Archive for June, 2008

Lomborg’s brilliant climate plan: leave GHG externalities alone and let governments spend 0.05% of GDP on picking winning low-carb technologies!

June 29th, 2008 No comments

The folly practically speaks for itself

Why does Bjorn Lomborg think that governments can better determine worthy investments than private firms?  And that such investments should be borne by ordinary taxpayers rather than those who are generating the externalities that are the basis for his concern?  And why does he think governments around the world will each bear their fair share of such expenditures, instead of free riding?

Lomborg’s policies will simply lead to more politically directed pork (wasted money) while doing nothing to discourage GHG emissions or to encourage private investments in GHG-lite technologies. 

h/t Don Boudreaux, who startlingly calls Lomborg’s post “great good sense”!

(Jim Hansen’ “carbon tax – 100% rebate” proposal (noted in my preceding post) – which is much along the lines of the revenue-neutral carbon tax/income tax rebate that kicks in July 1st in British Columbia – makes much more sense than having the government try to micromanage investments and other private decisionmaking.)


Peabody Coal is VERY concerned about how Jim Hansen is "cheapening the dialogue"

June 28th, 2008 No comments

In response to Jim Hansen’s recent expressed desire for “public trials” for fossil fuel executives if, despite being “aware of long-term consequences of continued business as usual,” they continue their “campaigns” “to spread doubt about global warming” in order to “blocked [the] transition to our renewable energy future”, Andy Revkin of the The New York Times has received and posted on the NYT’s “Dot Earth” blog a note from Vic Svec of Peabody Energy, which Revkin notes is the largest private coal producer in the world.

Vic Svec’s note at “Dot Earth” is here.

In response, I posted a few comments to Mr. Svec on the Dot Earth blog thread, which I copy below [with some links added]:

Vic Svec
Senior Vice President, Investor Relations and Corporate Communications
Peabody Energy
(314) 342-7768
[email protected]

Dear Vic:

Nice try with your letter addressing Jim Hansen’s criticism of fossil fuel firms such as yours.

1.  You say that Hansen’s “Holocaust analogies [are] outrageous and demeaning.”

Hansen’s latest criticism of coal and oil firms contains ZERO Holocaust analogies.  So who is it who prefers not to address his actual remarks, but to “cheapen the dialogue and invite ridicule”?

Yes, Hansen did warn last year that rapid climate change may very well threaten the extinction of many species – a claim supported by many prominent biologists – and in that context said that further increases in coal plants could in effect be “death trains … loaded with uncountable irreplaceable species”.  You obviously don’t like his rhetoric, but do you care to explain why either his facts or his imagery are wrong?

2.  “The suggestion that a dissemination of ideas be criminalized –- coming from a government employee no less –- does hearken back to World War II.”

First, what was that you just said about cheapening debate?

Second, Hansen has not said that the speech of any fossil fuel executives should be restricted or criminalized.  Rather, he is making a stronger version of the argument that the British Royal Academy made last year to Exxon, when it sought to clarify if Exxon was going to continue to provide support to groups that deny what EXXON itself has conceded: that human GHG emissions present sufficient worry for public policy action now.

Like Exxon, your firm has publicly acknowledged that concerns about climate change are legitimate and, indeed, that massive investments are needed in new infrastructure to ensure that coal is burned more cleanly and that CCS (carbon capture and storage) technologies are employed (as you note in the projects listed in your item 4).  The only real differences between your firm’s position and Hansen’s is that you think that the government should subsidize your change in business model by (a) having Uncle Sam pay the bulk of capital costs for IGCC (integrated gas combined cycle plant) [something like $1 billion for the first one with CCS] and (b) giving you a further break (reduced royalties) on the sweet deals you already have for stripping coal from public lands, while Hansen proposes a carbon tax (rebated to citizens) to motivate changes in demand and a moratorium on new coal plants until CCS is in place.

While Peabody has every right to conduct its business as it sees fit, so does Hansen have the right to hope that fossil fuel firms will be called to public account for the years of delay that they have purchased, not by openly arguing with the science, but by back door channels/contributions and third-party proxies – tactical activities that are hardly subject to dispute.  THAT, and not open disputes on science or policy, is what Hansen is criticizing.

3.  “Blaming big oil and big coal for the broad array of opinions about climate change is disingenuous.”

Is that at all what Hansen has done, or do you just find strawmen to be irresistible?

“If he would imprison those who don’t march in lockstep with his views, the jails would be very, very big.”

Ahh, here we go with more cheap and shameful metaphors of the very type that you yourself decry, plus another great strawman.  Hansen hasn’t suggested jailing anyone who disagrees with him, as I previously noted.  He’s just castigating the fossil fuel firms for what is rather pedestrian (and undeniable) in the modern world – that powerful economic interests have no qualms about ignoring public and common interests for the sake of private gain, or about employing whatever tool they can to influence government action via both politicians and public opinion.  Hansen, whose views on science you conspicuously refuse to address, is now obviously trying to play the same game of influencing political discourse by putting pressure on you.  As a scientist, Hansen obviously has only a political bark and no formal bite.

Your aim now is simply to discredit the barker, the better to get government subsidies, cheaper coal from the government by lowering royalties, and to continue commercial activities that shift the costs and risks of GHG emissions to others and to the future.  That, of course, is the “serious work” for which Peabody employs you as SVP of Investor Relations and Corporate Communications.

As for the “thousands of scientists and university professors” who have opinions that differ from Hansen’s, I’ll wager that, like Exxon, your scientists tend to agree with Dr. Hansen and that your only connection with any of the other thousands is via funding for PR efforts.  Maybe you could clarify this?

Thanks so much for your sound bites.

Why top demagogues (Jim Hansen, Florida Power, RAND, Exxon, AEI, Margo Thorning, major economists, George Will) prefer rebated carbon taxes

June 27th, 2008 2 comments

[Note to first-time readers: the title is tongue-in-cheek.]

I have previously blogged on libertarian, non-state approaches to climate change; allow me to use this post to pull together for diligent readers various recent sources of opinion and information on carbon taxes – which are much more transparent, easier to implement and, if rebated, are much more likely to both be ethically fairer to citizens (and thus more poltically sustainable) and involve much less pork than cap and trade policy proposals:

–  Dr. James (“PublicTrials”) Hansen “Carbon Tax and 100% Dividend” proposal (dated June 6, 2008) (be sure to check out his many lucid posts on scientific aspects of climate change as well):

“Carbon tax and 100% dividend” is spurred by the recent “carbon cap” discussion of Peter Barnes and others. Principles must be crystal clear and adhered to rigorously. A tax on coal, oil and gas is simple. It can be collected at the first point of sale within the country or at the last (e.g., at the gas pump), but it can be collected easily and reliably. … The entire carbon tax should be returned to the public, with a monthly deposit to their
bank accounts ….

The worst thing about the present inadequate political approach [cap and trade] is that it will generate public backlash. Taxes will increase, with no apparent benefit. The reaction would likely delay effective emission reductions, so as to practically guarantee that climate would pass tipping points with devastating consequences for nature and humanity.

Carbon tax and 100% dividend, on the contrary, will be a breath of fresh air, a boon and boom for the economy. The tax is progressive, the poorest benefitting most, with profligate energy users forced to pay for their excesses. …

Special interests and their lobbyists … will fight carbon tax and 100% dividend tooth and nail. They want to determine who gets your tax money in the usual Washington way, Congress allocating money program-by-program, substituting their judgment for that of the market place. …  Helping Washington figure out how to spend your money is a very lucrative business.

I note that Hansen has drawn on Peter Barnes, who has long advocated the “Sky Trust” concept, which asserts that citizens are the owners of the atmospheric commons and involves the state in charging and collecting revenues.  Barnes has more recently backed similar proposals, such as Hansen’s “Carbon Tax and 100% Dividend” and the “Cap and Dividend” approach floated last winter by James Royce and Matt Riddle.

Spin analyst George Lakoff has recently examined and compared the moral and cognitive footings of the Warner-Lieberman-style cap and and trade and the Cap and Dividend approaches in “Comparing Climate Proposals: A Case Study in Cognitive Policy”

–  Lewis Hay, III, Chairman and CEO of FPL Group, Inc. – speech to the 2008 Florida Summit on Global Climate Change in Miami (June 25, 2008):

[It is] an undeniable reality … that global climate change is real, that human activity is one of the causes, and that we must take action to slow, stop, and reverse the emission of greenhouse gases into the Earth’s atmosphere. …
The United States has been debating climate change at least since the first congressional hearings on the topic were held in the mid-1980s by a little-known Representative from Tennessee named Al Gore. More than 20 years later, it is time for the country to take meaningful action. Every day we delay, another 18 million tons of CO2 are released into the atmosphere, most of which will remain there for close to a century. And with every year of inaction, the carbon reductions needed to deal successfully with climate change become larger and harder to achieve.

There are still a few global warming skeptics left in the world – often big emitters of CO2 – who continue to hope that the science is wrong and advocate taking little or no action toward reducing carbon. They want to keep freely emitting CO2 like there is no tomorrow. We cannot let these people have their way, or there might not be a tomorrow.

So how do we go about reducing the amount of carbon that our economy pumps into the atmosphere? … In the process of producing various goods and services – including electricity – carbon dioxide is released with potentially huge costs on society. But the producers and consumers of goods and services don’t pay those costs. They are external to the transaction, which is to say that society pays them. The goal of public policy toward climate change must be to push those costs back onto the parties responsible for carbon emissions. In short, we must “put a price” on carbon, which will create powerful incentives to emit less of it.

Will that price impose an undue burden on the U.S. economy? The global warming skeptics say yes, but I disagree. If we do nothing to reduce the amount of CO2 pouring into the atmosphere, we are not avoiding the cost. We are simply pushing both the cost associated with the growing consequences of global warming and the future cost of CO2 reductions down the road, onto our children and grandchildren. And if we do take action, I am confident the cost will be far lower than projected. America’s economy is driven by a fierce entrepreneurial spirit. Tell a capitalist there’s money to be made in finding cost-effective CO2 reductions, and watch the market burst with cost-effective solutions.

Now I happen to believe that the simplest and most effective way to start putting a price on carbon is with a continuously escalating fee – or a “tax” as the big carbon emitters like to call it. Under a carbon fee that starts modestly and rises steadily over time, companies will find it more and more expensive to use dirty fuels. And if there’s one way to get the attention of America’s CEOs and their boards of directors, it’s to hit them in the bottom line. Equally important, if there’s one way to get Americans to consume less high-carbon energy, it’s to steadily raise the price of goods and services produced with high-carbon fuels. Eventually, everyone will embrace conservation and switch to low-carbon energy alternatives. …

Under any cap-and-trade program that would give away most of the allowances to emit carbon based on historical emissions, the biggest emitters – the very same companies that have seriously harmed our environment and done nothing to reduce their carbon footprint – could reap unearned windfall profits, just as has happened in parts of Europe. To put it bluntly: They would be paid to pollute, turning cap-and-trade into what I call “cap-and-evade.” …

When carbon carries a cost, power companies will also work a lot harder to clean up their fossil fuel fleets. … Of course, the real gains are to be had by shutting down old, inefficient coal plants across the country. Those dinosaurs, which have operated way beyond their intended useful life, account for more than 480 million tons of the CO2 pumped into the atmosphere every year and should be taken offline. And if carbon is priced appropriately, they will be.

I refuse to believe that we are powerless to change the future. On the contrary, I believe that through commitment, effort and intelligence, we will not only come up with the right policy response to climate change, but that our innovation-driven economy will find the best technological solution to climate change – one that curbs emissions even as it controls costs. Some of us in the electric power industry are ready to lead the charge into a clean energy future. To those who stubbornly cling to a carbon-based past that cannot last, we kindly ask that you step out of the way.

Keith Crane, senior economist and James Bartis, senior policy researcher at the RAND Corporation, On Carbon Dioxide, a Better Alternative (Washington Post, November 29, 2007):

The only effective way to begin reducing greenhouse gas emissions and slow global climate change is to make it more expensive to emit carbon dioxide. Unless businesses and consumers pay a price for carbon dioxide, neither will make the investments in technology and changes in energy use needed to dramatically reduce emissions.

Most of the climate change legislation currently before Congress proposes a complicated “cap-and-trade” system. This would set a limit on emissions below current levels and then allocate permits to pollute that could be bought and sold. The alternative would be to impose a direct tax on carbon dioxide emissions. …

The attraction of cap and trade for its supporters is that the cap sets a limit on emissions of carbon dioxide. But it’s difficult to get the limit right. The cap may be set too high to induce firms to make the large investments needed to reduce emissions. Or it may be set so low that costs skyrocket and political support to combat climate change falters.

The major disadvantage to cap and trade is that the price tag for reaching the target is highly uncertain. In contrast, a tax on emissions provides businesses and consumers with certainty about costs, while leaving the size of the reduction less certain. …

Instead, we suggest a tax on carbon dioxide in which all the proceeds collected by the government would be returned to Americans each year when they file income taxes. In contrast to current congressional proposals for cap and trade, a tax on carbon dioxide refunded directly to individuals would cut emissions while cushioning the impact on the pocketbooks of American families. ...

A carbon dioxide tax with refund is fair because the people responsible for the most emissions would pay the most. The tax would also be progressive. Many Americans with lower incomes would find the refund would more than defray the higher costs of gasoline and electric power.

A tax is simple and can be phased in quickly. It encourages individuals and businesses to make long-term decisions with confidence, rather than trying to guess what the future price of permits will be. With a tax and refund, consumers would only pay the extra costs associated with carbon abatement measures.

A carbon dioxide tax with refund can be implemented easily. It can be collected at a few key links in the supply chain: refineries, power plants or pipelines. …

A carbon dioxide tax can be easily adjusted as lower-cost means of reducing emissions are tapped and new technologies become available to tackle more difficult sources. The tax could be started low, but with a clear schedule of increases so that individuals, local governments and businesses will begin now to make the changes and investments required to dramatically reduce emissions within 15 years. …

U.S. consumers and industry need to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. A refunded carbon dioxide tax is the best way to achieve reductions. It is simple, good for the planet, and imposes the least additional costs on the American economy as compared to any other policy alternative. Most importantly it can be crafted to ease the burden on families and protect industries from unfair competition in the global marketplace.

–  Ken Cohen, vice-president for public affairs, ExxonMobil“ExxonMobil’s top executives on climate-change policy” (February 14, 2007):

[T]here are two debates that one can be participating in right now. One is: is climate change real? What is the cause? Call it the blame game or whatever you want. And the other discussion is: what we do about it?

We prefer to be involved in the second discussion, which is what do we do about climate change – what policies make sense to both produce the energy which the world absolutely has to have and do it in a way that starts us on a path to reduce emissions associated with the production and use of energy. …

Some have said for instance that we need to stabilise CO2 emissions at 550 parts per million. But that is more of a political conclusion than a scientific conclusion. It may be that we’ll learn that 550 ppm is not an aggressive enough target. It may be that science will tell us that the target needs to be something lower than 550 ppm. …

So yes, the policies need to be adjusted. Or conversely, it could be that the anthropogenic contribution can be mitigated somehow by sinks or what have you as we learn more. So, what we are trying to convey is: we know enough now to say that we need to be on a path to start addressing anthropogenic emissions. But we also need to keep the science effort going and we need to keep in mind the economic impacts of the policies. …

We are believers in the market system as the most efficient allocator of resources. We believe for example that markets do a much better job of picking winners and losers on the technology side than governments. So we believe that when we design policies we need to harness the power of the market system as best as we can within the policy that we are designing. … We are not saying, ‘laissez-faire’, just let the market operate. …

Politicians know this very well, one of the elements on our first principles is not political attractiveness. You don’t hear much discussion for example about a carbon tax. Yet most economists who look at this issue say that the most effective way to address carbon emissions would be with a carbon tax.

In fact, from an efficiency standpoint, from spreading the cost of carbon across the economy in an efficient and uniform and predictable way, as a way to maximize the use of markets, as someone who studied economics, yes I think that a carbon tax ought to be looked at with equal force as the other options.

Now, as we said before, the devil is in the details and there are a number of questions. Whether it is going to be a regressive tax? What would the rate of the tax be and making sure you don’t exclude people from it; what is the revenue going to be used for; are we going to take out another regressive tax? Or are we going to take that money and use it for some other purpose? So there are major issues that would need to be addressed, but from an economist’s standpoint and in fact, this is the favored option.

Ken Green, Steven Hayward and Kevin Hassett of AEI (The American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research ), “Climate Change: Caps vs. Taxes” (June 2007):

Most economists believe a carbon tax (a tax on the quantity of CO2 emitted when using energy) would be a superior policy alternative to an emissions-trading regime. In fact, the irony is that there is a broad consensus in favor of a carbon tax everywhere except on Capitol Hill, where the “T word” is anathema. Former vice president Al Gore supports the concept, as does James Connaughton, head of the White House Council on Environmental Quality during the George W. Bush administration. Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute supports such an initiative, but so does Paul Anderson, the CEO of Duke Energy. Crossing the two disciplines most relevant to the discussion of climate policy— science and economics—both NASA scientist James Hansen and Harvard University economist N. Gregory Mankiw give the thumbs up to a carbon tax swap.

There are many reasons for preferring a revenue neutral carbon tax regime (in which taxes are placed on the carbon emissions of fuel use, with revenues used to reduce other taxes) to emissions trading. Among them are: [the following are paragraph headings only]:

–        Effectiveness and Efficiency
–        Incentive Creation
–        Less Corruption
–        Elimination of Superfluous Regulations
–        Price-Stabilization 
–        Adjustability and Certainty
–        Preexisting Collection Mechanisms
–        Keeping Revenue In-Country 
–        Mitigation of General Economic Damages

A cap-and-trade approach to controlling GHG emissions would be highly problematic. A lack of international binding authority would render enforcement nearly impossible, while the incentives for cheating would be extremely high. The upfront costs of creating institutions to administer trading are significant and likely to produce entrenched bureaucracies that clamor for ever-tighter controls on carbon emissions. …

A program of carbon-centered tax reform, by contrast, lacks most of the negative attributes of cap-and-trade, and could convey significant benefits unrelated to GHG reductions or avoidance of potential climate harms, making this a no-regrets policy. A tax swap would create economy-wide incentives for energy efficiency and lower carbon energy, and by raising the price of energy would also reduce energy use. At the same time, revenues generated would allow the mitigation of the economic impact of higher energy prices, both on the general economy and on the lower-income earners who might be disproportionately affected by such a change. Carbon taxes would be more difficult to avoid, and existing institutions quite adept at tax collection could step up immediately.  Revenues would remain in-country, removing international incentives for cheating or insincere participation in carbon-reduction programs. Most of these effects would remain beneficial even if science should determine that reducing GHG emissions has only a negligible effect on mitigating global warming. …

Coal-based energy prices would be affected more strongly, which is to be expected in any plan genuinely intended to reduce GHG emissions. A number of possible mechanisms are available to refund the revenues raised by this tax. On net, these tools could significantly reduce the economic costs of the tax and quite possibly provide economic benefits.

Margo Thorning, Senior Vice President and Chief Economist at the American Council for Capital Formation (November 1, 2007 interview on E&E TV):

Margo Thorning: I think Senator Lieberman and Warner are to be commended for their efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, because I think we’re all united that that’s a goal we need to put a lot of resources into.

Q: One of the bill’s ideas is to set up a financial board of sorts that would oversee the new greenhouse gas market. What’s your take on setting up a board of regulators?

Margo Thorning: I think the idea of expecting regulators to know what the price of carbon should be is probably not very well grounded. It does serve as a backstop in that I assume if prices got so high that producers and households were experiencing severe economic pain they could say, well, just go ahead and emit. But it creates uncertainty, because for someone trying to invest in new equipment, if they don’t know what the price of carbon will be, that adds to the risk of the investment. That’s the problem with a cap-and-trade system and that’s what’s happening in Europe. Investors don’t know what the price of carbon will be from one month to the next or one year to the next and it’s been very volatile. So that makes the cost of capital higher, investment more uncertain, and produces less investment. An advantage of a carbon tax, if you want to impose some sort of penalty on carbon use, is that an investor knows, given the projected say set of increases in carbon prices from one year to the next, he knows what the carbon price will be and he can factor that in to what kind of capital equipment he buys, what sort of transport fleet he puts in place, and it provides more certainty. And it also, a carbon tax, provides a stream of revenue for the government to spend on new technology or to pay for offsetting the burden on low income individuals of higher energy prrevenue-neutralices.

Q:So, if you were given the opportunity to sort of write your own proposal of how the U.S. should reduce emissions and not hurt itself economically, you’d go with the carbon tax?

Margo Thorning: I would go with the carbon tax and more incentives for new technology development. And I would change the U.S. tax code, because we have the slowest depreciation allowances for new energy investment of 12 countries that we compared recently. We have very high capital costs for new investment because depreciation is so slow and our effective tax rate is very high, because our corporate tax rate is the highest in the industrial world. So our companies are disadvantaged vis-à-vis our trading partners because of our tax system.

Q: So, if a cap and trade is not the way to go as you’re saying, why has the business community come out in support of a cap and trade?

Margo Thorning: Well, a significant portion of the business community would prefer a carbon tax and there’s beginning to be more discussion about that. So I think one reason some in the business community have supported a cap and trade is they expect to make money on it. They’ve maybe made emission reductions or expect to be able to make emission reductions. They expect to be winners. On the other hand, new companies or companies that are expanding that need more credits will be losers. So the winners under a cap-and-trade system, as is for example in Europe, the big electric utilities have been winners because they’ve been able to pass forward to consumers the price of the carbon credit even though they were given those credits by the government. So people who expect to make money on it naturally are supportive.

– major economists:

• Terry Dinan of the Congressional Budget Office’s Microeconomic Studies Division – “Policy Options for Reducing CO2 Emissions” (outside reviewers were Billy Pizer (Resources for the Future) and Martin Weitzman (Harvard)(Feb. 2008):

Given the gradual nature of climate change, the uncertainty that exists about the cost of reducing emissions, and the potential variability of the cost of meeting a particular cap on emissions at different points in time, a tax could offer significant advantages. If policymakers chose to specify a long-term target for cutting emissions, a tax could be set at a rate that could meet that target at a lower cost than a comparable cap. In addition, if policymakers set the tax rate at a level that reflected the expected benefits of reducing a ton of emissions (which would rise over time), a tax would keep the costs of emission reductions in balance with the anticipated benefits, whereas a cap would not. …

CBO draws the following conclusions:
A tax on emissions would be the most efficient incentive-based option for reducing emissions and could be relatively easy to implement.

Analysts generally conclude that a tax would be a more efficient method of reducing CO2 emissions than an inflexible cap. The efficiency advantage of a tax stems from the contrast between the long-term cumulative nature of climate change and the short-term sensitivity of the cost of emission reductions. Climate change results from the buildup of CO2 in the atmosphere over several decades; emissions in any given year are only a small portion of that total. As a result, limiting climate change would require making substantial reductions in those emissions over many years, but ensuring that any particular limit was met in any particular year would result in little, if any, additional benefit (avoided damage). In contrast, the cost of cutting emissions by a particular amount in a given year could vary significantly depending on a host of factors, including the weather, disruptions in energy markets, the level of economic activity, and the availability of new low-carbon technologies (such as improvements in wind-power technology).

Relative to a cap-and-trade program with prespecified emission limits each year, a steadily rising tax could better accommodate cost fluctuations while simultaneously achieving a long-term target for emissions. Such a tax would provide firms with an incentive to undertake more emission reductions when the cost of doing so was relatively low and allow them to reduce emissions less when the cost of doing so was particularly high. In contrast, an inflexible cap-and-trade program would require that annual caps were met regardless of the cost, thereby failing to take advantage of low-cost opportunities to cut more emissions than were required by the cap and failing to provide firms with leeway in years when costs were higher.

The efficiency advantage of a tax over an inflexible cap depends on how likely it is that actual costs will differ from what policymakers anticipated when they set the level of the cap. Given the uncertainties involved, such differences are likely to be large—and, therefore, analysts generally conclude that the efficiency advantage of a tax is likely to be quite large. Specifically, available research suggests that in the near term, the net benefits (benefits minus costs) of a tax could be roughly five times greater than the net benefits of an inflexible cap. Put another way, a given long-term emission-reduction target could be met by a tax at a fraction of the cost of an inflexible cap-and-trade program. …

Administering an “upstream” tax or cap-and-trade program for CO2 emissions would involve taxing or regulating the suppliers of fossil fuels—such as coal producers, petroleum refiners, and natural gas processors. Compared with a “downstream” design, which would tax or regulate users of fossil fuels, an upstream approach would have two administrative advantages. It would involve regulating a limited number of entities, and it would not require firms to monitor actual emissions. Rather, each firm’s tax payment or allowance requirement could be based on the carbon content of its fuel and the amount it sold.

An upstream tax may be somewhat easier to implement than an upstream cap-and-trade program because many of the entities that would be covered by either policy are already subject to excise taxes. A CO2 tax could build on that existing structure. …

With harmonized taxes, lax monitoring or enforcement by any one country could reduce the incentives for emission reductions in that country. But with linked cap and-trade programs, laxity in one area could undermine the integrity of allowances throughout the entire system. …

A tax would have significantly lower start-up costs than a cap-and-trade program with grandfathering provided that policymakers did not decide to grant exemptions based on historical production or emissions data. Further, implementing a tax would not require the government to set up a process for auctioning allowances.

• CLIMATE CHANGE: Expert Opinion on the Economics of Policy Options to Address Climate Change, US GAO (Government Accounting Office) (May 2008)

• Greg Mankiw, “One Answer to Global Warming: A New Tax” (September 16, 2007) (Mankiw also keeps a list of other economists who are in his pro-tax “Pigou Club”, for which the anti-statist “No Pigou Club” is a useful counter-tonic):

Using a Pigovian tax to address global warming is also an old idea. It was proposed as far back as 1992 by Martin S. Feldstein on the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal. Once chief economist to Ronald Reagan ….

Those vying for elected office, however, are reluctant to sign on to this agenda. Their political consultants are no fans of taxes, Pigovian or otherwise. Republican consultants advise using the word “tax” only if followed immediately by the word “cut.” Democratic consultants recommend the word “tax” be followed by “on the rich.”

Yet this natural aversion to carbon taxes can be overcome if the revenue from the tax is used to reduce other taxes. By itself, a carbon tax would raise the tax burden on anyone who drives a car or uses electricity produced with fossil fuels, which means just about everybody. Some might fear this would be particularly hard on the poor and middle class.

But Gilbert Metcalf, a professor of economics at Tufts, has shown how revenue from a carbon tax could be used to reduce payroll taxes in a way that would leave the distribution of total tax burden approximately unchanged. …
The case for a carbon tax looks even stronger after an examination of the other options on the table. … [T]he history of cap-and-trade systems suggests that the allowances would probably be handed out to power companies and other carbon emitters, which would then be free to use them or sell them at market prices. In this case, the prices of energy products would rise as they would under a carbon tax, but the government would collect no revenue to reduce other taxes and compensate consumers.

The international dimension of the problem also suggests the superiority of a carbon tax over cap-and-trade.

Robert J. Shapiro, chairman of Sonecon, LLC, “Addressing Climate Change Without Impairing the U.S. Economy: The Economics and Environmental Science of Combining a Carbon-Based Tax and Tax Relief” (June 2008):

This study examines one such approach: Apply a tax or charge to fuels based on their carbon content, at the levels required to reduce emissions sufficiently to move to a path that over time would stabilize GHG concentrations in the atmosphere at sustainable levels; and use most of the revenues to reduce other taxes for people and businesses. This strategy would change the relative price of different forms of energy based on their carbon content, so that people and businesses have strong incentives to shift to alternative and less carbon-intensive fuels, and more energy-efficient technologies. The consequent economic burden on individuals and businesses would be largely offset by reductions in payroll taxes or in their effective burden, increasing the public’s willingness to accept a carbon-based tax.

Our analysis found that this strategy can reduce GHG emissions in the United States to levels consistent with substantially lowering the risks and threats of climate change, without slowing economic growth or reducing gains in people’s incomes to a significant degree, or imposing a regressive burden on low- and moderate-income Americans. …

Many economists support this approach to climate change, because it would directly and predictably raise the relative price of goods and services based on their carbon intensity, and so directly encourage consumers to prefer less carbon-intensive fuels, and products and businesses to adopt or develop less carbon or energy-intensive materials, technologies, production processes and fuels. Economists and governance experts also note that a carbon tax would not create the new price volatilities, administrative burdens, and large opportunities for evasion and fraud that could characterize a cap-and-trade program. By setting a predictable price for carbon emissions, it also creates clear and known incentives to develop and deploy more climate-friendly technologies and fuels.

Critics argue that it would raise costs and prices, and would dampen economic growth. They further note that no one favors higher taxes or the economic distortions they can cause, and consequently voters will resist paying a substantial new tax simply to avert unknown, adverse effects decades from now. We propose to address these shortcomings by returning the revenues from a carbon-based tax to households and businesses through other forms of tax relief, so that economic growth and the incomes of most households would be much less affected.

This carbon-based tax policy design should be preferable economically and politically to top-down regulation or cap-and-trade programs. To begin, traditional regulation and cap-and-trade programs treat a plant or industry’s initial carbon emissions as effectively “free,” up to the point of the regulatory ceiling or cap, while a carbon-based tax extracts a cost for emissions from the first part per million. In addition to the economic costs of introducing new volatility in energy prices, cap-and-trade programs and regulatory caps would impose other administrative and monitoring costs on consumers and businesses that would be generally comparable to a carbon-based tax, only in less obvious ways and in many cases with no additional revenues that could be rebated to offset their effects. … [C]onsumers and businesses also will end up paying the billions of additional dollars required to administer, monitor and enforce a cap and trade or regulatory system. … Moreover, much as voters would likely oppose significant new, climate-related taxes without offsetting tax relief, they will likely resist climate change regulation or a cap-and-trade program when they recognize the actual costs. …

Using the NEMS modeling system, we test the proposition that applying a new tax package on energy sources based on their carbon content, and using 90 percent of the revenues to reduce payroll taxes or their equivalent could bring down projected CO2 emissions to a path that should stabilize their atmospheric concentrations at levels safe for the global climate, and without materially affecting most people’s incomes or the economy’s capacity to grow and create jobs. 

• others, as summarized by The Wall Street Journal(Feb. 9, 2007),

George Will (as previously blogged)

Jim Hansen warns of slow-motion disaster and welcomes future public trials of fossil fuel CEOs for buying government delay

June 27th, 2008 5 comments

Prominent climatologist Dr. James Hansen, Director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and Adjunct Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia University, who has long been warning of the long-term consequences of man’s essentially uncontrolled experiment with the world’s climate through emissions of GHGs (CO, methane and CFCs), soot and agricultural practices, has recently ramped up his message that urgent action is needed in order to avoid triggering “dangerous” climate change in the form of rising temperatures and an irreversible melting of the Greenland and Antarctic ice caps. 

1.  Hansen has apparently decided that it is time to take the gloves off in a battle that he thinks requires government action, which action he views as having been delayed by fossil fuel firms that have benefitted from (and underwritten efforts to stall movement away from) the status quo.  Accordingly, in order to shift the political balance, Hansen has decided to call not merely for decreases in GHG emissions, but direct leverage against the fossil fuel companies (in an op-ed at the Huffington Post):

Special interests have blocked transition to our renewable energy future. Instead of moving heavily into renewable energies, fossil companies choose to spread doubt about global warming, as tobacco companies discredited the smoking-cancer link. Methods are sophisticated, including disguised funding to shape school textbook discussions.

CEOs of fossil energy companies know what they are doing and are aware of long-term consequences of continued business as usual. In my opinion, these CEOs should be tried for high crimes against humanity and nature. If their campaigns continue and “succeed” in confusing the public, I anticipate testifying against relevant CEOs in future public trials.

The fossil-industry maintains its stranglehold on Washington via demagoguery, using China and other developing nations as scapegoats to rationalize inaction. In fact, we produced most of the excess carbon in the air today, and it is to our advantage as a nation to move smartly in developing ways to reduce emissions. As with the ozone problem, developing countries can be allowed limited extra time to reduce emissions. They will cooperate: they have much to lose from climate change and much to gain from clean air and reduced dependence on fossil fuels.

(emphasis added)

Is this rhetoric appropriate?  Certainly not, even as the frustration that underlies it is an understandable manifestation of the frustration that is common (and perhaps unavoidable) in politicized fights over the use of government to satisfy one’s preferences over the preferences of others (viz., “rent-seeking”).  Granted, much is at stake (particularly if Hansen’s views of the risks are correct), and my sympathies are with Hansen (I am persuaded that his concerns have merit, and the rent-seeking by fossil fuel firms is undeniable), but such rhetoric is inappropriate as long as it is unsupported by allegations of actual criminal behavior – as opposed to simple frustration that the fossil fuel firms have been effective in lawfully manipulating the political system for their private gain. 

While a libertarian may sanction the use of moral suasion and opprobrium – even civil litigation – to strong-arm one’s opponents, calling for criminal sanctions by the state against those have successfully manipulated politicians and bureaucrats is a step that simply compounds the underlying illness of statist rent-seeking.

One suspects that Dr. Hansen is simply playing a public relations game, and is not serious about the “state trials”, as he has not called for the firms to be muzzled, but rather expressed his opinion and hope that they should some day be held to account for their actions.  Well, Dr. Hansen is certainly entitled to his opinion AND to castigate fossil fuel firms for behaviors that he objects to; while his rhetoric is disturbing, at least he’s only volunteering to be a witness and not prosecutor, judge and jury.

Sadly, differing preferences over how to use resources are inevitably politicized when there are no clear owners of such resources or ownership is socialized through government ownership or regulation.  The fossil fuel companies and their heavy users have clearly been rather adept at manipulating political levers up until now; whether Dr. Hansen’s effort to turn up the heat on them will be effective or simply provides them with more ammo remains to be seen.

2.  On another level, I do think that Hansen’s rhetoric on this is unfortunate, as it is likely to detract from his scientific message, which he elucidates very well in articles, presentations and scientific publications available at his Columbia U. webpage (linked above).  It also draws attention away from his specific policy positions, which have been critical of pork and bureaucratic management of the type presented by the Warner-Lieberman bill.   Hansen has recently expressed strong preference for a simple carbon tax that is fully rebated on a per capita basis, as further noted in the same op-ed (in which Hansen sounds very much like George Will, who also prefers a carbon tax over cap and trade):

Carbon tax on coal, oil and gas is simple, applied at the first point of sale or port of entry. The entire tax must be returned to the public, an equal amount to each adult, a half-share for children. This dividend can be deposited monthly in an individual’s bank account.

Carbon tax with 100 percent dividend is non-regressive. On the contrary, you can bet that low and middle income people will find ways to limit their carbon tax and come out ahead. Profligate energy users will have to pay for their excesses.

Demand for low-carbon high-efficiency products will spur innovation, making our products more competitive on international markets. Carbon emissions will plummet as energy efficiency and renewable energies grow rapidly. Black soot, mercury and other fossil fuel emissions will decline. A brighter, cleaner future, with energy independence, is possible.

Washington likes to spend our tax money line-by-line. Swarms of high-priced lobbyists in alligator shoes help Congress decide where to spend, and in turn the lobbyists’ clients provide “campaign” money.

Hansen’s “tax and 100% dividend” proposal, which he floated earlier this month, is based on Peter Barnes’s “Sky Trust” cap and dividend approach outlined in “Who Owns the Sky: Our Common Assets and the Future of Capitalism” (Island Press, Washington, D.C., 2001) and reviewed here.

3.  Libertarian legal scholar Jonathan Adler cited Hansen’s op-ed at the Volokh Conspiracy blog; I copy below a few comments that I noted in response:

Jon, first, let’s not forget that Hansen is specifically addressing not only oil cos but also the coal firms like Peabody and Massey – firms that are leaving massive messes because either they deal in publicly owned and bureaucratically administered land or because they’ve managed to capture the police, prosecutorial, judicial and political machinery where they operate, as well as the favor of the administration and federal regulators [see my blog post here].

Second, all of his words about public trials notwithstanding, Hansen is obviously waging battle in the courts of public opinion, which is obviously something he has every right to and, far from infringing libertarian principles, seems entirely consistent with them. As Gene Callahan has recently noted,

One way negative externalities can be addressed without turning to state coercion is public censure of individuals or groups widely perceived to be flouting core moral principles or trampling the common good, even if their actions are not technically illegal. Large, private companies and prominent, wealthy individuals are generally quite sensitive to public pressure campaigns.

After all, if libertarians had their way and government stepped out of the roads and regulatory businesses, it’s long been the libertarian position that private actions, including lawsuits against road owners, would lead to voluntary collective actions and large damage suits that would better manage resources by incentivizing reductions in pollution and other externalities. (In this context, there are, of course, private action suits now under way against the major fossil fuel firms for climate change damage; these face obvious hurdles, but a libertarian might wish for success, simply to breathe a little more life into common law remedies and take the pressure off of the demands for state action.)

Libertarians do not, as a matter of principle, object to informal public pressure. It is simply Hansen’s implication that criminal trials are more appropriate than the common law tort mechanism – which is sadly not too well known and admittedly rather withered due to the success in polluters in subverting injunctive remedies and in capturing the resulting regulatory process – that offends.

On the policy end, of course Hansen does have a statist proposal, but it is probably the cleanest one out there: the carbon tax and 100% rebate proposal, which would put all carbon tax revenues back in the pockets of Americans and than cut short alot of the rent-seeking and pork-management efforts now underway. That’s why George Will has recently concluded that a carbon tax is the best approach.

[Update] Another Clear Thinker at Mises warns us about "The vicious lie behind the global warming scare"!!!

June 26th, 2008 No comments

This time it`s David Veksler, with a post on the main LvMI blog, with the title I`ve quoted above.

Why is it that so many Mises commentators flee from reason and prefer a fever-pitched focus on strawmen when it comes to addressing environmental issues?

I copy below my comments on the thread [note:  I’ve added a few links, along with bracketed comments]:

David, I read your post with interest, but came away disappointed, for a number of reasons.

First and foremost, you didn`t identify the “vicious lie” behind the global warming scare.  What`s the lie, what`s vicious about it, and who`s behind it?

Second, even if THERE BE VICIOUS LIARS behind the AGW scare (the monolithic movement of envirofascist/commie/watermelon man-haters), you really haven`t helped me figure out why it`s so important  that we should focus our attention and energies on the vicious liars

Do they occupy the entire universe of people who have announced their concern over climate change, man`s likely role in it and what if anything we should do on  a organized basis about it?  Or do they so predominantly provide the driving power and strategy for such concerns that we should simply ignore everyone else as mere puppets of the All Powerful Enviros – that is, all of the prestigious National Academies of Science (East, West and South), other scientific associations, the period internationally reviewed digests of ongoing scientific work regarding climate change, all of the world leaders who have backed study and action for the past twenty years, corporate leaders (including captains of insurance, finance, industry, power and fossil fuels), leaders of established religions, and defense and intelligence heads?

Third, assuming again that there are vicious enviro-liars, you clearly overstate their views on geo-engineering, which run the gamut from reflexive opposition to a nuanced recognition that, given the long-lasting effects of GHGs and the continued ramp up in emissions worldwide, some degree of geo-engineering may be desirable. [Enviro-liars like me have made a number of blog posts on geo-engineering]

Fourth, you paint, without support or discussion, a rosy picture of how cheap and effective geo-engineering is likely to be.  I`m not very well-read in this, but from what I`ve seen, they are not cheap or certain and offer potential negative consequences as well.

Fifth, you ignore the fact that the institutional settings in which geo-engineering will occur are clearly statist.  The firms that have started to explore “ocean fertilization” have done so in the expectation that carbon capture and sequestration efforts would be compensated under incentives created by carbon-trading schemes.  While your tacit approval of use by states of tax dollars to cure problems that our industries have created for us seems hardly libertarian – in the face of adamant opposition to the decades-old arguments (by vicious liars like Stephen Hawking [whom you link to], Joe Stiglitz, Kenneth Arrow, Thomas Schelling, Robert Mendelsohn, William Nordhaus, Martin Weitzman and Gregg Mankiw [many whom I’ve referred to a number of times]) that governments introduce disincentives to GHG releasing activities – it certainly seems rather prevalent.  [In effect – the principled/preferred approach seems to be to let industry transfer costs to others and THEN use government/tax dollars to pay for remediation; that way, politicians can dole out pork twice – first, by looking the other way; then, by regulating in a way that locks in advantages for established firms.]

Dr. Reisman, for example, has thought long and hard and come up with a number of brilliant statist ideas, for which he longs for a good old-fashioned heavy industry-loving left to spearhead, including the following:

“there is a case for considering the possible detonation, on uninhabited land north of 70° latitude, say, of a limited number of hydrogen bombs. … This is certainly something that should be seriously considered by everyone who is concerned with global warming and who also desires to preserve modern industrial civilization and retain and increase its amenities. If there really is any possibility of global warming so great as to cause major disturbances, this kind of solution should be studied and perfected. Atomic testing should be resumed for the purpose of empirically testing its feasibility.”

Sixth, you fail to explain to your readers on the basis of Austrian understandings – from von Mises through Block and Cordato – why we should not take seriously the expressed concerns of the vicious enviro-liars (or others) about AGW.  Are there no problems that arise when property rights are not in place for open-access resources or are not clearly aligned to external costs, or if homesteading and private transactions are not practical?  Or when resources are “owned”, but mismanaged by governments and fought over by rent-seekers in political battles?  In such cases, do Austrian insights tell us to ignore the preferences and frustrations of particular groups of people, in favor of other groups that apparently have done a better job of purchasing political influence? 

Seventh, as a tactical matter, are essays like this the best approach to productively engaging the all-powerful enviro-liars?

Shall we ignore any underlying commons problems simply because we hate the vicious enviro-liars?  Or is it your view that, in hating the enviro-liars, we most effectively resolve commons issues – by clarifying that powerful industries (those few not controlled by enviro-liars, that is) have first dibs on them, and that those with other preferences need to pay off industry (and their political handlers)? [Of so, then have we just clarified the applicable property-rights rules?  Great!  Now citizens and other groups will know how to proceed to with “market” transactions!]

I could go on, but as you can see, I`m simply puzzled and lack your clear views about whom we should hate and what we should do.

Sadly, my confusion seems to be shared by a number of others here, who also seem confused about the principled basis and efficacy of hating enviro-liars, whomever and wherever they may be.

In fact, the responses by others here are almost enough to make a good Austrian wonder whether even the Mises board has been infiltrated and infected by vicious enviro-liars!

You might consider asking the blog administrators to take close note of those who are clear sympathizers of the enviro-liars, and where appropriate to suspend commenting or blogging privileges, such as for particularly vicious and unprincipled man-haters.  Watermelons should be roasted whenever and wherever found, I say!  Enviro-haters, unite! 

Or maybe you`re way ahead of me on that? 

[There’s gotta be a good way, after all, to remove the “stain” of those nasty enviros or to at least to contain the infection threat posed by their evil but insidious views.  Let me know if I can make any further suggestions.]



New Federal report

June 24th, 2008 No comments


Changes in extreme weather and climate events have significant impacts and are among the most serious challenges to society in coping with a changing climate. 

Many extremes and their associated impacts are now changing.  For example, in recent decades most of North America has been experiencing more unusually hot days and nights, fewer unusually cold days and nights, and fewer frost days. Heavy downpours have become more frequent and intense. Droughts are becoming more severe in some regions, though there are no clear trends for North America as a whole. The power and frequency of Atlantic hurricanes have increased substantially in recent decades, though North American mainland land-falling hurricanes do not appear to have increased over the past century. Outside the tropics, storm tracks are shifting northward and the strongest storms are becoming even stronger.

It is well established through formal attribution studies that the global warming of the past 50 years is due primarily to
human-induced increases in heat-trapping gases. Such studies have only recently been used to determine the causes of some changes in extremes at the scale of a continent. Certain aspects of observed increases in temperature extremes
have been linked to human influences. The increase in heavy precipitation events is associated with an increase in water
vapor, and the latter has been attributed to human-induced warming. No formal attribution studies for changes in drought severity in North America have been attempted. There is evidence suggesting a human contribution to recent changes in hurricane activity as well as in storms outside the tropics, though a confident assessment will require further study.

In the future, with continued global warming, heat waves and heavy downpours are very likely to further increase in
frequency and intensity. Substantial areas of North America are likely to have more frequent droughts of greater severity.  Hurricane wind speeds, rainfall intensity, and storm surge levels are likely to increase. The strongest cold season storms are likely to become more frequent, with stronger winds and more extreme wave heights.

Weather and climate extremes (Figure ES1)
have always posed serious challenges to society.
Changes in extremes are already having
impacts on socioeconomic and natural systems,
and future changes associated with continued
warming will present additional challenges.
Increased frequency of heat waves and drought,
for example, could seriously affect human
health, agricultural production, water availability
and quality, and other environmental condi-
tions (and the services they provide) (Chapter
1, section 1.1).

Human-induced warming is known to affect
climate variables such as temperature and
precipitation. Small changes in the averages
of many variables result in larger changes in
their extremes. Thus, within a changing climate
system, some of what are now considered to
be extreme events will occur more frequently,
while others will occur less frequently (e.g.,
more heat waves and fewer cold snaps [FiguresES.1, ES.3, ES.4]). Rates of change matter since
these can affect, and in some cases overwhelm,
existing societal and environmental capacity.
More frequent extreme events occurring over
a shorter period reduce the time available for
recovery and adaptation. In addition, extreme
events often occur in clusters. The cumulative
effect of compound or back-to-back extremes
can have far larger impacts than the same events
spread out over a longer period of time. For
example, heat waves, droughts, air stagnation,
and resulting wildfires often occur concurrently
and have more severe impacts than any of these
alone (Chapter 1, section 1.2).

Climate models indicate that currently rare extreme
events will become more commonplace.
For example, for a mid-range scenario of future
greenhouse gas emissions, a day so hot that it is
currently experienced only once every 20 years
would occur every three years by the middle of
the century over much of the continental U.S.
and every five years over most of Canada. By
the end of the century, it would occur every
other year or more (Chapter 3, section 3.3.1).

Extreme precipitation episodes (heavy downpours)
have become more frequent and more
intense in recent decades over most of North
America and now account for a larger percentage
of total precipitation. For example,
intense precipitation (the heaviest 1% of daily
precipitation totals) in the continental U.S.
increased by 20% over the past century while
total precipitation increased by 7% (Chapter 2,

Heavy precipitation events averaged over North
America have increased over the past 50 years,
consistent with the observed increases in atmospheric
water vapor, which have been associated with human-induced increases in greenhouse
gases (Chapter 3, section 3.2.3).
Projected Changes
On average, precipitation is likely to be less frequent
but more intense (Figure ES.4), and precipitation
extremes are very likely to increase
(see Table ES.1; Figure ES.5).

Weather and Climate Extremes in a Changing Climate


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George Will on why a carbon tax is much preferable to cap and trade

June 24th, 2008 3 comments

The Warner-Lieberman bill has been withdrawn for consideration by Congress this year – and thank goodness. 

Why do I say that?  A few weeks ago George Will published a column that explains very clearly why we are fortunate that this bill has been put on hold, and why, if any climate change policy is to be adopted by government, a carbon tax is much preferable to cap and trade.  Here are excerpts (with my emphasis added in bold):

If carbon emissions are the planetary menace that the political class suddenly says they are, why not a straightforward tax on fossil fuels based on each fuel’s carbon content? This would have none of the enormous administrative costs of the baroque cap-and-trade regime. And a carbon tax would avoid the uncertainties inseparable from cap-and-trade’s government allocation of emission permits sector by sector, industry by industry. So a carbon tax would be a clear and candid incentive to adopt energy-saving and carbon-minimizing technologies. That is the problem.

A carbon tax would be too clear and candid for political comfort. It would clearly be what cap-and-trade deviously is, a tax, but one with a known cost. Therefore, taxpayers would demand a commensurate reduction of other taxes. Cap-and-trade — government auctioning permits for businesses to continue to do business — is a huge tax hidden in a bureaucratic labyrinth of opaque permit transactions. …

Lieberman guesses that the market value of all permits would be “about $7 trillion by 2050.” Will that staggering sum pay for a $7 trillion reduction of other taxes? Not exactly.

It would go to a Climate Change Credit Corporation, which Lieberman calls “a private-public entity” that, operating outside the budget process, would invest “in many things.” This would be industrial policy, a.k.a. socialism, on a grand scale — government picking winners and losers, all of whom will have powerful incentives to invest in lobbyists to influence government’s thousands of new wealth-allocating decisions.

Lieberman’s legislation also would create a Carbon Market Efficiency Board empowered to “provide allowances and alter demands” in response to “an impact that is much more onerous” than expected. And Lieberman says that if a foreign company selling a product in America “enjoys a price advantage over an American competitor” because the American firm has had to comply with the cap-and-trade regime, “we will impose a fee” on the foreign company “to equalize the price.” Protectionism-masquerading-as-environmentalism will thicken the unsavory entanglement of commercial life and political life.

McCain, who supports Lieberman’s unprecedented expansion of government’s regulatory reach, is the scourge of all lobbyists (other than those employed by his campaign). But cap-and-trade would be a bonanza for K Street, the lobbyists’ habitat, because it would vastly deepen and broaden the upside benefits and downside risks that the government’s choices mean for businesses.

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

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?

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

: 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.

: Government.

: 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.

More on deliberate cooling via geo-engineering

June 21st, 2008 No comments

See Ron Bailey’s recent summary of developments about whether it may be possible to buy time on climate change with technological fixes.

Libertarian Iain Murray supports government funding of geo-engineering approaches.  See my previous posts for more on geo-engineering.

More at the NYT’s Dot Earth blog

Possible geo-engineering obviously poses a number of sticky issues regarding government action in this area, including justification, choices of technology and responsibility for possible risks.


GAO releases report summarizing views of leading economists on climate change policy

June 20th, 2008 No comments

At the request of Congress, the General Accounting Office has prepared and recently publicly released a report, “Expert Opinion on Economics of Policy Options to Address Climate Change,” which summarizes the views of leading climate change economists in the U.S. on the cost and benefits of taking national action on climate change and regarding various policy options.

Key items from the transmittal cover letter to Congress include the following:

All of the panelists agreed that the Congress should consider using a market-based mechanism to establish a price on greenhouse gas emissions.

The majority of panelists agreed that the United States should establish a price on greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible regardless of the extent to which other countries adopt similar policies. At the same time, the majority of panelists said it was at least somewhat important to participate in international negotiations on climate change.

Experts differed on the initial stringency of the market-based mechanism, with 14 of the 18 panelists recommending an initial price between less than $1 and $20 per ton of emissions.

14 of 18 panelists were at least moderately certain that the benefits of their recommended portfolio of actions would outweigh the costs.

To establish a price on emissions, most of the panelists preferred either a tax on emissions or a hybrid policy that incorporates features of both a tax and a cap-and-trade program. A tax would set a fixed price on every ton of emissions, whereas a cap-and-trade program would limit or cap total emissions and establish a market for trading (buying and selling) permits to emit a specific amount of greenhouse gases. Under the cap-and-trade system, the market would determine the price of emissions. A hybrid system differs from a traditional cap-and-trade system in that the government would cap emissions, but could sell additional emissions permits if the permit price rose above a predetermined level.

Panelists identified key strengths and limitations of alternative policy approaches that should be of assistance to the Congress in weighing the potential benefits and costs of different policies for addressing climate change. Many panelists said that a cap-and-trade program would be more effective in achieving a desired level of greenhouse gas emissions because, unlike a tax, it would provide certainty that emissions wouldn’t exceed a certain level. However, some of the panelists also said that taxes would be more cost-effective than a cap-and-trade program because the price of emissions would be certain and not susceptible to market fluctuations. Eight panelists therefore preferred a hybrid approach that incorporates features of both a tax and a cap-and-trade program.

On average, the panelists rated cost effectiveness as the most important criterion for evaluating various policy options.

Finally, panelists said an important strength of using a market-based approach is the ability for the government to raise revenue through a tax or the sale of emissions permits and to use that revenue to offset the adverse effects of the policy.

The introduction contains a brief but useful summary of climate change knowledge and policy action to date in the US and internationally, as well as an extensive bibliography.

Economists consulted in preparing the report include:

Joseph Aldy, Resources for the Future
James Edmonds, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory
Richard Howarth, Dartmouth College
Bruce McCarl, Texas A&M University
Robert Mendelsohn, Yale University
William Nordhaus, Yale University
Sergey Paltsev, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
William Pizer, Resources for the Future
David Popp, Syracuse University
John Reilly, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Roger Sedjo, Resources for the Future
Kathleen Segerson, University of Connecticut
Brent Sohngen, Ohio State University
Robert Stavins, Harvard University
Richard Tol, Economic and Social Research Institute
Martin Weitzman, Harvard University
Peter Wilcoxen, Syracuse University
Gary Yohe, Wesleyan University

Categories: climate change, cost-benefit, economists, GAO Tags: