For several months I’ve been organizing a series of dinners in the Sky Dragon Cantonese restaurant for people who favor imposing a tax on carbon dioxide emissions to reduce climate change. Science for Peace is my group, and this is one of its committees. When we feel sufficiently well-informed on the topic, we’ll fan out across the city, offering to speak on the radio, to high school classes, or in church basements to whip up public enthusiasm for our cause.
There were about a dozen of us at the start, but as I invite energy experts to come and give us a talk, each one joins the group on a continuing basis. Hence both the size and sophistication of the conversation are increasing. Nobody can get a chance anymore to say everything he would like so, after each dinner, I get e-mails from two or three participants, amplifying their remarks. I pass these on to the whole group, often taking the opportunity to add my two cents. This blog entry is not a summary, but rather a follow-on commentary to last Thursday’s enjoyable dinner. But I won’t disclose whole names, since I’ve been told this can offend people sometimes.
Our speaker on Thursday was new to the group, so he started with more basic arguments than usual. Those participating have already made up their minds that carbon taxation is highly desirable, but David began by asking very simple questions, such as “Is climate change really a problem?” and by mentioning the names of some writers who actually deny that it is a problem – e.g. Bjorn Lomborg, a trade book writer who has virtually zero credibility among climatologists. (I saw him on the Colbert Report once and thought that Stephen was embarrassed about having invited him.) Anyway David forged ahead, as if to convince the remaining skeptics among us.
And indeed, there was one skeptic – and perhaps even two. Both of them are somewhat new to the group. Their skepticism remained apparently impervious to correction, but no one made an issue of it or stalled the conversation to linger over a dispute that would irritate the rest of us.
Nevertheless, both of the skeptics sent me e-mails later, elaborating on their opinions. Norm’s letter crackled with reproach. He thought that the committee, as a putatively scientific group, had been improperly closed-minded and dismissive of skeptical opinions. Perhaps this allegation stung the others but not me. I don’t know how long one should leave a question open, but I accept Thomas Kuhn’s assumption that it is normal for scientists to adopt a common perspective as long as they can rationally fight off those who would challenge it. I am comfortable being normal, even ordinary, in this situation. If the IPCC scientists are not deluded, our predicament is urgent and it makes no sense to dawdle.
But in his letter, Norm adduced the argument proposed by William Nordhaus, an economist who had criticized the Stern Report. I downloaded two articles by Nordhaus and struggled unsuccessfully to read them. (One needed to be a genuine economist to follow the argument.) I infer, perhaps wrongly, that Nordhaus is a skeptic about the economic dangers of not acting swiftly to combat climate change. His critique was based on claiming that Sir Nicholas Stern had chosen the wrong discount rate to plug into his model, and hence had overestimated the future economic disasters resulting from today's delayed reactions.
Maybe so, but when the newspaper says the Arctic will be free of ice in the summer by 2012, I should think that prediction would galvanize most people, whether they understand discount rates or not. Something alarming is going on. Who could reasonably doubt that today?
I lost a little time in preparing a response to Norm’s plaintive cry today because I thought this Nordhaus chap to whom he referred was the same one whose book I read a week ago. Not so. That was Ted Nordhaus, who, along with his co-author Michael Shellenberger, wrote a book called BreakThrough. I wrote a blog about it earlier, but I fished it out of the pile and had another look today. Nordhaus and Shellenberger are also addressing climate change, all right, but they hardly present a dozen numbers in the whole book. Their argument (which William Nordhaus might even accept, for all I know) is that environmentalists are mistaken in calling for a no-growth economy. We can have growth and prosperity by investing in breakthrough technologies that do not pollute. I already agreed with this opinion, but would not have been convinced by their book alone, which was deficient in the kind of precision that William Nordhaus deployed with excess.
If I must defend my open-mindedness about climate change, I can point to two new arguments that I do take seriously. (Well, at least I don’t reject them outright.) One is a point that Freeman Dyson made: that the earth – the dirt under our feet – is a major carbon sink. To the extent that we overlook that factor by focusing instead on the amount of carbon being emitted , our calculations and possibly even our policies may be wrong. When I read that, I began to look into agriculture and found that exposing the earth to the atmosphere by tilling the soil keeps the earth from retaining carbon as it should. I will go back to that literature in more detail in a couple of weeks and probably will write about it. But in the meantime, I claim that it proves I am not reductively treating carbon emissions as the only thing requiring societal reform. Farming has to change too.
And I will display yet another proof of my fair-mindedness. Hans, the other skeptic in the group, announced that it was not really a fact that oil was a fossil fuel. Everyone gasped, presumably concluding that the poor guy was truly uneducated. But I knew what he meant, and the next day I received a lengthy letter from him explaining his perspective. I had known that some Russians believe that oil was not created by the compression of biomass (dinosaurs and other detritus from their era) but rather from the compression of certain types of rocks deep in the earth. What I had not known was that this opinion is apparently the standard theory throughout Russia. I am prepared to keep an open mind on the question.
Besides, there are thousands of papers on the subject, and evidently someone demonstrated in a laboratory that it is possible to produce oil in that way. According to this theory, then, there won’t be any lasting shortage of oil because it is continuously being produced and can be found in lots of additional places on earth. This would definitely contradict the Peak Oil theorists but I don’t see that it offers any solution to climate change. Even if there’s an infinite supply of oil, and even if it is not made from fossils, we can’t keep burning the stuff much longer.
I went back to David’s speech. Yes! There was something in it that I had wanted to elaborate last Thursday night. He had been presenting a moderate view about addressing climate change. He showed one of those “wedge diagrams” that visually depict how a set of small improvements can collectively turn the whole growth curve from a downward to an upward trajectory. One of these wedges he called dematerialization of the economy.
I love that expression! De-materialize! I had never heard it before, but I’d expressed the argument repeatedly in arguing against the idea that we require a no-growth economy. Actually, to have a prosperous economy, most of our jobs must grow in the “knowledge” sector. We professionals – every one of us around that table – earn good incomes by thinking, not by manufacturing anything physical whatever. Our jobs have “de-materialized,” though the GNP just keeps going up and up. That's growth, but it’s ideas that we produce, not things. To the extent that we are paid for, and in turn pay for, ideas instead of physical products, there can be less “through-put“ of physical resources.
But one member of the group – a very smart economist named Peter – said that he is about to publish a book about how to run a no-growth economy. He insists that the use of natural resources is continuing to increase, even in a “knowledge-based economy” such as our own. If that is true, it must be because people are buying luxury items instead of basic necessities. One can get along with much less nowadays if we try. But if people keep flying around the world just to lie on a beach in the wintertime, there will be a continuing depletion of resources. That’s the only explanation I can consider plausible, if my economist friend Peter is correct.
There was one more brief debate at the Thursday dinner between Helmut and me. He asserted, as is his wont, that ethanol from biomass is no solution whatever to our impending shortage of fuel. Everyone nodded, including me. He challenged me, asking whether I agreed. Yes, I did. (I had some qualifications but didn’t want to slow down the conversation by stating them.) But Helmut said that I was contradicting my previous statement, for I had told him that I liked Ted Turner more than him.
I let that pass, though it had made everyone laugh. Soon, however, there was a conversation going about how bad agricultural subsidies are. At that point I mentioned that this was the context of my statement about liking Ted Turner. He had been pleading for acceptance of ethanol production in the developed countries, for that would enable farmers to become sufficiently prosperous to accept an end to farm subsidies, and this in turn would rescue the poor farmers in the less developed countries. I buy that argument – at least if we’re talking about cellulosic ethanol, which need not use up food supplies such as corn. Everyone nodded, recognizing that I had not been totally irrational in my enthusiasm for Turner’s approach.
Today Helmut wrote me again, explaining that no biomass source of energy is sustainable. He acknowledged that cellulosic ethanol is okay, but it only amounts to a drop in the bucket. Perhaps he’s right. But he doesn’t have numbers for that assertion in the paper he just published. I’ll wait for the numbers to appear. It seems very likely that cellulosic ethanol will have a much better energy input/output ratio than ethanol from corn, sugarcane, or any other similar product.
This is where my times goes, thinking about such matters. But Christmas is approaching and I must start doing seasonal things. I must find out the EREOI of mistletoe.