Friday, November 19, 2010

Lomberg cons Sullivan

The usually-savvy Andrew Sullivan recently penned a very foolish review of Lomberg's recent sedation-prop, the movie "Cool It":

What's great about the movie is its focus on R&D and how innovating new energy is more important than taxing carbon. In a mostly negative review, Andrew O'Hehir whines from the left but makes no substantive critique of what Bjorn argues. Yes, some climate change denialists latch onto his work, but Lomborg is not now and never has been a climate change denialist. He's a climate change realist and wants to address the problem through new technology while focusing aid on more pressing human problems . . .

The first problem here is that he mistakes Lomberg for a credible source of information, when in fact the mendacity of the man I like to call "Monckton Jr." is legendary. Entire books have been written about his errors, misrepresentations, and outright lies. Websites too. Here's a recent example of the Lomberg method from an exchange with the reliably gullible Andy Revkin:

Second, the damage cost of a ton of CO2 (at 3% discount rate) ranges from negative to $22 at the 99 percentile [from Richard Tol's paper "The Social Cost of Carbon: Trends, Outliers and Catastrophes" ], with a median of about $4. Emphasizing the high end does indeed mean we should reduce emissions a little more (a carbon tax that is $22/ton CO2 rather than just $4). But it does not justify that we should embrace the incredible outlier of Stern and say let’s tax at $86.

The science-sounding stuff here (99th percentile! The Social Cost of Carbon! Outlier!) is all smokescreen. Richard Tol is among the 2% of working climate scientist that reject the consensus and argue that warming either will not happen or will have few negative effects. Hence, it doesn't matter what discount rate he uses or what bogus cost calculation he comes up with, because his beliefs on what will happen as the earth warms are so far out of the mainstream you'd need a six-meter telescope to find them.

The impressive-sounding paper turns out not only to be un-peer reviewed, but actually to have been self-published online. (Thank you, "Economics: The open-access, open-assessment e-journal.")

This is the story of Lomberg's "sources" in their hundreds: the fringe is presented as the mainstream, dubious sources are passed off as scholarly; real science is ignored. Often, he will cite real science, but completely misrepresent what the article says (a favorite Monckton Sr. tactic as well).

Besides giving credence to a serial liar (a lapse I credit to Sullivan's personal friendship with Lomberg) the larger problem is that Sullivan, a self-professed conservative, is nodding along with this:

What's great about the movie is its focus on R&D and how innovating new energy is more important than taxing carbon.

I should not have to explain to someone who has written at length about their libertarian sympathies the reason why a carbon tax is the optimal instrument for reducing carbon emissions. It should be obvious. Research grants and tax credits affect only the behavior of the people eligible to receive them. They invariably favor certain technologies or approaches, because there must be some standard in how the money is distributed.

There are about a half a dozen ways to reduce carbon emissions. We can:

1. Chose to invest in research directed at new low-carbon energy sources.
2. Chose to invest in technologies improving energy efficiency.
3. Chose to upgrade our current infrastructure to take advantage of the technologies (power-generating) that we already have.
4. Chose to upgrade our current infrastructure to take advantage of the technologies (power-saving; efficiency) that we already have.
5. Chose to conserve (actually give up things; less meat, shorter showers, etc.)
6. Chose to capture and sequester carbon (scrubbing emissions, planting trees, etc.) Or research methods to accomplish same.

Which of these should we attempt, and in what proportions? Assuming we do invest in new technologies, at what point do we decide the technologies are good enough to push widespread implementation (upgrade our infrastructure)? Is it better to work on improving current power sources (wind, tidal, solar) or invest in other power sources further from market (fusion, thorium reactors, etc.)?

These are the kind of complex allocation-of-resources problems capitalism was made to solve. By pricing carbon according to our estimates of the negative externalities of climate change, we correct the market failure, and instead of depending on the government to back the right research by the right scientists and industrialists, we instead engage the brainpower of every producer and consumer in the economy; anyone with a pocketbook. When solutions range from double insulation on your home to massive irrigation projects to grow thousands of square miles of forest, from hybrid cars to self-contained mini nuclear reactors, the only way to optimize our choices is the market. The market is the only tool that can find the right balance between all the choices we have to cut our carbon emissions by 80% by 2050.

Conservatives, especially smart conservatives like Andrew who understand that conservatism is not about reflexively hating taxes, ought to see the power of raising the price of carbon emissions, which is the only solution that can harness the power of the market to avert disastrous climate change.

No comments:

Post a Comment