Monday, June 29, 2009

A Moment Worthy of Reflection

House passage of the Waxman-Markey bill last Friday deserves a moment of quiet reflection. For anyone who has followed the internal politics, it is hard to convey how dicey this looked a few months ago. The bill is far from perfect – the 2020 target is too low and too many permits are assigned gratis. But none of that matters. If something like this bill survives the Senate, it will be good enough to set the United States on a unilateral path to de-carbonization. Never mind that the levels will likely turn out to be too conservative. With a basic mechanism in place to internalize the costs of carbon, as reality sets in we can always ratchet up the targets. And the same is true of the rest of the world. This bill, if it becomes law before the end of the year, may set a low bar for the rest of the world to sign on to. But here too, once there is consensus on a way forward, it will be much easier to push collectively for a steeper rate of de-carbonization. Easier, but by no means easy. There has been a Faustian deal in selling this legislation – that it will be accompanied by economic growth. That may be true in the short run. But in the long run, internalizing the true cost of carbon will extract a high price and an uneven one at that, as some sectors of economy will be much more affected than others. For developed economies there will be enough surplus wealth to ease the transition for those most affected. The Developing World is a wholly different story. There the costs (in terms of lowered rates of economic development) will be much larger and hard to offset than most are willing to admit. As such, the real challenge may not be so much getting an agreement as much as sticking to it.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Interlude – Reflection on the National Academies of Sciences meeting on Geoengineering.

As I have written elsewhere I do NOT think the issues of geo are primarily ethical (in any sense different from ethical issues in rest of science and technology) as much as they are methodological.
The methodological issues arise to the extent intervention is planetary wide– be it albedo geo or carbon capture – AND sub-scale experimentation also has to be planetary wide as well.
Under these circumstances the potential costs of “unknown unknowns” are quite different from lab or limited “field” experiments.
As such, the burden of proof is for researchers to show that we know enough about the atmospheric (and ocean) systems to delimit the range of risk OR that we know enough to project from sub-scale intervention to full scale intervention.
I am not saying such arguments can’t be made – but they have not been laid on the table as yet. I suspect we do know enough about both the atmosphere and the ocean (based on theory, history and volcanic activity) to have high confidence that there would be no large scale catastrophic weird non-linearities.
As such, if that were right one could make an extrapolation from sub-scale to scale in strength or extrapolate in time.
That said, none of this covers issues of social, economic, cultural or agricultural effects. But I doubt these are areas in which the worst case scenarios would be deal breakers – at least when it comes to sub-scale experimentation.
Of course, to the extent that there are non planetary wide geo options they are to be vastly preferred because one can limit risks associated with unknowns in experimental stages.
On moral hazard – this is something about which there is research, we ought not to proceed on the basis of intuition or anecdote. That said, from a policy point of view, I think it is as important to find out if sulfur injection works technically just to take it off the table for policy makers as a fix as to leave it on.
Finally, it is a mistake to view geo as the first time we have engaged in an intentional planetary wide intervention. For example, killing off smallpox was just such an intervention and done deliberately. If you think the later was justified (and most do), you need something more to make the argument that geo is morally impermissible merely in virtue of our hubris.
We are at a fork in the road in which we need to de-carbonize. Can we do that with less risk and damage if we do it with geo or without? That is the crucial comparison class.

Monday, June 15, 2009

The Core Narrative of Climate Change – 3

The Financial Times (June 13th 2009, p. 4) outlines part of the deal: “In return for funding … [technology transfer] … rich countries want legally binding commitments from developing countries that they will “deviate from business as usual”. That is, curb their emissions so they do not reach the level expected if economic growth continues along a high-carbon path.” But what counts as business as usual? Fancy counterfactual worries aside, you might interpret this within the taxonomy of the IPCC models – as A1F1 – that is, low population growth, rapid technological development and unconstrained reliance on fossil fuels. China and India already have so-called “low carbon” development plans in place. But in the case of China (India’s is not specific enough), “low” means restraining carbon for stabilization at 550ppm (assuming a fair share per capita output basis) and that already assumes technology transfer – at least in the case of India. But whether or not you view to promise of technology transfer as buying you more climate saving than the low carbon plans or essential to them, the key unexamined assumption is this: is the technology available to achieve these goals whoever is paying for it? There are two issues here: 1. Is there enough of it? 2. Is it of the right kind?

Monday, June 8, 2009

The Core Narrative of Climate Change – 2

Current discussion about international climate change is in part a dance about who goes first. It is also a dance about who will follow. The Developed World is expected to go first (at a credible level) to establish its bona fides and, then, and only then, will the Developing World follow. Will? Or might? And either way, follow in equal measure or if not, how much? Suppose China signals the United States to give enough assurances that it will follow, and follow enough, for the United States to decide to go first, and first at a credible level. What is “going first” going to involve? It has been generally assumed that, whatever else, it is going to involve massive technology transfer to the Developing World as a way of offsetting the United States over production of carbon. The only way to seriously reduce carbon output in the United States is to buy the shares of other countries. As their energy output increases, the carbon they could put out, as within their fair share (on, for example, a per capita allotment) gets produced by clean energy that the Developed World pays for. In the comforting graphs people like to draw, the Developed World carbon output trends downward, prompted by domestic measures, and is offset by a slowed upward trend in the Developing World output - slowed by technology transfer. And if all is to end well, these two trends will sum to a total carbon output in 2050that yields a stable level of atmospheric carbon at 450ppm. So what is wrong with this picture?

Monday, June 1, 2009

The Core Narrative of Climate Change

Debates about climate change are governed and shaped by a core narrative that has two key elements: 1. We (or depending on your perspective, They, the Developed World) caused the problem. 2. They (or, We, the Developing World) are going to be the one's to suffer. Over the next few months I am going to be writing about this narrative and its flaws - for it is only correct in a very narrow and misleading sense. Who did what, I am going to argue, is much more complex and, to some extent, beside the point. Who is going to suffer, also makes for a much more complex story but here the details are far from being beside the point - they are going to be central. Central to an argument that relying on this core narrative is not going to get us where we want to be as far as limiting greenhouse gas output.