than what it has been) how long would it last? ABout 100 years. I did that calculation, and about 2120 would be the date that it would all be gone, every bit, assuming we converted it at 100% efficiency.

    ** Maybe. We’ll probably have cheaper alternatives before then or do without oil. We didn’t have oil even 150 years ago. **

    But I have yet to see any economist even do that back of the envelope calculation, and realize that no matter what, if you keep using oil it runs out eventually.

    ** Not quite. An economist would say oil will never run out, just become obsolete. We didn’t move from wood to coal because wood ran out or from coal to oil because coal ran out. No point bothering about running out of anything. **

    Even if we suck out every bit perfectly. And I made the assumption of an ocean of oil far larger than anything so far discovered (and physically impossible as well).

    ** Please don’t be so worried. The worst that would happen is that humanity will learn to live on less energy. In 30 years or 50 years or 500 years, nobody can tell and not worth the bother. The real magic about economics is not exhaustibility, but a) elasticities, b) marginal costs, and c) discount rate. If physical scientists paid attention to only those three concepts, much of rancor will disappear. If Pierrehumbert can’t do his simple arithmetic, I won’t rant. **
    end OT rant.

  24. 674
    Patrick 027 says:

    “It doesn’t matter how the new load matches the new supply until a lot of people do the same,”

    Okay, it does matter even if only a few people do this, BUT only when the new load is added at times when the previous load – new variable supply at that time = capacity of dispatchable power sources.

    As it is, wind is generally available at all times of day but more so at night, with temporal variations being smaller if there is distribution on a large enough spatial scale. A majority of car recharging would tend to occur at night, when dispatchable power plants tend to be operating below capacity.

    Of course, solar energy is available during the day, and if there is preferential displacement of natural gas plants at first…

    But the point is, if you decrease your direct fuel usage, increase your electricity consumption, but contribute to investing in mitigation, then you can come out ahead (in reducing CO2 emissions), and except for efficiency improvements, what matters to your CO2 responsibility is how much clean/renewable power is supplied as a result of your contribution (however that relates to capacity), which need not be linked to your own direct or even indirect usage.

  25. 675
    Jim Bouldin says:

    Other than reading this post, I have paid absolutely zero attention to this whole issue–just not that interested in a book written by non-scientists with the kind of provocative title it has. Not worth my time.

    But tonight I flipped on Charlie Rose, and lo and behold there they were! Now Rose is probably one of my favorite interviewers, but if you watch his show much you know that amidst his wide variety of interviewees, scientists are rare, an indication that he either has little interest in, or knowledge of, science.

    So any way, at one point, Dubner just starts in on air pollution and says scientists are now realizing that, over the last few decades, the cleaning up of the air via air pollution regulations, has allowed much more light to reach the surface, and that it is this, rather than CO2 increases, that is causing global warming. No qualification whatsoever. No response or correction or additions from Levitt. NO further questions or interrogation of this statement by Rose. He just flat out denied greenhouse gas forcing, in favor of reduced particulates over the last 30 years, as the cause of global warming.

    These guys are bogus. They are in it for their own fame. I will say that at least Levitt struck me as inquisitive and rational. Dubner, on the other hand, struck me quite clearly as a very loose cannon with no idea of the complexities of what he has waded into, who would believe anything if it sounded good to him.

    Oh, and they both talked a lot about the coolness of “asking the questions that nobody else asks” and thinking outside the box. There was much self congratulation over this.

  26. 676
    Hank Roberts says:

    > I don’t know about the Ogalalla aquifer

    Then you don’t know much about economics.
    How about the Kettleman Hills aquifer? Very different problem.

    That combination of lack of information and confident assertion is the problem, cf. Levitt on Charlie Rose

  27. 677
    Jim Bouldin says:

    p.s. I wrote a very critical post to their blog site’s story about their appearance on Charlie Rose (which I found out about after the fact). They may well not post it, because I really ripped Dubner. If they don’t, I will post it here.

  28. 678
    Patrick 027 says:

    Re 659 Nikhil

    –“Do scientists ever reflect on themselves from outsiders’ perspective? Do you folks realize just how ludicrous you look with paper calculations of this and that and imagining all kinds of pies in the sky?”

    Just as you would ask Jesse et al (et al being the rest of us) to distinguish between economists who adhere to unrealistic ideology or are otherwise willing to forget things or are innaccurate from those economists who know what they’re doing, as well as any economist ever could, please distinguish scientists who don’t know about economics from scientists who are careful when they try to apply their science to economics or vice versa. People do real studies on the potential economics, ecology, technology, etc. of renewable energy, efficiency, sequestration, fossil fuels, adaptation and climate change and ocean acidification losses (externalities). Of course there are also those who speculate on these things without trying to sift through the data and realistic economic behavior. There is nothing wrong with that so long as it is clear what it is and they don’t pretend to know what they only guess (same for economists, etc.), because not all of us can be experts in multiple fields.

    –“Sorry to be this blunt, but all I see in scientist views of energy and environmental policy is speculation. (For example, those generating cost comparisons for new power sources in California. It would help if someone actually went and looked at actual costs, and realized that for the next 20 years, a large incremental of new generating capacity is for replacing the existing capacity, which will best be done by mere refurbishment and upgrading of the coal, nuclear and gas power plants, not IGCC, solar etc.? For planning purposes, variable costs of coal at 2-3 or at most 4-5 US cents/kWh is the number to keep in mind, unless there is a political agreement to kill US coal industry.)”

    A lot of us have made up our minds that the coal industry should shrivel and die; the question is how fast and in what way. Since an ideal free market with no externalities would tend to approach an optimum, it makes sense that a tax on emission externalities …

    (for simplicity of enforcement, I suggest applying the tax at points of high flow volumes through a small number of channels where possible – for CO2 from fossil fuel combustion, this would be a tax on extraction per unit fossil C, or perhaps a sales tax of the crude fuel… etc, AS OPPOSED TO a tax figured directly into residential utility bills, which would tend to have similar effect but would have more paperwork – of course, there should be a correction for that portion of fossil C that ends up within materials that are not later combusted or oxydized…)

    … would tend to lead to an optimum. Of course, there are ways in which a market is not ideal even when such externalities are accounted for; for example, force of habit that is reinforced by interactions among components wherein the components must change together to work well can prolong maladaptive behavior; the production possibilities curve can have concave regions (increasing returns) and the market could get trapped on a local optimum that is the lesser of optima – if the government, as an economic participant that provides services for a fee, is able to make longer term, larger scale investments and plans (zoning, pick a side of the road to drive on) that effectively eliminant the valleys that prevent the market from achieving a higher optimum, then this changes the landscape via changing the point of view, but of course there is a limit wherein we truly can’t get ‘there from here’ without going bankrupt…. but I’ve said enough about that kind of thing before…

    –“And guess what – when you drive the US coal industry into the ground, China and India are waiting in the wings to buy up those coal properties and export coal to – yes, their own lands.”

    Another example of a strawman (just like all economists assuming exponential growth forever, the idea that all scientists shove trade issues under the rug while making policy recomendations).

    If domestic extraction is taxed, Chinese and Indian buyers would still have to pay it. Otherwise, corrective tariffs/subsidies can be emplaced to make up for international variations in policies. This may even be necessary when two countries make the same overall effort but use different structures; for example, if one country taxes fossil C extraction and another taxes sale of fossil C to utilities/distributors/refineries (but not in full multiple times along the same stream), then there would be issues with trade of fossil C from mines/wells in one country to another country, but those issues can be addressed.

    “Fancy speculation on my part, yes; but heck, it seems so much easy to speculate in the company of scientists.”

    Informed speculation is not wrong, so long as it is recognized for being such.

    Re 673 Nikhil

    “True, but budgets and finance determine what gets done. Without disturbing the laws of physics and chemistry. ”

    Yes, good point. Science and economics both have their place. There must be communication between scientists and economists (and engineers, legal people, etc.) to use findings in one field for benifit in another, and some people can successfully cross over.

    –“Economics doesn’t have the luxury of experimentation, say, about a trillion dollar bailout. But nor does geophysical chemistry. Models can say x emissions to y concentrations to z temperatures but we’ll have to wait 30-50 years to test. In the meantime, some economists would say the costs are c1, c2, c3 and benefits are b1, b2, b3.. Not worth the bother. Economists don’t know enough, and nor does anybody else to put such numbers.”

    Physical models, even physical-ecological models, do not need to account for the intracacies of human behavior when human behavior is treated as a parameter that can be adjusted for different scenarios. Even if we can’t predict that component, we can study what would happen in various different scenarios covering possible behaviors of that component of the system, and this can be very useful. Even within geophysical fluid dynamics, learning is often accomplished by taking some big simple components of the problem first (coriolis effect, pressure gradient, dry adiabatic processes, linearized wave with constant basic state) and then considering what happens when other factors are introduced (friction, flow acceleration, nonlinear evolution and wave-mean interaction, moist processes, mesoscale processes, etc.).

    There is good reason to have much confidence in at least some aspects of model output – the robust aspects – that fit or do not conflict with paleoclimatic evidence or the historical record or observations of other planets, etc. We can pose the question – how different would the models results be if this parameter turned out to be x instead of y (parameterization is required for sub-grid scale processes – this is not done ad hoc but based on studying those processes, and sometimes (only for one or a very few parameters, as I recall from the ‘FAQ on climate models’ postings) to tune model results, but not to tune model (long-term?) temporal trends!), or if grid scales are reduced, or if the upper atmosphere is better resolved in particular, or … depending on what is not included in a model, one can say, this is what the model produces without biogeochemical and vegetation-albedo feedbacks and plancktion DMS feedback – now here’s what we suspect might happen if we include these feedbacks, now let’s study those feedbacks and refine the picture… etc.

    –““Externalities” aren’t ignored.”

    Yes, just as with climate models, economical models can be constructed with different levels of realism. An idealized perfect free market with no externalities and perfect rational actors is not of course realistic, but it may be closer to realistic than, say, a perfectly random system, so while being aware of the imperfections, we can still start with a perfect free market and then work from there. We can include externalities, monopolies and nonlinear relationships involving negotiating power, complex production possibilities curves and hysterisis (actually, hysteresis would be part of an ideal market in the learning curve or in response to variable external forcing) , habitual and self-reinforcing patterns (think cultural (imperfect) analogue of biological sexual selection – people act in a way because other people act in a way because the first people act in a way because that’s what’s expected of people because that’s how people act because that’s what people expect because…), intergenerational stuff, the value of the commons, the value of government, the cost of the commons, the cost of the government, costs and benifits of privatization, etc, physical constraints on resources… coevolution… time horizon and legal effect on optimal scenario determination and the shape of the production possibilities curves, the non-negligible learning curve…

    –“You are too polite. Some economists are positively evil. Like Nick Stern. His idea of zero discount rate effectively means I am to value his great-grandchildren the same way as my brothers and sisters. Maybe that’s not evil, mere self-interest. ”

    Um, that makes NO SENSE AT ALL. You seem to be confusing self-interest with selflessness. Granted, the two aren’t always opposed to each other.

    If you made the more nuanced point that future people are yet to be determined and so the existence of people is a variable that changes the costs of externalities, then okay. A major point: while specific identities are largely unpredictable, the statistics of large groups of people should tend to be predictable. We can make reasonable assumptions that some fraction of people in the year 2100 will still be carbon-based human organisms (as opposed to conscious entities on cyberspace, bionic creatures who run on microwaves), would have various dietary requirements, enjoy chocolate and pizza and good music (though what ‘good music’ means to them may be less clear – although some underlying principles regarding harmony and rhythym may not change much for most peoples), and long for romantic companionship, etc, and enjoy natural scenary and watching migratory birds, crashing ocean waves, thunderstorms, etc. Less clear is what people may want in a car, since what people want in a car is in many ways a function of what people have been getting in a car, although I speculate that x % of people will still want the option of riding side-by-side and thus eschew Jim Bullis’s design if they can afford to do so.

    But the overall population size is not fixed. If Stern and others, including yourself, have fewer grandchildren and great grandchildren and so on out to year Y, you can pay less on your emissions taxes (not necessarily in direct linear proportion, though, because … it’s complicated). Part of the cost of emissions arguably should be born by those who decide (or risk) to reproduce. However, within some populations, a higher cost of living would be the incentive to limit reproduction, and you can avoid that part of your externality tax when others pay more because they have more children via the costs of having children (as opposed to a specific ‘child tax’). So you can reduce your costs by not having the number of descendents (probabilistically – of course your descendents can make choices that determine your subsequent descendents) that you don’t want to pay for. So perhaps we’re back to square one. Of course, with nonlinearities, there is a feedback between the effect of policy on the future trajectory of population, emissions, etc, and the effect of those conditions on what the policy should be. But in principle this is an equation that can be solved for an optimum based on suitable criteria. The challenge is finding probable values. But that’s what we always do in ‘real life’ – we make decisions based on imperfect knowledge, going by likely outcomes and risks to come out ahead on average.

    I’m not entirely sure of how all the components of discounting are labelled. Setting aside inflation, the future benifits from technological and cultural progress and accumulated durable wealth (infrastructure) of the past/present even as it is left with fewer or degraded natural resources – unless that degradation is so severe as to start obliterating the technological, economic, and cultural inheritance. Of course, the point isn’t necessary to achieve fairness among generations, because we want future generations to be better off in whole – otherwise we would be settling for present rates of poverty (as defined by present day criteria – I am aware that relative poverty will likely always exist) and strife. It is understandable that some discounting should come from uncertainty – for example, I might not know what I will want in 50 years, so I don’t make plans based on all details of my life then, which is not optimal for what things will be like, but is optimal based on the limits of knowledge. In general, it makes sense to have some focus on your needs and wants, and those of people you know, because you will be more effective in doing than in helping people you don’t know – however, you do know that other people exist (at least on a practical level, not to go too deep into philosophy here), and you can make a reasonable guess that most of them have similar dietary needs (corrected for age, etc.), and similar desires for physical comfort and health … and you know that some people have areas of expertise in particular categories that may include your health or your food or your relationships and so you will help yourself by getting the services of experts in various fields. … Anyway, I might not even exist in 50 years, so I shouldn’t save and save and save to plan on enjoying life in 50 years. However, I can make choices to make my future existence more likely and even determine some of it’s details, and so I can use planning to increase my ability to optimize my behavior while reducing my ‘personal’ discount rate. This can be extended to society as a whole. We might not know for sure that we won’t be wiped out by an asteroid in 2060, but it’s likely we won’t, and we can make decisions to influence the future in ways that feedback on our cost-benifit analyses of other decisions. We can try to make nuclear anihilation less likely and thus make climate change issues more important; we can mitigate and invest to adapt to climate change so as to increase the benifits of avoiding nuclear anihilation. Etc.

    –“No argument. Economists don’t police themselves well if at all.”

    Interesting. Scientists do police themselves in general, though some slip through the cracks (Lindzen, Spencer), but I would think that economists do some policing of themselves. Other economists can express approval or dissappointment of Krugman’s winning the Nobel prize, for example… Is there no peer reviewed economic literature?

    –“The real problem real economists deal with is that of not having enough working population in 20 years, including in China, not about having too many mouths to feed in 2300. Is there a way or no way to feed 11.8 billion people, leave alone 118 billion people? Who knows and who cares?”

    “Maybe. We’ll probably have cheaper alternatives before then or do without oil. We didn’t have oil even 150 years ago.”

    “Not quite. An economist would say oil will never run out, just become obsolete. We didn’t move from wood to coal because wood ran out or from coal to oil because coal ran out. No point bothering about running out of anything.”

    Yes, oil will become obsolete – if not for public policies and technological progress (which are not independent of each other – an externality tax would increase incentives in R&D investments), then because we start to run out of oil, making it more expensive than alternatives. If there are increasing returns, then the shrinking market size for oil will make it more expensive, or at least counteract the trend of decreasing price as demand shifts to alternatives.

    The date of 2300 aside, we need/want labor because we want to be able to build wealth in part so as to feed people. Dates aside, you sound a bit like a Mao Zedong / Jon Stossel pro-natalist – every mouth has two hands, more people = more food, etc. True that a small population may not support a degree of specialization as a larger one and thus function less efficiently, and fewer inventive minds may slow technological progress, but there are physical limits to carrying capacities for a given technological level and living standards, there are limits to how far and fast technology can develop – too many inventive minds at the same time might have trouble avoiding simply reproducing each other’s work to the extent that they are inspired by the extant technology and R&D takes time. There are ultimate physical limits. It takes resources to colonize space, and how many people will want to leave Earth in the near term?

    “In 30 years or 50 years or 500 years, nobody can tell and not worth the bother. The real magic about economics is not exhaustibility, but a) elasticities, b) marginal costs, and c) discount rate. If physical scientists paid attention to only those three concepts, much of rancor will disappear.”

    Some scientists studying externalities and mitigation and adaptation options do study those things. It would be a mistake to ONLY study those things because then they’d have nothing to which to apply those concepts. It would be like deciding between zero choices. (Okay, maybe that’s not what you meant.)

    “If Pierrehumbert can’t do his simple arithmetic, I won’t rant.”…”end OT rant.”
    Last statement implies this was a rant; first statement implies that you might rant if Pierrehumbert can do his simple arithmetic. Ergo, it’s possible you believe he can do his arithmetic. I’ve skimmed his online climate textbook and I can tell you I have great confidence in his mathematical skills.

    ——————-
    Re 663 Jesse

    –“A business major might ask what the cost is. That doesn’t make what the scientist says wrong, per se, and the business major isn’t wrong either.”

    Yes.

    –“But if we’re going to call economics a science, then we should ask that economists get at least a basic grounding in the physical sciences, the same way we ask that of biologists and doctors — who may never refer to their intro physics class again.”

    It depends on what the economist wants to do. But it would be helpful to society to have some economists who have an awareness of the physical and life sciences and actually I suspect that we do have some.

    –“Economics, especially, is grounded in real, ohysical things — or should be. If you assume infinite growth then you are living in a world that doesn’t exist. ”

    Economic growth deals with value, which is probably limited by the number of possible ways that the universe can be arranged into conscious organisms that place value on various items in various contexts. But see also my comments above about reasonable assumptions of future people’s needs and wants.

    –“Let me put it another way: one of the central tenets of economics is continued growth, which in many cases depends on growth of population.”

    Maybe for some economists, but I suspect not all.

    ——
    Re 666 (Nero Caesar? :) ) Ike Solem –

    –“My favorite examples include the rise of Lysenkoism within the Soviet academic hierarchy – although if you look at the pattern of academic dismissal and appointments in German academics, 1930-1940, well, that’s interesting too.”

    Interesting point; also consider Mao Zedong’s opposition to Malthus, general dislike of intellectuals, and complete ignorance of ecology and farming, compounded by being surrounded by yes men.

    –“The problem with academic economists is that they rely heavily on precedent and tradition and scripture, and when their notions conflict with reality, they ignore it.”

    Surely that is not the case for all?

    ——-
    Re 668 Rod B

    “Economics, which is premised on reasonable accurate measurable-in-dollars events, has no possible way to account for, say, the demise of the Ogalalla aquifer. If some political influence were added (say the government passes a law” … “Or they could certainly draw their own speculation based on what-ifs — that would still be speculation. Same goes for unending growth. It is not a premise” … “Would a credible economist of financial consulting recommend that his clients sell their Microsoft because there’s some good chance it will not exist sometime in the next 50-100 years?”

    There are ways to account for the demise of the Ogallala aquifer. An economist could construct an economic model that shows the supply of water decreasing based on usage and the market reaction to this change. As with public policy scenarios.

    Speculation has a place. As does proposing various possible scenarios and studying what would happen for each scenario.

    Good point about Microsoft.


    Re 669 Rod B –

    “Physics has F=ma; economics has nothing even close. This is not a criticism of economics — it’s just the way it is and we all have to respond accordingly.”

    Good point.

    In some ways, I wonder if economic value might be like information or entropy or free energy. For example, there may be some ultimate potential value, and each choice may convert some of that to realized value but at the same time reduce the total value by way of deviations from optimum… Available value might go to zero within a system but might still exist in the relationship between that system and another system, as free/available energy is zero at thermodynamic equilibrium, but a system that is in equilibrium within boundaries may not be in equilibrium with surroundings. Of course I would caution against carrying this too far and applying the formula for carnot heat engine efficiency to GDP.

    ———

    Re 658 Lynn Vincentnathan – “The main issue is that countries should not be able to use biochar as carbon offsets”

    Well, if the public benifits did outweigh the public costs, then it would make sense to for the public to pay for the service (or charge for the externality in the reverse case), but if the net benifit is too small to justify the costs of paperwork, etc, or if the uncertainties are too great relative to the likely value, then we could just set it aside, though farmers could still choose it for their own private benifit…

  29. 679
    Hank Roberts says:

    This may help find it:
    Episode #15228 Duration: 56:47 CC Stereo TVRE
    (original broadcast date: 11/11/09)
    * Malcolm Gladwell
    * Authors of ‘Superfreakonomics’ Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner
    http://www.charlierose.com/guest/view/963
    http://www.charlierose.com/guest/view/962

  30. 680
    Patrick 027 says:

    Re Nikhil – “What’s more, they sometimes obsess about negative externalities and ignore positive externalities. I think the National Academies just came out with a report on energy ‘externalities’. From what I can tell, positive externalities of electricity use (air-conditioning, health and educational equipment) are ignored. So much for economics and economists.”

    A positive externality in some cases is actually considered benificial to the public good on a net basis even including the resulting reduction of effectiveness of the market. An example is ‘fair use’ in copyright law. A commons can have value that is lost in privatization. Humans might feel pychologically suffocated if they were entirely surrounded by privately-owned properties including the air. And some negative externalities might also be too expensive to correct (meaning that the reguloratory apparatus would be too corruptible and costly relative to the public benifit it would delivery).

    However, some fraction of the positive externalities you identifty are not externalities – to the extent that the benificiary pays for the electricity (a public school provides a public good/service, but itself pays for the electricity in order to supply its own services, so …).

  31. 681
    CM says:

    Nikhil #673, amid some otherwise sensible statements about economists, said:

    Some economists are positively evil. Like Nick Stern. His idea of zero discount rate effectively means I am to value his great-grandchildren the same way as my brothers and sisters. Maybe that’s not evil, mere self-interest.

    Bogus. It would be less sneaky to say a zero discount rate means you’d have to value your great-grandchildren as yourself, or value Stern’s great-grandchildren the same way you value *Stern*. (Stern would have to do the same.) But it would make more sense to say simply that it means *we citizens* of the present have to value *people* living in the future as much as *people* living today. Mitigating global warming will benefit your great-grandchildren as it will Stern’s; they are not in competition. As Stern asks (Blueprint, 83), how relevant is this ‘familial distance’ argument “for collective decisions, as humans on this planet, about the viability of the world we pass on to future generations?”

  32. 682
    CM says:

    PS. That’s the pure time discount rate we’re talking about, of course. Just to be clear, the Stern Review did discount for growing consumption. (A tricky proposition over a hundred years of unprecedented environmental, technological, and social change, but that’s a side issue.)

  33. 683

    RodB:

    Physics has F=ma; economics has nothing even close.

    MV = PQ

  34. 684
    Naindj says:

    Patrick 027, #671:

    “The up-front costs are still high. There is payback, but it is often in the long-run. There is a capital cost associated with investments with payback expected later – it’s not trivial. Nonetheless if we put up the cash now we could be doing our children and granchildren and great grandchildren a big favor and not necessarily just by way of mitigating climate change but also from more direct economic savings.”

    Is there any proper study calculating payback for windfarms or solar plants?
    I am looking for this for a long time…but all calculations are polluted by subsidies or garanteed selling prices…
    The question is: how fare are we to let wind and solar go without subsidies? Or could it be ever achieved?

  35. 685
    Michael J says:

    In common internet/blog parlance, one might say that Professor Pierrehumbert just “owned” Dr. Levitt.

  36. 686
    Hank Roberts says:

    > Jim Bouldin 12 November 2009 at 12:45 AM
    > … wrote a very critical post to their blog …

    Pointer? Not sure where to look, didn’t see it, search didn’t find it, but the verbiage at Breakthrough is thicker than even in this thread. Only one response at the NYT, congratulating them: http://freakonomics.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/11/11/tonight-on-charlie-rose/

  37. 687
    Jesse says:

    I don’t think you can say “oil will become obsolete” with such confidence. Why? There are numerous historical examples of civilizations that disappeared — even with, what was at the time, state of the art technology — because some essential resource went away.

    Babylon — the soil, after thousands of years of farming, finally gave out. So did the water. Wheat was gradually replaced with barley and oats (more salt-tolerant) but in the end it did no good. Note that the “Fertile Crescent” is anything but these days.

    Maya — build enough farms in the good land and you run out of good land. But the number of people kept rising. They did very well with increasing efficiencies — to a point. Then Copan fell.

    Oil is a great resource, and is used in so many things (like fertilizer) precisely because there isn’t a synthesizeable substitute (without putting in more energy than you get out).

    Or take Gold. That’s recyclable, but the reason you use it in semiconductor circuits is that physically, there just isn’t any substitute that works as well.

    Tantalum: limited amounts. Yet it is in every single piece of electronic equipment you own and makes a computer smaller than a fridge possible. Certainly mobile phones. Assume we have a 1m layer of it covering the Earth and ask how many more of these we can make at current rates.

    And even in the modern age — the dust bowl happened. It was sheer luck that the rain started again on time to make the soil conservation programs work.

    Or society depends an awful lot on things that are interdependent, and surprisingly fragile, and dependent on resources that are finite.

    Whole societies have disappeared for similar reasons (and resistance to change). That’s the kind of thing that scares the bejeezus out of me and makes me wonder a tthe collective sanity of many economists.

  38. 688
    Rod B says:

    Patrick 027, when I opined that economists could speculate, I didn’t mean that as a bad thing. It can be a very helpful thing, as you say.

  39. 689
    Rod B says:

    Barton Paul Levenson, MV = PQ true, but not anywhere near precise as F = ma

  40. 690
    Patrick 027 says:

    Re 684 Naindj – “Is there any proper study calculating payback for windfarms or solar plants?”

    Yes. Unfortunately the information is a bit scattered. I had been putting together a list of references, then I went to something else, now I’ve started up again. Stay tuned. But try looking up these authors:

    Mark Z. Jacobson
    Mark A. Delucchi
    Vasilis Fthenakis
    James E. Mason
    Ken Zweibel
    Jeffrey D. Sachs
    S. Pacala
    R. Socolow
    B. K. Sovacool
    C. Watts
    Kim H.C.
    Paul Denholm
    Gerald L. Kulcinski

    (PS it will be good to consider both the energy payback and the economic payback.)

    Re 683 Barton Paul Levenson – good point.

    Re 687 Jesse – good point, but I think the fall of civilizations would be described as part of the adaptation that makes the depleted resource obsolete (?) – ie if there are no humans left, then good soil is obsolete anyway for growing crops (aside from more philosophical issues regarding how we should treat other sentient beings extant or potential…). Somewhat less stark, even without any further progress in renewables, etc, increasing prices of oil, natural gas, and … eventually … coal, will render them uncompetitive with alternatives. Of course, the shifting market share will have a negative feedback on the price changes. Of course, the transition is easier when there is energy to do it – certainly we don’t want to end up stuck on Easter Island with no wood with which to build a boat to move to another island. Of course, some resources are depleted with price increases more or less gradual – the price of oil will rise in part due to taking more effort to extract the last drops, but there is a relative sharp change in resource quality, as opposed to, say, copper ore, where the economics gradually shifts economically recoverable resources to lower grade ores. This is where speculators can be helpful, by forcing the present market to anticipate future costs and providing market incentives to plan accordingly. Unfortunately it came in one giant pulse in the first half of 2008.

    Re 673 Nikhil – “Please don’t be so worried. The worst that would happen is that humanity will learn to live on less energy. In 30 years or 50 years or 500 years, nobody can tell and not worth the bother.”

    If only various conservatives (that’s you, Inhofe and Tobacco John!) had that same attitude regarding the effects of taxing the fossil CO2 and other emission externality(-ies – additional tax on CO2 for the ocean acidification effect, for example). (Seriously, isn’t it odd that some people tout the ability of the market to incentivise R&D investments and evolution of economic processes in response to scarcity, but then act as if none of that were true when opposing proper correction for externalities? STUPID.)

    By the way, yes, scarcity of fossil fuels will eventually cause a shift to renewables (and/or nuclear, depending on, for example, how fusion or thorium-fuel-cycle technology develops, etc., and on public policies regarding risks). So why so insistent that the emissions be taxed/capped/regulated? Because:

    1. the externality still exists; not forcing the market to deal with it still allows greater error from optimal behavior in that the the shift is slower, occurs later, or is less complete (because shifting market shares, to the extent that the production possibilities curves are convex, has a negative feedback on price changes) than would be justified by the accounting for externalities. If changing scarcity alone justifies a reduction in CO2 emissions of 70 % by time t, then the public benifit of regulating the externality would justify even greater reduction (of course, it is not CO2 itself but the total public cost of (CO2 + CH4 + direct ecosystem degradation + etc., with all nonlinearities…(other ecosystem stresses can worsen the effects of climate change, etc.), so one could trade cow emissions for coal burning or vice versa depending on how much value is placed on these things, etc.)

    2. Not really distinct from 1, but there is a danger of greater reliance on coal in response to decreasing petroleum availability.

    —-

    Re 680 me re Nikhil:

    Okay, electricity usage can be involved in things that contribute to a public or unprivatized good/service. However, it is at best a stretch to say that electricity usage by a public institution involves a positive externality of electricity itself, because the public institution still pays for the electricity; the public good is not from the electricity but from the public funding that in part pays for that usage of electricity.

    Aside from that, there may be positive externalities, but where? When a person A invites friends over and pays for electricity, the friends benifit from person A’s electricity usage, but person A’s motivation for paying for the electricity is in part from the effect it has regarding social interactions and social capital. The friends ‘pay’ for their indirect usage via ‘rewarding’ person A with social interaction, including the money spent to properly cook food contributing to better health to enhance future interactions, reduce guilt, reduce worry, etc.

    There might be an effective positive externality in the long-term regarding unanticipated benifits which did not contribute to the factors that influence the price at the time of purchase.

  41. 691
    Naindj says:

    Patrick 027, thank you very much!
    From the abstracts, it seems this is what I was looking for…
    Unfortunately, access to the full articles is restricted.
    I used Google Scholar and have been directed to ScienceDirect. I have to pay 31$ for each!!
    Any hint of a cheaper way to access all these articles?

    Many thanks again.

  42. 692

    Re 671 Patrick 027

    Patrick, thanks for thinking about this. (I use caps below to help distinguish your words from mine.)

    You say, “Actually, what I was thinking of when I wrote ‘ungainly’ was that instead of plugging in a car, you’d be both plugging it in and attaching a thermal connection. You’d have to buy the thermal connection equipment anyway and reconfigure thermal energy ‘circuits’. Whatever scenario we play out, we’ll be changing some infrastructure around.”

    YES, BUT RADIATORS AND PLUMBING COST A LOT LESS THAN ENGINES OR PV SOLAR PANELS.
    ———————————————-
    You say, “Certainly there is room for improvement in transportation, but I really think people like to ride side-by-side in a vehicle – it’s not just force of habit that you’re fighting to make 1-by-1 seating cars.”

    YES, WIVES – OR SPOUSES OF ANY FORM – HATE RIDING IN THE BACK SEAT. THOUGH MOST OF THE TIME THE RIGHT FRONT SEAT IS EMPTY, FOR LONG FAMILY TRIPS I HAVE TO DEAL WITH THIS. I OFFER VIDEO CAMERAS AND SCREENS TO ENABLE FRONT SEAT TO BACK SEAT CONTACT ON A CONTINUOUS BASIS, IF YOU WANT THAT SORT OF THING. THERE ARE VARIOUS OTHER ANSWERS, ONE OF WHICH IS THAT THE TYPICAL FAMILY WOULD HAVE TWO HIGH EFFICIENCY CARS, SO RIDING WOULD BE LIKE TWO PEOPLE RIDING TOGETHER ON HORSEBACK. BUT I REPEAT, THE RIGHT FRONT SEAT IS MOSTLY EMPTY, SO DOES IT MAKE SENSE TO LET THAT OCCASIONALLY NEEDED SEAT DRIVE THE DESIGN FOR THE CAR? OF COURSE IT DOES IF ENERGY IS FREE. AND IN YOUR #678 YOU NOTE THAT FOR SOME PURPOSES SIDE BY SIDE SEATING WILL BE DEMANDED, BUT WHEN SUCH IS THE CASE, THE OCCASSIONAL CAR RENTAL MIGHT BE AN ANSWER.
    ————————————————-
    You say, “PS is it easier to control non-GHG pollution from fixed sources than from mobile sources?”

    PROBABLY IT IS, BUT EITHER FIXED OR MOBILE, THIS HAS TO BE CAREFULLY DEALT WITH TO AVOID MAKING A MESS OF THINGS.
    ————————————————
    (No more CAPS hereon.)

    Your note that hydro power can be used for load management and that is a very important point. It might be enough to handle the variability of wind and solar for some time to come, and it should be cheap. Pumped storage is a present day reality, as well as simply using or not using hydro as needed. (Somehow we in California seem not to have figured this out.)

    I try to make my point about how additional loads due to a plug-in have nothing to do with what is done with renewables:
    If you buy or support renewables in any way, that is a good thing if it really is good use of your money. It will reduce the CO2 from burning coal. Great!!!

    Now stop and think. There is a completely independent decision to be made about buying a car.

    Should I buy a conventional car? ANS.: NO

    Should I buy a hybrid car? ANS. : YES, this will significantly reduce CO2.

    Should I buy a plug-in hybrid car? ANS. : NO, this will have a damaging effect by causing more CO2 to be released than if the car was left as a hybrid.

    Note that the electric power to fill the plug-in demand will not cause more use of renewable resources because they are already fully used without the plug-in car. The impact of the plug-in car is that its add to the total electric load has to cause added draw from reserve capacity that exists, not from those sources that are already cranking full tilt and can do no more. While that reserve capacity might be natural gas or coal, the fuel price will make the choice overwhelmingly in favor of coal.

    Government can force the choice to be natural gas. Note that Warren Buffet placed his bet that such government action will not amount to much when he bought the BNSF railroad. Half of BNSF revenue is from hauling coal. I think he is right about the liklihood of meaningful government action. Thus the situation is terrible for the campaign on global warming; though great for purposes of cutting use of oil.

  43. 693

    690 Patrick 027

    Regarding your answer to #684 Naindj about the real cost of wind energy:

    I have chased the mythical “proper study” for some time and it remains mythical. We all might have different ideas of “proper.”

    The real answer as to financial feasibility is that investors will have no part of it without huge subsidies, whether direct money, tax benefits, or guaranteed extra high rates; or backhanded subsidies in the form of suppression of the otherwise rational economic choices with cap and trade, energy taxes or whatever. (Such subsidies may be warranted, but not when imposed deceptively.)

  44. 694
    Jim Bouldin says:

    From last night:
    http://www.charlierose.com/download/transcript/10710

    STEPHEN DUBNER:
    In other words, instead of looking at them on an emotional level or as
    someone involved in those arenas might look at them — if you are in the
    global warming industry, you have interests to protect and you have an art
    that you want to make. And we try to look at it from the outside.

    CHARLIE ROSE: And not everybody is thrilled at what you say about
    global warming.

    STEVEN LEVITT: Most of the people who aren’t thrilled with what we
    said about global warming aren’t even talking about what we actually said.
    I mean, what we said is not even very controversial.

    We’re not denying that the Earth has gotten warmer. It has gotten a
    lot warmer…

    CHARLIE ROSE: And it’s man created?

    STEVEN LEVITT: It’s harder to know whether it is man created. It’s
    always harder to know why something happened the way it did. But that’s
    not even our question.

    What we says if the earth gets too hot or if the earth is too hot,
    what’s the best way to cool it down? And the conventional wisdom is we
    have got to reduce carbon emissions dramatically. That is a reasonable
    solution, and it could work.

    But it has three problems. One, it’s incredibly expensive. And there
    is a reason why we produce and use a lot of fossil fuels — they are cheap
    and they drive the economy. Trillions of dollars it will cost to switch
    the economy over.

    Number two, we need 7 billion people to get together and coordinated
    if you want a solution when you cut fossil fuels.

    Number three, even if we could do that, because carbon dioxide stays
    in the air for so long, you’re looking at 50 years, 100 years before you
    start to feel the full effects of it.

    So it seems like if you really think global warming is a terrible
    problem, you need a solution that’s faster and is more certain and easier
    to do.

    So it turns out geo-engineering — extremely controversial, but so
    sensible. There are ideas out there that are cheap. They are totally
    reversible, which is incredibly important. You would want to do anything
    that was irreversible because the science isn’t that certain. And they
    don’t require massive behavior change.

    So we’re not saying that we should go out tomorrow and build one of
    these machines to put sulfur dioxide in the atmosphere. But what we are
    saying how can that not be part of the debate? We are just trying to get
    geo-engineering a seat at the table. But the interests are out there don’t
    want…

    CHARLIE ROSE: So if you put sulfur dioxide in the air through hoses
    or whatever it is, this is Nathan Myhrvold, isn’t it?

    STEVEN LEVITT: Absolutely, Nathan Myhrvold. It’s an old idea. A
    Noble prize-winning environmentalist put it out a while ago. Nathan has an
    engineering solution that allows us to quickly and reliably do that for
    something like $20 million, $50 million.

    Now compare that to the trillions of dollars we’re talking about on
    the old solutions. Why not at least have that kind of solution ready as an
    insurance policy in case some kind of global catastrophe involving the
    Greenland ice shelf happens and then we need to cool the Earth down
    quickly.

    CHARLIE ROSE: Explain to us how it would work.

    STEVEN LEVITT: It’s pretty straightforward.

    CHARLIE ROSE: You pour sulfur dioxide in the air and it puts a
    shield?

    STEVEN LEVITT: It puts a shield.

    Really, the science is based on what Mother Nature has been doing for eons, which is when there are big full volcanic eruptions, among the other things that are spewed out is sulfur dioxide, and its sprays so high it
    gets up in the stratosphere.

    The key is that getting the sulfur dioxide in the stratosphere where
    it forms into this haze which reflects something like one to two percent of
    the sunlight, and that’s enough to cool the earth. And all you need to do
    is just have a steady flow of it.

    And if you can figure out a way to get up there, and Nathan’s idea and
    his compatriots is to just essentially build a glorified garden hose that
    goes all the way up. Put one at the North Pole and one at the South Pole.

    It sounds of science fiction, but they have the engineering solution.
    It wouldn’t be that hard.

    CHARLIE ROSE: And what does Paul Krugman say about this?

    STEPHEN DUBNER: I don’t think Paul Krugman actually got to that. He went off on a paper that Marty Weitzman wrote about the probability of
    catastrophic temperature changes. And Paul Krugman thought he caught us in a mistake, and, I hate to say it, but he’s wrong.

    And at some point, you know, there’s so much fervor about this
    topic. Part of the problem…

    CHARLIE ROSE: It’s like theology.

    STEPHEN DUBNER: Well, it’s interesting you say that Charlie, because that was one of the many things that a very small portion of climate activists have objected to that we said. There is a sentence that I’m paraphrasing, but something along the line that the efforts to stop global
    warming have the characteristics of a religion.

    There really are these kind of dogmatic principles. There are
    believers, there are heretics, and so on. And we’ve seen that.

    The interesting thing is that geo-engineering is a pretty broad
    subject, actually. The garden hose to the sky is probably the most
    frightening to the average person. They think you want to intentionally
    pollute, even though it is replicating a volcano.

    But there are other solutions within the portfolio, some of which are
    as green as you could possibly hope to be, which is essentially creating
    higher reflectivity oceanic clouds by creating more cloud condensation
    nuclei.

    So clouds cool the earth. They do a great job. They’re nature’s way
    of cooling the earth. Over the oceans often aren’t as many because there
    aren’t enough nuclei.

    So one of Nathan Myhrvold’s and Intellectual Ventures plan is to
    create these kind of incredibly low friction boats, they don’t even have an
    engine, and they just go around kicking up sea spray, salt spray, that
    wafts into the air and forms more densely reflective clouds. That too is
    geo-engineering.

    So the idea is this — that would cost — I mean, the three of us
    could probably chip in and buy one of those boats. I don’t know how much
    you’re worth, but it’s more important to us. But it wouldn’t be that hard
    to do.

    But the point is, like Levitt said, to get a seat at the table for
    these kind of ideas, as opposed to this kind of one route that were
    barreling down which is carbon mitigation is the only route doesn’t seem to
    be — it seems to me we should be entertaining other possibilities.
    ________________________
    AND LATER….

    CHARLIE ROSE: Yes, that may be true.

    The law of unintended consequences — explain it.

    STEVEN LEVITT: The world is a complex place. There’s so much going on. And even when you have someone clever designing the rules and the incentives, with thousands or millions of people with something at stake scheming on the other side, they almost always figure a way around whatever system you set up.

    So I think really that’s what the most powerful idea of the law of
    unintended consequences is, is that anyone who thinks they can set up a set of rules, thinks they are smarter than the market in some sense, usually
    loses.

    STEPHEN DUBNER: Can I give one more example of the law of unintended consequences?

    CHARLIE ROSE: Yes.

    STEPHEN DUBNER: The efforts to clean up the air in general, to get
    heavy, particulate pollution out of the air, all the sulfur, all the acid
    rain from coal plants in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, it’s now thought — there
    are new studies, NASA, a bunch of scientists have been doing this, it’s now thought that removing those particles from the atmosphere is what has led to the warming in large part.

    In other words, carbon dioxide may not be remotely as large a villain
    as many people fear, because what has happened is that being good
    environmental stewards and trying to clear the air, we declare the air a
    lot, but all that junk and the air was blocking a degree of sun.

    And now with the removal of it, we’ve seen more warming. And so
    that’s going to be, I think, probably a line of research that we’re going
    to be hearing about a lot more.

    CHARLIE ROSE: So your idea is you can take the junk out, but you have to put something else up there that will block the sun?

    STEPHEN DUBNER: Well it’s a big maybe — look, Myhrvold I think
    describes it very well in the book, the idea of the garden hose in the sky
    and sulfur dioxide and geo-engineering.

    It’s like this — when you build a house, you do everything you can to
    not have a fire in the house. You don’t give your kids matches, you don’t
    run around with a lighter and do anything like this. But, if you have it,
    do you want a sprinkler system? Yes.

    So the idea is that the problem gets to be that bad, do you want to
    have something that could work beyond this kind of long-term, expensive,
    uncertain carbon mitigation ideas?

  45. 695
    Jim Bouldin says:

    My comment, sent to the Freakonomics blog last night, and rejected by them:
    http://freakonomics.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/11/11/tonight-on-charlie-rose/

    I saw the show and I could not believe my ears. Dubner, at one point, launched into his own private version of global warming theory. He said that rather than CO2-based radiative forcing over the last century plus, the real cause of global warming is the reduction in aerosols over the last couple of decades, in response to air pollution regulations. He said that this was a recent discovery of scientists. There was no elaboration on this, neither by him or Levitt, and no challenge to this claim by Rose.

    Readers must know that this claim is flat out false and is contradicted by an enormous body of empirical and theoretical atmospheric science work dating to 1859, and increasingly validated over time by many types of evidence. This information is detailed in the IPCC AR4 report from 2007 at the IPCC website. Dubner is in criminal neglect of the scientific literature in making this statement, and his credibility is greatly reduced based on this statement.

    He also stated that spraying sulfate particulates into the air was simply a reversal of this process, mimicking a volcano, and would thus cool the atmosphere. This statement shows an astonishing combination of hubris and ignorance regarding both the feasibility and the potential results of such an endeavor. Scientists have no idea of the many climatic and ecological ramifications of attempting such a wild, hail-mary pass. Conversely, we know with a high degree of certainty what the result of stabilizing, or reducing, greenhouse gas emissions will be, from direct historical experience.

    My conclusion is that these two individuals are extremely dangerous because they apply poorly conceived ideas emanating from their “thought experiments” to extremely complex systems that they do not understand. Fortunately, their ideas have now been thoroughly discounted at a number of climate oriented websites, such as RealClimate and Climate Progress.

    Jim Bouldin
    Research Ecologist
    Univ of California, Davis

  46. 696
    Patrick 027 says:

    Re 691 Naindj

    Sometimes it’s possible to finnaggle your way to finding a free pdf of the whole article. I’ve managed to do that in a few cases. I hope to put together a list within a week. (One thing to try – once you find a title, you can try researching using that title, and you might find multiple web addresses, one of which might have free access.)

    Re Jim Bullis – “Now stop and think. There is a completely independent decision to be made about buying a car. ”

    Yes of course, but it doesn’t have to be so; a person who wishes to deliberately reduce emissions might choose to buy wind power, solar power, and a plug-in electric vehicle. If enough wind and solar power capacity is developed, reduced usage of natural gas and coal, etc, at some times could more than make up for any increase in coal and natural gas at other times. Yes, this is not in the financial interests of the utility – except if they are, for legal reasons, attempting to be honest and honor the customer’s payments to solar and wind, in which case when solar and wind supplies are available, they will tend to bump out fossil fuels. Yes, there is some difficulty in quickly ramping up and down power from some types of power plants, but transmission across sufficient distances can level out the temporal shifts in renewable power availability (ie consider the motion of the edge of a cloud area or a windy weather system, the time it takes to traverse a given distance and the distances across which electricity can be transmitted).

    Of course, the financial preference for coal can be reduced with a fossil C emission tax.

    I’m curious what you mean by “Such subsidies may be warranted, but not when imposed deceptively.”

  47. 697

    696 Patrick 027

    I was specifically referring to the report in the Portland OR newspaper about how the legislative analysts had been strongly urged to make low ball estimates of the cost to taxpayers of wind subsidies.

    Less obvious but maybe worse is the clamor for wind power where it is said to be cheap, but when looking into the detail it seems to frequently turn out that every opportunity is taken to make it seem better than it is. The costs after subsidy are often reported. Rarely is the cost of money included in an analysis. And the wholesale market costs are often confused with retail electric rates. As I said before, I have not found what I would consider to be a real analysis, so I base my opinion on the fact that investors are not willing to get involved without government subsidies. This is not a good indicator for scaleability to a large amount of such energy because the subsidized cost does not indicate the cost of an economically viable enterprise in the long run.

    The counter argument is that large scale does tend to bring prices down, but it is a very different situation from the integrated circuit, the evolution of which has been described by Moore’s law. The necessarily huge machinery of wind turbines is at the opposite end of technology from transistors which are ultimately limited by the size of electrons. The appropriate scaling law is more closely related to automobile manufacturing cost experience, and that is an important and more valid way to make judgments. The quantities there of course are much greater, so even there some judgment has to be applied to future predictions.

  48. 698

    696 Patrick 027

    Of course when wind power generating capacity offers a standby reserve capability, every thing I say about electric cars changes.

    The problem with getting there is that wind power has to first displace all the operating coal generators, which is theoretically possible, but hard to see happening in many decades. After that some additional capacity has to be constructed; and then you will get renewable energy when you plug in your car. Not before.

  49. 699

    RodB:

    Barton Paul Levenson, MV = PQ true, but not anywhere near precise as F = ma

    Exactly as precise. V is defined by that equation the way F is defined by F = m a.

  50. 700
    Jesse says:

    @Jum Bullis (697)

    Y’know, tho, when you think about it, how many industries are NOT subsidized in some way?

    Investors have always asked for subsidies for a new industry. Rail would not have happened on the scale it did without taking the land from Native People and essentially giving the checkerboard patches to the rail companies, who didn’t have to buy as much land anymore to lay the tracks.

    Automobiles were subsidized by building roads everywhere and removing rail lines, at gigantic public expense. What would have happened if like rail GM had to finance its own roads?

    Drug companies get a gigantic boost from publicly-funded NIH research. (There is a case to be made that they should be allowed no patents at all – or those patents should accrue to the government — because of that).

    Coal companies (the miners) were subsidized with non-exstent land royalties (the rates have been the same for hard rock mining since 1880 or so) on public land, which they did not have to buy.

    Airlines didn’t have to build their own airports or pay tax on the fuel.

    And airplanes exist at all the way they do because of a gigantic wartime subsidy called WW II.

    Can you think of one industry that isn’t subsidized directly or indirectly? I can’t.

    Investors make decisions based on what is profitable. Slavery was profitable for centuries, that doesn’t make it a good idea.

    If the US committed to a Manhattan project for energy, this time focused on shifting sources, I think you could get to a wind, water and solar system without too many disruptions, but it will require that. People are pretty flexible. All during WW II folks were willing to recycle. The kinds of cultural changes we need are not impossible and the energy culture we have didn’t arise because people “wanted it” — anyone who says that customers “naturally” go to a “better” product is to my mind being just silly. Why? Advertising exists. It wouldn’t be a $billion industry if it was completely ineffective. iPods aren’t much better than any ther music player in a technological sense, you know?

    Take suburbs and car-oriented building. All of that came after WW II because the US government wanted to encourage home ownership (not in and of itself a terrible idea). But there was also a gigantic ad campaign touting the virtues of suburban living to sell those houses. And of course, a huge effort to destroy public transit in order to make sure there was only one choice to get there.

    (The LA rail system did not disappear by accident, and in NYC one of our mayors was a stockholder of GM, Somehow, magically I suppose, GM was the supplier of buses to the city in a no bid contract).

    It’s just a decision, it seems to me, about what you want to subsidize.