Why I’m a Climate Hawk

A few people have asked me why I care about climate.  Why get worked up, they ask, about something that won’t get really bad until after I’m dead?  The question’s a bit confusing for me, because my concern is motivated by the same basic values I think drive most Americans to do what we do—and they have little to do with rational self-interest.

Here are the five reasons I’m a climate hawk:

5. Property rights – If I were to sit in my yard and spray a garden hose through your window into your house, you would have every right to be mad at me.  You would even have the right to ask the government to make me stop.  Why?  Because I’d be violating your property. By the same token, factories that burn fossil fuels dump carbon dioxide into my atmosphere, and the resultant climate disruption will damage property values worldwide, whether beaches swamped by rising seas or farmland turned to desert.  It seems reasonable that property owners and air breathers should have a say in whether polluters can dump pollution onto their property—or at least to have polluters compensate them for damages.  (Credit to Matt Yglesias for the garden hose analogy)

4. Markets – I have no doubt in the market’s almost endless ability to produce innovation in response to changes in the business environment—including changes such as a price on carbon. Where bureaucrats see barriers, innovators and entrepreneurs see opportunity, inventing previously unimagined solutions to get around these barriers—as long as the market tells them there’s profit to be had.  The problem is, when the dominant players are permitted to dump climate-disrupting pollution onto other people’s property for free, it allows them to charge artificially lower prices for their products, undercutting innovative startups’ ability to challenge their dominance. That’s why I support pricing carbon properly to allow the market to do its work.

3. America – America doesn’t need a permission slip from other countries to do what’s right.  That’s why I’m tired of Negative Nancys saying we should wait around for other countries to do something about climate before we do anything ourselves.  Since when does America base its actions on what Tuvalu does?  Being a leader means taking personal responsibility to do what’s right, whether or not others follow—and if you’re a strong enough leader, others will follow.   So when I hear pessimists saying America should just wuss out on climate and let developing countries take the lead, it makes me think, these ostensible patriots must not think America has much left to say on the world stage.

2. Jobs – The engine of job creation isn’t just small business—it’s new business.  Research cited in the Wall Street Journal shows that nearly all jobs created in the US since 1980 were in firms younger than 5 years old; more recent NBER studies confirm this.  But since few new firms turn a profit in their early years, tax rates have almost nothing to do with their success.  This means that the best way to create jobs isn’t by cutting taxes, but rather by removing barriers to entry for new firms, as well as challenging existing players to do more with what they have (especially when big firms are sitting on $1 trillion of idle cash).  Carbon pricing, loan guarantees for clean energy and efficiency, and other common sense solutions would create markets for new firms to enter, and give existing companies the certainty they need to launch new business units.  And this means jobs—real jobs, making stuff, not just sticking our hands in the next guy’s pocket.

1. Personal responsibility – While I certainly believe that addressing climate disruption makes both patriotic and economic sense, that’s not what this issue ultimately boils down to.  For me, it’s a simple issue of personal responsibility – and personal responsibility doesn’t go away when we walk into our place of business.  I’m all for pursuing our individual self-interest, as long as we play within the rules of the game.  At the very least, that means not pillaging what belongs to others as we go about our business.  This is true from the mundane to the cosmic.  If I deplete the last of the office coffee, it’s my responsibility to renew that resource by putting on a new pot for others to enjoy (even if that coffee is a crude black sludge that people only drink because Starbucks is more expensive and a little farther away).  Likewise, as a Christian, I was always taught that we’re to be responsible stewards of the earth God has given us—to work, care for, and preserve its resources, not to plunder, deplete, and move on.  To do the latter is the way of the locust, and Biblically speaking, we call that a plague.

Those are my reasons.  What are yours?

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Climate craps: Global warming and uncertainty (or what to say when you hear “the science is not settled!”)

[Note, this is a re-post from my old blog, WAG]

First was Snowpocalypse. Then Snowmageddon. And now the third major snowstorm to hit DC this year… Snowtf? I’m not even kidding, people are snowboarding down Lee Highway outside my window.

So naturally, it’s time for a global warming post. And NYT journalist Andy Revkin’s provided a good starting point, dropping an illuminating bit of insight in a post Tuesday evening:

But after reviewing the chapter myself just now, I have to say that at least one passage — as far as I can tell — did not contain a single caveat and did not reflect the underlying body of evidence and analysis at the time (or even now):

Human-induced warming of the climate system is widespread. Anthropogenic warming of the climate system can be detected in temperature observations taken at the surface, in the troposphere and in the oceans.

I have yet to see anyone provide definitive evidence — with no error bars — that the fingerprint of human-generated greenhouse gases (or other emissions or actions) is unequivocal. The only thing described as “unequivocal” in the report was the warming, not the cause, unless I really haven’t been paying attention for the last two decades.

The language around “no error bars” is what I wanted to call out here, because it reflects a widely held belief that there’s a bright line between certain and uncertain – and more importantly, that it’s prudent to wait until we’re “certain” about something before taking any action. Indeed, it’s this notion – that there’s such a thing as “certainty” in science – which enables deniers and delayers to get away with spouting alarmist nonsense like, “the science is not settled!” and “we shouldn’t risk trillions of dollars in GDP until we know for certain humans are causing global warming!”

The problem is, as any true skeptic knows, there’s no such thing as certainty in science – at least to the degree that a scientific study could ever hope to show “no error bars.” Remember, even something as obvious as gravity still has scientific uncertainty associated with it; Einstein proved that gravity’s nature was different than how Isaac Newton imagined it, and even Einstein’s theories are not reconciled with Quantum Mechanics.

This is especially true for climate science, which is intimately concerned with predicting the future. The earth is not a controlled experiment that allows scientists to add CO2 and empirically test the precise amount of warming that results. There are simply too many variables not in scientists’ control. To predict the consequences of carbon emissions, we must therefore rely on climate models built from our best understanding of how the climate system works. And yes, those models are uncertain, with error bars greater than zero: as with any prediction of future events, you inherently can never be certain you’re right until those events have already occurred. Certainty can only exist with hindsight.

But here’s the kicker: once we’re in a position to make hindsight judgments on CO2, once we’ve reached the point that we can empirically assess CO2’s impact on climate in the real world, it will be too late to avert the effects. This is because once CO2 gets into the atmosphere, it takes several decades for the temperature to catch up with the new energy imbalance (see here, here, and here for explanations).  So even if you stopped all CO2 emissions today, there would still be warming left “in the pipeline.”  Moreover, it’s likely that once warming crosses a certain threshold, certain feedbacks will take over that drive continued warming regardless of what happens with CO2. Choices we make today commit us to consequences tomorrow.

Thus, as in any facet of life, we must make decisions today in a world of uncertainty, based on our best predictions of what will happen tomorrow; past a certain point, debating levels of certainty is a fruitless recipe for dithering and delay.  A businessman who waits for certainty that an investment will pay off will lose the opportunity to a bolder entrepreneur.

Similarly, by the time we’ve received empirical confirmation of how much humans are contributing to global warming, it will be too late to do anything about it. We can’t be certain whether a doubling of CO2 will ultimately result in 1.1 degrees C or 6.4 degrees C of warming, but we can make a pretty good guess, and the latter end of that spectrum would result in a nightmarish world out of “science fiction.”  It seems prudent, therefore, to invest a small amount of GDP as insurance against the risk of catastrophe.  (Indeed, as The Economist points out in making this argument, the investment required to curb global warming is less than the world spends on insurance every year). 73% of economists and the world’s biggest re-insurance company agree with me.

The bottom line: Just because we are not certain whether or not bad events will happen in the future does not mean we should not take action to hedge against those risks. By definition, if your condition for acting on greenhouse gases is 100% certainty in the science, then we can never act in time to make an impact. If you want to gamble our future by continuing to emit greenhouse gases, the question becomes, do you feel lucky? Well, do ya punk?

Just don’t expect the rest of us to play at your climate craps table.

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Schlumberger CEO on climate change

[Note, this is a re-post from my old blog, WAG]

I liked this quote (from an interview with the McKinsey Quarterly because it aligns well with what I’ve said before:

And then on climate change, our opinion—and it’s my opinion, this is a very personal thing—is that there is sufficient evidence of an increase in the level of emissions in the atmosphere to be concerned about the effect that it may have on the climate. But the science of climatology is by no means complete, and it is going to take a long time before we really know what the effect of these emissions is going to be. In the meantime, it is prudent and reasonable to try to reduce those emissions as much as we can.

Remember, that’s not a hemp-wearing hippie talking. It’s not Al Gore, or Joe Romm, or any number of climate activists. It’s Andrew Gould, CEO of a $23 billion a year oil services company—a company with a vested interest in climate change not being real. If even he can admit that climate change is probably real, and that it makes sense to invest a small percentage of our wealth in averting its worst effects, surely even the most skeptical libertarian can admit that climate change may not be a hoax after all.

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What happens when we delve too greedily and too deep – maybe Gandalf can stop the gusher

[Note, this is a re-post from my old blog, WAG]

“Too deep we delved there, and woke the nameless fear.”
– Gloin, The Fellowship of the Ring

The Dwarves of Khazad-Dum perished not because their analysts failed to plan for Balrog attack, but because their reckless lust to mine, control, and profit from the earth’s natural wealth led them into places they should not have been, unleashing forces they could not control.

Maybe we do owe BP boss Tony Hayward an apology – not for getting BP to pay for the clean up (seriously Republicans, don’t you remember the concept of personal responsibility?), but for the way he’s been demonized by the media and liberal activists. As if BP isn’t doing everything it can to stop the gusher.

We also owe the President and his officials an apology for the ridiculous assertions that the failure to stop the oil from flowing is somehow their fault. As if regulators and politicians can just invent technology to seal the leak.

Such misguided criticism spans the political spectrum. Climate blogger Joe Romm shrieks “Why oh why hasn’t Hayward been fired yet???” Sarah “half-term” Palin accuses the administration of not putting enough effort into stopping the oil leak – and gets called out by Bill O’Reilly. Frank Rich criticizes the President’s “impotence,” melodramatically portending, “What’s also being tarred daily by the gushing oil is the very notion that government can accomplish anything.” The CEO of Anadarko Petroleum – BP’s partner on the Deepwater Horizon well – stabs his onetime ally in the back to save his own skin, alleging that “this tragedy was preventable and the direct result of BP’s reckless decisions and actions.” For an industry built on ash and flame, oil is a cold cold business.

The truth is, the President isn’t Aquaman, and firing Tony Hayward will not seal the hole in the seafloor. If anything, a post-firing leadership vacuum would frustrate efforts to stop the gusher. As bad as we want a villain to blame and whose head to roll, there is no bad guy here. Accidents just happen: while any single accident may be preventable in hindsight, the laws of probability make eventual tragedy inevitable in any risky endeavor – especially 5,000 feet under the sea. If not BP, then Exxon or Shell [full disclosure, I own stock in Exxon Mobil]; if not in 2010, then 2012 or 2020. The oil spill doesn’t mean Tony Hayward is incompetent – it just means he is imperfect, because he is human, using imperfect technology invented by humans. “Blaming” BP makes about as much sense as “blaming” NASA engineers for the Challenger disaster.

Not that I’m shedding tears for BP. Hurt feelings are not the greatest harm in castigating CEOs and politicians for not staunching the oil, but rather the way in which such criticism paints the disaster as a technical slip-up rather than a philosophical mistake – a problem resulting from insufficient planning and engineering rather than the inevitable consequence of messing with forces we don’t understand. Much of the natural world is still a mystery to us, and failing to respect that mystery, placing too much faith in our engineering expertise, will end in tragedy.

In Greek mythology, the doom of Icarus was not that his wings were poorly constructed but that his technology carried him too close to the sun. In The Lord of the Rings, the Dwarves of Khazad-Dum perished not because their analysts failed to plan for Balrog attack, but because their reckless lust to mine, control, and profit from the earth’s natural wealth led them into places they should not have been, unleashing forces they could not control.

And that’s the lesson in the Gulf: the reason we can’t blame BP for the uncontrollable gusher is that the oil is not something humans can always control. BP’s disaster was indeed caused by recklessness, but not that of an individual company ignoring technical warning signs – rather, like the Dwarves, it was the collective recklessness of the human race in our wild thirst for comfort and wealth, subduing Man and Nature with vain rigor, not for truth or love or basic need but to fuel our production of stuff that is unnecessary for happiness. We pricked the earth and unleashed a fury we were powerless to undo.

The critics’ creeping technocracy, which assumes any problem can be broken into its component parts and methodically solved, casts Nature as something that can be subdued and controlled if only we throw enough money and smart people at it. If the disaster was merely a problem of BP’s “recklessness,” of not properly anticipating and fixing technical risks, then there’s nothing inherently dangerous with the activity of offshore drilling itself – and the great human project to conquer Nature and engineer her to our image of the mathematically perfect world marches on.

This is not to say that we should never take risks or venture into the unknown. But when we take such ventures, the prize must be a higher purpose than profit, and the harm of any inevitable disaster confined mostly to the venturers themselves.

The unknown unknown of what would happen if a deepwater rig failed is tragically being answered before our eyes: 15 times worse than we ever thought possible. This local spill, of course, offers a grim preview of the looming, great Unknown Unknown of the 21st Century which we’ve just begun to taste: global climate change. Skeptics claim that uncertainty in the science means we can continue recklessly pumping heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere, when in reality the uncertainty is exactly why we must stop. Just as early estimates of the oil spill turned out to be woefully low, we have no idea what the worst consequences of climate change could be – and I don’t want to find out what they are. The longer we mess with Nature, the likelier we are to get burned – and not every fire that’s started can be easily put out.

The story of the BP spill is not about an overlooked technical fix that could have prevented a disaster, but about what happens when we pry into forces of Nature we don’t understand and certainly can’t control. The tragedy of Moria was not that the Dwarves didn’t predict the location of the Balrog which would have enabled them to continue digging safely, but that the greed of their digging itself made disaster inevitable. Eventually, they would have run out of safe places to dig.

In The Lord of the Rings, it took a wizard to defeat the menace awoken by delving too greedily and too deep. Unfortunately there’s no such magic in the real world, and neither President Obama nor Tony Hayward are wizards. Not all that is done can be undone; not every problem can be prevented.

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New study regulates on free market alarmists, finds no downside to pricing carbon pollution

[Note, this is a re-post from my old blog, WAG]

Cap-and-trade will have no impact on the US economy, a new report by the Energy Information Administration concluded yesterday. Chalk it up in the “yet another study shows no downside to reducing carbon pollution” column: it’s yet another blow to the free market alarmists whose tarot card prophesies of economic doom continue to be proven so consistently wrong.

Ok, so the EIA didn’t say “zero” impact, but it might as well have. According to the brand new, authoritative analysis, the Senate climate bill would reduce US GDP by only a CUMULATIVE $452 billion between 2013 and 2035, or 0.2%.

Now $452 billion sounds like a big number, but it’s in fact infinitesimally small. How infinitesimal? Over 23 years, that’s roughly $19.7 billion per year. That’s less money than is currently possessed by 18 individuals. In fact, the richest 17 people in the world could pay off the whole $452 billion and still be billionaires.

Hardly the picture of economic doom painted by the free market alarmists.

Of course, as anyone familiar with climate policy knows, it’s not just the “most likely scenario” that matters: worst-case scenarios, though unlikely, can still happen, so it’s important to consider those as well. But again, the data here will leave the fossil fuel pharisees disappointed. In 5 of the 6 scenarios, economic costs ranged from 0.1% to 0.4% of GDP, and the worst case scenario predicts a puny 1% GDP loss. Over 23 years, that’s 0.04% per year. That’s what the free market alarmists are so worked up about?

In other words, while there may be economic costs associated with making polluters pay, those costs are a fraction of tiny, and more importantly they are predictable. In general, we know pretty well what happens when, for example, we tax a good. To the extent that some uncertainty remains, the range of possibilities is finite and manageable–a 0.04% decline in GDP may sting, but we can live with it. And that doesn’t even include the benefits of action, which are likely to be orders of magnitude higher than the cost.

On the other hand, the range of possible outcomes from human interference with the climate is unpredictable and varies widely, and the worst-case scenarios are the stuff of nightmares. The consequences of messing with markets are a lot more manageable than those of messing with Nature.

Moreover, historical evidence suggests that whenever we’ve been wrong in predicting the cost of environmental regulations, we’ve nearly always overestimated the downside. Why? Because markets work: if government policy increases the price of energy, smart businesses will invent new technologies that reduce the cost of compliance and spawn entire new industries. In other words, if you think cap-and-trade will hurt the economy, it can only be because you don’t believe in markets.

On the other hand, if we’re wrong about the consequences of climate change, we’re likely underestimating them. With each new positive feedback that’s discovered, it becomes more and more likely that catastrophic climate change is in the cards for continued fossil fuel burning. In fact, a study found that “New scientific findings are found to be more than twenty times as likely to indicate that global climate disruption is ‘worse than previously expected,’ rather than “not as bad as previously expected.” Now, you can either read this as evidence that the dangers of global warming are becoming more clear as we learn more, or that the majority of the world’s scientists are engaged in a massive conspiracy to cover up the truth and establish an eco-communist new world order. But you’re a reasonable person. And do reasonable people believe in conspiracy theories about Nazi scientists?

So there you have it. The risks of pricing carbon are tiny, likely overblown (even as small as they are), and no matter how big will always fall within the manageable realm of human experience. On the other hand, climate risks are huge, likely dangerously underestimated, and could destroy civilization as we know it if the worst-case comes true. The decision is SO EASY.

And that’s the most heart-stoppingly infuriating, rip-your-hair-out mind-numbing, part about the whole “climate debate”: that the skeptics are willing to risk so much for so little, to bet the future of civilization–OUR civilization–on something so infinitesimally unimportant and devoid of value. Even if the skeptics are right, even if the scientists are wrong and there is absolutely zero reason to reduce CO2 emissions, the costs of doing so are so low that there’s no harm in trying. Following the advice of a climate skeptic is like playing Russian Roulette for a quarter, like making a $1 million investment for a $100 return, like giving Barry Zito a $126 million contract. The fact that people with such warped notions of risk-reward think of themselves as stewards of our nation’s businesses is almost as terrifying as their influence on our climate policy. We don’t want to do anything about CO2, because we might lose 0.04% of annual GDP.

When the worst case scenario for cap-and-trade is 0.04% of GDP per year, you need to be 99.96% certain that 97% of the world’s climate scientists are 100% wrong in their study of the climate. You’re a reasonable person. Care to take that bet?

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Cap-and-trade opponents sound like 6-year old Calvin complaining about cleaning his room

If businesses affected by global warming legislation would shut up, stop whining, and get to work cleaning up their act, they’d probably find that it wasn’t as bad or expensive as they thought.

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Enough ado about hockey sticks: the worst is yet to come

Global warming deniers are making another attempt at discrediting the famed “hockey stick” graph, based on a paper (McShane and Wyner 2010) that purports to show mistakes in its statistical methods. While I don’t have the statistical chops to assess the validity of either party’s math, I did want to make two observations.

First, as others have noted, even if you assume that the new paper is the “correct” version, it doesn’t look much different from other hockey stick graphs – if anything, the hockey stick shape in the new study is more pronounced.

More importantly, the hockey stick graph ultimately matters very little for what we should do about CO2, since it only measures past temperatures up to around the year 2000. What we really care about isn’t the past temperature increase we’ve already observed, but rather the much larger future increase that’s still to come assuming we do nothing about CO2. And that isn’t accounted for in any existing hockey stick graph. I’ve taken the liberty of (unscientifically) adding this onto the McShane and Wyner hockey stick graph, using a simple average of the IPCC’s low-end (1.1 degrees C) and high-end estimates (6.4 degrees C) for 21st century temperature increase:

Looks more like a hockey skate! Despite deniers’ strange obsession with the past and lack of concern for the future (perhaps by virtue of their conservatism), the bottom line is this: the reliability of past temperature reconstructions matter very little compared to what we have in store… and it’s about to get a whole lot hotter.

If this looks familiar, here’s why:

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