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Climate/Oceans: A brief reminder to Ron Bailey that, even though models aren`t always right, the atmosphere and oceans remain open-access commons

July 6th, 2009 No comments

Ron Bailey, science correspondent for ReasonOnline, on July 1 noted in a Hit & Run post that “Models Aren`t Always Right“.

I left the following comment, which I copy here since I didn`t see it post:

“Ron, of course models aren`t always right, but;

1. even Lindzen is arguing for net positive feedbacks;

2. even with the apparent recent temperature plateau, the climate system and oceans are very noticeably changing;

3. we know that there is tremendous inertia in the climate system and that our forcings will play out over centuries;

4. we know that the atmosphere and oceans are open-access commons that will require widespread agreement and cooperation to manage effectively; and

5. there are wide mismatches between those whose investments/activities generate climate risks and those who face the greatest risks.

While haste may make waste, none of these points counsels a do-nothing approach.

Running irreversible, planetary-wide experiments is hardly a conservative or libertarian endeavor.”

In the face of these factors and the rapid pace at which atmospheric levels of CO2 and other GHGs continue to grow, it is hardly reassuring that, as physicist Russell Seitz has noted, “variables as critical as the sensitivity of the climate to the doubling
of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have failed to converge on
uncontroversial values”. 

While MIT climate scientist Richard Lindzen may think that climate “sensitivity” (mean temperature response to CO2 doubling) is as low as 0.5 degrees centigrade only a month and a half ago all of his colleagues disagreed with him in a publication trumpeted by MIT“New projections, published this month in the American Meteorological Society’s Journal of Climate, indicate a median probability of surface warming of 5.2 degrees Celsius [9 degrees F!] by 2100, with a 90% probability range of 3.5 to 7.4 degrees [6.3 to 13.2 degrees F!]. This can be compared to a median projected increase in the 2003 study of just 2.4 degrees [and the temps reported are averages, with many places warmer].”

 

Searching for common ground: In which I provide a partial defense of Ron Bailey`s "invisible hand of population control" thesis

June 22nd, 2009 No comments

Michael Tobis, a blogging climate scientist, kindly alerted me to his criticisms of Ron Bailey`s recent Reason post.

Here is my response to Michael:

Michael, thanks for the link and for twitting it to my attention.

I`m not sure you really want to get me started, but I won`t let that get in the way.

First,
of course, it`s regrettable that those on the left and right would both
rather fight than think seriously. There`s alot of middle ground, but
you can`t get there in war of words. I`ve criticized Ron for this,
but he deserves credit for accepting climate science and expressly
acknowledging and analyzing tragedy of the commons situations.

While
I think you have found an infelicitly stated portion of his piece,
clearly he`s trying to say that social collapse in the past might be
attributable to tragedy of the commons situation (where “proper
institutions for channeling individual striving into a process of
economic growth which ultimately promotes the public interest” were not
in place).

While there are other cause of collapse – wars,
climate shifts, disasters – do you really disagree with Ron`s point
that societies are vulnerable to collapse if they don`t establish
institutions that prevent ruinous exploitation of resources?

While
Ron focusses on economic freedom and rule of law (market institutions)
as checks on tragedies of the commons, he is familiar with (and
libertarians certainly accept) traditional, community-based property
rights systems can work just fine, though increasing demand (and use by
outsiders) might swamp them, or technology might make private property
more efficient.

I think that Ron is perfectly correct to note
that property rights and market institutions in free societies are
serving to check population growth.

The chief problem, of course
is that there are huge gaps outside individual Western countries: Where
are the property rights in the atmosphere, the oceans, the tropical
forests? As a result, we are steadily destroying whatever we can get
out hands on.

The related problem is that corrupt and/or inept
governments are often in the middle of these problems: e.g., the
Newfoundland cod fishery was destroyed under Canadian government
management, West coast salmon fisheries are similarly threatened, and
tropical forests are being converted to soybeans and oil palm because
governments don`t care to protect the rights of the natives who dwell
in them.

(The way governments fail libertarians are rather
attuned to; while it may grate to hear this after the gross
mismanagement of the Bush/neocon/Republicans, perhaps even liberals can
acknowledge that they have a point, even if they don`t want to listen
to fear of “socialism” from the right.)

Finding institutions to
end destructive exploitation and manage open-access commons is a real
struggle; Bailey points in the right direction for some solutions, but
he downplays the size of the task ahead and the need for those who care
to work at solutions.

More of my thoughts here:

Too Many or Too Few People? Does the market provide an answer?

Using the State to solve common resource problems?

Mises on fixing externalities: progress along the Kuznets curve is not magic, but the result of institution-building

Regards,

Tom

To Ron Bailey: yes, an "invisible hand" controls population, but property rights & rule of law are not universal and, as Mises noted, require effort

June 19th, 2009 No comments

Ron Bailey, science correspondent at ReasonOnline, has a very useful post up that outlines how markets and the institutions that underpin them explain declining fertility in Western societies, and that suggest grounds for optimism when looking at population growth  in the developing world.

However, he leaves a few things out in his ongoing effort to show that the “Neo-Malthusians” are wrong to worry about population, including the following:

  • the West lies at the end of the demand chains that have swamped both unowned commons in the oceans and traditional, community-based property rights systems in developing nations (and that have fuelled kleptocrats for decades);
  • as developing nations grow, until clear and effective property rights systems are established, they will put stresses similar to those that the West did on open-access commons – including on the climate system as their fossil fuel use grows; and
  • establishing property rights and other institutions conducive to markets and wealth don`t spring up magically, but take time and concerted effort (and leave gaps), as Ludwig von Mises noted- and which is the lesson of the “Kuznets” environmental curve.

I remarked on some these in the following, which I posted (or tried to) at Ron`s comment thread:

Ron, in general I think your post is insightful and helpful, as it points the way to property rights and rule of law as ways that human societies can improve their well-being while controlling their population via the choices of individuals. This provides a fruitful focus for all participants in the discussion, including both the “conservative” and the “envirofacist” nature-lover poles.

However, for me at least it`s not a new insight (I studied some population dynamics, carrying capacity & sygmoid growth curves, was long familiar w/ Hardin & noticed in the 80s that the places where pop growth was highest was where property wasn`t adequately protected.

And you might not have not have noticed, but decades before Hardin, Ludwig von Mises explained how environmental problems arise from the lack of clear, appropriate and enforceable property rights.

More importantly, I think you fail to address both the West`s role in ongoing environmental destruction outside of their countries and the need for those concerned about environment and human welfare to continue to push and contend – both property rights on the supply side, and management (consumer pressure, boycotts etc.) are still needed on the demand side. I blogged on this two years ago, here: Too Many or Too Few People: Does the market provide an answer?“.

There are real problems and they aren`t magically solved (as Tierney seems to think, a la Kuznets). Mises pointed not only at the problem of externalities, but also at the transitions that societies make, deliberately or through changes in customs, to reduce externalities.

There is a lot of hard work ahead of us, and preferences and initiative matter greatly. I appreciate your efforts to educate and to push the ball forward.

Sincerely, Tom

Food, water, agrotech & climate change: More "NeoMalthusian" charlatans, this time at National Geographic

May 20th, 2009 1 comment

[note: my title has a bit of snark, designed to point out the emptiness of some anti-Enviro scare-mongering.]

A reader of my previous post  –  regarding Ron Bailey`s review of the concerns that “famine-monger” Lester Brown recently wrote about at Scientific American  – points me to a similar article, this time the feature article in the June issue of National Geographic.  The article, entitled “The Global Food Crisis; The End of Plenty”, is worth a read.

I look forward to Ron Bailey`s further comments; in the meanwhile I post a few excerpts below (with emphasis added):

“Agricultural productivity growth is only one to two percent a year,” warned Joachim von Braun, director general of the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington, D.C., at the height of the crisis. “This is too low to meet population growth and increased demand.”

…. Such agflation hits the poorest billion people on the planet the hardest, since they typically spend 50 to 70 percent of their income on food. Even though prices have fallen with the imploding world economy, they are still near record highs, and the underlying problems of low stockpiles, rising population, and flattening yield growth remain. Climate change—with its hotter growing seasons and increasing water scarcity—is projected to reduce future harvests in much of the world, raising the specter of what some scientists are now calling a perpetual food crisis. [page 2]

Yet with world population spiraling toward nine billion by mid-century, these experts [from the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research,  a group of world-renowned agricultural research centers that helped more than double the world’s average yields of corn, rice, and wheat between the mid-1950s and the mid-1990s, an achievement so staggering it was dubbed the green revolution] now say we need a repeat performance, doubling current food production by 2030.

In other words, we need another green revolution. And we need it in half the time.

 

Ever since our ancestors gave up hunting and gathering for plowing and planting some 12,000 years ago, our numbers have marched in lock step with our agricultural prowess. [page 3]

The industrial revolution and plowing up of the English commons dramatically increased the amount of food in England, sweeping Malthus into the dustbin of the Victorian era. But it was the green revolution that truly made the reverend the laughingstock of modern economists. From 1950 to today the world has experienced the largest population growth in human history. After Malthus’s time, six billion people were added to the planet’s dinner tables. Yet thanks to improved methods of grain production, most of those people were fed. We’d finally shed Malthusian limits for good.

Or so we thought. [page 4]

Today, though, the miracle of the green revolution is over in Punjab: Yield growth has essentially flattened since the mid-1990s. Overirrigation has led to steep drops in the water table, now tapped by 1.3 million tube wells, while thousands of hectares of productive land have been lost to salinization and waterlogged soils. Forty years of intensive irrigation, fertilization, and pesticides have not been kind to the loamy gray fields of Punjab. Nor, in some cases, to the people themselves. [page 6]

But researchers have found pesticides in the Punjabi farmers’ blood, their water table, their vegetables, even their wives’ breast milk. So many people take the train from the Malwa region to the cancer hospital in Bikaner that it’s now called the Cancer Express. The government is concerned enough to spend millions on reverse-osmosis water-treatment plants for the worst affected villages.[page 7]

Africa is the continent where Homo sapiens was born, and with its worn-out soils, fitful rain, and rising population, it could very well offer a glimpse of our species’ future. For numerous reasons—lack of infrastructure, corruption, inaccessible markets—the green revolution never made it here. Agricultural production per capita actually declined in sub-Saharan Africa between 1970 and 2000, while the population soared, leaving an average ten-million-ton annual food deficit. It’s now home to more than a quarter of the world’s hungriest people.[page 8]

But is a reprise of the green revolution—with the traditional package of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and irrigation, supercharged by genetically engineered seeds—really the answer to the world’s food crisis? Last year a massive study called the “International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development” concluded that the immense production increases brought about by science and technology in the past 30 years have failed to improve food access for many of the world’s poor. The six-year study, initiated by the World Bank and the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization and involving some 400 agricultural experts from around the globe, called for a paradigm shift in agriculture toward more sustainable and ecologically friendly practices that would benefit the world’s 900 million small farmers, not just agribusiness. [page 10]

So far, genetic breakthroughs that would free green revolution crops from their heavy dependence on irrigation and fertilizer have proved elusive. Engineering plants that can fix their own nitrogen or are resistant to drought “has proven a lot harder than they thought,” says Pollan. Monsanto‘s Fraley predicts his company will have drought-tolerant corn in the U.S. market by 2012. But the increased yields promised during drought years are only 6 to 10 percent above those of standard drought-hammered crops.

And so a shift has already begun to small, underfunded projects scattered across Africa and Asia. Some call it agroecology, others sustainable agriculture, but the underlying idea is revolutionary: that we must stop focusing on simply maximizing grain yields at any cost and consider the environmental and social impacts of food production. Vandana Shiva is a nuclear physicist turned agroecologist who is India’s harshest critic of the green revolution. “I call it monocultures of the mind,” she says. “They just look at yields of wheat and rice, but overall the food basket is going down. There were 250 kinds of crops in Punjab before the green revolution.” Shiva argues that small-scale, biologically diverse farms can produce more food with fewer petroleum-based inputs. Her research has shown that using compost instead of natural-gas-derived fertilizer increases organic matter in the soil, sequestering carbon and holding moisture—two key advantages for farmers facing climate change. “If you are talking about solving the food crisis, these are the methods you need,” adds Shiva.

In northern Malawi one project is getting many of the same results as the Millennium Villages project, at a fraction of the cost. [page 11]

Canadian researchers found that after eight years, the children of more than 7,000 families involved in the project showed significant weight increases, making a pretty good case that soil health and community health are connected in Malawi.

Which is why the project’s research coordinator, Rachel Bezner Kerr, is alarmed that big-money foundations are pushing for a new green revolution in Africa. “I find it deeply disturbing,” she says. “It’s getting farmers to rely on expensive inputs produced from afar that are making money for big companies rather than on agroecological methods for using local resources and skills. I don’t think that’s the solution.”

Regardless of which model prevails—agriculture as a diverse ecological art, as a high-tech industry, or some combination of the two—the challenge of putting enough food in nine billion mouths by 2050 is daunting. Two billion people already live in the driest parts of the globe, and climate change is projected to slash yields in these regions even further. No matter how great their yield potential, plants still need water to grow. And in the not too distant future, every year could be a drought year for much of the globe.

New climate studies show that extreme heat waves, such as the one that withered crops and killed thousands in western Europe in 2003, are very likely to become common in the tropics and subtropics by century’s end. Himalayan glaciers that now provide water for hundreds of millions of people, livestock, and farmland in China and India are melting faster and could vanish completely by 2035. In the worst-case scenario, yields for some grains could decline by 10 to 15 percent in South Asia by 2030. Projections for southern Africa are even more dire. In a region already racked by water scarcity and food insecurity, the all-important corn harvest could drop by 30 percent—47 percent in the worst-case scenario. All the while the population clock keeps ticking, with a net of 2.5 more mouths to feed born every second. That amounts to 4,500 more mouths in the time it takes you to read this article.

Which leads us, inevitably, back to Malthus. [page 12]

***

Now, can we discuss these issues without calling each other names?

 

Ron Bailey and the triumph of Reason? Neo-Mathusians and other "charlatans" exposed!

May 19th, 2009 2 comments

Last year around this time I criticized Reason science correspondent Ron Bailey, for a rather empty post trumpteting dark warnings of “green fascism” in the wake of last year`s grain shortages.  This year Ron is back, with a new post out (“Never Right But Never in Doubt“) in which he attempts to make light of the concerns that “Famine-monger Lester Brown” recently outlined in the May 2009 Scientific American Magazine (“Could Food Shortages Bring Down Civilization?“).  While Ron has dressed up his act a bit this time, the old reflexive enviro-bashing remains, along with an inclination to dodge the hard questions that Brown raises.  Instead, we are left to wonder, has Scientific American been taken over by the green fascists?

Disappointingly, Ron`s latest attempt to bring down Lester Brown also disappoints – not because Ron doesn`t have fair criticisms to make, but because he can never bring himself to engage on the fair concerns of Lester Brown and the editors of Scientific American on issues of population, unmanaged commons and the environment.  Instead of throwing light on the areas of institutional failure that underlay the concerns of “green fascists”, “famime-mongers” and neo-Malthusians, Ron likes rhetoric, and closes by calling Brown an “old charlatan”.

Does Brown deserve all of this rhetoric?  No, even while it is perfectly appropriate to disagree with some of his analysis.

Let me set the stage for my review of Ron`s latest piece by citing some of my comments on his prieceding post:

Ron, I’m surprised that you would go to the effort of spreading rather thin hype about “Green fascism” without bothering to explore from a libertarian perspective whether the Green fascists have grounds for concern, what the institutional underpinnings of environmental and “overpopulation” problems might be, or what our own connections to those problems are.

It’s rather simple, really: we see both cleaner environments and the demographic shift in relatively wealthy nations that protect property rights, as families and other economic actors are largely forced to bear their own costs, which provide incentives to keep both pollution and families under control.

Where populations are still growing rapidly – and environmental degradation continues apace – are societies that do not protect property rights, so that economic actors do not internalize all costs, and families to a significant degree face a free-for-all over resources that are not effectively owned or protected.

“Development” thus presents many aspects of a “tragedy of the commons”, a tragedy that we feed with our own consumer, commercial and industrial demand, which is sourced from assets that are not clearly owned, but are simply up for grabs – whether we are talking about the strip-mining of the oceans, the replacement of the Amazon and SE Asian tropical forests with soybeans and palm oil/biofuel plantations, or industrial and commercial enterprises that don’t bear the costs of their pollution (or of the power plants supplying their electricity).

The “Green fascists” see the destruction at the end of the chains of demand that we in the West pull and the destruction resulting from population growth that is unchecked by the pricing signals from effective ownership, and they are rightly concerned. That they fail to understand the institutional underpinnings is of course to be regretted, but it is a failure that can be remedied by a little education.

That you chose not to use your knowledge of the dynamics of “tragedy of the commons” to educate but instead to decry “Green fascists” is a similar failure, and one that I hope you will regret and try to remedy.

As it is, it seems as if you enjoy the emotional rewards of partisan struggle more than really exercising your noggin or making a contribution to directing attention to where solutions to where real problems might lie – in improved property tights protection and governance in the developing world.

Care to contribute, or just to raise an alarum about the evil greenies?

Regards,

Tom

In his latest post, Ron summarizes Brown as “argu[ing] that the world’s food economy is being undermined by a troika of growing environmental calamities: falling water tables, eroding soils, and rising temperatures.”  But even this miscasts Brown, who except for concerns about the over-pumping of the Ogallala aquifer in the high plains of the US Midwest, is clearly focussed mainly not on threats to agriculture in the developed nations, but in the developing ones.  Puzzlingly, Bailey largely agrees with some of the principal areas that Brown points to as reasons for concern, but brushes them off without real discussion or apparent justitication, mainly by telling us how things are no so bad in the developed nations.

First, regarding water, Brown mentions both obvious unstatainability of agriculture as is in places with rapidly falling water tables (particularly China and India) and where the melting of mountain glaciers means lower water supplies during the summer (including China).  Bailey shows off his understanding of the underlying dynamic of an unowned aquifer and the failure to price water correctly, but assumes, without aparent foundation, that water pricing policies will be adjusted without before any agricultural disruptions occur:

“It is true that water tables are falling in many parts of the world as farmers drain aquifers in India, China, and the United States. Part of the problem is that water for irrigation is often subsidized by governments who encourage farmers to waste it. However, the proper pricing of water will rectify that by encouraging farmers to transition to drip irrigation, switch from thirsty crops like rice to dryland ones like wheat, and help crop breeders to develop more drought-tolerant crop varieties.”

Who`s going to make sure that water subsidies will be ended and that water will be “properly priced”?  It doesn`t happen by magic, Ron.

Next, Ron attacks Brown on soil erosion – by conceding the point in developing nations but then presenting a red herring by switching focus to developed nations:

“To be sure, soil erosion is a problem for poor countries whose subsistence farmers have no secure property rights. However, one 1995 study concluded that soil erosion would reduce U.S. agriculture production by 3 percent over the next 100 years. “

The developing world is rife with problems of unsecure land tenure – heck, Zimbabwe is crashing as we speak for that very reason – but instead of enaging on this, we hear that everything is peachy in the US.

Finally, we turn to Brown`s fear of the effects of man-made global warming on agriculture.  Here, too, Bailey completely ignores the developing world in favor of looking only at the US.  Even in our case, Ron first notes that there is “an ongoing debate among experts”, but concedes that  some researchers have concluded that the impact of global warming on U.S. agriculture is “likely to be strongly negative.”  But by pointing to biotechnology research in making crops more heat and drought tolerant as a basis for optimism at home, Ron has essentially conceded that Brown (and the scientists and those funding them) have a basis for concern.

Further, Bailey notes that he agrees with Brown on two points:

“Brown is right about two things in his Scientific American article: the U.S. should stop subsidizing bioethanol production (turning food into fuel) and countries everywhere should stop banning food exports in a misguided effort to lower local prices.”

But rather welcoming Brown`s correct analysis on these points – notwithstanding Bailey`s prior warning that Brown and others were sure to call not for freer agricultural markets but for “green fascism”  –  Bailey can`t resist dissing Brown:  “Of course these policy prescriptions have been made by far more knowledgeable and trustworthy commentators than Brown.”

But despite this evidently weak dismissal of Brown`s concerns on the merits raised in the Scientific American article, Bailey somehow feels justified in completely dissing Brown.  Why?  While it is true that (1) advances in agronomy to date have expanded food supplies to meet the demands of a burgeoning world population (so Brown`s population “bomb” has yet to explode) and (2) Brown lost a famous bet with economist Julian Simon over future commodity prices, how are we doing on the institutional and environmental front in the developing world?  

– are we continuing to wipe out the ocean`s fisheries (which lies behind the Somali shift to piracy), to change ocean chemistry, and to replace important estuaries with shrimp farms?

– are we destroying “public” tropical forests (wrested from natives) and convert them to soybeans and oil palms, despite a long desire by the West to protect their inhabitants and wildlife?

– how sustainable is agriculture in China?

– aren`t we facing continued pressures from population in the developing world to convert wild lands to marginal agriculture?

– how are we doing with water supplies, water tenure and water pricing?

– aren`t we facing continued problems with insecure land tenure?

As I noted recently in comments on the Real Climate thread on tragedies of the common, where markets are unchecked by property rights (and consumer pressure, regulation, trade agreements), they are very effective machines of destruction.

It`s a lack of understanding of this that makes market conservatives right / enviros wrong on SMALL issues (such as Brown`s bet with Julian Simon on commodity prices), but wrong on the BIG ones. Those ranting about “neo-Malthusians seeking to destroy civilization” are simply ignoring or are blind to how consumer and other markets are destroying unowned, unmanaged Nature around the world.

These are the types of problems that have long troubled Lester Brown – and I think Ron Bailey as well.  In any case, Bailey should recognize all of them as problems that stem from a lack of clear and enforceable property rights, in some cases driven by government theft or incompetence.  So why does Bailey feel that the most constructive approach to persuasion is to abjure the elucidation of underlying problems, facilely dismiss concerns and to attack Brown`s motives, by calling him an “old charlatan”?

Disappointing.

But this is the type of engagement that we continue to see from “libertarians” and conservatives (such as Robert Bradley and George Will), who seem to reflexively regard enviros as the “enemy”, as opposed to the lack of property rights or the underlying statism that gives rise to the problems that bother the enviros.  Thus we see not a triumph of reason, but of partisan hostility and mudflinging, sometimes as a mask for support for status quo rent-seekers.

It`s all enough to make an inquiring mind ask, will the real charlatans please stand up?  Or sit down?  Or start living up to the principles they say they espouse?

UK jury approves damage to power plant in defense of a commons/ other private property; libertarians and conservatives freak out

September 12th, 2008 6 comments

See this surprising decision in the UK, letting climate-change protesters/trespassers off the hook for damages resulting from spray-painting a coal plant smokestack, on the grounds that a UK law “allows damage to be caused to property to prevent even greater damage.”

Why is this single jury verdict supposedly the end of the world (as Iain Murray of CEI, blogging at NRO’s Planet Gore would have it)?  Libertarians (Rothbard, Block, Bratland, Cordato) have long argued that:

– we should move away from the statist regulation of polluters and return to a simpler world of a resort towards common law and courts (permitting injunctions on industrial activity for the slightest damage) to defend property; and that

– the issuance of a license allowing a firm lawfully “to pollute and, hence, invade or damage property of other parties” “entail[s} a fundamental and pervasive violation of property rights”; that

– one “observes that any detectable man-made climate change has occurred during periods of inadequate or nonexistent tort protection from air pollution”; and that

– “A sensible and thoughtful first crucial step in assuring a sustainable atmosphere for future generations is to assure adequate tort protection of the personal property rights for current generations“?

It is clear that I am on firm ground in expecting in response to this decision a rush by “skeptical” libertarians and conservatives to demand MORE action by government, rather than less of it.  After all, the defense offered by the greenies in the UK was based on a statute that can be simply amended, and thereby order restored (with nary a pang of concern for fusty old common-law doctrines).

And if this is what we get from libertarians, is there any wonder that greenies – including radicals like Austrian Ed Dolan and libertarians Jon Adler and Ron Bailey – think that resort to some sort of globally coordinated multi-state action is needed to deal with a global issue?

Oh, and let me add – it seems like a “wrong” decision to me, too.

Ron Bailey/Reason: Gore’s proposal to generate all power carbon-free in 10 years requires trillion$ on nukes

July 30th, 2008 6 comments

On July 17, Al Gore challenged our nation to produce “100 percent of our electricity from renewable energy and truly carbon-free sources within 10 years“.

Ron Bailey, science correspondent of Reason online, has examined whether Gore’s proposal is at all practically achievable.  Bailey reviews the main options mentioned by Gore (solar, wind and geothermal) and the chief option implied but unmentionable – nuclear power – and concludes that low ball estimates of the costs for realizing Gore’s target are on the scale of $1 trillion to $6 trillion, with nuclear being by far the cheapest.  Concludes Bailey:

Curiously, nowhere does the “N-word”—nuclear—appear in Gore’s speech. Currently, 104 nuclear power plants generate about 20 percent of America’s electricity. Once a nuclear plant is up and running, it is essentially carbon-free. Westinghouse claims that it can build a third generation 1,000 megawatt nuclear power plant for around $1.4 billion. Assuming this estimate is right, all U.S. carbon-emitting electricity generation plants could be replaced with nuclear power at a cost of about $1.2 trillion by 2018.

“Of course there are those who will tell us this can’t be done,” warned Gore. I am not one of those people. I am sure it can be done. But before embarking on his “generational challenge to re-power America,” I would like the former vice-president to sketch out a few more details on how it’s going to be paid for and who’s going to be stuck with the bill.

These numbers – roughly on the scale of our out-of-pocket and committed costs for our Iraq and Afghanistan adventures (largely corporate welfare for the defense/logistics industry, good friends of Republicans) – help us get a bit of a handle on the opportunity costs of those wars, which have undermined rather than improved our security and jacked up oil costs.

Bailey also comments on the costs of shifting our automobile fleet to one that is powered by electricity.

Bailey’s piece is here: “Al Gore’s Curiously Cost-Free Plan to Re-Power America“. 

 

George Monbiot: Why do governments subsidize the rush by fishermen to destroy unowned ocean fisheries?

July 9th, 2008 No comments

In the context of the latest fuel strikes by European fishermen, George Monbiot has an excellent piece in the July 8th Guardian that explores the role of governments in subsidizing the destructive “tragedy of the commons” that is ocean fisheries.

It is, however, a shame that Monbiot makes no reference to what many observers are starting to realize:  that the solution to solving over-fishing lies in getting the government out of the business of political management of the resources that fishermen depend on, and putting responsibility, control and incentives to invest in resource management back in the hands of fishermen. 

Although government interference in resource markets has been a resounding failure (witness the destruction of the US salmon fisheries), a light at the end of the tunnel has appeared in the form of privatization through “ITQs” or Individual Transferable Quotas, as noted by:

Ron Bailey, science correspondent of Reason, in “How to Save New England’s Fishing Villages; If only the fishers will allow it” (September 28, 2005) and in”Pick Your Poissons; Economic and ecological diversity for fisheries“(August 25, 2006); and by 

Birgir Runolfsson, in Cato’s Regulation, in “Fencing the Oceans A Rights-Based Approach to Privatizing Fisheries” (vol. 20, no. 3, 1997).

Further, Jonathan Adler, law prof at Case Western Reserve University, has a very interesting discussion of how the enforcement of antitrust laws have frustrated cooperative fishery management  (March 2002).

While these materials focus on domestic marine fisheries, similar strategies are needed at regional levels.

 

 

[Mind Games:] Penn & Teller – "Bull****" artists – get ready to change their "skeptical" stance on climate change

July 5th, 2008 4 comments

There’s an interesting bit of arm-twisting, self-deception, defensiveness and reluctant position-shifting going on in the libertarian science skeptics crowd, and Penn and Teller seem to be letting the social pressure help clear their minds.

At James Randi‘s gathering of skeptics in Las Vegas last month (The Amazing Meeting 6), apparently both Penn and Teller very reluctantly conceded in response to audience q & a that they now “don`t know” whether or not “global warming is Bull****“, but that they certainly hate Al Gore.

After being mocked and criticized by Sharon Begley (Newsweek science columnist) for “basically saying, don’t bother me with scientific evidence, I’m going to make up my mind about global warming based on my disdain for Al Gore” and for illustrating Begley’s talking point at the meeting that our beliefs are often NOT based on reason (says Begley, “Both Penn and Teller are well-known libertarians and supporters of the libertarian Cato Institute, which has been one of the leaders in spreading doubt about global warming. Which just goes to show, not even the most hard-nosed empiricists and skeptics are immune from the power of emotion to make us believe stupid things.”), Penn Jillette offered up a rather whiny response at the LA Times (in an op-ed defensively titled “Climate change? Once more, ‘I don’t know’; Being honest about not knowing enough of the science to make a judgment isn’t the same as an outright denial”):

During our loose Q&A period this year, someone asked us about global warming, or climate change, or however they’re branding it now. Teller and I were both silent on stage for a bit too long, and then I said I didn’t know.

I elaborated on “I don’t know” quite a bit. I said that Al Gore was so annoying (that’s scientifically provable, right?) that I really wanted to doubt anything he was hyping, but I just didn’t know. I also emphasized that really smart friends, who knew a lot more than me, were convinced of global warming. I ended my long-winded rambling (I most often have a silent partner) very clearly with “I don’t know.” I did that because … I don’t know. Teller chimed in with something about Gore’s selling of “indulgences” being BS, and then said he didn’t know either. Penn & Teller don’t know jack about global warming … next question. …

Is there no ignorance allowed on this one subject? … You can’t turn on the TV without seeing someone hating ourselves for what we’ve done to the planet and preaching the end of the world. Maybe they’re right, but is there no room for “maybe”? There’s a lot of evidence, but global warming encompasses a lot of complicated points: Is it happening? Did we cause it? Is it bad? Can we fix it? Is government-forced conservation the only way to fix it?

To be fair (and it’s always important to be fair when one is being mean-spirited, sanctimonious and self-righteous), “I don’t know” can be a very bad answer when it is disingenuous. You can’t answer “I don’t know if that happened” about the Holocaust.

But the climate of the whole world is more complicated. I’m not a scientist, and I haven’t spent my life studying weather. I’m trying to learn what I can, and while I’m working on it, isn’t it OK to say “I don’t know”?

I mean, at least in front of a bunch of friendly skeptics?

Of course, given the tricks that we play on ourselves, it’s entirely possible that Begley did not accurately capture the gist of Penn and Teller’s remarks, but even if they both said they “don’t know” at TAM6, it’s a lack of knowledge that rather curiously didn’t prevent them from spending the past five years mocking climate change concerns.

Ron Bailey, science correspondent for Reason, another libertarian climate skeptic who prominently changed his mind two years ago, summarizes here, where he quotes from both Begley and Penn.  Bailey both schools and chides Penn, while acknowledging that there is ample room to debate policy:

Is it happening? Did we cause it? Yes, the balance of the evidence is that it is happening. Is it bad? Relative to what? Can we fix it? Maybe. But at what’s the best way to do so? Are immediate deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions necessary? Some analysts don’t think so. Government-forced conservation? Perhaps there is another way. Skepticism is certainly merited when it comes to proposals that aim to solve global warming.

Finally, is it OK to disdain Al Gore? Sure it is. But even an annoying self-important scold can be right sometimes.

It seems to me that Penn and Teller’s defensiveness clearly signals a shift in their position from broad disagreement with global warming, both on science and on policy, towards conceding the core of the science while focussing on policy.

It’s interesting that apparently that their shift was motivated not by a desire to be right on the science – after all, they have prominently mocked others on climate change without even seriously bothering to address the scientific evidence – but because of pressure from other skeptics who have already changed their own minds.

It’s also interesting that Penn and Teller, who are not known for showing much concern for the feelings of those whom they mock and ridicule, are essentially saying to their fellow skeptics, “hey, this criticism from friends hurts our feelings”.  It’s very interesting that while they talk about their friends they are careful to put Begley at a distance, referring to her as “one of the non-famous, non-groovy, non-scientist speakers” (a nice case of misdirection, since even if Begley is less famous or groovy than Penn and Teller, they certainly aren’t scientists either) and complaining that SHE is the one who is “one is being mean-spirited, sanctimonious and self-righteous”. Hey, that nerd Sharon Begley is being MEAN to us! they say.

Yep.  So while Penn and Tell grudgingly concede that maybe all of those AGW “religionists” might be onto something, they need to downplay their own change of mind by continuing to disdain Al Gore, and by directing their ire at that b*tch, Sharon Begley.  Not particularly noble, but a change of mind nonetheless.

This may dishearten others who passionately believe that puny man with his fabulous technology and booming numbers can’t possibly influence the Earth’s climate, but I predict that many will find ways to distract themselves from Penn and Teller’s shift, such as by attacking Sharon Begley and the evil MSM.

Good stuff: Ron Bailey, Fred Smith and Lynne Kiesling debate climate change policy at Reason.org

June 22nd, 2008 No comments

I highly recommend that readers view the debate (or the transcript) between the above participants that Reason held last October but has just given renewed prominence at Reasononline and in their July 2008 print edition. 

Ron Bailey is the Science Correspondent at Reason and is the author of ECOSCAM: The False Prophets of Ecological Apocalypse (1993) and the editor of Global Warming and Other Eco-Myths: How the Environmental Movement Uses False Science to Scare Us to Death (2002), Earth Report 2000: Revisiting The True State of The Planet (1999), and The True State of the Planet (The Free Press, 1995).  Remarkably, Ron now shills FOR government policy to address climate change.

Fred L. Smith, Jr. is the President and Founder of the Competitive Enterprise Institute (which published Bailey’s 2002 Global Warming and Other Eco-Myth book).

Lynne Kiesling is an expert on the regulation of electric power generation and distribution, Senior Lecturer in Economics at Northwestern University, and former director of economic policy at the Reason Foundation.

 

Below I excerpt what I consider the key remarks of each participant:

Lynne Kiesling:

From an economic perspective, the problem of climate change is twofold. First, there are incomplete and uncertain property rights in the air. It’s ludicrous to imagine us each walking around with a bubble over our heads so that we can only breathe and use the privatized air sphere around us. Second, there’s a large number of affected parties … some would argue the entire planet is affected.

When a common-pool resource is shared by millions of diverse individuals, defining the use rights over that resource is really hard and costly. This is the kind of situation in which decentralized market processes have trouble even emerging. In this imperfect world, we’re considering two imperfect alternative policies: a carbon tax and cap and trade.

Our experience with common-pool resources, ranging from agreements to share the team of oxen in the medieval village to the development of the sulfur dioxide acid rain program in the 1990s, tells us that effective policy focuses on reducing transaction costs and better defining property rights so that private parties can engage in mutually beneficial exchange. That’s the logic behind the carbon cap-and-trade policy.

Like all policies in such a complex area, it’s got problems itself. How do you allocate carbon permits? There’s the knowledge problem: How do we know how many carbon permits is the right number? Also, as a policy instrument, it’s prone to political manipulation. Electric utilities are already seriously jockeying to make sure they’re playing a part in getting the rules written and that they’re involved in determining the allocation mechanisms if such a policy comes into place.

Another problem is that unlike with sulfur dioxide, the likely participants are really heterogeneous. When we were dealing with sulfur dioxide, it was mostly large-scale central-generation power plants, a pretty homogeneous bunch.

A carbon tax is also prone to some of these problems, particularly the knowledge problem and the political manipulation problem. The benefits to a permit market that have been shown in other situations are that defining property rights and reducing transaction costs does a better job of taking advantage of diffuse private knowledge. It’s also more likely to induce the process that’s at the foundation of economic growth, which is innovation. So I tend to come down on the side of cap and trade, although it’s not a ringing endorsement.

Finally, I think most people fail to realize that the abysmal job we do of pricing electricity contributes substantially to our energy use. The only resources that are priced as badly as electricity in our economy are highways and water.

Retail competition and choice for consumers would increase the offering of time-differentiated dynamic pricing, which shifts resource and electricity use across time. Research shows that this promotes conservation and more efficient use of electricity, increases offerings of green power to consumers who want to choose a green power option, and increases the incentives to develop and adopt technologies, such as price-responsive appliances, that enable private individuals to control their own energy use.

So the message from me is this: It’s a complicated, imperfect world, and the policies we can adopt that induce innovation and harness diffuse private knowledge will be the most effective for this long-term problem.

Ronald Bailey:

Before we began this session, Fred Smith asked me would it be all right if he referred to me as a commie symp. …  I stand before you as somebody who’s been reporting and writing on environmental issues for over 20 years. To the extent that I’m known at all, I’ve been known as someone very skeptical of all kinds of environmentalist dooms. My first book was called Ecoscam: The False Prophets of Ecological Apocalypse. It pains me to have concluded, following the scientific data, that one of the dooms is a real problem.

As Lynne very ably pointed out, one of the problems with global warming is that it exists in a commons—that means the atmosphere is very hard to divide up and make into private property.

When you have an environmental commons, we typically have two ways of handling that problem. One is that we privatize it. In many environmental issues, we’re moving in that direction. Fisheries, for example, are being privatized. Forests are being privatized. Water resources can be privatized as well.

The problem with air pollution—and global warming is a form of air pollution—is that I don’t see a good, easy way to privatize it. The transaction costs are too large. And if you can’t privatize it, you have to regulate it. So now the question is: What’s the least bad way to regulate? And that is why I’ve come out in favor of a carbon tax.

As a good libertarian, I thought I would like cap and trade. The problem is I’ve been watching the European attempt to do this, and it’s a complete disaster. The governments, not surprisingly, cheat constantly. Their carbon market collapsed a year ago because the governments allocated more permits for carbon emissions than were necessary to cover what was being emitted, so naturally the price went to zero. And if the Europeans can’t pull this off, how could you expect the world to pull this off?

I understand the diffuse knowledge problem—how markets can and, in fact, do marshal that kind of information in very good ways. The problem is that there’s no baseline for the rest of the world.  …  So I come out in favor of the tax because you have a baseline. You have a way of internationally monitoring that. The baseline is a zero tax and from that, you can build up. You could start the tax low and, as you gain more information about what the atmosphere is likely to do, you could adjust the tax over that time.

For consumers, for inventors, for innovators, a tax offers price stability in a way that the cap-and-trade markets don’t.  …

I, against my values, have decided that this is a problem. I would really like to be persuaded that classical liberalism and markets and so forth have a way of solving this problem. I’m still waiting for Fred’s proposal. I don’t think it can be done voluntarily around the world. The voluntary carbon markets are tiny— … And if you don’t have an economic incentive to participate in those carbon markets, like a tax or like a cap-and-trade permit, most people aren’t going to do it. Why would they? Why would they spend money that they don’t have to spend? …

Basically it would be a globally harmonized tax, but the money would be collected by each country and spent by the governments in each country.  In the ideal world, you would recycle that money by reducing other taxes, so the overall tax level in the country would not increase. What you would be doing is incentivizing people to conserve energy but also incentivizing people to innovate, to find new ways to produce energy that people would want using low-carbon technologies or carbon-sequestering technologies. …

Government does not innovate. So by creating a carbon tax you would encourage private people to marshal the information in response. So carbon tax is a price, to figure out better ways to make energy, low-carbon energy. I don’t know what those energies will be. I’m sure the government doesn’t know either, and I don’t want them wasting the money doing it.

Fred L. Smith:

What’s the best way of addressing whatever risks there are in global warming? Should the risk of catastrophic global warming justify abandoning our general preference for freedom over coercion? Should we free market advocates champion carbon taxes or carbon rationing, some form of suppressing energy use, or should we favor economic liberalization?

There is evidence that there has been some warming, moderate amounts, but the idea that we’re facing imminent catastrophe has weakened. Our ability to do anything about CO2 increases for the next half-century is now obviously nonexistent. And the tensions we could create by pushing the world into some form of energy rationing, I think, are underestimated. Recall that in World War II, one of the incidents that pushed the war party into power in Japan was an energy boycott on that Asian nation. We are going to do that again with China. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.

Shouldn’t we be asking whether the risks of global warming are more or less than the risk of global warming policies?

The costs of energy rationing are not trivial. Energy is what makes it possible to have mobility, to have labor-saving technology, to have lives that are comfortable, to have hope for the future. Energy rationing would lead to slower economic and technological growth, a darker, less human-friendly world. The trillions we’re talking about spending over the next generations on global warming could go to much better causes, could save lives and inspire hopes today.

But we’ve been told—we’ve heard it from Ron, at least—that we must do something. Perhaps. But why must that something be the expansion of state power over our lives? Why do we limit ourselves to taxes or rationing? There are other alternatives out there.

We could do some more R&D. We could mitigate. What about mirrors in space? What about fertilizing the oceans? Those of us who have looked at NASA and so forth are not overly enamored with government’s ability to underwrite those kind of policies, but we should be equally optimistic about government’s attempt to tax in this academic-blackboard economic way.

Resiliency is what we should be talking about. Not whether taxes or quotas are the better way to suppress freedom, but how we can use the global warming concerns to advance an agenda of freedom. How do we find ways of accelerating economic and technological progress? How do we liberalize the economies of the world? How do we expand the institutions of liberty even into the air sheds?

We can free biotechnology. I’m sure Ron and I both agree with that. If the world is hotter, colder, wetter, drier, we’re going to need the ability to modify our crops much more than we have today. Freeing biotechnology from the regulatory straitjacket it’s in today would be a way of doing that.

As Lynne said, we could complete the job of freeing our electricity system, not just for pricing electricity but also for incentivizing the grid to be smarter and more robust so we can free the trapped electricity that sits idle throughout America. Move fire, storm, and other insurance out of the government subsidy range and put it back into the private sector so we can guide people away from living in high-risk areas.

Unilateral free trade. Extend property rights to water. Liberalize energy exploration. Cuba can drill off the coast of Florida; why can’t America? Where is nuclear power? Certainly Al Gore hasn’t mentioned it. Eliminate the corporate income tax. Accelerate the turnover of capital goods and equipment. That would mean a much more efficient world to live in. …

Today, fears about global warming are pushing the world towards disaster. This time the threat is not just to the lamps of Europe but to the lamps of the world. Energy suppression, if it happens, might last for many lifetimes. …

I have one strong procedural difference with both Ron and Lynne on this. The argument is that when you have a common property resource, your choices are either to privatize that resource, move towards institutions of liberty, or politicize it in some enlightened way as Lynne and Ron have talked about. But Ronald Coase said there’s always a third option, that the costs of transaction in that area are much higher than the failure to have transaction in that area and therefore we should allow evolution to proceed and see what creative solutions emerge. That is basically what we should be doing in the global warming area.

Bailey: So, Fred, are you saying that human beings are not clever enough to come up with low-carbon energy?

Smith
: I’m saying that technocratic social engineering projects aren’t the best way to free the creative energies of mankind.

Bailey
: Unfortunately, Fred, you haven’t shown a path for evolution to this. I’m sorry. I realize that you believe that somehow the invisible hand will take care of a commons problem always, but commons problems are solved by creating property.

Smith
: Government.

Bailey
: And the government helps create property, defends property. It’s an institution.  It’s not a great institution. Right now all the big emitters are coming to Washington and begging for free permits so they can get tons of money, basically, and extract it from our pockets—which is another reason I don’t like cap-and-trade systems. They want the government to create an asset for them worth hundreds of billions of dollars.