A tree, a rock, a cloud, and policy toward devices that emit carbon dioxide

Michael Giberson

Just because someone is professionally qualified to discuss a tree, a rock, or a cloud does not make them expert on what makes good public policy toward trees, rocks, or clouds.  Need an example?  Here is a clip from an interview with climate scientist Ken Caldeira on Yale Environment 360.  Caldeira is currently blog-famous due to his inclusion in the controversial chapter 5 on climate change in Leavitt’s and Dubner’s Superfreakonomics“:

Yale Environment 360: I want to start with this little dust-up over SuperFreakonomics. In the book, you are quoted as saying, when it comes to global warming, “Carbon dioxide is not the right villain.” Is that accurate?

Ken Caldeira: That is not accurate. I don’t believe I said anything remotely like that because I believe that we should be outlawing the production of devices that emit carbon dioxide, and I don’t think we can solve this carbon climate problem unless we drastically reduce our carbon dioxide emissions very soon.

Hold on a minute, did he just say, “I believe that we should be outlawing the production of devices that emit carbon dioxide”?  Does he have any policy analysis behind this recommendation, or is it just a jump from “carbon dioxide emissions bad => ban them” without further analysis?

Bad policy advice, at least if we take the remark as presented. (After all, maybe he was misquoted! And, in any case, given the chance Caldeira might add some useful qualifications to his bald statement of lousy policy).

As an economist, I naturally feel qualified to research, study, think about, discuss and opine on just about any topic out there.  Similarly, as an economist, I will object to, resent, condemn, and oppose efforts by non-economists to discuss economics or closely related matters.  I went to graduate school, this is what I was taught. Environmental policy discussions provide many opportunities for me to indulge both impulses.  Climate science? Sure, I can comment on that!  A climate scientist spouting off on climate policy? I call foul.

On the other hand, in my professional opinion as an economist, the interview is pretty good on the topic of geo-engineering.


10 thoughts on “A tree, a rock, a cloud, and policy toward devices that emit carbon dioxide

  1. Atmospheric GHG concentrations, using CO2 as a proxy, began rising in ~1750, essentially at the onset of the industrial revolution, and approximately 100 years after global temperatures began to rise from the trough of the “Little Ice Age”. Global annual emissions of these GHGs, again using CO2 as a proxy, were `1/2000th of current emissions rates at that time. Therefore, logically, stabilizing atmospheric concentrations of these GHGs would require a reduction of emissions rates to or below the emissions rates at which the atmospheric concentrations began to increase. That would require global reductions of approximately 99.95% from current global emissions rates.

    That is very close to: “I believe that we should be outlawing the production of devices that emit carbon dioxide”.

    The advocates for “350” (Restore atmospheric concentrations of CO2 to 350 ppm.) go beyond that by requiring zero emissions plus extraction of some existing CO2 from the atmosphere.

    I estimate the investment required globally to reach zero emissions at ~$150 trillion. Only God currently has any idea regarding the investment required to remove ~38 ppm from the current atmosphere.

  2. “we should be outlawing the production of devices that emit carbon dioxide”

    I assume this means no more humans, dogs, or polar bears.

  3. Well, since we’re talking about the “production” of such devices, that would mean no more babies, puppies or cubs. And no more sex, by God!!!

    Is global sterilization considered geo-engineering?

    I thought it interesting that he was concerned with political tension geo-engineering would cause with China/India. No mention however of the same tensions that would be created by a semi-global cap’n’trade scheme.

    All that said, it was an interesting interview.

  4. “As an economist, I naturally feel qualified to research, study, think about, discuss and opine on just about any topic out there. Similarly, as an economist, I will object to, resent, condemn, and oppose efforts by non-economists to discuss economics or closely related matters. … Climate science? Sure, I can comment on that! A climate scientist spouting off on climate policy? I call foul.”

    Is this arrogance or sarcasm? I would hope that latter.

  5. “Arrogance or sarcasm?”

    I tried to be sufficiently over-the-top in my presentation to be obviously sarcastic, but my sarcasm doesn’t always get through to the reader.

    “Humans, dogs, or polar bears?”

    Technically speaking, I don’t think these things are “devices,” so we would still be able make babies, puppies, and cubs. (And participate in attendant activities.)

    Though I’ve seen reports on research which suggests that birth control is the most cost-effective way to reduce growth in greenhouse gas emissions.

  6. I frequently suffer from the same issue with the use of sarcasm in writing. I do believe something close to your view is held and supported by a select number of economists. Academics have to defend their intellectual turf, after all.

    With respect to the aforementioned life forms, even if they were devices, as long as they do not use fossil fuels, they would not be significant net GHG producers. Although I suppose one would need to consider the impact of land use changes (e.g., deforestation).

    I have not heard of such sweeping policy pronouncements in the past by Ken Caldeira. My interpretation of his comment is that we need to eventually get to roughly net zero GHG emissions to stabilize GHG concentrations and temperatures.

    RE: “$150 trillion investment”. I would be very interested to hear a little more about the rationale for this level of investment. First, welfare loss is a more relevant number than investment. Second, this number seems quite extreme and well beyond the numbers quoted by the US the estimates contained in the US Climate Change Science Program’s Synthesis and Assessment Product 2.1a.

  7. The International Energy Agency estimated in 2008 that the global investment required to reduce global annual emissions by 50% by 2050 would total approximately $45 trillion. It is reasonable to assume that those making the requisite investments would choose the most productive and least costly investments first. Therefore, it is also reasonable to assume that extending the global reductions from 50% to 83% would require the investment of at least an additional $30 trillion; and, more likely, an additional $45 trillion since the additional projects would be expected to be more difficult and expensive. Achieving a 99.95% reduction would likely require a global investment approaching $150 trillion.

    The investment required in the US to achieve any level of emissions reductions would reasonably be expected to be higher than the global average, largely as the result of higher costs of doing business in the US, including the costs of regulatory and judicial proceedings and appeals. I estimate that the US investment required to achieve the 83% emissions reduction identified in Waxman-Markey would be on the order of $30 trillion, or approximately $700 billion per year through 2050. Assuming that the investors who provide this funding would require a return of ~10% on their investments and assuming long depreciation periods on the investments, the annual return on investment requirement would peak at approximately $1.5 trillion per year.

    Source:The Suppressed, Absent and/or Faulty Logic of Anthropogenic Global Warming
    Edward A. Reid, Jr.
    Fire to Ice, Inc.

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