Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Climate change: The Economist gets it

I don't know what it is with The Economist's climate coverage recently, but it's dead on. From a July 31st editorial:

Droughts, floods, deadly storms: the news is full of them. While it's not easy to attribute any individual event to climate change, it is clear that a hotter planet translates into a higher frequency of extreme weather events.

So there you have "the problem of attribution" -- solved. Like cigarettes and cancer, extreme weather is not always cause by global warming. But more warming get you more extreme weather, just as smoking three packs a day gives you a higher risk of cancer. Simple enough?

When we emit carbon into the atmosphere, we impose a tiny cost on society as a whole in the form of more rapid global warming and a greater intensity of the accompanying social ills. Views of the magnitude of this cost differ. Many studies peg it at somewhere between $5 and $150 per tonne of carbon. Other studies indicate that it could be far higher—perhaps more than $1,000 per tonne. But the cost is positive, and a crucial first step to dealing with climate change, therefore, is to charge people for the carbon they emit. If you put a positive price on carbon, this price will be reflected in the cost of transactions, people will internalise the effect of their behaviour on the climate, and emissions will fall.

Why is this so hard for Andy Revkin, Judith Curry et al? The cost is positive. So you internalize the externality. The Economist is a freakn' libertarian journal and has been for a hundred and fifty years. They get it. Where are you?

There's no shortage of crises in the world today, and these troubles collectively reveal the many shortcomings in the institutional arrangements of our modern world. But in some ways, the continuing failure to address climate change in an appropriate fashion is the bigger indictment of government today. The fall-out from an American default would be hugely costly, but it almost certainly wouldn't represent an existential threat to humanity.

Whoa, you're starting to depress me, guys. Can't you give me something hopeful to go away with?

Anyway, it's just about the least surprising political outcome ever, but it's nonetheless noteworthy that in the whole of this major American fiscal debate no one has proposed taxing carbon. Forget the nitpicks; it would be easy to design a tax so that it didn't kick in right away, and so that its impact would be progressive. But people in Washington would literally laugh in your face if you presented a carbon tax as a good policy choice to include in a deficit-reduction package.

Well, that image is going to be stuck in my head for a while. We're in a bad place on the politics, no question. But on the bright side:

1. Politics change -- often quickly, often dramatically. See marriage, gay.
2. Global warming can be relied upon to get worse. And while we should be starting now, or, more accurately, should have started some time ago, as things get later, more people should come around. And late is better than never.

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