Links to Adler Guest Posts at The Atlantic, and a Related Stavins Post

Lynne Kiesling

As a follow-up to my earlier post on Jonathan Adler’s first two guest posts at The Atlantic: Jonathan has helpfully compiled links to all five of his guest posts in one handy-dandy location. Here they are:

Property Rights and the Tragedy of the Commons

Property Rights and Fishery Conservation

How Property Rights Could Help Save the Environment

Is Washington, D.C., Really the Environment’s Savior?

A Conservative’s Approach to Combating Climate Change

I keep reiterating my enthusiasm because Jonathan articulates very well my overall analyses and positions on common-pool resources, property rights, the value of polycentric and layered institutions in addressing CPR problems in complex systems, and the tough issues in climate change. My only real quibble is that he is more willing than I am to accommodate the false model and the nomenclature of the right-left political spectrum, which I reject resolutely.

In a related post, Robert Stavins of Harvard argues for the combination of a carbon price and government technology R&D subsidies. I don’t agree with his characterization of the EU ETS carbon permit “market” as a success story, and I wish he’d provide more specifics about the nature of the R&D subsidies he envisions (including how to avoid The Solyndra Problem, if he thinks it’s possible). But I think his political economy point about subsidies vs. taxes is an important one to incorporate into our thinking about institutional design: given the reality of political institutions and their embedded incentives, politicians like to give out stuff rather than impose explicit costs, so analyzing and thinking about how to design effective R&D subsidies has to be part of the low-carbon discussion. I am sure that I’ll have more to say about this essay, particularly on the question of whether or not his perceived R&D gap/”market failure” is true or not.


5 thoughts on “Links to Adler Guest Posts at The Atlantic, and a Related Stavins Post

  1. Jeff,

    Well spotted; I noticed that comment too, and I think it’s a valid point. In a world with so much interconnection and interdependency, where do we draw the line in defining harms and damages that justify compensation? Putting on my Coase hat (which, honestly, never leaves my head anyway), I think the transactions costs of determining ex post the damages and directing compensation to affected parties will be high, and that if we enact some sort of ex ante climate policy in an attempt to avert such an outcome, we’re basically choosing between which of those costs to incur (among others).

    One problem is, of course, that the system is complex and thus non-deterministic and nonlinear, so (1) attributing warming outcomes by shares of responsibility to human-sun-other processes etc. will always be uncertain and incomplete and (2) what if we incur the policy cost today and the warming effects still happen — does that mean there’s just cause for compensation or not? It’s a tough one.

  2. Lynne,

    The climate of the “global commons” has been changing over the entire period we have been able to study. The climate has been both colder (LIA) and warmer (MWP) during the period of significant human presence and activity. Those climate changes are all referred to either as global warming (GW) or global cooling (GC), with no reference to causation. The warming we had been experiencing until recently is most frequently referred to as anthropogenic global warming (AGW) because of the widely held belief that it is driven by human activities, including greenhouse gas emissions and land use changes, at least to some extent. Some believe that the anthropogenic component of the recent warming might be as high as 90%. Others believe that much of the recent warming is not anthropogenically driven, but rather the result of natural cycles such as those which drove the previous non-anthropogenic warming and cooling cycles.GW is a fact, documented by the instrumental temperature record. AGW is a hypothesis, supported to a degree by the physical sciences.

    I believe it is reasonable to assume that the optimum condition of the global climate lies somewhere between the extremes of the LIA and the MWP. Certainly the rapidly growing human population suggests that the current global climate is quite hospitable to humanity. The rapidly growing population and its economic demands are likely largely responsible for the growth of GHG emissions as well as the progression of land use changes.

    The concerns regarding catastrophic anthropogenic global warming (CAGW) are based on projections produced by computer models. The projections of potential catastrophe are based on the assumed influence of climate feedbacks and climate sensitivity estimates. The modelers assume that the primary climate feedbacks are positive, causing the global temperature response to exceed the response which would be predicted by the underlying physical sciences. The application of sensitivity factors to those feedbacks then produce projections of future temperature paths with significant error bands. The current climate models have demonstrated limited skill in reconstructing the past climate; and, in projecting the climate changes which have occurred and are occurring since their development.

    In the noted discussions of “commons” issues, there is little or no discussion of the documented benefits which have accrued to the global population over the past century and a half. The discussion always seems focused on the potential future costs, which are the subject of multiple, widely varying estimates. Interestingly, in the eyes of at least one UN official focussed on the climate issue,Otmar Adendorfer, the issue is no longer really about emissions reductions and mitigation, but rather about wealth redistribution.

  3. Adler calls for a whole lot of energy and societal engineering. The federal government should do “this” and “that” on the largest scales through force of law. Collect huge taxes and hand them out again, taxes on any company using energy from fossil fuels, about 90% of all energy use.

    Adler: “First, the federal government should support technology inducement prizes to encourage the development of commercially viable low-carbon technologies.”

    Just how is the government supposed to know which technologies are commercially viable (profitable)? The government doesn’t operate on profit; it operates on favors. Adler assumes that man-made global warming is a proven fact, with horrible consequences, which can be avoided by acceptable changes in human action. Acceptable here means a tolerated level of death and poverty today, not 400 years from now.

    Adler, in the article: “But the excesses of climate activists and bad behavior by politically active scientists (and the IPCC) do not, and should not, discredit the underlying science.”

    Wow! There has been intentional misrepresentation of the evidence (I call that lying) by the largest organizations which are pushing the idea of man-made global warming. That is the clearest reason to doubt the science. Their solution is always “Give us your money, and power over your economic activity, and we will fix it.” That is supposedly dispationate science.

    It is impossible and boring to present the proper data and argument against each one of Adler’s statements and grand ideas. It is not the job of others to validate or invalidate Adler’s ideas when presented in such a fuzzy way. People must sharpen their critical facilities and seee just how fuzzy and grandiose such proposals are, presented in a magazine article.

    We should laugh at someone so egotistical that he would suggest public policy without the most detailed and vetted proposals. Where has this worked? Why will it work? What will it cost? Well, we just don’t know, because Adler presents this stuff without thinking that he needs to back up his position with detail. We must laugh when someone says “We must do something now about everything”.

    Let’s figure out the reality, magnitude, and likely effects of supposed global warming. Then, we can decide if we want to hand total power to government, those wise and thoughtful C students who were the most popular in high school. And if we want to hand all of this power to the lawyers.

  4. Lynne —

    If we put on our Coase hats, we should realize that we have a rich institutional history that helps us identify the types of harms that should trigger a response, and that the mere existence of a “harm” (or an “externality” — a word Coase never used in “The Problem of Social Cost” quite deliberately) is not what determines what we should address. Transaction costs are key, but we face severe information problems in figuring out, ex ante, where harms can be efficiently addressed. This is why the common law baselne is so important. As Coase wrote later, part of his intent was to show how the law served to reduce transaction costs. While we might best understand common law principles as resting on a Lockean-rights-based framework, it’s results roughly approximated what Coase’s analysis would predict. It also gives us a rough framework for identifying when a “harm” becomes a “wrong,” which serves as a proxy for the ex ante determination of which harms should be actionable. The existence of firms (which Coase later explained, and as I try to felsh out in a forthcoming paper) helps us make corrections where this framework leads us astray. This is why, in my climate post, I focus on flooding, as opposed to other potential consequences of climate change, because the flooding of another’s property has always been recognized as a wrong under the common law, whereas actions on my land that indirectly affect your crop productivity (e.g. blocking sunlight, etc.) has not.


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