Let’s Internalize Externalities

I’m pleased to welcome Michael Murphy as a new Blogger on BoomerWarrior. Michael is an advocate for Economic and Environmental Sustainability. At IBI Watch, Michael says “that my favorite issues live where science meets policy.” (Editor for BoomerWarrior)

Recently in Beijing, it’s been hard to tell night from day. Pollution from coal-burning power plants has long been a terrible environmental and health problem, but it has jumped to what are being described as off-the-chart levelsThis video gives you a good idea of what the people are going through – a situation some residents call “living inside chemical warfare.”

 “Whew,” we might say. “Glad it’s not like that here in the old USA.” And it is true – no matter how bad it gets in LA or New York, smog and ground ozone can’t approach these choking levels. But think. How much of that coal is burning to power Chinese factories that make stuff headed to American shores? And that pollution – surely it can’t get here, across that vast Pacific Ocean. Think again. Hey, maybe all that cheap stuff isn’t so cheap after all, and maybe the cost – health and environmental – is not really “externalized” after all.

Externalities,” of course, is the term used to describe costs that are not imbedded in an item’s purchase price. A positive externality is research and development. A negative is, naturally, pollution.

Inbound pollution is not new. Yes, this second story is a different sort – dust whisked into the air and whirled across the ocean because of desertification. And why is that desertification – in China in particular – happening? Funny how it always comes back to the ultimate negative externality, carbon pollution causing climate change.

Environmentalists and activists have struggled for a long time to come up with the best way to make the actual price of carbon-based fuels include that external cost to society. The original answer – cap-and-trade – is a gigantic bust that could not gain enough support and even in its purest form could not make meaningful reductions in climate-changing greenhouse emissions. Ah, but the carbon tax or a fee-and-dividend approach? Now we are talking progress. This can work.

James Hansen has made key insights into our global climate -- and inspired a generation of activists and scientists.

James Hansen

NASA’s James Hansen is the best-known promoter of a carbon fee and dividend system. Here is an article in which he, with considerable energy and wit, explains this idea.  That article runs five pages, and is worth your time. Not sure you want to invest the time? See this excerpt.

We must stanch a pervasive defeatism that is about. Humanity is not a bunch of lemmings marching unstoppably toward a cliff. There is such a thing as free will. It seems that many people have slipped into an unhelpful resignation, ultimately leading to a way of thinking that accepts fossil fuel industry propaganda.

People please wake up! For the sake of young people, future generations, and other life on our planet, don’t settle for what some “experts” say is the best we can do. In fact, we can move on to clean energies and energy efficiency, but only if we are wise enough to put an honest rising price on carbon emissions. It is equally clear, I submit, that the public will only allow an adequate rising price on carbon if the system is simple and transparent with the proceeds distributed to the public. That will provide the public with the resources required to make the needed changes as we move to cleaner energies and a bright future that preserves the planet and life that we know.

How Long Can This Go On?

The answer is – as long as we are fossil-foolish enough to let it!

It may be cold here in the Twin Cities right now, but more news is coming out daily about just how warm 2012 was historically. That link also includes a slide show detailing the Midwest’s dual struggle with heat and drought. Before we take any comfort in 2012 being “only “ the tenth warmest year on record, look carefully at how those warmest years are clustered in the last 20. You can also see the trend in pictures, like this one posted by James Hansen. And these two maps show the global nature of the problem.

global drought monitor and an interactive, color-coded map of temperature trends in 20-year periods going back to 1893. Looks like blue is an endangered species.

It’s clear that we need a “sweltering planet agenda,” as described in this Washington Post editorial. And a move to renewables – with fossil backup – is difficult though not impossible, as Germany is finding out. This World Wildlife Fund report says that land requirements for complete solar power – more or less – are not as huge as we have believed.

For general inspiration on climate change solutions, I recommend a movie I just watched – Carbon Nation. The movie – about two years old – is promoted as a “climate change movie that doesn’t even care if you believe in climate change.” From carbon farming, to white roofs, to energy savings, to “greedy bastards who just want cheap power” that happens to be green, the movie really delivers. Recommended.

Shivering Suspense

If you like this sort of thing, we have an interesting weather situation developing here in the Twin Cities over the next few days. You see, weather forecasters are (sort of) promising to restore our bragging rights. For the longest time on record, as reported here by NOAA – we have not had a single day in Minneapolis – St. Paul with a high temperature below zero. From the time I moved here in 1986 until about 10 years ago, this was pretty much an annual occurrence. Predictions are that at least one day this week will feature a high below zero. We shall see. Now before you assume a masochistic streak on my part, note that I am not saying deep cold is good or bad – just that it is nearly extinct here in what used to be universally regarded as a very cold place.

University of Minnesota professor and meteorologist Kenny Blumenfeld – a local resource on climate change and extreme weather – goes all poetic on us in this excerpt from his most recent posting. Kenny, I’m with you on this one.

During this reasonably cold outbreak, when you are suffering, and cursing the nastiness, just keep in mind that this all used to be pretty routine.  -10s in Minneapolis, are you kidding me?  That’s nothing.  It’s something now.  In fact, it’s the only thing–the only thing left to remind us of what once was.  I’m not merely being nostalgic and melodramatic; the winters we grew up with are all but gone, and reminders of them will become increasingly sporadic and soft-hitting.  Our iconic season is terminally ill, and we are witnessing it in a badly weakened state, its glory days receding deeper into the past with every new season.  I am a sentimental guy, so I plan to bundle up, and spend some time outside in the cold, hanging out with my sick but beautiful old pal, winter.  In one or maybe two decades, even this kind of cold will be nothing more than hard-to-convey memories.

I will report next week on whether we actually get any of that promised real cold. This is one thing I am really skeptical on these days, with good reason.

Denying Denial

If you have a friend who distrusts climate science – especially for ideological reasons – you may find this useful. I just could not resist turning my personal reply to some typical denial points into an article for this space. No names, of course.

First the context. My friend kindly watched this Bill Nye video. Afterwards, he raised two common objections – carbon dioxide being too small a part of the atmosphere to be the cause of warming, and a need to look into solar action as the possible cause of climate change.

I am sure there is some truth in the business about carbon dioxide’s reflectivity and also its ability to hold heat, but I approach it from the legal system perspective – is it guilty beyond reasonable doubt?  Based on my extensive reading, that is my verdict.

Here are facts:

  • World temperatures have been rising steadily, with the warmest years on record concentrated over the past 20 years.
  • Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has been climbing. Preindustrial levels were about 280 parts per million. They are today at 394 and rapidly climbing –at an increasing rate.
  • Human activity pumps 90 million tons of CO2 into the world’s atmosphere daily. The earth’s climate system is vast and complex, but ultimately closed. Surely such activity would have some significant effect over the long term.
  • Paleoclimatologists have tracked CO2 and temperatures back for millions of years – the first half million through air bubbles trapped in polar ice cores, and many millions back from there via sediment deposits deep under the oceans.They track together.

As for solar flares, scientists have tracked the sun’s effect and found no significant connection. And daytime high temperatures have not been rising as fast as nighttime lows. Surely this shows that the issue is the atmosphere HOLDING heat rather than how much heat energy is COMING INTO the system.

Latching onto that “insignificant carbon” business implies that there is some other mechanism that is causing the rising temperature, melting glaciers and ice caps, and raising oceans  – something that thousands  of very smart scientists who have dedicated their lives to studying the climate just have not figured out. I am not buying it. The prime suspect is our carbon dioxide, until something else is discovered – and don’t bet on that.

One more thing – I see zeroing in on some fine detail like that and saying that is what matters differs little from creationists finding some gap in evolution theory and saying that disproves evolution. At best, this is playing dumb. At worst it is magical thinking that, over the long term, puts the whole planetary system on which human life depends at grave risk. Some denialists think I am a way-out wacko with these views, but as John Lennon wrote, “I’m not the only one.”  Far from it – and I will have more to say on that in a moment.

Some sneer at climate science and dismiss it as the result of people entering the field with an ideological bent, and then finding only confirmations to their preconceived hypotheses.  But I say everyone who enters any field – economics, history, even hard sciences – has their own bent. In the case of all science, peer review pretty much takes care of that, thanks very much.

Climate science is nothing more than applied physics and chemistry. I give you several scientists, researchers and journalists to investigate. First, there is Tim Flannery, author of the very impressive book The WeatherMakers. I have met the man. Brilliant, and moreover a self-confessed former skeptic. I give you James Balog, another former strong skeptic, and the photographer whose work is featured in the current movie Chasing Ice.  I give you local meteorologist Paul Douglas, another former skeptic and a staunch Republican to boot.  And finally I give you James Hansen, once content to do his research and stay on the sidelines, but who became politically active only after the Bush II administration tried to muzzle him. Denialists can have their skeptics looking for those fine points, demanding more decades of research, and in general highlighting and exaggerating the controversy in order to halt progress on renewables – Limbaugh, LomborgSinger, Hannity, LindzenLord Monckton. I’ll take my guys – the ones I mentioned plus Michael MannJoseph Romm,Dianne DumanoskiMark LynasBill McKibbenLonnie Thompson and so many more.

Protecting Kids and Everyone Else

Even after the horrific series of mass murders in our country these past few years (and the constant “routine violence,” no one is talking about banning private gun ownership. It never will happen. But people just might be sick enough to demand reasonable regulation. I like the approach the president and vice-president are currently promoting. Here, President Obama exhorts us to call our Congressional reps to demand action. Heck, I might even call or email my (Republican) Congressman John Kline, for what it is worth. The president also suggests we take on the gun lobby, and this article describes how each of the Obama/Biden proposals could have prevented or blunted the impact of each of the recent highly publicized mass shootings.

And what of that gun lobby? The modern NRA is effectively a marketing and promotion organization, whose purpose is to see that ever more guns and ammunition are sold. It was not always that way.

Today, the NRA fights any reasonable regulation, in the name of protecting 2ndAmendment rights. Jon Stewart calls them out in his inimitable fashion. Even a certain east coast governor – just recently railing at how Republicans were toying with post-Sandy disaster aid – had harsh words for the NRA.

I like this mayors’ group that is taking on the issue.

“Nobody makes a greater mistake than he who does nothing because he could only do a little” – Edmund Burke

Contributed links to this posting – Kenneth Blumenfeld, Tess Galati, Allyson Harper, Lucinda Plaisance

Blogger – Michael Murphy, St. Paul MN


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