Thursday, August 28, 2008

Updated thoughts on climate change

"When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?" - John Maynard Keynes

1) There are economic costs of climate change, but that doesn't mean that they aren't worth it. What we need is dispassionate cost-risk analysis. More articles like this, summarized here, would be a good start.

2) Save the cheerleader, not the world. However one approaches the problem, curbing climate change should not be focused on "saving the planet," but instead saving human lives. In 10,000 years the carbon levels will reset, no matter how high they get today. Don't feel sorry for planet earth, it doesn't care either way.

3) Don't blame everything on China and India. In 2007 the United States had about 5% of the world's population but we emitted about 25% of the world's greenhouse gases. Once we get those numbers to near even, then we can start being the moral police.

4) It's OK to be fervent about your beliefs, there's nothing irrational about passion. If you believe that unregulated climate change will kill a large amount of people, and this is a outcome that you would like to stop, and you believe that there is something that can be done about it, then you should feel strongly about it. Just make sure that your emotions come from the facts, not the other way around.

5) It's irrational to get angry at neighbor that drives a gas-juggling Hummer. It is more rational to get angry politicians who refuse to institute a carbon tax that would force your neighbor to pay society extra for the greenhouse gases he emits.

6) I support a carbon tax over a cap-and-trade policy, even though it has the ugly word "tax" in it. If a politician supporting a "tax" is not electable, he/she should lie about it.

7) Planting trees should be considered a viable short-term solution, because they are excellent carbon dioxide "sinks." Some people don't love this idea, because eventually the tree will die and the carbon dioxide will decompose into the atmosphere. In 250 years we'll have crazy new technology to solve our problems, but we need to get there first.

8) Nuclear power should also be considered a short-term solution. This is despite Vassar's Miscellany News decrying the industry as "one that has been propped up by the government for far too long." Hmmm... I don't really see that numbers (the chart is from here) When I've talk to engineers and scientists about alternative energy, they've predominantly supported nuclear energy over all other sources.

9) There's no need to argue for "more research" into alternative energy. If the financial incentives are there, firms will research ways of producing energy without emitting greenhouse gases. NIH funding should be there too, but I don't see climate change as more urgent than research into than cancer, genetic engineering, or neuroscience. We always need to consider opportunity cost.

10) I've heard pet theories about wind, solar, geothermal, wave, tidal, hydro, carbon trapping at the source, et cetera et cetera. It doesn't matter which your favorite one is, the best we can do is to tax greenhouse gas emissions and let the open market decide. I don't favor subsidies for any of these industries, but I do favor an immediate flat tax on all carbon emissions, which would accomplish the same goal.

11) Ethanol (and other biofuels) subsidies are a mistake, since it generally takes more than a gallon of fossil fuels to make one gallon of ethanol (see here). This is an example of why we cannot trust the government to subsidize certain types of energy over others.

If I had to perform triage on problems facing humankind today, climate change would not be my first priority (nuclear proliferation probably would be). But it would be up there.