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Why Levitt and Dubner like geo-engineering and why they are wrong

Filed under: — gavin @ 18 October 2009

Many commentators have already pointed out dozens of misquotes, misrepresentations and mistakes in the ‘Global Cooling’ chapter of the new book SuperFreakonomics by Ste[ph|v]ens Levitt and Dubner (see Joe Romm (parts I, II, III, IV, Stoat, Deltoid, UCS and Paul Krugman for details. Michael Tobis has a good piece on the difference between adaptation and geo-engineering). Unfortunately, Amazon has now turned off the ‘search inside’ function for this book, but you can read the relevant chapter for yourself here (via Brad DeLong). However, instead of simply listing errors already found by others, I’ll focus on why this chapter was possibly written in the first place. (For some background on geo-engineering, read our previous pieces: Climate Change methadone? and Geo-engineering in vogue, Also the Atlantic Monthly “Re-Engineering the Earth” article had a lot of quotes from our own Raypierre).

Paul Krugman probably has the main issue right:

…it looks like is that Levitt and Dubner have fallen into the trap of counterintuitiveness. For a long time, there’s been an accepted way for commentators on politics and to some extent economics to distinguish themselves: by shocking the bourgeoisie, in ways that of course aren’t really dangerous.


Clever snark like this can get you a long way in career terms — but the trick is knowing when to stop. It’s one thing to do this on relatively inconsequential media or cultural issues. But if you’re going to get into issues that are both important and the subject of serious study, like the fate of the planet, you’d better be very careful not to stray over the line between being counter-intuitive and being just plain, unforgivably wrong.

Levitt was on NPR at the weekend discussing this chapter (though not defending himself against any of the criticisms leveled above). He made the following two points which I think go to the heart of his thinking on this issue: “Why would anyone be against a cheap fix?” and “No problem has ever been solved by changing human behaviour” (possibly not exact quotes, but close enough). He also alluded to the switch over from horse-driven transport to internal combustion engines a hundred years ago as an example of a ‘cheap technological fix’ to the horse manure problem. I deal with each of these points in turn.

Is geo-engineering cheap?

The geo-engineering option that is being talked about here is the addition of SO2 to the stratosphere where it oxidises to SO4 (sulphate) aerosols which, since they are reflective, reduce the amount of sunlight reaching the ground. The zeroth order demonstration of this possibility is shown by the response of the climate to the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in 1991 which caused a maximum 0.5ºC cooling a year or so later. Under business-as-usual scenarios, the radiative forcing we can expect from increasing CO2 by the end of the century are on the order of 4 to 8 W/m2 – requiring the equivalent to one to two Pinatubo’s every year if this kind of geo-engineering was the only response. And of course, you couldn’t stop until CO2 levels came back down (hundreds, if not thousands of years later) without hugely disruptive and rapid temperature rises. As Deltoid neatly puts it: “What could possibly go wrong?”.

The answer is plenty. Alan Robock discussed some of the issues here the last time this came up (umm… weeks ago). The basic issues over and above the costs of delivering the SO2 to the stratosphere are that a) once started you can’t stop without much more serious consequences so you are setting up a multi-centennial commitment to continually increasing spending (of course, if you want to stop because of huge disruption that geo-engineering might be causing, then you are pretty much toast), b) there would be a huge need for increased monitoring from the ground and space, c) who would be responsible for any unanticipated or anticipated side effects and how much would that cost?, and d) who decides when, where and how much this is used. For point ‘d’, consider how difficult it is now to come up with an international agreement on reducing emissions and then ponder the additional issues involved if India or China are concerned that geo-engineering will cause a persistent failure of the monsoon? None of these issues are trivial or cheap to deal with, and yet few are being accounted for in most popular discussions of the issue (including the chapter we are discussing here).

Is geo-engineering a fix?

In a word, no. To be fair, if the planet was a single column with completely homogeneous properties from the surface to the top of the atmosphere and the only free variable was the surface temperature, it would be fine. Unfortunately, the real world (still) has an ozone layer, winds that depend on temperature gradients that cause European winters to warm after volcanic eruptions, rainfall that depends on the solar heating at the surface of the ocean and decreases dramatically after eruptions, clouds that depend on the presence of condensation nuclei, plants that have specific preferences for direct or diffuse light, and marine life that relies on the fact that the ocean doesn’t dissolve calcium carbonate near the surface.

The point is that a planet with increased CO2 and ever-increasing levels of sulphates in the stratosphere is not going to be the same as one without either. The problem is that we don’t know more than roughly what such a planet would be like. The issues I listed above are the ‘known unknowns’ – things we know that we don’t know (to quote a recent US defense secretary). These are issues that have been raised in existing (very preliminary) simulations. There would almost certainly be ‘unknown unknowns’ – things we don’t yet know that we don’t know. A great example of that was the creation of the Antarctic polar ozone hole as a function of the increased amount of CFCs which was not predicted by any model beforehand because the chemistry involved (heterogeneous reactions on the surface of polar stratospheric cloud particles) hadn’t been thought about. There will very likely be ‘unknown unknowns’ to come under a standard business as usual scenario as well – another reason to avoid that too.

There is one further contradiction in the idea that geo-engineering is a fix. In order to proceed with such an intervention one would clearly need to rely absolutely on climate model simulations and have enormous confidence that they were correct (otherwise the danger of over-compensation is very real even if you decided to start off small). As with early attempts to steer hurricanes, the moment the planet did something unexpected, it is very likely the whole thing would be called off. It is precisely because climate modellers understand that climate models do not provide precise predictions that they have argued for a reduction in the forces driving climate change. The existence of a near-perfect climate model is therefore a sine qua non for responsible geo-engineering, but should such a model exist, it would likely alleviate the need for geo-engineering in the first place since we would know exactly what to prepare for and how to prevent it.

Does reducing global warming imply changing human behaviour and is that possible?

This is a more subtle question and it is sensible to break it down into questions of human nature and human actions. Human nature – the desire to strive for a better life, our inability to think rationally when trying to impress the objects of our desire, our natural selfishness and occasionally altruism, etc – is very unlikely to change anytime soon. But none of those attributes require the emission of fossil fuel-derived CO2 into the atmosphere, just as they don’t require us to pollute waterways, have lead in gasoline, use ozone-depleting chemicals in spray cans and fridges or let dogs foul the sidewalk. Nonetheless, societies in the developed world (with the possible exception of Paris) have succeeded in greatly reducing those unfortunate actions and it’s instructive to see how that happened.

The first thing to note is that these issues have not been dealt with by forcing people to think about the consequences every time they make a decision. Lead in fuel was reduced because of taxation measures that aligned peoples preferences for cheaper fuel with the societal interest in reducing lead pollution. While some early adopters of unleaded-fuel cars might have done it for environmental reasons, the vast majority of people did it first because it was cheaper, and second, because after a while there was no longer an option. The human action of releasing lead into the atmosphere while driving was very clearly changed.

In the 1980s, there were campaigns to raise awareness of the ozone-depletion problem that encouraged people to switch from CFC-propelled spray cans to cans with other propellants or roll-ons etc. While this may have made some difference to CFC levels, production levels were cut to zero by government mandates embedded in the Montreal Protocols and subsequent amendments. No-one needs to think about their spray can destroying the ozone layer any more.

I could go on, but the fundamental issue is that people’s actions can and do change all the time as a function of multiple pressures. Some of these are economic, some are ethical, some are societal (think about our changing attitudes towards smoking, domestic violence and drunk driving). Blanket declarations that human behaviour can’t possibly change to fix a problem are therefore just nonsense.

To be a little more charitable, it is possible that what was meant was that you can’t expect humans to consciously modify their behaviour all the time based on a desire to limit carbon emissions. This is very likely to be true. However, I am unaware of anyone who has proposed such a plan. Instead, almost all existing mitigation ideas rely on aligning individual self-interest with societal goals to reduce emissions – usually by installing some kind of carbon price or through mandates (such as the CAFE standards).

To give a clear example of the difference, let’s tackle the problem of leaving lights on in rooms where there is no-one around. This is a clear waste of energy and would be economically beneficial to reduce regardless of the implications for carbon emissions. We can take a direct moralistic approach – strong exhortations to people to always turn the lights off when they leave a room – but this is annoying, possibly only temporary and has only marginal success (in my experience). Alternatively, we can install motion-detectors that turn the lights out if there is no-one around. The cost of these detectors is much lower than cost of the electricity saved and no-one has to consciously worry about the issue any more. No-brainer, right? (As as aside, working out why this isn’t done more would be a much better use of Levitt and Dubner’s talents). The point is changing outcomes doesn’t necessarily mean forcing people to think about the right thing all the time, and that cheap fixes for some problems do indeed exist.

To recap, there is no direct link between what humans actually want to do and the emissions of CO2 or any other pollutant. If given appropriate incentives, people will make decisions that are collectively ‘the right thing’, while they themselves are often unconscious of that fact. The role of the economist should be to find ways to make that alignment of individual and collective interest easier, not to erroneously declare it can’t possibly be done.

What is the real lesson from the horse-to-automobile transition?

Around 1900, horse-drawn transport was the dominant mode of public and private, personal and commercial traffic in most cities. As economic activity was growing, the side-effects of horses’ dominance became ever more pressing. People often mention the issue of horse manure – picking it up and disposing of it, it’s role in spreading disease, the “intolerable stench” – but as McShane and Tarr explain that the noise and the impact of dead horses in the street were just as troublesome. Add to that the need for so many stables downtown taking up valuable city space, the provisioning of hay etc. it was clear that the benefits of the horse’s strength for moving things around came at a great cost.

But in the space of about 20 years all this vanished, to be replaced with electrified trolleys and subways, and internal combustion engine-driven buses and trucks, and cars such as the Model-T Ford. Almost overnight (in societal terms), something that had been at the heart of economic activity had been been relegated to a minority leisure pursuit.

This demonstrates very clearly that assumptions that society must always function the same economic way are false, and that in fact we can change the way we do business and live pretty quickly. This is good news. Of course, this transition was brought about by technological innovations and the switch was decided based on very clear cost-benefit calculations – while cars were initially more expensive than horses, their maintenance costs were less and the side effects (as they were understood at the time) were much less burdensome. Since the city had to tax the productive citizens in order to clear up the consequences of their own economic activity, the costs were being paid by the same people who benefited.

Levitt took this example to imply that technological fixes are therefore the solution to global warming (and the fix he apparently favours is geo-engineering mentioned above), but this is a misreading of the lesson here in at least two ways. Firstly, the switch to cars was not based on a covering up of the manure problem – a fix like that might have involved raised sidewalks, across city perfuming and fly-spraying – but from finding equivalent ways to get the same desired outcome (transport of goods and people) while avoiding undesired side-effects. That is much more analogous to switching to renewable energy sources than implementing geo-engineering.

His second error is in not appreciating the nature of the cost-benefit calculations. Imagine for instance that all of the horse manure and dead carcasses could have been easily swept into the rivers and were only a problem for people significantly downstream who lived in a different state or country. Much of the costs, public health issues, etc. would now be borne by the citizens of the downstream area who would not be benefiting from the economic prosperity of the city. Would the switch to automobiles have been as fast? Of course not. The higher initial cost of cars would only have made sense if the same people who were shelling out for the car would be able to cash in on the benefits of the reduced side effects. This is of course the basic issue we have with CO2. The people benefiting from fossil fuel based energy are not those likely to suffer from the consequences of CO2 emissions.

The correct lesson is in fact the same as the one mentioned above: if costs and benefits can be properly aligned (the ‘internalising of the externalities’ in economist-speak), societies and individuals can and will make the ‘right’ decisions, and this can lead to radical changes in very short periods of time. Thus far from being an argument for geo-engineering, this example is an object lesson in how economics might shape future decisions and society.


To conclude, the reasons why Levitt and Dubner like geo-engineering so much are based on a misreading of the science, a misrepresentation of proposed solutions, and truly bizarre interpretations of how environmental problems have been dealt with in the past. These are, in the end, much worse errors than their careless misquotes and over-eagerness to shock highlighted by the other critiques. Geo-engineering is neither cheap, nor a fix, and the reasons why it is very likely to be a bad idea are ethical and legal, much more than its still-uncertain scientific merits.

406 Responses to “Why Levitt and Dubner like geo-engineering and why they are wrong”

  1. 251
  2. 252
    Patrick 027 says:

    Re 244 David B. Benson – Thanks.

    I wonder though if we should watch out for in situ weathering possibly causing earthquakes. That can also be an issue with geothermal power. But these are not things I would really know about.

  3. 253
    Jim Galasyn says:

    Here’s a grim little piece from Bruce Bueno De Mesquita, complete with unrealistic techno-optimism at the end:

    Recipe for Failure

    Despite the hoopla, the U.N. climate change conference in Copenhagen is destined to fail. Here’s what will happen instead: Over the next several decades, world leaders will embrace tougher emissions standards than those proposed-and mostly ignored-in the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. But real support for tougher regulations will fall. By midcentury, the mandatory emissions standards in place will be well below those set at Kyoto, a far cry from the targets for carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases set to be discussed by world leaders in Copenhagen. And by the time 2100 rolls around, the political will for tougher regulations will have dried up almost completely.

  4. 254

    185,186,187 Dave, Lynn, and Hank,

    Hank is certainly right about biochar, but if he did a diligent search he would find the an earlier name for biochar is “charcoal,” and it is still in common usage.

    Henry Ford started the Kingsford (familiar?) brand of charcoal which he made from wood used in crates etc. as a part of his automobile manufacturing business.

    Of course the real biochar problem is that it has to be made from wood that is grown or already standing. Either it displaces crops of other kind, food or building materials, or it amounts to deforestation. Yes, there are piles of wood chips rotting here and there, but these will quickly go if there is to be a significant amount of this newfangled “biochar” to be buried. If cutting wood for building materials leaves residue, of course this could become biochar. Is this likely to be a sustaining enterprise financially? I doubt it.

    Maybe using wood for buildings has a real potential for carbon capture, especially if we learn to preserve our wood buildings properly and don’t tear them down whenever the hunger for a bigger house takes hold of us.

    Cheers, Jim Bullis

  5. 255

    Use of the term ‘geo-engineering’ for projects such as this gives engineering a bad name. Engineering, as far as humanly possible is to use scientific knowledge to design and implement projects to advance and improve on existing conditions for society(not always successfully to be sure)-to improve commerce, communications travel, and the general welfare of humanity. Examples abound such as The Panama Canal, the electronic transistor and now the computer chip, various engines, turbines and bridge spans that enable wider more accessible travel,also modern day medical devices,such at computer aided tomography(CAT)scans. The list goes on.
    These are only a small sample of the contributions of the engineering field. It would be closer to the truth if this term were changed to something like(in this case) Sun dimming experiments, or maybe geo-economic wizardry,or denialosphere proposals to increase ocean acidification. None of the dangerous proposals advanced so far comes even close to deserving the name engineering-far too many uncertainties with potentially distrastrous consequences.

  6. 256
    David B. Benson says:

    Jim Bullis, Miastrada Co. (254) — Biochar can be made from any dry biomass. There are plenty of agricultural wastes which could be used, etc. Now deforestation is not such a good idea, but for some species in some locations coppice provides a rapidly regrowing supply of wood without destroying the root system. And so on.

  7. 257
    Don Siegel says:

    I teach and do some research in climate change. To this end I am saddened by the quality of the debate both sides of the issue, from the contrarians who have their own agenda, and those on the side of reducing CO2 as the only logical control issue. I ask my classes a fundamental tragedy of the commons question:

    How can the west get China, Russia, India and 3rd world nations to also curtain carbon emissions and soon, without providing them a cheap alternative? If this can’t be done, all the decrease of emissions in the west (hardly even close to 100% in the next 20 years) will lead to little in controlling the problem. It may make the west feel good to do something, but it won’t stave off the acidification of the oceans nor increasing temperatures.

    If politically and economically getting the 3rd world to buy into large-scale carbon reductions SOON won’t happen (and I can’t see it happening–can ANYONE?), then what can be done to effectively control at least some of the problem?

    Perhaps geoengineering could do it. Mt. Pinatubo did it for a while for temperature until the aerosols were washed out in a few years. There is a cost of geoengineering, which will obviously not stop the problem–which IS carbon. We might not like hazy skies.

    But those who want it all, curtailing carbon emissions world wide, will be waiting until hell freezes over until it happens–or the earth perhaps cooks. Working towards that goal through efficiency, getting more nuclear plants on line, solar and so on, would obviously be a good thing. But my guess is that geoengineering will happen once the results of the heating become globally unbearable.

    I’d like to see it at least considered in the mix without the vitriol I am seeing on the blogs posted on Real Climate, most recently related to the book Superfreakonmics. I see Blogs parsing incorrect details with the same glee as that found in blogs of naysayers. Real Climate sadly has become a site which I can’t recommend any more for my students because of this vitriol.

  8. 258

    256 David B. Benson

    Sounds good but I continue to think anything grown will displace the process of growing food related products.

    Also, I realize things are different now, but in the old days we thought all that agricultural waste had a useful purpose when plowed under. If it is now burned off you have a good point, though still, gathering the stuff is fairly labor intensive.

    I still think we can get further along with this by making our transportation systems work more efficiently. Hey, cost is zip and people might some day like it. They can go fast with safety and comfort! Generating systems also can be a lot better. So can trucks, including wheels and roads. That actually gets a lot done without much burden on the ordinary folks.

    There will be a lot of resistance in getting people to give up their muscle cars and cute fashion statements that now pretend to be good transportation solutions. But hey, things might change when the water rises enough to scare the heck out of us.

  9. 259
    Hank Roberts says:

    > 185, 186, 187, 254

    You’ve missed the point discussed in those earlier comments, Jim. All of us are aware of the etymology and the differences.
    Open methods wasted the carbon monoxide and hydrogen evolved by heating.
    Closed methods have been in use for many decades:“World+War+II”+charcoal

  10. 260
    tharanga says:

    Don Siegel, 257: I don’t think too many people would object to the study of geoengineering as a last-gasp imperfect backup plan, in conjunction with belated emissions cuts. It’s posing geoengineering as the preferred option over emissions cuts, without mentioning the myriad shortcomings of the method, that generates dissent.

    You’ll convince various developing nations to cut emissions if you pay for them to do it, or at least toss in some free technology transfers. Brazil is now quite happy to take money for avoided deforestation; the Chinese have quite enthusiastically put forth projects for offsets. But the rich world is only going to pay for so much, so this can only go so far.

  11. 261
    Patrick 027 says:

    I forgot to mention negative-sum games in my list of problems with the free market. (Example: competitive fertility to insure security in old age.)

    Now to some of the gritty details (that I didn’t have time to get to in comment 240:

    First, considering the tax on externalities.

    There may be many things that may have externalities that could be taxed. In some cases taxation might not be the best option. A mandate might work better. Or a set cap. It depends, perhaps on how nonlinear the externality per unit economic activity varies with volume of economic activity, and on how easily an appropriate tax value can be determined. An externality with local effect would be taxed locally. The first idea is that the tax rate should be sufficient to compensate those who deal with the externality in the combination of direct losses and adaptation costs, or costs of counteracting the externality. There may be other systems, though.

    With regard to climate forcings, some of the forcers have other effects, and some forcings have idiosyncratic or local effects, and some economic activity related to climate forcing has other effects. I don’t mean to imply that only the effect on global average temperature should be used to determine a tax. So if I forget something, I’m not trying to argue against addressing it. But here are a few specific points:


    We start with a tax per unit global warming potential (GWP). A negative tax is a positive subsidy, and this would occur when GWP is less than zero. If the main threat ever became global cooling, then the signs would reverse, but this is not a major concern at this time.

    The GWP of an atmospheric emission is a time-integrated radiative forcing multiplied by relative efficacy (example of efficacy – the efficacy of a unit globally-averaged radiative forcing of the radiative forcing of dark aerosols emitted near or upwind of places and during times of sea ice and snow cover will tend to be larger than that of CO2), and the tax would be charged once for a given amount of emission. Removal of an emission from the atmosphere would be paid for at the same rate.

    The GWP of a unit of substance may vary with time due to changes in radiative forcing per unit substance (tends to decrease with increasing amount, at least for CO2) and the longevity of the atmospheric composition perturbation (tends to increase for CO2 when an amount of emissions accumulate over a sufficiently short time). However, to the extent this is caused by the recent history of emissions, the emissions share in the responsibility, so the tax should tend to apply more to the substance amount-weighted average GWP of a substance over a given time period. The externality of climate change might also vary nonlinearly with the amount of temperature change. But each unit temperature change shares the responsibility of the increasing or decreasing effect of the next unit change, so there again, the tax should tend to be averaged out over average GWP of a substance or closely-interacting group of substances (CO2 affects CO2, CH4 affects CH4 some other things).

    Aside from emissions from land-use, land-use can have an albedo effect. The GWP of an albedo change would be a value per unit time.


    Some climate forcings have effects that, for a given global average temperature change, are different from the general tendencies associated with a ‘generic’ global warming or cooling of the same amount. This will tend to be true of anthropogenic aerosol emissions in particular. It is also conceivable that land use changes and irrigation may affect local and regional evapotranspiration rates (as well as runoff) Some adjustment to the climate forcing tax should be made according to the externalities associated with these effects.


    adjustments for CO2 for other effects:
    CO2 adds to oceanic acidification. There is a CO2 fertilization effect. The tax on CO2 emission should be increased for the acidification effect (including how the consequences might be affected by the climate change), and then perhaps decreased for the fertilization effect, which in some cases might ameliorate the climate change effects, or otherwise enhance some land use (agriculture), although there might be an additional increase in the tax for possible decreasing nutrient quality of food (?) and/or disruptions in ecological relationships or changes in ecological services caused directly by the CO2 change.


    Some of these effects might affect the valuation of the other effects. Interactions will tend to have shared responsibility.


    Other environmental issues associated with energy and agriculture should be addressed. In particular, a prohibitively high tax, or outright phaseout or ban, could be enacted regarding mountaintop removal mining of coal. Mercury and other non-climate forcing (or as-of-yet unknown climate forcing (would mercury in oceans affect planktonic production of aerosol precursors (DMS)? well maybe not, I just mentioned it in case it ever did come up as a possibility)) pollution could/should also be taxed or otherwise regulated. The petroleum industry should most definitely pay for oil spill cleanups and net losses in tourism and other ecosystem services, etc, or at least pay for insurance for that purpose. And so on for spills of toxic sludge.


    Because of uncertainties, complexities, competing effects, and relative magnititudes of externalities, global regulation of some of the above might be dropped for the time being. For example, aerosol emissions in general have short longevity, negative direct effects on human health, complex climatic effects besides the effect on global average temperature, and maybe other effects. It is expected that regions with such pollution will eventually try to reduce such emissions for their own benifit, and they don’t accumulate over time in proportion to greenhouse gases. It may be desirable to have regional treaties for dealing with issues such as the “Asian Brown Cloud” (and global policies would then take regional policies into account so as to not double count taxation or whatever is used), but it may not be worthwhile at this time to pursue a global policy for these aerosols, at least for aerosols with a global-average cooling effect. Likewise, direct forcing of surface albedo may be too small to justify the effort to regulate it comprehensively, and so on for the (other) effects of irrigation and changes in evapotranspiration caused by replacement of forests with cropland, etc.

    Meanwhile, some uncertainties and complexities will require approximations. Rather than attempting to work out a precise relationship between amounts of emissions, etc, and their effects, value of those effects and how they may be contingent on each other, we might try at least initially using linear approximations. Given the magnitude of the global warming problem, if we can’t get all the i’s dotted and t’s crossed, a blunt instrument may be justified. (But there is no need to be lazy about it either and just toss out numbers at random.)


    Wherein a cap/mandate/prohibition is used instead of a tax, the proportionalities of exchangaeble pollutants should be considered. For example, if the tax on anthropogenic biological methane emissions would have been x per unit, and the tax on CO2 emissions would have been y per unit, then for a cap on all externalities, x units of CO2 would fill the same portion of the cap as y units of anthropogenic biological methane. This could get complicated, however, when all externalities are not addressed the same way, and if their are seperate caps on different categories of effect and some emission falls into both categories. But some math could work out the proportions.


    A cap/mandate/prohibition is not mutually exclusive to a tax. A cap with auction acts like a tax. Caps by themselves act like a tax by raising the price by decreasing supply, but there is no net public revenue to compensate for the effects of the externality. Any pollutant could simulatenously be restricted to being less than a set amount and also taxed for whatever amount is emitted. A sufficient fine for violation would effectively create two tax brackets for the pollutant, which would be justified by a nonlinear externality relationship; criminal charges beyond some point would be somewhat similar.

    Interesting point: If there were only one entity emitting vast quantities of CO2, this could be considered a criminal act, encompassing theft, terrorism, and perhaps even manslaughter – or maybe this is too extreme – it might be more analogous criminal negligence. (PS nothing against free speech, but considering that legal trouble could follow the event of a stockbroker giving outrageously bad advice to clients, there might be some analogue for some of what Richard Lindzen has done.) But a sufficiently small amount of CO2 would, by itself, be nothing to worry about. It doesn’t make since to apply criminal charges to CO2 emissions as the situation now stands. It would make since to apply criminal charges to violations of a climate emissions policy, however.


    Three special points about CO2 and methane emissions:

    Methane emissions can affect other aspects of atmospheric composition, including stratospheric water vapor. This may be true for some other things.

    There are two distinct types of methane with regards to GWP. CH4 oxidizes in the atmosphere over time, producing CO2 and water vapor – the tropospheric water vapor created this way is inconsequential, but there is stratospheric water vapor. Anthropogenically-caused increases in biological emissions adds CH4 to the atmosphere but does not add CO2 to the atmosphere (Actually, any increase in temporary storage of recently created organic C will result in some net removal of CO2 from the air – stockpiles of food represent an amount of C not in the atmosphere – but this can probably be ignored without much consequence, except for deforestation, etc.). Emmisions of CH4 from fossil C do add CO2 to the atmosphere and will have a higher GWP.

    Aside from use of organic C to sequester CO2 and changes in stockpiled organic matter, including especially changes in biomass (de/re/a-forestation), only fossil C emissions matter for climate. Of course. Fossil C includes C emitted from limestone in the production of cement.


    Special allotments should not be made to particular industries or even (in an idealized global policy) countries (except perhaps when there are restrictions on migration?, since migration is part of the market response, among other things) – except wherein that affects the amount of forcing or efficacy (such as how the effects of aerosols depend on timing and location). If there is a tax on CO2, it should be the same for all fossil C emissions. If there is a cap, different industries should have to compete for their fractions of the same total allotment. The total reduction in global warming can be a target and the tax or cap could be formulated and adjusted to reach that goal if a top-down approach is incorporated into figuring out the optimal trajectory, but the market response should decide the allotment of reductions among the different industries.


    If there is a category of emissions that are harder to regulate via taxes or caps, then another option certainly could be pursued. I happen to thinkg a tax/cap approach is best in general for fossil C as CO2 emissions. But the most efficient cost-effective policies to address externalities and any other free market shortcomings should be pursued – noting that (in general, not for climate change) some free market problems will be less costly than the government solutions required to correct them; it is certainly possible that governments can be inaccurate and get the wrong answer just as free markets do – they are both run ultimately by people with limited decision-making resources and possibly subject to perverse incentives in some cases (ie/eg CEOs who get paid by productivity at the moment with no regard for long-term consequences – presumably a problem with solutions, though).

    (PS I wonder if, as broadleaf and coniferous trees both do better in better soil, but coniferous trees are less sensitive to soil quality and can beat out the broadleaf trees in poor soil and not in better soil, so too perhaps are there situations which will befuddle the government and the private sector to varying degrees but for which a public or private solution will be more likely than the other to succeed.)


    Emissions that are a climate feedback should not be taxed according to the managers/owners of the component of the system (various ecosystems, etc.) because they are not at fault – rather it is the responsibility of the climate forcing anthropogenic emissions themselves – essentially such positive feedback acts to increase GWP.

    However, management to reduce the risk of such positive feedback could be paid, and usage that, aside from whatever the direct emissions are, increase the risk or amount of positive feedback should be charged accordingly. However, this should be adjusted to avoid incentives to destroy ecosystems; destroying wetlands to reduce CH4 emissions is probably not a good idea (assuming it would even work, and even if compensating increases in CO2 were less than the reduced CH4 effect if there even were one).

    (PS aside from the more complex ecological interaction and the direct aesthetic values, an externality of wetland destruction can include greater flooding problems downstream).

    Specific to international policies:

    How to handle past CO2 emissions and make policies regarding deforestation fair:

    It would be somewhat unfair to tax deforestation now and subsidize re/aforestation…
    (aside from potential negative effects of aforestation of areas not originally forested at any point in the last few thousand years, including possible albedo problems, and aside from the potential positive ecological value of helping forests to ‘migrate’ to keep up with climate change, etc.)
    … because some places have already reaped the economic benifits of deforestation and have greater opportunity to reforest because of past deforestation.

    Possible solution, which also encompasses inequity in fossil C emissions:

    Apply the tax to past emissions.

    Apply a time dependent discount to the tax for each time in the past to take into account that:
    (1) the past has shaped what is and is not advantageous or efficient now and cannot actually be changed; people live where they do in part because of where past economic activity has been, and so on; the way things are now is in some ways just like the locations of mountains and rivers – it may not be a boundary condition but rather an initial condition, nonetheless the future trajectory cannot originate from anywhere else beside the present and we have to adapt to the present in that way to make the future better.
    (2) people didn’t generally know the externality existed and was a serious problem (or at least most were not aware of it).

    Apply an additional discount rate to subdivided the tax. The total tax attributed to each time is divided into 2 portions:
    (1) one portion, whose fraction of the total decreases back in time, is assigned as the responsibility of nations of origin
    (2) the remaining portion is assigned to all nations in proportion to total accumulate wealth, to reflect the fact that wealth can travel from where it was produced, and also that present day nations cannot be held responsible for all activity that happens to geographically coincide with their present locations.
    – some adjustments might be made to this apportionment to reflect historical events. It’s possible that all emissions up to 1970 (?) would be apportioned by national wealth.


    The above steps assign a monetary responsibility to each nation for past emissions. A schedule is agreed for nations to gradually pay back this amount (with the only interest rate being to compensate for some combination of global? and national inflation?) over decades or when climate adaptation costs get larger. Nations also pay their responsibility for emissions now into the future as they occur. Spending is apportioned to nations according to adaptation/compensation/neutralization/etc costs and other spending categories (mitigation, adaptation to policy, equal per capita, equal per G(D/N)P as analogue to a cuts in other taxes). The difference between what a nation owes and what it is owed is what it actually must give or recieve. A nation must agree to be taxed in order to qualify for the spending allocation.

    The equal per G(D/N)P payout is okay and perhaps valuable in that:

    – It directs resources to where they will be used to produce wealth (ideally this is real wealth, not heavily advertised junk)
    – Some of that wealth can be directed toward R&D and subsidies to produce and grow mitigation pathways, and nations can compete economically to do this. (whereas it may be hard to mandate that spending go toward such purposes on an international level ??)
    – Aside from competition for mitigation, there is an incentive to produce more wealth for less emissions and nations can compete in that way.
    However, there might be a risk in reducing this competition to produce more for less emissions if two much of the revenue is spent in this way and if all nations progress at the same rate in their emissions efficiency. If there are tighter controls on migration among nations, then this part of the spending should be reduced farther.

    SEE BELOW for further explanation of spending.


    Note that the price signals produced by these policies will flow through supply-demand chains.

    For example:

    Fossil C is mined or otherwise extracted, processed, combusted, and energy used to supply electricity to consumers (residential or commercial) or to supply energy and heat to industrial processes, etc, with perhaps several transactions along the chain.

    At any point along that chain, a tax (or cap) could be applied, and the price signal would flow back and forth along the chain, as demand downstream is reduced, reducing profit realized upstream, reducing investment in the supply, or else, profit is reduced to keep prices downstream from changing, with ther result that investment is reduced, redusing supply, etc.

    But there are points along the chain where large volumes tend to flow through a small number of pipes. Such a point would be the most efficient point to regulate. For example, fossil fuels might be taxed (per unit fossil C, except for variations in fossil CH4 emissions, etc.) at the mine, or by sale to combustors of the fuel or large scale distributors of fuel to smaller scale users. Just as long as (ideally) each unit of fossil C is taxed/capped at least once and only once in full (or twice to add up to being taxed in full, although that seems inefficient). Although some approximation can be allowed to increase the efficiency of enforcement.

    Fossil C emissions are particularly amenable to such policies. It is harder to determine land-use emissions (biological methane and land-use CO2 emissions). In that case, some estimate might be used. There may be variations in the effect of a behavior depending on other variables; when some of that variation is not understood, some average value might be assigned – if the people engaging in that behavior can’t know all the contingencies, it wouldn’t make since to reward or punish them for such inaccuracies.

    As the price signal flows along the chain, it will spill into clean energy and energy efficiency choices depending on energy payback and the energy mix used. Thus the price signal, via market response, will be helpful in determining or double checking the emissions efficiency of the lifecycles of alternative pathways. For subsidized industries, the industries will still have to respond to the price signal for a given subsidy, and any government planning and allocation of funds should be aware of the price signals, as in general they should avoid directing government support of options that are less efficient or more costly either directly or via externalities (including the effects of worker compensation, pollution control, etc). For those who doubt that solar power and wind power are real solutions, though there may be persuasive studies (which are important in allocation of spending), the price signal(s) will offer proof against those doubts.

    In the case of domestic policies that differ among nations, in the absence of a global arrangement aside from allowance of climate policy tariffs and subsidies, trade of fuel or energy across borders may require some correction when different nations apply a tax or cap to different points along the chain of fuel supply and energy use. And more generally, tariffs and maybe subsidies (?) could be applied for trade between nations with differing policies, the sum of which (tariff + subsidy) being in proportion to the difference (effort should be made for the tariffs to represent embodied emissions of products and services, and/or subsidies to go to products/services that have lower embodied emissions per unit economic value). Similar principles could apply to variations in other environmental, safety and health, quality, and labor policies.

    PART II:

    Spending of revenue.

    Note that, in principle, the value of the tax itself is contingent on the spending of revenue – whether or not the revenue entirely comes from that particular tax.

    Case 1: The spending on adaptation/amelioration/compensation/neutralization/sequestration (in total) is equal to (averaged over time, accounting for inflation, etc.) the tax revenue.

    In that case, the tax represents the public cost of the externality, which is the cost people realize as they suffer loss, and reduce further loss by adaption or neutralization.

    Case 2: The spending includes subsidizing alternative economic pathways (clean energy, efficiency) –

    In that case, the price signal is a combination of the subsidy and the tax.

    In principle, that (the price signal) is what should match the public cost of the externality. This would argue for a reduced tax rate. Additional revenue would then be necessary to fund the spending.

    However, if the optimal path is determined to be a combination of subsidy/support for alternatives and paying the public cost of the externality, it might be argued that the total externality actually includes both costs and the tax should be enough to fund both (but the optimal path must then be determined to be one in which the tax and spending is structured in that way).

    Well, maybe we should split the difference?

    (Just so there’s no confusion, alternative pathways may include anything from energy-efficient buildings and infrastructure and expansion of clean energy use, to using less TV and more radio (radios use less energy, generally), to moving closer to various places, buying locally and in season where possible, etc, to just enjoying the simple things in life (and not buying stuff you don’t really want).)

    Bear in mind, though, that some government spending in pursuit of establishing and supporting alternative pathways can be removed from the above equation because it can be justified from more general issues not specific to the externality. This would include some portion of R&D and support of industries/businesses that have yet to reach mass-market size.

    Case 3: The spending also includes paying for the cost of the policy and it’s implementation.

    Similar arguments as in case 2.

    This includes:

    a. the cost of decision making resources to design the policy (climate studies, economic studies) and the cost of enforcement, and the cost of policy related corruption. However, policy should be designed to be efficient and enforceable, and relatively hard to corrupt (perhaps by keeping the majority of taxation and spending to a central core of the policy that is written in a very clear and brief fashion (perhaps unlike some of my own writing), with good guidelines to prevent congress(wo)man representing A from directing spending from a solar power plant in B to another project in A that is a less efficient/promising use of funds, etc.) Corruption in particular should tend to be the responsibility of the corrupt, except to the extent that our representative democracy as it now is encourages it in general.

    Policy/bureacracy costs should be minor in comparison to the resources regulated by the policy.

    b. economic adaptation to the policy: migration from coal country to solar and wind country, compensating localities by starting clean energy or energy efficient industries in regions now depedent on dirtier industries, job training, aid to the poor for the potential regressive nature of the externality tax.

    It should be noted that some of this cost should have been anticipated, and over time, the economy should evolve so that there are not continuing losses due to investements made in the absence of knowlege of the policy. Except for the poor, people should have been able to their decisions in anticipation of this policy, even before now (at least in general ways), so this spending should be limited. Over time, socioeconomic conditions might be expected to evolve so that the poor are not so hurt by the tax (*some* people might ‘allow themselves’ to reach a certain level of poverty when the costs they face are at one level. Of course, people don’t generally choose poverty; but except for inherited poverty, they might take risks or actions that lead to poverty (unprotected acts leading to unplanned reproduction, reproduction for the sake of status, security in old age, or proof of manhood (if manhood is only judged either by wealth or fertility, then poor insecure men (or all men if the culture is sufficiently wacky – I don’t know of examples offhand, though) have an incentive to have lots of children), some other things) that they would be more likely to avoid (if only it were that simple) if economic conditions are different. If only it were that simple – by no means am I trying to suggest that poverty is always or even necessarily commonly the fault of the poor; wealth is inherited, people are trapped to some extent by the influence of neighborhood wealth on quality of schooling, there’s forcible induction into gangs, lack of opportunities, and perhaps increasing returns – that you may be caught below a threshold where it is hard to ever get a sufficient concentration of wealth to make a big change. Also, if you have no hope then your behaviors might reflect that. And I suppose junk food and ___ are cheap entertainment – maybe – I’m no expert on this stuff. But I do know that lack of public social security can, in particular in third world countries, encourage higher fertility rates (with a spiritual analogue in traditional ancestor-worship cultures), and childhood mortality, aside from the more obvious tragedy of it, impairs the efficiency of investment in education (you have to teach more children to get fewer skilled adults). Lack of good medical care also hurts economies.)

    One thing that should be kept to a minimum is spending in support of maladaptive behavior – such as continually paying people for losses incurred by not adapting.


    I’ve only listed five spending categories here:

    1. Sequestration or other direct ameloriation/neutralization of externalities (except wherein there are sideeffects or the effect does not completely cover the externality, the pay rate is the same as the tax rate.)

    2. Original source of externality costs: Adaptation and compensation for losses (which shall include indirect ameloriation or neutralization of effects of emission/etc., such as replacement of ecosystem services or measures to preserve ecosystems, ecosystem services and climate services and biodiversity (water supplies, abiotic signals to ecosystems, potential medicinal, food and other crop resources, etc, aesthetic, scientific, cultural , societal and psychological value, etc.)

    (And note again that we should keep perverse incentives for maladaptive behavior to a minimum. For example, we shouldn’t continually pay compensation to farmers for consistent crop losses. We should pay the net loss assuming the farmer minimizes losses by changing practices or crop choices or invests in irrigation, etc, or sells the property at a loss (and this should be a one time deal per increment of regional climate change and ecosystem service change – we shouldn’t pay twice for the same damage, such as paying to compensate for adaptation costs which can be represented by a change in property value and then again for a net loss in property value when the farmer sells. Etc.) And so on for a pattern of flooding – we shouldn’t just subsidize people’s risk taking or lack of adaptation **when adaptive options are available** (also an issue with FEMA and agricultural policies right now, climate change or not).)

    3. Mitigation

    4. Economic adaptation to the policy

    5. Direct policy costs.

    So how would an equal per capita payback or cut in other taxes fit in? What would actually justify this? I have some ideas…

    To be continued….

  12. 262
    Pekka Kostamo says:

    257 Don: China and India are indeed eager to participate. What they need is primarily a free access to the patents and other intellectual property owned by the industrial countries. Finance is not a problem, it is forthcoming when business is good.

    The newly industrialized countries are the global factory, specializing in volume production of goods at competitive, low cost. Good big business potential for them, making all the solar panels, wind generators, electic cars and nuclear power plant the world needs. They are increasingly credible nowadays.

    The Chinese are already working on this. Political horse trading is another matter. See:

  13. 263
    Mark says:

    “How can the west get China, Russia, India and 3rd world nations to also curtain carbon emissions and soon, without providing them a cheap alternative? ”

    Don, why should I care about what I can get others to do? Why not do better myself.

    You don’t ask “How can we stop other people stealing?” as a reason why you won’t stop, do you.

    And the per-capita output from both is much lower than US or even UK emissions.

    So how about asking “When we are using less CO2 per person that Russia or China, do we have the right then to ask them to control their waste?”.

  14. 264

    Don Siegel,

    If you think the objections to AGW in “Superfreakonomics” are valid, you’re not competent to judge what your students should be reading about it. Sorry. Pick up a book and get a clue. I’d start with Houghton’s “The Physics of Atmospheres,” or if the math intimidates you, Hartmann’s “Global Physical Climatology.”

  15. 265

    Re Don Siegel (257), BPL (264),

    Barton Paul Levenson, I think you’re being unreasonably harsh on Don Siegel. I take his main point to be a pessimistic view of the problem being dealt with in time (mainly because the developing nations aren’t willing to curtail their growth). And resulting from this view, that geo-engineering should be on the table “once the results of the heating become globally unbearable”. As a last resort, as an emergency measure. What options do we have to reverse or reduce the melting of the Greenland ice sheet once it starts? Perhaps none; perhaps one. I prefer the latter.

    I do disagree with Don Siegel’s last paragraph. I think this was an excellent post with very good arguments.

  16. 266
    John McCormick says:

    RE # 265

    Bart, not to be a nag, but anyone writing the word ‘geoengineering” without also writing the words “ocean acidification” is not writing a complete sentence.

    Reversing or reducing the melting of the Greenland ice sheet can only be accomplished by reversing the accumulation of atmospheric CO2 back to levels pre-1950. Sun shades are not the answer if 70 percent of the earth’s surface CO2 sink is no longer absorbing the problem.

  17. 267
    Jim Bouldin says:

    Don Siegel says:
    If politically and economically getting the 3rd world to buy into large-scale carbon reductions SOON won’t happen (and I can’t see it happening–can ANYONE?)

    Yes I certainly can, and with strong recent evidence to do so. Just within the last month, Brazil has pledged to cut it’s deforestation rate by 80%–80%!–within 10 years, and Indonesia by 25 to 40% in the same time frame. Other 3rd world countries, and China, are making similar noises about their intent to cut emissions. Your statement has no basis in fact. In fact, most of your post consists of rather grand assertions with no support. In particular, there is no evidence to support the claim that the world cannot alter its emissions radically in a relatively short period of time, if it decides to. None.

    The reason that reducing CO2 is the correct path to take is because increased CO2 is the source of the problem. Since its addition to the atmosphere caused the problem, it’s removal, or stabilization, will also solve the problem. Fairly simple. On the other hand, most geo-engineering ideas are a full court shot, with prayer, at the buzzer. There is no guarantee on anything about any of them. And if I’m wrong on that, then please provide the evidence to the contrary here and I will stand corrected.

  18. 268
    Jim Bouldin says:


    And no more crying from anyone about the supposed disastrous effects of emissions reductions on “the economy” please. Had enough of that one for one lifetime.

  19. 269

    Re:263 by Mark
    “Don, why should I care about what I can get others to do? Why not do better myself.”

    This is true to a point,but in this case it’s more a matter of what we can do together. Just as it wouldn’t make sense to unilaterally disarm all our atomic weapons while not caring what other nuclear nations do, it would be more effective if we in the relatively prosperous west could work together with the poorer nations to provide incentives to lower their carbon output.

  20. 270

    John (266),

    You’re right. I wasn’t complete at all. Nor will I be in this comment.

    Let me make clear that I would be the last person advocating geo-engineering *instead of* emission reduction. But if emission reductions proceed too slowly (or not at all, as seems much more likely for a while to come), and if that leads at some point to unacceptable impacts or consequences, we have to consider what we can do *in addition to* strongly reducing our emissions, to decrease the negative impacts to acceptable levels. At such a point in time, even replacing all power generation by wind- and solar power within the course of a few years, will reach their intended effects much too slowly. That’s of course a prime reason why we should have started reducing our emissions yesterday, and not tomorrow or, God forbid, in 100 years.
    The only way in which (the warming aspect of) climate change can be *quickly* reversed is geo-engineering. And of course, at the risk of repeating myself, we should really have reduced our emissions enough so that we don’t need to meddle even more with the system. That is clearly the preferred route.

    I agree with Ken Caldeira (
    “I hope I never need a parachute, but if my plane is going down in flames, I sure hope I have a parachute handy,” Caldeira said. “I hope we’ll never need geoengineering schemes, but if a climate catastrophe occurs, I sure hope we will have thought through our options carefully.”

    I contributed to an assessment of “other” climate reduction possibilities, for which I wrote chapter 6 on geo-engineering and air capture. Section 6.4.1 is especially relevant, and I think it makes clear that I do not downplay the risks associated with geo-engineering. I plan to write more about the topic on my blog in the near future.

  21. 271
    Tom Adams says:

    Are you arguing that geoengineering could not possibly be an element of the lowest risk approach?

    It’s not like avoiding geoengineering is without risk. We may lose the Arctic ice cap. The current and projected level of forcing might already have us on a path to irreversible catastrophe if we avoid geoengineering and rely soley on emission reductions.

    Perhaps we need urgent R&D on geoengineering and we need emission reduction, since our lowest risk option could be a mix of the two.

  22. 272
    David B. Benson says:

    Jim Bullis, Miastrada Co. (258) — Peanut shells, for example, are send to the peanut factory where the edible portion is extracted. It doesn’t pay to return the shells to the fields; where this occurs near St. Loius the peanut shells are co-fired with coal for electricity. Could equally well make biochar. Very similar situation with forestry wastes created at the wood and pulp mills. Etc.

    The US taxpayers pay US farmers a considerable sum each year in set-asdie lands;; the farmers are paid not to farm those areas. Instead those poorer soils could be used for growing biomass to make biochar.

    In addition, we could choose to increase primary production by schemes such as
    Irrigated afforestation of the Sahara and Australian Outback to end global warming
    That would make lots of biochar!

    There are many web sites about biochar. Here is one:

    I don’t have any expertise about transportation, so don’t comment about it. (That’s a hint.)

  23. 273
    Mark says:

    “Are you arguing that geoengineering could not possibly be an element of the lowest risk approach?”


    Are you arguing that ANY geoengineering could be a lower risk than not burning fossil fuels?

  24. 274
    Mark says:

    “This is true to a point,but in this case it’s more a matter of what we can do together. Just as it wouldn’t make sense to unilaterally disarm all our atomic weapons while not caring what other nuclear nations do”

    I would contest that.

    China for example would require such a drubbing from nukes that it would be practically MAD by indirection for the US to invade with nukes as the big stick. IF China invaded someone else, the invaded country would not be happy at being nuked so that the chinese are driven out.

    Nukes are a negative-sum game.

    The only way to win is not to play.

    And reducing CO2 production isn’t nuclear disarmament.

  25. 275

    Tom (assuming you addressed your Q to me),
    I am argueing that it could be, but only in the case of a climate emergency.

  26. 276
    Mark says:

    “The US taxpayers pay US farmers a considerable sum each year in set-asdie lands;; the farmers are paid not to farm those areas. Instead those poorer soils could be used for growing biomass to make biochar.”

    One reason why they are poor soils is they’ve been overplanted and overfertilised.

    Of course a nitrogen fixer that is a weed and quick growing and produces a lot of usable organic material could be used to help such land.

    But hemp is the Demon Plant.

    Farmers would toke themselves to death.


  27. 277
    Hank Roberts says:

    See instead:

    “This Web-only article is a special rich-media presentation of the feature, “A Path to Sustainable Energy by 2030”, which appears in the November 2009Scientific American. “

  28. 278
    CM says:

    Don Siegel (#257), I assume you’re the Don Siegel(*) who teaches a cross-disciplinary course called “Climate Change: Science, Perception and Policy” at Syracuse and SUNY. The conception of the course sounds really interesting. It’s regrettable (for those of us who wish RealClimate every success in outreach!) if educators like you are so put off by the occasionally robust tone of posts here that you stop recommending the site to your students.

    That said, I’m puzzled by your comments. There may be serious reasons for considering geoengineering, as you and Bart Verheggen have argued in this thread. But that doesn’t geoengineering should be accepted for the /bad/ reasons that were rightly demolished in the original post. Hopefully you are not /recommending/ the Superfreakonomics chapter to your students…?

    (*) Another Don Siegel once directed Invasion of the Body Snatchers, a movie with the following tagline — eerily topical for the mood in which we contemplate geoengineering:

    “Something is happening! Send your men of science quick!” The panic stricken cry went over the phone to Washington D. C. until the lines went dead!…

  29. 279
    BJ_Chippindale says:

    “You are not going to see cheap access to space in your lifetime”

    Well that’s a real shame because without it the human species is doomed. Given how easy it would be to GET it, it is doubly shameful.

    The “closest” thing you mention is a device that has to remain in a precise position relative to a highly sensitive instrument with both in orbit. It is far more precise than a simple reflecting sphere like echo and it is unlikely that either resembles a reasonable design for something designed simply to increase the effective albedo of the planet while orbiting the planet.

    Your hostility to this is palpable and yet nothing YOU have suggested has a hope in hell of actually happening fast enough to avoid catastrophic change.

    The economy must change. Agreed, and it will. Peak energy will cause a lot of change… and the catastrophe will happen ANYWAY unless we pull the CO2 down now (which we won’t because there is still a huge industry bias against that sort of change). If we don’t the warming from what we are putting in the atmosphere even with a crippled economy will probably push us over a tipping point and start us towards a new stable global temperature several degrees warmer than anything any human has ever lived with.

    Much less any human civilization.

    So if you want to be able to STOP a catastrophe from happening you’d best hope you’re wrong and we come up with mirrors in space or CATS because otherwise, just as sure as the Sun rises, some jacka55 will panic and start pumping something else into the atmosphere.


  30. 280
    Mark says:

    “Well that’s a real shame because without it the human species is doomed. ”

    How long do you expect to live for? 10,000,000,000 years?

    If we don’t fanny about trying to burn more fossil fuel and flood the human civilisation out of existence in the next 100 years, there will be plenty of time after YOU are dead for humanity to work out how to create cheap suborbital stationkeeping.

  31. 281
    Mark says:

    “Your hostility to this is palpable and yet nothing YOU have suggested has a hope in hell of actually happening fast enough to avoid catastrophic change.”

    Yes we have:

    Don’t burn oil.

    7% cut each year.

    That’s all that’s needed.

    Just 7%. Not even the gold-standard of ROI of 10%+

    30 years time, 1/8th the CO2 output from fossil fuel burning.

  32. 282

    patrick 027–I love specifics, but is there any chance you could give *less* gritty detail? Especially the qualifications and conditionals–I’m afraid I just can’t wade through it all–and I hate to miss the gist, as I suspect it would be good if I could get to it!

  33. 283

    “And reducing CO2 production isn’t nuclear disarmament.”

    .If you think acting alone will do the job,you’re certainly entitled to your opinion, but this a problem for the international community. We’re all on the same planet and we’ve got to work together to solve the crisis.

  34. 284
    Mark says:

    “.If you think acting alone will do the job,”

    If we all act alone, the job will be done, Lawrence.

    If 50% act alone, the job will be less urgent and still get done.

    If 10% act alone, a large part of the job will get done and would prove the process.

    If one country with 4-6% of the population of the planet acted alone, they would be leading the free world and be a beacon of how things SHOULD be done.

    But if not one person acts alone, the job will never get done.

  35. 285
    Patrick 027 says:

    Re BJ_Chippindale, Mark

    (PS nice points 280, 284 etc.)

    ““Well that’s a real shame because without it the human species is doomed. ””

    “How long do you expect to live for? 10,000,000,000 years?”

    I remember reading – I think it was in “Pale Blue Dot” by Carl Sagan – that given the history of mammals or primates or species in general or something to that effect, not considering the specifics of humanity, we have a (from memory, could be a touch off) 95 % chance of surviving as a species for somewhere between 12 years and 8 million years, with a 2.5 % change of going extinct in the next 12 years and a 2.5 % chance of surviving beyond 8 million years. Or maybe it was 97.5 % and 1.25 %/1.25 % and 12/3,000,000 years … I’m not quite sure. Just an interesting thought.

    Maybe space colonization will ultimately insure that our civilization continues, as disasters on any one planet – should be mitigated, because the death of billions will be tragic – but at least memories might be preserved and the planet repopulated from other colonies. Anyway…

  36. 286

    259 Hank Roberts,

    It is always fun to know that I miss the point when everyone else knows all about it, including the really important differences that others but me know about.

    But sometimes when I miss the point I discover that there is no point.

    As in the present case, where all the references confirm that biochar is indeed charcoal, though exclusively when that charcoal is made with reasonable efficiency.

    I call things as I see them; biochar is a made up word to somehow make charcoal sound like more than it is (sorry – that is how I see it). This is not to say that arguments to use it are not very good and I strongly encourage finding ways to get this done efficiently. Though if it interferes with food producing endeavors, then I say, not so good after all.

  37. 287

    262 David B. Benson

    You say, “I don’t have any expertise about transportation, so don’t comment about it. (That’s a hint.)”

    What the heck does that mean?

    Just to note, transportation accounts for about a third of the CO2 dumped into the atmosphere, and if electric cars become a reality as seems to be happening, this will go up considerably due to the fact that the electricity will cause increased use of coal fired power generation systems. So now you have expertise. Can I talk about it now?

  38. 288
    Patrick 027 says:

    Re Jim Bullis – but petroleum is such a great expense; conceivably replacement of petroleum fuel with electricity will save a lot of money to help replace coal, including that which would otherwise run the cars, with solar power. Anyway, making cars more efficient for whatever energy source they use would help either way.

  39. 289
    David B. Benson says:

    Jim Bullis, Miastrada Co. (286, 287) — No, biochar is made from any dry biomass, including dog dropings. More typically it is made from various agricultural or forestry wastes which are not left in the field or the forest.

    There are several companies making pyrolysis equipment to do this rather efficiently but old-fashioned charcoal burning works for woody materials.

    I would agree that avoiding replacing food production is important in those regions with insufficient food; there are about one billion malnourished people in the world. It probabbly matters less where there is plenty of food; there are also about one billion obese people in the world.

    Agriculture, world-wide, accounts for about 38% of the CO2 emissions, some due to fuel based transportation. Of course you should post about transportation, I’ll stick more to the agricultural practices and potentials, including such nifty ideas as growing food in city buildings to avoid most transportation and other important efficiency measures; see the latest issue of Scietific American.

  40. 290

    I should clarify my #287

    Making a conventional car into an electric car could have a benefit. However, the much better course of action would be to convert that conventional car to a hybrid and forget about the plug-in part. This would save a lot of money in batteries and end with greater CO2 reduction.

  41. 291

    Back to the biochar guys,

    I am perplexed as to why the worlds farmers have never seen a benefit in turning their corn cobs, straw etc. into charcoal. The kiln has been a technological art within the grasp of country folk for a long time indeed. When firing up stoves to huddle over on a cold winter’s night farmers have generally preferred to bring in a few logs from the wood lot over gathering up corn cobs, making charcoal and burning that. Even the stoves could be operated to first make charcoal and then burn it. Hm. Sounds like they might as well just burn it. There must be a reason for that.

    I get a feeling that the reason a lot of this agricultural waste is waste is that it takes a lot of work to make it useful as a fuel, biochar or whatever.

    Having been there long ago, I would suggest that asking todays farmer to get down out of his harvesting machine and picking up corn stalks might not meet with a good response.

    At the risk of annoying everyone further, I put some, not all, of this biochar stuff in the same category as household waste recycling. We get to spend time rinsing containers with water we don’t have enough of, so we can put these in a container which takes up otherwise useful space, which we can then put out once a week for an extra diesel fueled truck to cruise the community to pick up, deliver to a recycling facility, and maybe some of it gets actually recycled, and the rest goes into the dump anyway. Somehow I suspect this is not working as the ecological dreamers intended.

  42. 292
    L. David Cooke says:

    RE: 291

    Hey Jim,

    Sorry for getting into the middle of your conversation. A little history of bio-char may in order if you are not familiar with the technique. Generally, it was used by South American tribes such as the Mayans and even earlier groups to enhance grass lands that were converted to crops.

    It really is not a made up word it is based on the idea that mulch could be used to hold moisture in the ground was employed by these ancient farmers as the ground they farmed would have been either very sandy or high in clay, the bio-char mixed in provided some organic fiber and increased the hygroscopic content.

    As to modern agriculture, up through the 1960’s most dairy farmers kept cisterns full of cow urine and usually had compost piles out near the edge of their pastures, some was spread in the pastures other was used to fuel the grains fed to the cattle. The bio-char raw materials ended up feeding most of these compost piles. These mounds would form steaming hills of corruption and in 8-12 weeks would produce some of the richest dark soil you have ever seen.

    The point, the organic material left overs had to be removed from the fields. The reason was the organics could hold pathogens that could threaten future crops. Many farmers up through the 1980’s would over winter their fields with rye and clover as they formed what was termed as “green manure”. In the spring this material would sprayed with a herbicide and turned into the soil, The main difference between this and creating bio-char, is only the combustion temperature and “cooking time”.

    David Cooke

  43. 293
    Patrick 027 says:

    282 – Kevin McKinney:

    The gist was in comment 240, although with a few errors. I’ll try to put together a brief summary after I’m done.

    I had a variety of comments on economics here (and previous pages):

    A couple technology/’geoengineering’ points:

    Could there be a way to remove CH4 and O3 from the atmosphere (they are being removed; what I mean is to reduce the residence times, without too much adverse consequence)?

    For example, what if wind turbine blades were coated with TiO2 nanoparticle layers. In the daytime, solar UV would generate electrical charges and surface would catalyze some reactions. I’m not sure if it would catalyze the oxydation of CH4 (which, taking place in the lower troposphere, would not add much to stratospheric water vapor). Other surfaces (pumice platforms to replace Arctic sea ice) might be coated with TiO2 or perhaps ___, boosting albedo and accelerating ‘cleansing’ reactions (when not covered in snow).

    Maybe the lifecycle costs wouldn’t justify it (pumice platforms particularly) and the effect would just be too small to bother with, but I just figured I toss the idea out there.

    (Not that mineral resources are not an issue, but Ti is actually one of the more common elements in the Earth’s crust. From memory, I think it goes something like O, Si, Al, (Fe, Ca, Na, K, Mg), (Ti, Mn, P), … )

    On the other hand, TiO2 has been suggested (not sure of the progress here) as a transparent coating on windows that is self-cleaning. Applications to solar power?

    Another point – using aluminum coatings to boost albedo (ie the used candy wrappers and potato chip bags idea I tossed out earlier – for the aluminum surface, not necessarily the ones with a white inside)) might actually be a bad idea (aside from issues besides the global average radiative forcing)). I haven’t done the math to compare the relative magnitudes yet, but while aluminum has a high SW albedo, it also has a high LW albedo, which means it would tend to reduce radiative cooling of the surface, and in proportion to the fraction of surface emission that penetrates the tropopause, this would have a warming effect via the tropopause level forcing.

    For CSP/CPV solar power with mirrors, it might be nice then (but not critical; solar power plant albedo is a minor effect at least globally) if the mirrored surfaces could be good emitters of LW radiation.

    On that note, it would be cool if PV modules could reflect the photons with less energy than the band gap back out. But if light trapping (total internal reflection, diffuse scattering at the back and/or front (forward scattering) of the PV layer) keeps more of all photons in, the advantage in increased efficiency and/or cheaper costs would likely outweigh the increase in waste heat. As it is, I’m not sure solar panels reflect very much of any SW radiation.

    Flat panel and luminescent concentrators can use diffuse SW radiation, and if tilted to get the most insolation, will be able to get some reflection off the ground beneath them and the underside of the devices ‘in front’ (generally equatorward, or if their is diurnal tracking … you get the idea). Note that tilted panels in a power plant on level ground will be spaced out to make the most economical use of panel area at the expense of land use (cheaper panels and tracking/mounting (per unit energy supply) and more expensive land will affect the optimal spacing). Thus making the undersides of panels and the underlying surface reflective of SW radiation could boost solar power supply while also increasing the albedo of the array as a whole, which might (??) have the benifit of tending to reduce local boundary-layer cloud cover (??), further enhancing the economics (the cloud cover efffect would be local, and conceivably might be balanced by enhanced cloud cover elsewhere if just due to rearrangements of convection, depending on how cloud thicknesses are affected; anyway, the areas affected (if there even is a significant effect – I really don’t know) should be relative small globally, and it would be odd if just the on site cloud albedo reduction caused greater heating than the cooling effect of the surface albedo, since the cloud changes require the cooling effect). But outside of desert applications, it might be preferable to grow crops in the summer between rows (if the rows run east-west with seasonal tracking or fixed tilt), which can be done even without shade-grown crops because the gaps between panel rows are in shadow more in fall/winter and would always recieve diffuse light from the sky.

    Also bear in mind that ground-based solar power plants in semiarid lands could boost vegetation growth in between rows or on neighboring plots by concentrating the rainfall (this wouldn’t necessarily act to preserve natural ecosystems except where a climate shift produces a drying trend; however, enhanced agricultural value at that location could help preserve/conserve ecosystems elsewhere). Also note that even in deserts, rainfall might be sufficient to supply the power plant for washing of panels or mirrors and maybe even for solar thermal steam generation. Land use concerns can be reduced with increases in energy production efficiency and energy transmission, storage and retrieval, and end use efficiency.

    Luminescent concentrators might be used in construction of greenhouses (for the purpose of growing plants while conserving water in arid environments) – depending on the complexities of biological systems, perhaps these could actually be purple houses, withe 3-or-more layered luminescent concentrating panels that use UV, green and solar IR to produce electricity while letting blue and red light in for photosynthesis (would this confuse pests?). Alternatively, such luminescent panels (which would produce some heat that might be used) could overly algae-growing panels to produce biofuel or feed for fish farms; the biofuel component could be processed to produce some substances for fuel cells and some other substances for combustion, possibly as supplemental heating in solar thermal power plants, or used for heat in industrial processes.

    PS a significant portion of industrial processes that need heat can work at sufficiently moderate temperatures that solar parabolic troughs could supply the heat.

    And maybe roof based CSP could (when ‘turned on’ – as in removing a mirrored radiation valve) be used to direct solar heat directly into ovens to supplement other heat sources.

    … (continued from 261: )

    PART I taxation/caps


    Depending on where the regulation is applied along the flow of fossil C, some adjustment may be needed in recognition of the fossil C that is not combusted but instead goes into material products. An additional reverse adjustment would be necessary to account for CO2 released if those products are combusted (or oxydized over time) – though it may not make sense to apply this to accidental fires, as that would be piling on (although the cost could be transferred to fire insurance – but this (accidental oxydation) is a minor issue in the scheme of things and perhaps best left unregulated).


    The same goes for methane – which is to say, allotments of emissions (as measured by total externality value, including ocean acidification from CO2, etc.) should not be specified for agriculture, energy, cement, etc, seperately; the market should generally be allowed to determine an efficient.

    d1. Note that this structure imposes an incentive to participate in the regulation of emissions.

    d2. Note that this structure imposes an incentive on each nation to regulate it’s emissions and pursue clean energy and efficiency, and international funds allocated to nations not used by adaptation/etc. costs could go toward mitigation.

    d3. Note that, aside from issues arising from politically-motived or otherwise government regulation of migration (because an ideal full market response to the policy and to climate change includes migration), this is more fair than setting limits on each country, especially without regard for population. Whereas alloting specific emission amounts to each country while attempting to be fair to population size may reduce the incentive to control (with respectful humanitarian measures) population growth.

    d4. Note that this structure should encourage nations to collect tax revenue from emitting activities. Depending on how emission responsibilities are determined …
    (ie/eg for fossil fuels and carbonat minerals for cement, at point of extraction, at point of sale, etc.) (and note that care should be taken to avoid overlapping of national responsibities – responsibility for each unit emission should ideally be allocated once and only once)
    it might seem that some nations might be charged unfairly – for example, as might happen if responsibility is assigned at point of extraction, it would be unfair to assign responsibility of CO2 from petroleum from Saudi Arabia to Saudi Arabia when Saudi Arabia is only one of the beneficiaries. *** HOWEVER ***, remember the point (following the original point 13 above) about the propagation of the price signal. In this case, Saudi Arabia could – AND SHOULD – pass only a portion of the added cost to the consumers of their petroleum, to a first approximation in the same proportion to the selling price as the share of responsibility they don’t pass on is to their profit, or otherwise whatever they see fit (let the market decide)
    (yes I know it’s not a free market, but OPEC as a single entity works within a market, and anyway, this is a problem of economics in general, and furthermore, there might be something to be said for monopoly control of such easily exhaustable resources (in that it may discourage a race to the finish line?) – or there would be if we didn’t want to avoid actually exhausting this resource, although oil is better than coal, so if give ourselves some limit to further emissions, it would be better to get more energy for those emissions by finishing (if finishing anything) gas and oil first and leaving coal in the ground, were it not for the other economics (replacing oil with renewables could help pay for replacing coal with renewables) and politics involved).

    d’. It may seem like allowing the rich to get richer, but bear in mind that this would only be a fraction of the spending – there would still tend to be a net redistribution of wealth from rich to poor to the extent that adaptation costs, emissions, etc, do not correlate with wealth exactly. Even if it were the whole of spending, it would at least encourage competition to be efficient with emissions, unless the nations remain too similar in wealth per emissions. There may be some good balance between equal per capita allocation and equal per G(D/N)P allocation and the other spending categories. If there is concern, however, some portion of this (equal per G(D/N)P) allocation could be transfered to funds specifically assigned for mitigation – See point e.

    e. On the international scale, mitigation funds could be allocated, perhaps in addition to other things, to rewards to innovations, in exchange for dissemation and rights to intellectual property (patents); in this case, the funds would go directly to the inventors and not the national governments, unless the governments own the patents.

    f. *** If a comprehensive or somewhat comprehensive global arrangement cannot be worked out, at least there should be an agreement allowing tariffs and subsidies in proportion to or correction of differences among national policies while protecting against retaliations.

    g. *** There should be compensation for climate-change refugees and/or the nations that recieve them.

    h. Of course, we shouldn’t forget that some governments are more corrupt than others, and some are just the scum of the Earth destined to burn in hell. Care should be taken to prevent/minimize funds from being wasted by corruption or abused by evil governments, or helping them gain or keep power.

    i. Compensation should generally be computed based on the assumption that people will adapt in some optimal way. However, some people are too poor. And some people would go to war. It could be argued that, given human nature and conditions, some amount of waste and evil may be an expected outcome of global warming and thus subject to being tallied as adaptation costs and added to the tax rate on the externality. However, the externality depends on the future trajectory in this case, and efforts should be made to prevent war and help the poor adapt***. And criminal responsibility for evil (like the Janjaweed) should be (except for insanity and etc.) with the war criminal, and not the emitter (unless one gets into a situation where ‘climate warfare’ is practiced and CO2 is a weapon – perhaps it is a good thing that climate and economic/ecological,etc. models are a frosted-glass window to the future, so that the people who would benifit from global warming are less sure who they are).


    PART II spending of revenue.

    Revisting Case 2 and considering the calculation of the externality and tax (and so on for caps, etc.):

    Case 2: There is another amount of subsidy or public spending for mitigation which might be justified without reducing the tax to keep the price signal from getting larger.

    The possible justification is the time taken for the market response in full, including scaling up of alternative pathways, even beyond the threshold of mass production. In other words, once the policy is enacted, there will be some lag time before the market actually reaches an optimum as a function of the policy.

    This might be a weak justification, though(?).

    During the lag time, the market would ideally still be on an optimal trajectory of change – that is, getting from point A to point B in the most efficient manner.

    (AUXILIARY POLICIES involving public planning would help navigate in particular when the trajectory reaches a fork in the road (the emergence of a concave portion of the production possibilities curve causing a bifurcation of optima (this can be related to ‘increasing returns’ – why the word ‘clockwise’ means something) or gets caught in a ditch via the difficulty of spontaneously changing multiple parts in compatable ways.)

    And sometimes people just don’t believe that something proven to work will actually work – see first part of this comment:

    (PS what I meant above about government vs private sector, coniferous vs broadleaf trees (was that only for temperate forests and deciduous broadleaf trees or true in general; I’m not actually sure) – the point was that comparing how well the government does to how well the private sector does has an apples-to-oranges issue because they are not taking on the same tasks.)
    (PS as an entity that is part of the entire system, the government is actually part of a larger market economy. Humans are a part of nature. Etc.)

    But would the externality calculation reach different results when the process of change is accounted for?

    As mentioned before, given the basic logic that a free market would (ideally) tend to go towards an optimum when externalities are corrected properly, a top-down approach could determine the proper externality (and spending and planning, etc.) based on studies of what leads to an optimum trajectory. Perhaps there might be a pairing of top-down and bottom-up approaches.

    Determination of optimum: I have argued before (in another thread) that moral value and aesthetic value are not entirely independent or seperate from economic value, and that economics is involved in all decisions – there is an economics to moral value, to aesthetic value, etc. And relationships can be inferred from behavior, for example, by considering how much a person would have to be paid to give up a scenic view, or how much of a person’s motivation for working to gain resources could be attributed to desires for relationships with other people, etc. – at the very least, one must recognize that we need to be (so far as is readily apparent) alive in order to be in love or enjoy the ‘simple pleasures’, and this requires material resources, and material resources also support the existence of other people and the ability to go for a walk in the park, etc. There is the important caveat that a behavorist’s approach would also have to account for the decisions about allocation of decision making resources – not all decicions are fully informed and made rationally, but this can be because decision making resources are themselves subject to scarcity and a person might seek to allocate these resources according to their probable need and the potential magnitude of the consequences – some decisions are anticipated to be less consequential or be among options with little variation in total value, or they might just be easy to make, or they might be of a nature where instinct, habit, rule of thumb, or experience-based guesstimate seem up to the task.

    However, there are still tricky aspects to such calculations. Not that going purely by equivalent economic value (as a way of comparing apples to oranges among aesthetic values and also accounting for moral value with an economic equivalent) this couldn’t achieve the ‘correct’ solution given sufficient knowledge, but an easier method might be to go by some metrics that are proxies for average, median, and lowest 10 % of standard of living/quality of life integrated over time. It should be remembered that the goal we should to be pursuing is a moral optimum, by definition of ‘moral’ and ‘should’. But all other things being equal, it is good for people to have things (and each other) that they like and want, etc, and liking and wanting, etc, are (in combination with ecological/physical/biological/neurological/etc. limitations) the source of economic value.

    What is interesting is that some of the calculations of the costs and benifits depend on the trajectory we take. This also includes the discount rate of value – it may depend on whether or not there is a plan for the future or not; the plan thus reacts itself. Small actors can approximate the consequences of their decisions based on the assumption that the larger reality is independent of those actions – just as some weather phenomenom can, for an initial level of understanding, by modeled with linearized equations with a superposition of perturbation and independent basic state. But large perturbations change the basic state enough to have consequences for the behavior of the perturbation, and so it can be with large actors in the economy and ecosystem. Considering both the presence of externalities, imperfections in market economies, and the time frame (as long and longer than individual human lives in particular), there is an argument for public planning – but note that market mechanisms would still be relied upon in much or most of the realization of the plan.



    Currently, FEMA and agricultural policies (see Richard Manning, “Against the Grain”) are set up to reward maladaptive behavior.

    As I understand it, when weather events or patterns impair the ability to plant, grow, or harvest a crop, compensation is made available for the loss regardless of what the farmer could have done to cut losses. There might not be much to do right now to cut losses when crops are lost beyond some point in the growing season, but in the future, this could be a way to produce biofuels while cutting losses without displacing food or feed – it increases the efficiency of the system. Even at the current time, there are other crop options if events occur with enough time left in the growing season or if the problem is earlier, such as at planting time. If conditions delay planting, a crop that needs a shorter growing season could be substituted, etc. Now, part of the problem may simply be a lack of awareness of alternatives, because some such alternatives do not currently have a large market share. Awareness helps.

    For both such internal variability or short term forcing events, and for longer sustained climate changes, compensation should be given based on the losses that the farmer cannot reasonably be expected to avoid. One way to measure the loss is a decrease in property value plus any investments in infrastructure to add to property value (efficient irrigation mechanisms); the change in property value should reflect the potential for any farmer to produce food or other crop or to cut losses by selling or transfering to a different activity altogether. In the extreme that property must be abandoned, the compensation would be the full former property value. However, maybe only x % of the loss should be compensated, especially for climate change, especially farther in the future and especially in first-world countries, where and when it can be expected that the farmer knew the risks and could have done something else (??). For shorter term variability, farmers should pay for (public or private or a combination that sums to the correct total) insurance proportional to their risk in proportion to probable compensation amounts, and this would fund compensation when necessary. Changes in risk due to climate change would be reflected in the cost of insurance, and that would be reflected in the value of the property, and thus could be compensated from climate-change adaptation funds.

    Note that in the ideal case, insurance reduces the good and bad luck, giving people more control, while still preserving the price signal of the risk (plus the cost of this service, which one would hope would be small in proportion) that tends to guide behavior towards optimal practices where risks that are taken are justified by the (probable) benifit.

    Similar logic can apply to other losses. FEMA ought to be funded at least in part by a tax on the portion of risk that is not otherwise covered by private insurance, or at least that portion which is above some threshold level. Changes in this tax caused by anthropogenic climate change would change property values, and that could be compensated to some degree by climate-change adaptation funds. (However, in the case of losses from sea level rise, depending on how fast sea level does rise, it should be expected, beyond some point in time, that at least the wealthier among us were aware of the risk and had the means to pull out and chose not to do so.)

    And so on for compensation for losses in economic activity during an event.

    Note that there should only be a one time payment per one time realization of an effect of an increment of climate change. The goal is to compensate people for losses in a fair way, but not to subsidize continued unwise risk taking.

    What about the few people who gain from climate change. Should they face a negative compensation? It may be better to let it go, because adaptation should be encouraged (although in some cases this will just be a windfall, and as with losses, it should be possible to tax the windfall without discouraging benificial adaptation), and this might be a small effect that is not worth the effort. An assymetric policy (between winners and losers) might be justified. On the other hand, especially on the level of nations, there may be a danger that some nations would have an incentive to add to climate change.


    Individual losses identified as such may leave a hole. When some property is lost, or some farmers grow less of some crop, values of property and other crops, especially properties with similar features and crops that are similar to that crop, will increase in response. Thus the net loss of the farmers does not fully reflect the resulting loss of food and feed production; the net loss of property owners does fully reflect the loss of property. (Or did I fail to account for some aspect of what value is?). In this case, should food be subsidized directly? Properties? Perhaps not so much; this may counteract consumers and property buyers’ adaptation incentives – better to compensate them directly and let them do what they want? ***Note that the food compensation issue might take the form of an equal per payback. I’ll get back to that.

    But there are some other options to consider:

    Public funding for agricultural R&D
    Public investment in infrastructure for adaptation.

    Getting back to the equal per capita payback:

    It must be noted that when everyone has the same loss and recieves the same compensation, the compensation will tend to cause inflation – so is there any point in this? Yes, there is. Responsibility for the externality is not necessarily distributed equally. The payback by itself might seem to do little (?)…
    (aside from trade issues when there are variations in national policy – the higher taxes in one nation would, depending on product or service considered, by itself shift consumer demand toward imports due to increased expense of domestically-produced, but the increased expenses in general would reduce demand for imports, and the corrective tariffs/subsidies would tend to reverse the first effect. The payback, either as equal per capita or as cuts in other taxes, or in many other forms (compensation of specific losses, public spending on mitigation and infrastructure, etc.), should *tend* to put consumer buying power back to where it was relative to other nations, or at least push it in that direction.)
    …, but it can be part of a system that redistributes compensation from those with higher than average responsibility for the externality to those who have lower than average such responsibility.

    Which works fine when this is all occuring at the same time. What about compensating future people for externalities taxed in the past?


    To the extent that there is some baseline risk of loss to all people, equal per capita payback can compensate for future risk (people are free to invest it). (Should this amount or a fraction of it be subtracted from compensation to specific losses – reducing the fraction of losses that are compensated?)

    Both equal per capita payback and cuts in other taxes could be seen as ways to invest in the economy, which might then provide greater ability to adapt in the future and/or provide a greater tax base to balance spending on specific losses and adaptive/ameliorative/etc. projects/programs.


    Public investment in mitigation-related infrastructure/R&D, greater than the amount otherwise justified, could also serve this purpose. For example, making low interest rate lo-ans to solar power projects could result in a reduction in energy costs from today’s values in a several decades if not sooner. The government could recieve revenue from the interest, which, even if only just enough to keep up with inflation, would at least preserve the value of the public spending so that it can be returned to be spent on adaptation and loss compensation, but the low interest rate will also help get past the high up front costs of some very durable items. (Care should be taken so that the payback on the investment does not warp the incentives of the solar power plant managers/investors so as to discourage proper maintenance or choice in technology, etc, so as to maximize the lifecycle value.)

    …to be continued…

  44. 294
    Didactylos says:

    I wasn’t surprised that Levitt was full of sh*t when he appeared on the Daily Show. But I was severely shocked that Jon Stewart (my idol!) didn’t seem to have the slightest inkling why he was full of sh*t.

    Is there any chance some real scientist can get an invitation on the Daily Show to explain to Jon why Levitt is not only wrong, but dangerously wrong? If someone like Jon Stewart can be so badly misinformed, then climate science has a major communication problem.

  45. 295

    re #292

    Hi Dave, you are always welcome in any conversation that I have any control over. Thanks for the information, and the way you explain it. Your information dates from about the same time as mine, which makes it reliable and not so likely to be made up by marketing folks – – no guarantee there though. I did not realize the compost pile was working that way; I thought the stuff was just rotting to make the soil good. I guess the charcoal, oops biochar, does not smell like the rest of the stuff. (My agriculture education was put on hold at the end of my sophomore year in high school when we moved to a more urban world.)

  46. 296

    re #288 Patrick 027

    Hi Patrick,

    Analyzing your words I think some clarifications and important points could be made:
    I paste:
    Re Jim Bullis – but petroleum is such a great expense; conceivably replacement of petroleu
    m fuel with electricity will save a lot of money to help replace coal, including that which would otherwise run the cars, with solar power. Anyway, making cars more efficient for whatever energy source they use would help either way.
    End paste.
    You probably do not really mean that you think electricity is a fuel. Electricity is only a carrier of energy if and when it is produced by burning fuel, and since the cheap available capacity to make such electricity is coal fired power, we will be simply switching from oil to coal. You point out this will save a lot of money by thus using coal, so it seems circular thinking to say this could help replace coal. Ok, so the saved money could work its way into buying solar panels. I do not see a market mechanism that will make this happen. What I anticipate is that the money saved will simply motivate greater energy guzzling by the cars, since there is no motivation otherwise. Along with observation of American preferences, I base my outlook on the GM plan by Savagian about a year ago which indicates an intent to simply convert the existing line-up to plug-in mode. (see page 18 of ).
    So it seems like any action in the direction of solar panels is a separate action that has to attract funding from wherever, and there is not special tie to money saved by shifting from oil to coal.

    I hope you are not assuming that shifting to coal will necessarily make cars more energy efficient. Electric equipment can be very useful in making engines work better and braking less wasteful, but batteries charged by central power plants is not necessarily such an efficient process. The efficiency of the central power plant, when compounded with various inefficiencies of the electric link to a driveshaft, can exceed typical American car engine efficiencies, but not necessarily. The efficiency of a well designed hybrid can be significantly better than that of the car connected to the central power plant the CO2 emission burden can be significantly less with the gasoline powered hybrid. (See Fig.5-1 to get past the PR for plug-ins imposed on the actual analysis conclusions in )

    I have discussed elsewhere the lack of logic in hoping coal fired power will be displaced, and the IEA agreement with that in their 2030 scenario, where agressive implementation of renewables still fails to cause such a displacement.

  47. 297

    Regarding the lead article by gavin, I saw Levitt last night on The Daily Show done by John Stewart.

    He seemed to make the point that there is an economic problem with plans to reduce CO2 emissions. He says he is an economist so that seems ok for him to say. Some words about geo-engineering being easier went on. I don’t remember that they got much further.

    Yes, when he treads into geo-engineering without serious basis in science or engineering he is off base and planting this idea is bad. They alluded to high book sales which suggests that he might be reaching people which is also unfortunate. However, he did say that global warming was absolutely a problem that had to be addressed.

    I find economic difficulties in reducing CO2 to be a serious problem that calls for serious innovative thinking. What I see instead is silly stuff like “Smart Meters” and “Smart Grids.” Certainly there is room for improvement based on “digital technology,” but the possible gains from this have to be vanishingly small compared to the inefficiencies of the central power plants which these Smart things seem set to perpetuate, not significantly improve. Similarly, the stampede to electric cars and their batteries as great hopes are clearly going to end up causing more CO2 than would be the result if we just went to hybrids. I have discussed that elsewhere with references that I think are nearly absolute proof. And then we have cap and trade legislation that is barely comprehensible but seems to be without sufficient merit to justify the legislative conflicts and deal making that will be a cost going into any more real legislative action to reduce CO2.

    I think perhaps it is not so bad to stir up some thinking that questions the main plans to fight global warming.

  48. 298
    Mark says:

    “I find economic difficulties in reducing CO2 to be a serious problem that calls for serious innovative thinking.”

    Why is that innovative thinking not “how do we reduce fossil fuel use”?

    Personally the problem isn’t an economist saying “reducing CO2 will cost”, but

    a) Have you done the sums?
    b) What will the cost of not mitigating be?
    c) What will the cost of geoengineering be?

    surely the cheapest way of doing this is to not do something.

    Not burn fossil fuels.

    No extra work needed: you’re not doing something new, you’re not doing something.

    No extra expense: you aren’t paying more if you use less.

    Certainty: geoengineering *may* reduce CO2. But not producing it will reduce CO2 too. In any of the cases where not producing more CO2 would not result in lower CO2, geoengineering to remove CO2 we are producing would have the same problem.

    Risk avoiding: not burning CO2 can’t upset the balance of nature. Making CO2 munching diamond trees could.

    The MAIN plan should be “don’t burn fossil fuels”.

    When you have plans for that and execute them, you can start saying “how about some way to speed up the reduction of atmospheric CO2?” and bring in your innovative thinkers again. At that point your engineering problem has to solve a much less tricky issue. It doesn’t have to deal with humans just ramping up production and undoing your work.

  49. 299
    Chris says:

    What everyone is neglecting here is the fact that Dubner is exactly right in his comment about human behavior and that it is central to the point. It is pointless to attempt to effect some moralistic solution to the problem because the problem is global and the externalities cannot be internalized. Usage will just shift to territories without these environmental hangups (or expensive filtration devices) i.e. these resources are going to be used either now or in the future. Even if you could ban the burning of fossil fuels altogether you would have a black market problem where people cheat until all the coal and oil are spent in spite of any theoretical notions you might have about “doing the right thing”. Therefore, if it is impossible to avoid the release of CO2 (unless someone were to get all of the coal, oil and trees in the world and shoot them into space) then something needs to counteract it (one less expensive option is to put all of the S back into gas so no planes have to be used).

    [Response: How do you know any of these things? Similar statements were made regarding CFCs and that was heavily overblown as well. Even so, is your opinion that ‘it won’t work’ an excuse for not looking for ways to make it work better? I hardly think so. – gavin]

  50. 300
    John McCormick says:

    RE # 270

    Bart, thanks for your clarifying comment which is amplified by your contribution to the report you cited.

    I went to the link and found good information and your


    “Ocean acidification due to enhanced dissolution of CO2 is not halted by artificial cooling schemes.”

    Good enough for me and I will read the entire report.


    John McCormick