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“Naomi Klein wants to stick it to the man. I want to stick it to CO2.″

By Jonathan Derbyshire, Prospect Magazine's The world of ideas.

Jonathan DerbyshireWhy is it so difficult to get people to worry about climate change? After all, the science is pretty unambiguous—pace the climate change “deniers”. Part of the problem, according to a new book, “Climate Shock,” by the economists Gernot Wagner and Martin L Weitzman, is that while what we know about global warming is bad enough, there are “unknown risks that may yet dwarf all else.”

Wagner, who is lead senior economist at the Environmental Defense Fund in the United States, visited London a couple of weeks ago. I caught up with him while he was here and talked to him about the difficulties of mobilising public opinion around the threats and challenges of climate change. 

GW: The big problem, frankly, is speaking the truth and talking about what scientists actually know and what they don’t know, which in many ways is even scarier. Saying the latest science out loud is [often taken to be] akin to catastrophising. That’s the big conundrum: on the one hand, “climate shock” shouldn’t be all that shocking—we’ve known this for quite a while. The problem is finding a way to state the scientific facts in a way that does not turn people off immediately.

JDSo it’s partly a public relations or political challenge then?

It’s more than that. Political, certainly. But it’s also a science communications challenge.

You mentioned scientific uncertainty just now. The book is, among other things, an attempt to deal with the challenge of climate change and the policymaking challenges from an economic perspective. But it’s also, it seems to me, a work of epistemology, almost—it’s a reflection on uncertainty and the implications that uncertainty has for policymaking.

Most books are written about what we know. This book is about what we don’t know. We clearly know enough to act. We’ve known enough to act for years, decades. Now, the more we find out, the more apparent it gets that what we don’t know is in fact potentially much, more worse. Choose you favourite analogy here—Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s “black swans,” Donald Rumsfeld’s “unknown unknowns”. That’s what it’s all about. The things we don’t know will most likely be the things that bite us in the back.

This is one of the things that makes climate change a public policy challenge unlike any other.

Climate change is uniquely long-term. It is uniquely global. It is uniquely irreversible and uniquely uncertain. You could probably identify other policy issues that combine two of those four factors, but none that I know of combines all four like climate change [does].

Continue reading in Prospect Magazine.

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Climate Shock in under 90 seconds

Think of the atmosphere as a giant bathtub. There’s a faucet—emissions from human activity—and a drain—the planet’s ability to absorb that pollution. For most of human civilization and hundreds of thousands of years before, the inflow and the outflow were in relative balance. Then humans started burning coal and turned on the faucet far beyond what the drain could handle. The levels of carbon in the atmosphere began to rise to levels last seen in the Pliocene, over three million years ago.

What to do? That’s the question John Sterman, an MIT professor, asked two hundred graduate students. More specifically, he asked what to do to stabilize concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere close to present levels. How far do we need to go in turning off the faucet in order to stabilize concentrations? Here’s what not to do: stabilizing the flow of carbon into the atmosphere today won’t stabilize the carbon already there at close to present levels. You’re still adding carbon. Just because the inflow remains steady year after year, doesn’t mean the amount already in the tub doesn’t go up. Inflow and outflow need to be in balance, and that won’t happen at current levels of carbon dioxide in the tub (currently at 400 ppm) unless the inflow goes down by a lot.

That seems like an obvious point. It also seems to get lost on the average MIT graduate student, and these students aren’t exactly 'average'. Still, over 80 percent of them in Sterman’s study seem to confuse the faucet with the tub. They confuse stabilizing the inflow with stabilizing the level.

Watch this video to avoid making the same mistake:

Excerpted from Climate Shock.

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We need a climate insurance policy – now

Q&A with Karin Rives first published on EDF Voices.

Climate Shock

Before climate change gets so bad that we may be forced to “geoengineer” ourselves out of catastrophe, a new book—Climate Shock—suggests that we reframe the problem altogether.

Gernot Wagner, a lead senior economist at Environmental Defense Fund and co-author of the book, says we ought to look at climate change as a risk management problem and treat it as such. I had a chat with Gernot about the book he will release next week together with Martin L. Weitzman, a professor of economics at Harvard University.

Karin Rives: Many books have already been published on climate change. What’s new or different about Climate Shock?

Most everyone focuses on what we know about climate change. Our book is about what we don’t know.

Call it Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s “Black Swan,” or the Rumsfeldian “unknown unknowns”—a state of complete and dangerous uncertainty and unpredictability. Call it what you want, but it’s that tail that may yet wag us in the end.

What we know is bad. What we don’t know is potentially much worse. Climate, in the end, is a risk management issue. Just like homeowners take out insurance against fires and flooding, society needs insurance against climate change.

KR: So what do we know?

Last time the planet experienced as much carbon in its atmosphere as there is now, sea levels where up to 66 feet higher than they are today. Camels lived in Canada. That was more than 3 million years ago. The geological clock read “Pliocene.”

We certainly know enough to take reasoned action today. And almost everything we don’t know points in one and only one direction: that action is all the more urgent.

KR: Why do we need to read this book now?

The time to buy our insurance policy is now—while we still can. And I’m speaking both metaphorically and literally.

Insurance here, of course, is to avoid dumping carbon into the atmosphere. We pay to have our trash picked up instead of just dumping it for free onto our streets. We similarly need to pay to avoid dumping carbon into our atmosphere.

That’s not free, but it’s still relatively cheap to do—and much cheaper than experiencing the consequences of unchecked global warming.

KR: What should be my three most important takeaways from your book?

Scream, cope, and profit.

We need to get the right policies in place, and soon. That’s “scream.” Then there’s some global warming we can no longer avoid—and that we are already experiencing. Let’s prepare ourselves better for that.

“Profit” is, of course, what you would expect two economists to say, dollar signs in their eyes and all. All that starts with smart investment decisions. Green, clean, and lean isn’t just got for the planet. It’s also the right financial choice and we need to ensure that it is much more so going forward.

The main takeaway, in the end, is that this isn’t some artificial battle between capitalism and the climate. It’s not about sticking it to the man. It’s about sticking it to carbon.

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Correcting the maths of the "50 to 1 Project"

(This post first appeared on Climate 411.)

A nine-minute video, released earlier this fall, argues that climate mitigation is 50 times more expensive than adaptation. The claims are based on calculations done by Christopher Monckton. We analyzed the accompanying “sources and maths” document. In short, the author shows a disconcerting lack of understanding of climate science and economics:

  1. Fundamental misunderstanding of basic climate science: Pre-industrial levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) were at around 280 parts per million (ppm).[i] One of the most commonly stated climate policy goals is to keep concentrations below 450 ppm CO2. Monckton, oddly, adds 280 and 450 to get to 730 ppm as the goal of global stabilization efforts, making all the rest of his calculations wildly inaccurate.
  2. Prematurely cutting off analysis after ten years: Monckton calculates the benefits of the carbon tax over a ten-year time horizon. That is much too short to see the full effects of global warming or of the policy itself. Elevated carbon levels persist for hundreds to thousands of years.[ii]
  3. Erroneously applying Australian “cost-effectiveness” calculation to the world: This may be the most troubling aspect from an economist's point of view. Monckton first calculates the effect of the Australia-only tax on global temperatures, which is unsurprisingly low, as Australia accounts for only 1.2% of world emissions. Next, he calculates the tax’s resulting “cost-effectiveness” — defined as the Australian tax influencing global temperatures. No surprise once again, that influence is there, but Australia alone can't solve global warming for the rest of us. Then, Monckton takes the Australia-only number and scales it to mitigate 1ºC globally, resulting in a purported cost of “$3.2 quadrillion,” which he claims is the overall global “mitigation cost-effectiveness.” But this number simply represents the cost of avoiding 1ºC of warming by acting in Australia alone. Monckton has re-discovered the fact that global warming is a global problem! The correct calculation for a globally applied tax would be to calculate cost-effectiveness on a global level first. If Australia’s carbon price were to be applied globally, it would cut much more pollution at a much lower cost. And that, of course, is very much the hope. Australia, California, and the European Union are called “climate leaders” for a reason. Others must follow.

What’s the real cost of cutting carbon? The U.S. government’s estimate of the cost of one ton of CO2 pollution released today is about $40.[iii] That's also the optimal price to make sure that each of us is paying for our own climate damages. Any policy with a lower (implied) carbon price—including the Australian tax—easily passes a benefit-cost test.

With all due respect Lord Monckton, 3rd Viscount of Brenchley, your maths are way off.


[i] "Summary for Policymakers," IPCC Fifth Assessment Report, Working Group I (2013).

[ii] Results differ across scenarios, but a rough rule of thumb suggests that approximately 70% of the ‘peak enhancement level’ over the preindustrial level of 280 ppm perseveres after 100 years of zero emissions, while approximately 40% of the ‘peak enhancement level’ over the preindustrial level of 280 ppm persevered after 1,000 years of zero emissions (Solomon, Susan, Gian-Kasper Plattner, Reto Knutti and Pierre Friedlingstein, “Irreversible climate change due to carbon dioxide emissionsProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 106, no. 6 (2009): 1704-1709). Note that this refers to the net increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, not the exact molecule. Archer, David, Michael Eby, Victor Brovkin, Andy Ridgwell, Long Cao, Uwe Mikolajewicz, Ken Caldeira et al. "Atmospheric lifetime of fossil fuel carbon dioxide." Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences 37 (2009): 117-134 discusses these two often confused definitions for carbon’s ‘lifetime,’ and concludes that 20-40% of excess carbon levels remain hundreds to thousands of years (“2-20 centuries”) after it is emitted. Each carbon dioxide molecule has a lifetime of anywhere between 50 to 200 years, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s “Overview of Greenhouse Gases: Carbon Dioxide Emissions.” The precise number is under considerable scientific dispute and surprisingly poorly understood. (Inman, Mason, “Carbon is forever,” Nature Reports Climate Change 20 November 2008)

[iii] The precise value presented in Table 1 of the Technical Update of the Social Cost of Carbon for Regulatory Impact Analysis Under Executive Order 12866 for a ton of carbon dioxide emitted in 2015, using a 3% social discount rate increased is $38. For 2020, the number is $43; for 2030, the number increases to $52. All values are in inflation-adjusted 2007 dollars. For a further exploration of this topic, see Nordhaus, William D. The Climate Casino: Risk, Uncertainty, and Economics for a Warming World. Yale University Press (2013) as only one of the latest examples summarizing this kind of analysis. Nordhaus concludes that the optimal policy, one that maximizes net benefits to the planet, would spend about 3% of global GDP.

Many thanks to Michelle Ho for excellent research assistance.

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Why does no one in Thailand recycle, Bangkok is a polluted mess, yet everyone uses CFLs?

Few Thais recycle, no one bikes, plastic bags are everywhere and Bangkok is afflicted by gridlock and pollution. So you might say that, in general, Thais behave more like citizens of a rapidly emerging economy than the typical Brooklyn environmentalist.

Why, then, does virtually every home use efficient compact fluorescent lights (CFLs). Americans and Europeans needed a ban on incandescent bulbs to make the switch. Not so the Thais, where you can still buy cheaper, more inefficient incandescent bulbs at the corner store.

Was it the influence of a higher authority? Thais famously revere their 85-year-old King, the world’s longest-reigning head of state, who happens to be an environmentalist.

The answer is, mostly, no.

Continue reading at EDF Voices.

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Geoengineering: ignore economics and governance at your peril

Cross-posted from Climate 411.

How serious is global warming? Here’s one indication: the first rogue entrepreneurs have begun testing the waters on geoengineering, as Naomi Klein laments in her must-read New York Times op-ed.

Sadly, Klein misses two important points.

First, it’s not a question of if but when humanity will be compelled to use geoengineering, unless we change course on our climate policies (or lack thereof). Second, all of this calls for more research and a clear, comprehensive governance effort on the part of governments and serious scientists – not a ban of geoengineering that we cannot and will not adhere to. (See point number one.)

Saying that we ought not to tinker with the planet on a grand scale – by attempting to create an artificial sun shield, for example – won’t make it so. Humanity got into this mess thanks to what economists call the “free rider” effect. All seven billion of us are free riders on the planet, contributing to global warming in various ways but paying nothing toward the damage it causes. No wonder it’s so hard to pass a sensible cap or tax on carbon pollution. Who wants to pay for something that they’re used to doing for free – never mind that it comes at great cost to those around them?

It gets worse: Turns out the same economic forces pushing us to do too little on the pollution front are pushing us toward a quick, cheap fix – a plan B.

Enter the Strangelovian world of geoengineering – tinkering with the whole planet. It comes in two distinct flavors:

  • Sucking carbon out of the atmosphere;
  • Creating an artificial sun shield for the planet.

The first involves reversing some of the same processes that cause global warming in the first place. Instead of taking fossil fuels out of the ground and burning them, we would now take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and bury it under ground. That sounds expensive, and it is. Estimates range from $40 to $200 and more per ton of carbon dioxide – trillions of dollars to solve the problem.

That brings us to the second, scary flavor, which David Keith, a leading thinker on geoengineering, calls “chemotherapy” for the planet. The direct price tag to create an artificial sun shield: pennies per ton of carbon dioxide. It’s the kind of intervention an island nation, or a billionaire greenfinger, could pay for.

You can see where economics enters the picture. The first form of geoengineering won’t happen unless we place a serious price on carbon pollution. The second may be too cheap to resist.

In a recent Foreign Policy essay, Harvard’s Martin Weitzman and I called the forces pushing us toward quick and dirty climate modification “free driving.” Crude attempts to, say, inject sulfur particles into the atmosphere to counter carbon dioxide already there would be so cheap it might as well be free. We are talking tens or hundreds of millions of dollars a year. That’s orders of magnitude cheaper than tackling the root cause of the problem.

Given the climate path we are on, it’s only a matter of time before this “free driver” effect takes hold. Imagine a country badly hit by adverse climate changes: India’s crops are wilting; China’s rivers are drying up. Millions of people are suffering. What government, under such circumstances, would not feel justified in taking drastic action, even in defiance of world opinion?

Once we reach that tipping point, there won’t be time to reverse warming by pursuing collective strategies to move the world onto a more sustainable growth path. Instead, speed will be of the essence, which will mean trying untested and largely hypothetical techniques like mimicking volcanoes and putting sulfur particles in the stratosphere to create an artificial shield from the sun.

That artificial sunscreen may well cool the earth. But what else might it do? Floods somewhere, droughts in other places, and a host of unknown and largely unknowable effects in between. That’s the scary prospect. And we’d be experimenting on a planetary scale, in warp speed.

That all leads to the second key point: we ought to do research in geoengineering, and do so guided by sensible governance principles adhered to be all. We cannot let research get ahead of public opinion and government oversight. The geoengineering governance initiative convened by the British Royal Society, the Academy of Sciences for the Developing World, and the Environmental Defense Fund is a necessary first step in the right direction.

Is there any hope in this doomsday scenario? Absolutely. Country after country is following the trend set by the European Union to institute a cap or price on carbon pollution. Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, and also California are already – or will soon be – limiting their carbon pollution. India has a dollar-a-ton coal tax. China is experimenting with seven regional cap-and-trade systems.

None of these is sufficient by itself. But let’s hope this trend expands –fast – to include the really big emitters like the whole of China and the U.S., Brazil, Indonesia, and others. Remember, the question is not if the “free driver” effect will kick in as the world warms. It’s when.

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