Monday, December 29, 2008

Voluntary Vaccination

In some places in the United States you are not required to have your child immunized against childhood diseases. For whatever reason, some people decline to do so and place all unimmunized children at risk. But that includes some children (under 12 months old) that are too young to be immunized. So the risk pool includes more than those whose parents have chosen not to have them immunized as a matter of choice. Assume there is some risk of immunization. Assume if everyone else gets immunized, I don’t need to – since the chance of my child becoming infected false to near zero. Then altruism aside, why should I get my child immunized? The set up is ready made for me to act as free rider – but so it is for everyone else, which would place us all at risk. Here is a prime example in which making choice an individual matter produces an outcome to the disadvantage of all. A collective choice sidesteps that by limiting individual choice. But in a democracy, we are then put in a position of having to (individually) choose to limit our own freedom. Why would we do that? If I elect not to be a free rider, I need to worry that others will. A vote guarantees that if I elect not to be a free rider, nobody else can either. But as with vaccination so with energy.

Monday, December 22, 2008

The New Jersey 2050 Plan

New Jersey has released the draft of its green house gas reduction plan for 2020 and 2050: http://www.state.nj.us/globalwarming/home/stakeholder.html .
“The 2050 limit – reduce emissions to a level 80 percent below 2006 emission levels … represents the emission level necessary to avoid the worse potential effects from climate change. … Citizens of New Jersey will have to govern, work and live much differently than we do now, with an emphasis on smarter and greater efficiency. The existing and conventional policies, practices, behaviors, and technologies that brought us to the current problems will obviously not lead to their solutions.”

Monday, December 15, 2008

The Empirical Mind

At CSP we are committed to measuring the success of interventions to change people's behavior empirically – that is we want actual measure of things like energy behavior not people’s self reports. That is reasonably easy to do with a cooperating partner like a utility company. But what if you are interested in measuring changes in people’s attitudes? To my mind, the crisis of climate is much more a matter of winning citizen support for government policy than a matter of changing individual behavior. Individual behavior simply lacks the impact to make a difference – even in aggregate. It is not just that individual households are only part of the climate problem. It is more that changing our behavior is a function of the choices we have available to us and those are not under our control – even our collective control. Take public transportation. We may all be ready to take it but that is of no value if it is not there. And it won’t be there without a government decision to build it. But as government acts in the long run, its actions will inevitably chafe. Winning voter acquiescence for government action is therefore crucial. And so understanding how to do that is crucial as well. But how do you find an empirical measure of what works? Stay tuned.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Vacuum Cleaner for the Air?

Some people litter. It would be better if they didn’t. We can exhort them to do otherwise. It only helps a bit. So we threaten fines. But actually imposing the fines is just too costly. It is cheaper to hire street sweepers. Cleaning the environment is more practical than trying to change each miscreant’s behavior. As with littering, so with greenhouse gasses, I want to argue. It is not that we should stop trying to limit them at the source. But in the final analysis it may be more practical to concentrate on cleaning up the air after the fact.

When we release carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere it eventually gets reabsorbed – some by trees and plants, but most by the oceans. In the pre-industrial world, atmospheric CO2 was stable at about 270 parts per million. It is now at 380 parts per million and there is an overwhelming scientific consensus that we need to limit carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to at most 450 parts per million, if only on grounds of prudence. So we have 70 parts per million left to spend. At our current rate of output we will do so within 25 years. After that we will only be able to put out what Nature can absorb if we want CO2 to remain at a steady state in the atmosphere. So once we reach our limit, Nature’s rate of absorption will determine our carbon allowance going forward. The prevailing popular assumption has been that the carbon cycle is about 100 years. That is to say, the CO2 put into the atmosphere prior to 1908 has now been fully reabsorbed. But Nature may not be nearly that forgiving. We may be off by a factor of 100! If it takes 10,000 years for CO2 to be fully reabsorbed, once we spend our budget and reach 450 parts per million that will be it! To remain in a steady state, we will effectively need to be on a zero CO2 diet – unless we can remove anything we put out.

Even if we do just that for coal fired power plants, that won’t solve the problem. They constitute only 25% of our total carbon output. The rest comes from many other sources. Some are large, like manufacturing processes. But much comes from you and me as we conduct our daily lives. That is only going to get worse as developing economies grow. Urbanization, electrification, and transportation will drive such carbon output. And even if we had the resolve to do so, regulating the effects of these kinds of social transformations will be extraordinarily difficult to administer.

Instead, cleaning up this output from the air may in the end be a more practical solution. It is a solution that has three other virtues. First, a 100 year cycle would have the virtue of wiping the historical slate clean in a reasonable amount of time. But in a 10,000 year cycle, the carbon output of the now developed world is still with us, and is going to be with us, as is an historical responsibility to clean up our mess. Second, if 450 part per million turns out to be too liberal a level for our collective well being, we would have a way to remove more CO2 to reach a more desirable level. Third, there is no guarantee that a world-wide consensus on what counts as a prudent level of CO2 will emerge. The tradeoff between economic growth and global warming may look very different depending on how well off you are in the here and now. An option to clean the air would allow those who care the most, and can afford to pay for it, to act on their own behalf even as everyone else might benefit.

But is there any prospect of us actually cleaning the air? The fact of the matter is that if carbon capture and sequestration can be developed for coal power plants, a variant of the same technology ought to be possible for ambient CO2. Research in this area is already underway – with the prospect of ambient CO2 capture units being placed in locations that have sustained winds that can be used to both move air through the units and power them. As always, God is in the details. But as we hopefully move forward with a well thought out program for climate research with a new administration, working out those details deserves to be given a high property.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Where are we?

In the outgoing congress, there were 45 reliable votes for serious climate change legislation in the Senate. The bad news is that despite the changed makeup of the Senate, the count is about the same – 6 votes short of a majority and 14-16 vote short of a veto proof majority (depending on how races in Minnesota and Georgia come out). That makes it all the more crucial to focus on the question of the White House. Not since the Johnson administration, has a president come in with the political capital to set an agenda and demand congressional assent. Climate change legislation may only occur to the extent that Obama is willing to spend that political capital to make it a priority. And we know such capital has a short shelf life. But the route to this legislation is unlikely to be direct. Before the economic crisis, one might have hoped for climate legislation to have been greased for passage with the promise of green job investments along with hand waving about energy independence. The collapse of oil prices removes the immediate political value of the second of these. But the economic crisis makes the green job investments central. So central, that we should no longer expect a climate bill with them a secondary but an employment bill with the climate provisions as secondary. That is not going to be easy to pull off. Climate provisions, like a 20% reduction by 2020 and 80% by 2050 are not in and of themselves politically attractive. So if they are add-ons to a (green) jobs bill there will be all sorts of incentives to lop them off. Still, it may be the only politically viable option at this point.