Can you imagine…

Can you imagine the US federal government taking out advertisements like this:


Apparently there is some precedent.

Good advice or not, it seems unimaginable that this was uncontroversial during the “greatest generation”. It shows how quickly ideology changes, among other things.

McKitrick’s Plan

I appreciate people sharing the broad outlines of how they think we ought to handle the carbon situation. I am not entirely serious with the proposal I have outlined; there is much that I like about it and I hope it can be salvaged, but so far nobody has pointed out what I think is its fatal flaw. We’ll get back to that shortly.

Meanwhile, while we’re on the subject, a couple of folks have raised McKitrick’s plan, which bases a carbon tax on the instantaneous global mean surface temperature (or, according to one correspondent, the equatorial mean).

The equatorial mean, of course, is plainly silly: why pick the least temperature-sensitive spot to measure the anthropogenic damage, unless you were looking for a way to pretend it away.
There is some appeal to the idea, though; the idea is to find a measure of global change that is independent of the scientific theory, such that people who don’t have any faith in the science could agree to it, and to use that measure to calibrate the response.
In practice McKitrick’s idea seems either ignorant or disingenuous. I cannot take anybody who proposes it seriously, because they still remain firmly in the class of people who “don’t get it”.
Let’s leave aside the usual confusion about “global warming”, which is a symptom of anthropogenic climate change, not the disease. We can reduce global warming in a literal sense to zero easily enough with additional aerosol releases, but this will not avoid massive climate change.
Even if global temperature were the a complete measure of anthropogenic climate change, the problem is that it’s a delayed measure. The ocean and sea ice take a while to respond; the land ice even longer; and the clathrates (we hope) still longer than that. (*) What this means is that the temperature we see now is the temperature we bought in the past; some of the response is delayed, and some of it is greatly delayed. This is part of what I would call a basic policy-level understanding of the science. If you miss that point, you don’t know enough about what is going on in the climate system to venture a serious policy.
I like the idea that the policy should adjust to the evidence. But the idea that the instantaneous temperature is a measure of the sensitivity is a mark of denialist-influenced confusion. Unfortunately there simply is not a simple metric of how deeply in trouble we are. I think the basic idea is not unreasonable on its face, but the measure we use needs to account for the delays in the system.
We could apply something like this to the trillionth ton constraint. If the system is less sensitive than we think, we can loosen the constraint. The trouble is that is the system is more sensitive than we think, there is very little time to tighten the constraint. There is realistically no more time for dawdling, since even the trillion ton limit carries plenty of climate risk on present evidence. We should shoot for that now; shooting for two trillion and realizing the right goal is one trillion is no good if you find yourself already committed to a trillion and a half.
(*) These can be regarded as exacerbating feedbacks from the point of view of the atmosphere system, or slow modes from the point of view of the whole coupled climate system.

Working Backwards

The idea of planning is this. If you have to achieve something by a certain time, start with that time and work backwards to see what was necessary to achieve the goal.

Some goals are impossible, to be sure. The goal of maintaining the status quo is impossible, at least insofar as energy infrastructure is concerned. It cannot be done, whether that pleases you or not. That which is unsustainable will not be sustained.
But people don’t like change. So the optimum path to the future is the one which causes the least change. For instance, on the carbon front, we cannot keep emitting substantial net amounts of carbon into the air. In fact, we run plenty of risks at the trillion ton total. So planning is looking at stopping at a trillionth ton, and identifying what has to happen between today and that future. Of the possibilities raised, we have to somehow settle on the least implausible one; which has to be among those which threaten people the least.
I understand most people are worried about the politics of it: how to convince people that change is necessary.
But I think we are being hopelessly unclear about what change that is.
Let’s be clear about this much. What needs to happen for us to not go past the trillionth ton, so we can peak below 500 ppmv and revert eventually to the neighborhood of 350 ppmv with a reasonable effort?
Clearly, an international agreement needs to happen. But an agreement to do what? By when? We need to be specific. So far, we are proposing nothing at all. The advocates of the status quo are ahead of us. Their suggestion is unworkable, but it’s easy to imagine.

Pricing the Externality

So, if we stop emitting at around the trillionth ton of C, I am told by no less than Jim Hansen, the ocean will absorb enough CO2 to get us back down to 350 ppmv before the system equilibrates to the peak forcing. That is, we probably won’t need to scrub CO2 out of the free atmosphere, which, jobs or no, would definitely be a negative kick to well-being. Whereas if we keep going beyond that, we probably will; that’s a terrible legacy to leave.

So, instead of arguing about which nation gets to emit what, and gets to trade what, I propose that we simply divide the atmospheric carbon dump evenly among those now living. So you have 65 tons of CO2 left to you, and I have 65 tons left to me, and so do Michael Dell and Sandra Bullock, to pick a couple of rich local people at random. Now Michael Dell will get through those 65 tons in a jiffy, no doubt. But being rich, he can bid for more on the open market. Some person in Baluchistan with no intent to use his 65 tons can happily sell some of them to Michael Dell. (These are NOT units of fuel. These are the rights to units of CO2 emissions.)

Conceivably, we can adjust the cap if the denial squad is right: if the sensitivity is low we can allocate more emissions. But the principle that eventually come of the carbon has to be left in the ground still stands. We cannot release all of it. So the sooner we agree to the principle of a hard cap, I think, the better.

A very low-friction electronic marketplace will be easy to set up.

Consider some of the advantages of cap and trade at the individual level. Externalities are clearly priced. People not using their allocation are directly rewarded. International negotiations are avoided. No blame accrues to past behavior; no nation gains a competitive disadvantage. The windfall goes not to the fuel producers, but to the poorest people in the world; a natural income transfer. So much for the crocodile tears for the underdeveloped. We use the emissions cap explicitly to support them in a transition to a market economy.

Most of all, it’s simple and it’s fair. You can explain it to people. There are advantages all around. Did I miss something?

The Great Rationing

We need to begin by acknowledging that our problem has no precedent.

It appears that polite and reasonable pursuit of a transition to sustainability has failed in the face of a sort of twisted unnatural malice accidentally written into law. We are at the mercy of a tyranny of the “fiduciary responsibilities” of the officers of the large corporations that have made the miracle of modern life possible and are increasingly making the doom of the future ever more enormous and inevitable.

These blind and monstrous corporate “responsibilities” dominate the life of the advanced countries and they (and their odd echoes in China) influence many other countries.

The conventional modern view of the world has it that while economic freedoms cross all borders, all other freedoms are contingent, local, tied to geography, that is, tied to a particular nation-state and a particular sovereignty. Thus, we have international governance for trade, but not for, say, immigration, or for that matter, for freedom or for preservation of our environment.

Persons who inhabit the “wrong” nation-state are accorded limited and contingent rights. In America’s incredible legal tangle, these rights as accorded to any individual may be entirely self-contradictory as well as capricious: until recently “illegal” immigrants who are now in danger of expulsion for a traffic stop were encouraged to get drivers’ licenses and bank accounts and even home mortgages!

So, if there is any future to the world, the homebodies who haven’t seen much of it are overrepresented in making the necessary decisions! And it is the political “responsibility” of their elected representatives to maintain an environment favorable to their own nation in competition with all others, as well as responsive to the aforesaid “fiduciarily responsible” corporate monsters.

Looking at the CO2 picture in particular, (and other global issues may have similar features) the trouble is that there may be no solution that can possibly satisfy the major players (The G7, the BRICS, southeast Asia) individually that can actually resolve the problem that the trillion-and-first ton of carbon is probably going to be emitted, and then some.

It’s little wonder when you think about it. In round numbers there are 7 billion of us and we have 450 billion tons left to allocate among us. That leaves you and your half share of all your descendants 65 tons of carbon to play with, or 240 tons of CO2.

Now the US has been holding pretty steady at 19 tons per capita. That means if 1) you don’t want to cross the trillionth ton boundary (close to the 2 degrees C line) and 2) you are American and 3) you don’t want to use more than your fair share and 4) you don’t want to change anything until the last minute, you will have to go cold turkey on carbon emissions in twelve years. No car, no electricity, no heating fuel, no imported food, nothing. Your share of what’s left of the atmospheric sink will be used up at that point.

Will the world hold us to this? No, they won’t. The world is as addicted to American excess as America is. The whole crazy system is currently based on the Chinese lending us the money we paid them to buy stuff they made for us that we don’t need so they can afford to build stuff for themselves that they don’t need. Somehow if we do this, there is food on the table, and if we don’t, there ain’t. To those who believe in the Invisible Hand, this must be reasonable because it is happening.


I am beginning to suspect are past the point where we can rely on our governments to fix this situation.

Certainly the corporations won’t help.

The Breakthrough Institute keeps telling us to hold our collective breaths for a deus ex machina solution, but it’s getting mightly late for our savior to arrive in the form of, say, a safe, scalable backyard nuclear plant or a sunlight to algae to oil process. Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for the quick fix if it’s there to be had, but we really are talking about an enormous scale. I’m reminded of the avatar in the Douglas Adams’ Restaurant at the End of the World, who arrived to late to save anything at all.

Getting back to governments, it begins to look as though the COP cannot work. Governments are beholden to too many interests to behave as sane participants in a shared effort. Everyone is thrilled to let the Chinese and the Yanks share the blame for business continuing as usual. Perhaps our successors will be wiser than we are, but time is very definitely running out.

My modest suggestion is that we work toward a global consensus among the populations of all the countries, and not among the diplomats; further, that allocations will be designated at the individual, not the national level, and that all resulting rules will apply to individuals.

So, suppose each person alive today gets an allocation of 65 tons, and is free to sell it on the open market. That way, poor people who are carbon frugal get an income source, and rich people get to keep using carbon-based energy for a while as the cost goes up. Most of the buyers will presumably be industrial…

I can see several problems with this approach but it has some advantages 1) simple 2) arguably fair 3) market based 4) enforces a strong cap. It would also light a fire under private sector research into carbon free alternatives a lot better than a few DoE grants would.

Scary Peak Oil Video

Thanks to Dennis at Samadhisoft, here’s an Australian TV piece on peak oil.

I think it’s an excellent example of communication of complex issues to a mass audience.

I like how the rich imagery is interwoven with interviews with major players and with various versions of an actually informative infographic. This is good public communication of bad news*.

* = (Except that “Houston, we have a problem” is sort of getting a bit trite around these parts, but I guess we Texans weren’t the taaaget odience, roit?)