Posts tagged with: carbon emissions

Blog author: jballor
Tuesday, December 22, 2009
By

A new NBER working paper promises to blow up the myth that it is primarily the wealthy that will bear the cost of taxes on carbon emissions. In “Who Pays a Price on Carbon?” Corbett A. Grainger and Charles D. Kolstad explore the possibility that “under either a cap-and-trade program that limits carbon emissions or a carbon tax that imposes an outright tax on these emissions, the poor may be among the hardest hit. Because they spend a greater share of their income on energy than higher-income families, households in the lowest fifth of the income distribution could shoulder a relative burden that is 1.4 to 4 times higher than that of households in the top fifth of the income distribution.”

One of the assumptions of the study is that “all costs are passed on to the consumer,” which seems to be appropriate given the state of things in the oil refining business, for instance. As Christopher Helman writes in Forbes, “Even though rising fuel costs and taxes can mostly be passed along, they depress demand for refining. That causes refining margins to implode.” This brings up another set assumptions in the NBER study, however, that doesn’t account for modifications in demand, worker wages, or investor returns.

The authors are also improbably sanguine about the possibility of using the government to redistribute tax revenues to the poor to offset the regressiveness of the tax: “A price on carbon could yield substantial government revenues, and careful recycling of these revenues could offset the regressive nature of a national GHG [greenhouse-gas] emissions policy.” These revenues could also form the basis for a whole new government bureaucracy, which is much more likely than “careful recycling.”

But even with all those caveats, the point that the poor are almost always disproportionately impacted by policy decisions like this is an important one, which raises moral considerations beyond the dominant paradigm surrounding the question of carbon emissions, which simply pits the the impoverished two-thirds world against the developed world.

On the first half of today’s installment of The Diane Rehm Show, Jerry Taylor, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute got off a good line in the midst of a discussion concerning federal regulation of emission standards.

Concerning the performance of the American car manufacturers in comparison to that of foreign automakers, and the moral hazard involved in the various bailouts, Taylor said, “Capitalism without the threat of bankruptcy is like Christianity without the threat of hell. It doesn’t work very well.”

Other guests included Mary Nichols (Chairman of the California Air Resources Board), Phyllis Cuttino (director the Pew Environment Group’s U.S. Global Warming Campaign), and David Shepardson (Washington Bureau Chief for The Detroit News). The discussion focused in large part on the attempts by California to regulate emissions within its own borders more strictly than allowed by the federal EPA.

Arguments that California is “too large” of a state and has too big of an economy to enjoy certain rights doesn’t strike me as very convincing. That’s simply a consequentialist argument: that the nationwide effects of allowing California to do this will be bad, and therefore we shouldn’t recognize the state’s right to handle its own regulation. If it really is an issue of federalism and state’s rights, the issue shouldn’t in the first place be whether or not recognition of a right will presumably have a negative economic impact. There are a lot of assumptions wrapped up in that argument.

No state is an economic island unto itself. The mere fact that the national economy is largely integrated doesn’t by itself mean that states do not have the right to make decisions about how to regulate things within their own borders. Just what is the line between acceptable and unacceptable national economic impact? Adverse feelings to this particular action on the part of California isn’t sufficient to draw lines too hastily. How might this apply to other industries and commodities?

Indeed, we can discuss whether CO2 emissions ought to be regulated at the federal level under the commerce clause, but I don’t think the size of a state should determine what rights it does or does not have. Maybe the consequentialist line of reasoning is inherently wrapped up in the commerce clause (I’m certainly no constitutional expert). But the clause has been stretched so much (e.g. it applies to a farmer consuming what he grows on his own farm) that a little pullback seems warranted, and without the creation of a(n) (inter)national carbon market (a remarkably bad idea) the clause doesn’t seem to me to be directly relevant to emissions.

Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, February 27, 2008
By

As I said in 2006:

Without too much exaggeration, you could say that today’s electric cars are really coal-powered. If you look at the sources of electricity in the US, “coal provides over half of the electricity flowing into American homes.” That means that in one ideal world of the alternative fuel crowd, when you plug your car in, you’re plugging it in to a coal plant (this is also why the idea of consumer carbon credits is catching on). The energy and environmental issues in the world are about far more than “gas guzzling” SUVs.

Now from USAToday, “Plug-in cars could actually increase air pollution.”

See also (from 2006): “Plug-In Hybrids Are Not So Green.”

Jay W. Richards of the Acton Institute, has a commentary today in the National Review Online titled, What Would Jesus Drive?: Electrified Evangelical theological confusion. Richards notes in his article, “With respect to the environment, the theological principles are uncontroversial: human beings, as image bearers of God, are placed as stewards over the created order.”

He asks four separate questions, which he calls “tough.”

(1) Is the planet warming?

(2) If the planet is warming, is human activity (like CO2 emissions) causing it?

(3) If the planet is warming, is it bad overall?

(4) If the planet is warming, we’re causing it, and it’s bad, would the policies commonly advocated (e.g., the Kyoto Protocol, legislative restrictions on CO2 emissions) make any difference and, if so, would their cost exceed their benefit?

Furthermore, he offers a tough critique of the defenders of the Evangelical Climate Initiative:

The problem with the chief defenders of the Evangelical Climate Initiative is that they haven’t thought through these four questions, at least not publicly. What they have done is label their position as the authentically Evangelical one. Other Evangelicals need to call them on this tactic, exposing the false dilemma for the piece of cheap rhetoric it is.

Be sure to read the entire commentary, it is a helpful analysis on the climate debate, as well as a good look at the political strategy of the Evangelical left and their allies, the Democratic Party.

It turns out that the Chinese were really thinking ahead back in 1979 when they implemented their one child policy. After all, imagine what their carbon emissions would be today if they hadn’t:

The number of births avoided equals the entire population of the United States. Beijing says that fewer people means less demand for energy and lower emissions of heat-trapping gases from burning fossil fuels.

“This is only an illustration of the actions we have taken,” said Su Wei, a senior Foreign Ministry official heading China’s delegation to the 158-nation talks from Aug 27-31.

He told Reuters that Beijing was not arguing that its policy was a model for others to follow in a global drive to avert ever more chaotic weather patterns, droughts, floods, erosion and rising ocean levels.

But avoiding 300 million births “means we averted 1.3 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide in 2005″ based on average world per capital emissions of 4.2 tonnes, he said.

Well thank goodness we dodged that bullet. The link is from Hot Air, which notes that China’s strategy is “brilliant”:

Expect more of this in the future — human rights abusers being criticized by the international community for dubious practices and parrying the thrust with an appeal to the left’s tippy-top-most social virtue.

In a somewhat similar vein, yesterday brought word that all is not well in the world of leftist activism – a conflict is brewing between animal rights activists and the climate change crowd:

According to an interesting piece that ran in yesterday’s New York Times, animal rights groups like PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) argue that being a meat-eating environmentalist–like Al–is an oxymoron… As writer Claudia H. Deutsch points out, the groups have compelling ammo to back it up: last November the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization released a startling report revealing that the livestock business generates more greenhouse gas emissions than all forms of transportation combined.

The common thread in these stories? That humans are, simply put, a problem: we consume too much and emit too much in doing so, and if only there were a great deal fewer of us, things would get a lot better. It’s a very static worldview, allowing adherents to make no allowance for technological advances or scientific discoveries that may mitigate or entirely solve the problems that they fret about. In reality, it comes dangerously close to what Jordan Ballor described as The Matrix Anthropology, which is summed up by the words of Agent Smith, a villain in that film:

I’d like to share a revelation that I’ve had during my time here. It came to me when I tried to classify your species. I realized that you’re not actually mammals. Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment, but you humans do not. You move to an area, and you multiply, and multiply, until every natural resource is consumed. The only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. A virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet, you are a plague, and we are the cure.

Jordan concludes that post thusly:

This comes, of course, from a piece of software representing the machines who view humans as essentially batteries and feed the liquidated dead to the living. It is perhaps not the best anthropological foundation to adopt.

Perhaps.

I was thinking this morning about the moral calculus that goes into discussions about climate change policy. It’s the case that for any even or action, there are an infinite number of causes (conditions that are necessary but not sufficient for the event to occur).

But only a finite number of causes, perhaps in most cases a single cause, can have any moral relevance. For a cause to be a moral cause, it has to have be related to a moral agent. So, for instance, if the earth is warming, one of the contributing causes is the energy output of the sun. Since the sun isn’t a moral agent (as far as I know), solar activity isn’t a moral cause of climate change.

But if human activity is changing the makeup of the earth’s atmosphere so that it retains relatively more of the solar output of energy, that’s a cause that has moral relevance. Even though the sun’s activity is a prior cause (both logically and temporally) to any human activity, only human activity has any moral bearing. This might be a major reason why folks in not only policy circles, but also in more popular discourse, tend to focus on what humans are or are not doing that is affecting the climate.

It’s a truism that the perspective of human beings is essentially anthropocentric, but this truism is valid even for those who like to think of themselves as more enlightened. So, environmentalists and other activists instinctively focus on the moral causes of various policy issues. For climate change, that means the focus is almost exclusively on the human contributions to climate change, even if these are objectively a rather small contributing cause compared to other factors.

This holds true in the most recent reaction to the flooding that has hit London. One commentator observes that “The prophets of Biblical times, who warned of the misfortune that would befall those who turned away from God, have been replaced by computer-generated models which apparently conclusively prove that ‘The End is Nigh!’”

Climate change prophets point directly to the “sin” of emitting carbon. There is a real reason to question the validity of this moral reasoning, not least of which because it resembles Pharisaical moral calculation. When a man born blind came to Jesus, the spiritual authorities inquired as to the direct moral cause of the blindness. Had this man sinned or had his parents? Jesus rejects their attempts to find individual or personal moral cause of the blindness.

If the London floods are a case of God’s judgment, it’s likely that the divine reaction isn’t exclusively, or even primarily, to the chosen mode of human transportation. When John Chrysostom preached a sermon following a huge earthquake, it did cause him to reflect on the moral causes of the disaster.

What Chrysostom didn’t do was point to specific human actions that would naturally occasion an earthquake. He wondered instead, “Have you seen the mortality of the human race? When the earthquake came, I reflected with myself and said, where is theft? Where is greed? Where is tyranny? Where is arrogance? Where is domination? Where is oppression? Where is the plundering of the poor? Where is the arrogance of the rich? Where is the domination of the powerful? Where is intimidation? Where is fear?”

Following Chrysostom’s lead, which better follows the biblical precedent than the latest eco-prophets, would lead us to question a far greater range of moral failings than filling up an SUV: “So I was not afraid because of the earthquake, but because of the cause of the earthquake; for the cause of the earthquake was the anger of God, and the cause of His anger was our sins. Never fear punishment, but fear sin, the mother of punishment.”

It’s also important to note that Chrysostom links punishment to love, in the sense that the punishment is intended to bring repentance and reconciliation. Divine wrath is one form of treatment for sin, and in this way can actually be an expression of God’s love. So, God’s love and God’s wrath might not be so easy to juxtapose as some others have done in the wake of the recent flooding.

More reading: “Blaming the Victims: An Ecumenical Disaster”

Over at the Becker-Posner blog, the gentlemen consider the question, “Do National Security and Environmental Energy Policies Conflict?” (a topic also discussed here.)

Becker predicts, “Driven by environmental and security concerns, more extensive government intervention in the supply and demand for energy are to be expected during the next few years in all economically important countries. Policies that meet both these concerns are feasible, and clearly would have greater political support than the many approaches that advance one of these goals at the expense of the other.”

Posner observes the difference between a gasoline and a carbon tax, noting that the former would “have a direct effect in reducing demand for oil, thus reducing, as Becker points out, the oil revenues of oil-producing nations.”

But for a policy that addresses both national security and environmental concerns, “a gasoline tax would be inferior to a carbon tax from the standpoint of limiting global warming, because producers of oil, refiners of gasoline, and producers of cars and other products that burn fossil fuels would have no incentive to adopt processes that would reduce the amount of carbon dioxide emissions per barrel of oil, gallon of gasoline, etc. A carbon tax would create such an incentive and would also have a strong indirect negative effect on the demand for fossil fuels.”

There’s a lot more to these posts worth mulling over.

Blog author: jballor
Friday, December 29, 2006
By

Our 2006 year in review series concludes with the fourth quarter:

October

“Do You See More than Just a ‘Carbon Footprint’?” Jordan J. Ballor

It’s a fair question to ask, I think, of those who are a part of the radical environmentalist/population control political lobby. It’s also a note of caution to fellow Christians who want to build bridges with those folks…there is a complex of interrelated policies that are logically consistent once you assume the tenets of secular environmentalism….

November

“The Idolatry of Political Christianity,” Jordan J. Ballor

In its activist zeal, political Christianity substitutes the State for Christ, the one who in reality stands between all human relationships. The State’s proper role is therefore lost in the expansion of its purview to all social relations….

December

“The Pornification of Culture,” Jordan J. Ballor

“To pander to this world is to fornicate against you,” confesses Augustine to God. The worldly culture of today seems to be trying its best to actualize Augustine’s observation in literal terms….

I have read through the opening arguments (PDF) in Massachusetts, et al., v. Environmental Protection Agency, et al. (05-1120) conducted yesterday morning before the Supreme Court. From a layperson’s perspective I would have to say that Jonathan Adler’s characterization of the nature of the proceedings in not quite correct.

Adler writes, “It is also important to underscore that this case is not about the science of climate change. There is no dispute that human emissions of greenhouse gases affect the global climate. Rather, the fundamental issues are whether the Clean Air Act mandates the sort of regulatory action the petitioners seek, and whether these (or any) petitioners are entitled to bring these claims in court.” It seems to me, however, that as much of the discussion focused on the issue of the petitioners’ standing, it necessarily included and touched on their ability to prove imminent threat of loss due to climate change.

As Lyle Denniston writes in summary of yesterday’s action, “The Supreme Court’s first public discussion of global warming was, in large part, an inquiry into the opportunity — or lack of it — to bring a lawsuit to try to force the government to promptly address the problem (the “standing” issue). And, it seemed clear that the deciding vote on that question probably lies with the Court’s key centrist Justice, Anthony M. Kennedy.”

With regard to Kennedy’s questioning, Denniston states, “Kennedy suggested that the Court could not bypass the larger question of whether global warming is a problem, in order to assess who might be harmed by it, ‘because there’s no injury if there’s not global warming.'”

Thus, the “science of climate change” is an issue…and a large one at that.

Right about now, the Supreme Court of the United States should be hearing the beginning arguments in Massachusetts, et al., v. Environmental Protection Agency, et al. (05-1120). Not much attention has been paid to this case over the last few months, but recently a spate of media attention has arisen, citing this case as perhaps “the most important environmental case in many years,” as well as “one of the biggest environmental cases in years.” (Jonathan Adler responds to the NYT editorial at The Volokh Conspiracy.)

There are reasons to doubt the hype surrounding this case, however, and not just because of the dubiousness of the scientific “consensus” on climate change.

A spate of amici briefs Atlantic Legal Foundation and the National Council of Churches (PDF), the latter of which argues in part that scientific “uncertainty alone cannot justify inaction. To decide rationally whether climate change may ‘endanger public health or welfare,’ EPA must consider the harm that would result if the risk of climate change, however uncertain, is realized.” As I have argued against similar views elsewhere, such claims bring economic considerations, especially cost/benefit analysis of action vs. inaction, to the fore, which do not necessarily bear out the conclusion that the potential harm necessitates political action.

In fact, the EPA is not citing scientific uncertainty as its sole justification for refraining from regulatory action. One of its main claims is that it lacks the statutory authority to regulate CO2 emissions, and thus a large part of the case hinges on interpretation of certain provisions of the Clean Air Act.

Regarding the complexity of the case, Hugh Hewitt writes that “in one case do we get important issues of standing, legislative intent, deference to administrative agencies and, of course, the debate over global warming.”

He concludes, “The argument will be one worth listening to very closely, and the decision when it arrives in the spring will be, I predict, a duel between the justices who take seriously the idea of a Court of limited jurisdiction versus those justices eager for the EPA to get on with the urgent business of grappling with climate change.”

In a helpful overview of the case, Lyle Denniston of SCOTUSblog notes a similar concerns of a group of conservative law professors, including Robert H. Bork, that the petitioners’ claim is

part of a multi-faceted effort to draw the federal courts into one of the most important and controversial foreign policy and political battles of our time….Petitioners seek to remake U.S. climate change policy through litigation in the federal courts.

Likewise Rivkin and Casey in today’s WSJ, who filed an amicus brief in the case, conclude that “if economic growth is to be sacrificed because of global warming fears, the decision should be taken by Congress and the president, the people’s elected representatives, and not by the courts.”

At its current state, the petitioners’ claims were denied in a 2-1 decision by the D.C. Circuit Court, after which the appeal by the petitioners came to the Supreme Court. John Gartner of Wired’s Autopia warns, “If the Court sides with the EPA, it will be further proof that the judicial branch of government is out of step with the populace,” a claim which, while perhaps true, seems to advocate legislation from the bench.

Despite such rhetoric, the case has two major components, focusing not only on the science of climate change but on the question of the appropriate governmental authority to make policy decisions. Denniston summarizes it this way:

The controversy pursued in the briefs thus focuses heavily on the harms believed to arise from global warming, countered by the claims that the science on climate change is still evolving and uncertain. But equal controversy has arisen over what might be called the separation-of-powers issue: who decides how to attack the perceived problem of climate change?

Because of the multi-faceted nature of the case’s arguments, Denniston writes that this decision could end up not setting a major precedent on the politics of climate change: “Before the Court ever reached the ‘global warming’ problem, it could be stopped by a maze of procedural issues, as well as by a bold challenge to the judiciary’s power to take on the problem.”

Update: Autopia’s John Gartner now says that the court’s greenhouse ruling “won’t matter,” at least in the short-term.