Monday, 20 September 2010

Yer either fer us or agin us

I've taught from Lomborg's Skeptical Environmentalist and Copenhagen Consensus. Bjorn Lomborg hasn't denied global warming; rather, his expert panels assessed that popular anti-carbon initiatives simply failed cost-benefit analysis. Spending a lot of money on carbon mitigation seemed wasteful compared to spending money on providing micronutrients and vaccines to kids in poor countries.

Lomborg recently assessed some better anti-warming initiatives, like investments in low carbon energy research, and found those provided decent value for money.

Folks who haven't read Lomborg's prior work carefully enough paint this as Lomborg having recanted. He's not changed position; he's just evaluated the potential benefits of a less crazy set of policies.
The fact that I've always asserted the reality of man-made climate change never seemed to make an impression on my critics. What mattered was that I had the temerity to question two key tenets of the received wisdom about global warming: I was skeptical of the idea that we were facing the apocalypse, and I didn't accept that the only solution was to mandate drastic cuts in carbon emissions.

That's the way it is with heresy—there is no middle ground. Either you believe global warming is the worst problem mankind has ever faced and that cutting carbon is the only solution, or you are an antiscientific ignoramus who probably thinks the Earth is flat.

My reputation among climate activists worsened in 2008, when the Copenhagen Consensus Center, the think tank I founded, published the results of a wide-ranging cost-benefit analysis of solutions to 10 of the world's most pressing problems. We assembled a group of top economists and asked them to assess which solutions to which problems would deliver the most bang for the buck. In addition to global warming, we considered issues like malnutrition, unsafe drinking water, malaria and terrorism.

The main global-warming solution our experts analyzed was the carbon-cutting approach advocated by Al Gore and endorsed at the 1997 global climate summit in Kyoto. We found that compared to solutions to other problems, direct carbon cuts were woefully ineffective. For example, while every dollar spent on fighting malnutrition would yield nearly $20 in benefits, every dollar spent on cutting carbon would avoid much less than a dollar of global warming damage. When we published our list of investments we thought should be prioritized, cutting carbon was near the bottom. Once again, I was pilloried for being a global warning denier.

The Kyoto approach is not the only way forward. In 2009, we convened another group to look at a variety of potential solutions to climate change beyond simply cutting carbon. Our experts (including three Nobel laureates) identified a number of other approaches to the problem that were economically feasible and likely to have a quicker and more powerful impact.

The most promising involved massive increases in R&D funding for green energy technologies and geo-engineering. I spent a good part of last year and most of this year advocating for this sensible approach to solving global warming, which is "one of the chief concerns facing the world today," as I said in an Aug. 31 interview with the Guardian, the British newspaper.

What happened next was startling. The Guardian reported my commonplace observation as evidence of "an apparent U-turn" by "the world's most high-profile climate change skeptic." This set off a media stampede; news organizations around the world scrambled to report my so-called change of heart.
Climate policy is too politicized for nuanced positions.

Here in NZ, we would do far far better by:
  1. Formally withdrawing from Kyoto
  2. Abandoning the ETS
  3. Pouring R&D funds into agricultural emission mitigation technologies that would then be shared with the world at zero charge.
We would do far more good in slowing global warming by helping the rest of the world mitigate agricultural methane emissions than we would by anything else we could possibly do given the trivial scale of New Zealand's aggregate emissions. Every dollar poorer we make ourselves via the ETS is a dollar we can't spend on methane reduction R&D. If New Zealand were swallowed up by the ocean tomorrow, the complete elimination of our carbon emission might slow global warming a century hence by what, a week? A couple of days? But if we could figure out new GE forms of clover or livestock that seriously reduce agricultural methane emissions not just in New Zealand but also for other livestock producing countries, that would have potential to do a whole lot of good.


  1. Wouldn't the probability weighted political benefits of sticking with Kyoto and pretending that we have an effective ETS outweigh those of investing heavily in green technologies? The world can "see" that our government is "doing something" about climate change when it imposes economy-wide carbon-emission regulations, but can't when the government is increasing R&D invesment spending (particularly given that the results of that spending won't be seen for a long time).

    We've probably got far more to lose in the short run (international political backlash, potential trade restrictions on our "non-green" goods, loss of Clean, Green New Zealand branding value) by risking our image on the investment option.

  2. @James: Please point to any evidence of international outrage hurting Canada's trade figures as consequence of its complete ignoring of its Kyoto requirements.

    Further, please point to any evidence that folks abroad put any more than a penny's value on NZ's "clean green" image. There was some decent recent Brit research that showed that shoppers there would make claims about caring about that sort of thing, but nothing mattered more than price.

    Europe has a trading scheme where credits are cheap due to the baseline being 1990, when crazy Eastern Block factories were pouring out carbon. I can't think of anywhere else that's taking Kyoto seriously. We might be the only country in the world prepared to impose serious real costs on itself to meet Kyoto obligations. Everywhere else it's just lip-service.

  3. "please point to any evidence that folks abroad put any more than a penny's value on NZ's "clean green" image."

    Here: The study is survey based, though, so I wouldn't put a lot of weight on its findings.

    Anyway, you've got me, but since when has a lack of evidence for these arguments been of any concern to the people making/pushing these policies? My point being that if policy makers/pushers believe in an international backlash or hurting of NZ's brand as a result of backing down on Kyoto (via research such as that presented above), then they'll take those as costs whether they're actually likely to occur or not. And if climate change policy is as politicized as you suggest, then evidence for these costs isn't likely to matter a great deal.

    (Actually, if we're really being cynical, it might be that policy makers don't believe in those costs at all, they just propagate public belief in them to further their cause).

  4. I have to agree Eric. Kyoto was always going to be a complete waste of time while the US, China and others stood on the sidelines. Even assuming taxing carbon emissions is the way to go, and I'd say the jury is still out on that, every major player needs to buy in to it for the scheme to be effective.

    I like the idea of investing more into green R&D. I see that as being more likely to provide realistic long-term benefits. I guess I can see a place for the ETS style of scheme in the short to medium term, until some of the advances in R&D start to come on-line, but the cost of carbon credits needs to be sufficient to provide an incentive for industry to prefer to adopt green technology once available. Otherwise it just becomes one more overhead, and no real change occurs. Of course in the absence of emission reducing tech, the income from ETS should be funnelled into R&D rather than just filling government coffers.

  5. @James: then we eliminate the ETS and maintain lip-service to Kyoto, putting us in line with the international norm.

    @Lats: I'd sooner that all of those costs be redirected to things that are more useful.

  6. I don't really care about the "clean and green" image of New Zealand. It seems to be born out of an intrinsic love with nature, guilt over being productive , saving the planet and other such nonsense. It makes kiwis look really shallow and dumb. They should drop it.

  7. Not speaking of the specifics of NZ and Kyoto... simple game-theory says NZ should ignore it, unless it is seen as the price paid to signal an environmental message. Bjorn swaying this way or that doesn't enter into it...

    Let deal directly with the issue of the rational of the methodology of the Copenhagen Consensus, and Lomborg's stance.

    The same climate scientists that Lomborg disparaged for stating evidence of high sensitivities for carbon emissions are now the same climate scientists he will trust to run geo-engineering. This is the the most embarrassing contradiction of Lomborg's evolving stance.

    The Copenhagen Consensus cost-benefit analysis put carbon taxes at the bottom by valuing stewardship of the environment for future generations at zero. The same way pre-school for my toddler would be at the bottom of a cost-benefit analysis of all uses of my money, if I valued his own future earnings and quality of life at zero.

    If you are standing on the train tracks with a freight train coming in five minutes, you have the choice to leap off the tracks. A "compromise" position of shifting over a few inches will have no effect, no matter how much you value "moderation and reasonableness". If you limit your analysis to only the next step minutes and fifty-nine seconds, the energy expended in the leap is a waste.

    I wish we had the choice to live in an "warmer average" world -- it would be nice. If you put two bullets in a six chambered gun to play Russian roulette, on "average", you are still alive but with a headache. But the "average" is an abstraction, and in reality you have to deal with the consequences of the spun barrel. The risk is not a warmer world -- the risk is an over-energetic world that no longer has the climate stability that allowed civilization and large-scale agriculture and inexpensive & quick transportation to be developed and maintained.

    It is fine to consider all possible humanitarian uses of scarce capital. The weight that stewardship of the environment for future generations should not be infinite, lest you indulge in pointless profligacy towards but a single goal. But that does not imply that stewardship of the environment for future generations should be weighted at zero.

    [ This implies value placed on trying to give future generations a "western/first world" standard of living much like what we currently enjoy. If we are satisfied with a few hundred thousand on each continent living under conditions like indigenous peoples, living along the new raised coastlines and grasslands freed from permafrost, with climate instability but the net warmth & wetness still giving the ability to feed from the meat of small grazing animals, the costs we would bare would be slight. ]

  8. I'm pretty sure that Copenhagen handles discounting the same way other folks do: by saying that future generations matter as much as present generations, but that future benefits and costs are discounted relative to present ones because the alternative for any non-cash benefit we could give them is just opening a savings account and giving them the cash transfer. Environmental stewardship counts as much as other things in future generations' consumption bundles.

    I'll take your point on guarding against the risks of really bad outcomes rather than just worrying about the mean. I think that's the argument that either Nordhaus or Weitzman (can't recall which) wound up at in favour of strong action now. Of course, there are all kinds of low probability high cost outcomes against which we ought be doing more - monitoring for killer asteroids and developing mechanisms for dealing with them if found, for starters.

    I'm generally a fan of carbon taxes if done in a revenue neutral way. I just don't think they're likely to be effective. They may be adopted by single countries here and there, but the real game-changer will be tech development such that it's in individuals' interests to use new, cheaper, and greener means of generating power.

    In the US, this is probably best done using prizes: the govt promises $1 billion to whoever comes up with a workable zero GHG engine conditional on its being released under a creative commons licence. Here in NZ, it would be agriculture, and is probably better funded through a mix of prizes and grants.

  9. I've always understood Lomborg's position fairly well, I've just disagreed with it for a few reasons (one minor one not mentioned is that many of his other lower cost, higher benefit issues are not close to being independent of climate change e.g. malnutrition, malaria etc). Nonetheless, I have always sensed an undercurrent that he was further to the extreme than he portrayed, and that he just knew what he had to do to be in the "reasonable" conversation. This is notwithstanding the fact that I love he tried to focus on policy, rather than arguing about the science...Jim Manzi is another one in this category for me. So I have a feeling that this is more of a U-turn than he would like to admit (but less of one than the media suggests)

    I also probably should have read this thread before commenting on the Kyoto one in the future;)

  10. @Cam: Haven't met Lomborg, so couldn't comment. It's always possible that he has closeted fears about the accuracy of the science.

    Possible that it's a U-turn in beliefs about the science, but it seems more plausible that he's really just brought a different set of policies to the evaluation.