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Solving a Global Problem State by State

When will we commit to solve the carbon problem?

Climate change is a global problem with a number of recognized groups. Island nations, first world/old guard polluters, emerging economies. Yet the solution to the problem is both simple and complex, and worse, it relies on the negotiating groups to defy their local interest for the global interest.

Take India, an emerging economy, who wants to pollute more to grow faster. India wants help greening its output, too. Europe, Canada, and the United States don’t necessarily want to give in to India. But if India pollutes its way to prosperity, even if the rest of the groups improve, we still get harms. On the other hand, if India restrains itself, grows slower, it means relegating millions upon millions to poverty longer than necessary. The United States won’t (at least for climate reasons) have sustained poverty like that. Why should Indians suffer?

What’s really going on, economically, is a dual-currency system. In some areas, like air travel or cars, the pollution cost should often be the dominant currency. In other areas, like food production (non-meat, anyway), the dollar cost should prevail. Yet we don’t have a dual-currency system. Nobody goes to the store and says, “Okay, I have $10 and ê10, but this widget is $12;ê7 and the exchange rate is three-to-two…”

Carbon pricing, in one form or another, was supposed to be the solution. Or, at least a big part of it. Yet we have failed to implement any carbon pricing scheme globally, and the regional ones haven’t shown themselves to be the type of success that begs replication. We have simply continued, from a policy standpoint, to more or less ignore the problem.

Carbon pollution is a sense of autonomy, of personal power. You can tool down the strip. You can throw your clothes in the oven, Kramer-style. Turn on the outside floodlights at night and sit in the outdoor hottub at 5°C. There is a certain bravado and self-affirmation involved in waste. A sense of adventurous recklessness, the cheat donut for the dieter.

How do we stifle a world’s desire to splurge? Especially when the media portrays such behavior as so desirable. Paints consumption as the chewy nougat center, the marrow.

Maybe we tempt the beast with temptation itself. Establish a global lottery, with entrance based on carbon asceticism. Every nation pays in to the kitty, and a yearly winner gets a boon, along with individuals too. Maybe it’s time we stop trying to seriously tackle the problem and instead lead with our zeal for fun.

Would it work? Would a chance to gain a large sum for individuals, businesses, and nations actually drive a change better than responsibility has so far? What would a small nation do with a sudden overlarge winning in a global climate lottery? Buy its neighbor?

Of course, a lottery wouldn’t work. But at least someone would win from the mess.

The EPA and Externalities

Using the analogy of lemonade stands, this post looks at the chief argument against the EPA’s regulation of carbon pollution.

With the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announcing their Carbon Pollution Standards, a lot of worry (mostly from paid interests) has been voiced about how the standards will result in higher energy costs.

That’s false. The standards may result in higher short-term nominal costs. That is, you and I and everyone else may pay more for our energy as the standards are implemented. But the real costs are already much higher, as warming the planet is not free.

Global warming via pollution is an inefficiency and external cost for many forms of electricity generation, including coal-fire power generation. These externalities result in anti-capitalist behavior among the purveyors of power that produce external costs. An example will be useful.

Let’s say that Team Clean and Team Dirty open lemonade stands. Team Clean buys their lemons at the store. Team Dirty steals their lemons. Over time, Team Clean cannot compete on price with Team Dirty, and most people say, “I don’t care if they steal their lemons; it’s cheaper.”

While pollution is not direct theft, it remains a false economy. The less expensive, pollution ridden energy generation methods cause real harm and keep their costs hidden because we do not see the copious amounts of pollution directly.

The EPA is telling Team Dirty, “you have to reduce your lemon theft to 70% of your lemon theft nine years ago, over the next 16 years.” So of course Team Dirty’s prices will go up as they implement the change, and given they have a substantial market share, so will everyone’s bills.

But what happens then? Team Clean’s prices start to look better as Team Dirty’s approach parity. Team Clean is then able to use the increase in customers to invest in improving their efficiencies. Over time, Team Clean’s technologies may surpass Team Dirty’s technology. Or maybe Team Dirty can cope with the change and make their lemonade cheaper without stealing.

On the whole, internalizing externalities is very positive for capitalism. The fact that you don’t hear politicians continually railing against externalities, passing laws to internalize them, etc. may be puzzling. The problem is that politicians often do not understand economics any more than their constituents do.

Opponents cite a weak economy, and that without cheap lemonade the economy will grind to a halt. Yet if the economy were humming along, they would still oppose stopping lemon theft. They would then say, “no, we’re running too good to undermine it now.” Both positions (well, they are really just one position: that we ca never enact regulations because of economic impacts) miss the fact that the externalities are the economic impacts.

Stealing lemons is not an economically viable business practice. While it may work for awhile, at some point (and when we’re looking at global scales, 100 years or 200 years is not a long time) the practice fails spectacularly. With the status quo ante we would eventually see prices go up to reflect the supply chain and infrastructure disruptions associated with global warming.

The main problem with the proposal is simply that it does not go far enough. Lamentable as that is, that is a product of the current of legislative obstruction caused by the newly-wealthy with both political aspirations and the inability to see the long-term.

Understanding Climate Skeptics

Basic Argument

Let’s start with three types of skeptics:

  1. Not sure that there’s climate change at all.
  2. Not sure that humans cause any climate change.
  3. Not sure how much climate change humans cause.

To get it out of the way, the type-1 skeptics probably just need to take a hard look at the temperature data.  If they don’t understand trends, that’s something to teach them, but it isn’t a skeptical point, it’s simple ignorance.

Now here’s a basic argument (not for climate change itself):

  1. The atmosphere exists as gas on the earth’s surface.
  2. The atmosphere’s behavior is called the climate.
  3. A change in the composition of the atmosphere could cause its behavior to change.
  4. Humans could provide [2].
  5. Therefore, it’s possible for humans to cause Climate Change (ie, the actual, described phenomena formerly known as Global Warming).

I’m guessing that people won’t really argue with the first two.

The third premise, it shouldn’t take very long to concede.  If, for example, a massive meteor hit the earth, the dust kicked up would change the climate.

The fourth premise is all that’s really at issue.  Some amount of the skeptics of types [2] believe that the fourth premise is false.

I believe that’s simply a lack of imagination on their part.  For example, nuclear winter is a climate change that humans could certainly cause.  That’s a scenario where large amounts of smoke and soot would cause the earth to cool due to sunlight being blocked.

Similarly, the depletion of atmospheric ozone is attributable to humans, and companies were able to cope with abandoning ozone-depleting chemicals.

So, for the type-2 skeptics, a question:  How much human climate activity does it take for humans to produce a mid-to-long term change in the climate of the earth?

In the second section, though, I’m going to examine why this section may have no real point to it, and why the question to type-2 skeptics may be misplaced.

Belief or Feeling

Often the skeptical behavior has nothing to do with belief.  The position of the skeptic is thus cleaved from the position of the denier.  The denier says not that they are unsure, but rather that they are sure.

Let’s say we’re having lunch and I bring my lunch from home.  I bring in soup every day, but today I brought in not-soup.  I open my vacuum flask and pour myself a cup of not-soup.  It’s not that I’m skeptical that it’s soup.  I’m denying it’s soup at all.

You say it’s soup, and you argue, “look it’s liquid broth with flavor and it’s got some noodles and chunks of vegetables,” but I am not skeptical, I’m just denying it.

Worse, I say, “you’ve watched me bring soup every day for the past ten years.  I know soup, and this is not-soup.”

The best thing at that point, is to let it go.  I’m probably pissed off about the fact that ten years went by and I didn’t know and at home I’ve got all those damn spices and bullion and ladles and I’ve committed myself to a horrible soup world now, even the smug shape of the soup cans taunt me, the soft bubbling in the pot is a funeral dirge.

But I digress.

Point is, if you want to reach those people, maybe the best tack isn’t to come at them head-on, but to try some flanking maneuvers.

Flanking the Deniers

The first way to flank them would be to let them save face.  Half the battle in most negative behavioral situations is accepting the problem exists.  That’s true for most substance abuse and addiction treatment: the person needs to actually recognize they need to change.  But it’s true for most things, anyway.  Until you notice your soup is… until you notice that your shoelace is untied, you won’t tie it.

But it’s important that people not feel trapped by their past.  It’s respectable and proper to update their positions along with their OS and web browser, for security reasons.

How do you let them feel comfortable in the change?  That’s tricky.  Often the reason they started eating soup was because their friends and family believed that way.  If they showed up for a meal carrying a sandwich, they worry they will insult their people.  But the alternative, creating a special soup bowl with a false bottom to hide their belief in global warming sandwiches won’t help either.

What will help is that people around them, not necessarily close, but close enough, are more vocal about their belief in climate change.

Another way to flank denial is the small taste.  That is, let them take the soup for a spin without committing to it.

In the test drive, someone else holds the belief and asks for input.  Something like, “I’ve been thinking about sandwiches lately, and I’m trying to figure out how to keep the toast from getting soggy from the tomato.”  The denier doesn’t have to like sandwiches to think about this problem.  They can just consider the problem in absence of needing to identify with the position.

Well, I’m off to lunch.