Saturday, December 08, 2012

The long tail of climate change mitigation

Our Water District recently reviewed a draft energy audit on controlling our energy use.  The Board Chair and I had a lot of questions and comments on how we will relate the energy audit to our new goal of achieving carbon-neutrality by 2020.  Some of my general comments are below:

(Nov. 27, 2012 Board Meeting, Item 4.1)

Later on I suggested that we have a "Climate Impact" discussion included in every agenda item just like we currently have a "Financial Impact" discussion with every agenda item.

My point in mentioning this is that these types of actions fall somewhere in the long tail of actions to fight climate change - a program that can affect a lot of people while falling far short of the headline-generating action on a state or national level.  Just as individuals changing their behaviors can make a difference, though, so can these types of institutional changes.  I don't know of a good way to isolate and measure the effects of voluntary actions by local and regional institutions to address climate change, but they shouldn't be ignored.

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Time to show fingerprints on Syria issues

From NYTimes:

The Obama administration secretly gave its blessing to arms shipments to Libyan rebels from Qatar last year, but American officials later grew alarmed as evidence grew that Qatar was turning some of the weapons over to Islamic militants, according to United States officials and foreign diplomats.... 
The experience in Libya has taken on new urgency as the administration considers whether to play a direct role in arming rebels in Syria, where weapons are flowing in from Qatar and other countries.

The Obama administration did not initially raise objections when Qatar began shipping arms to opposition groups in Syria, even if it did not offer encouragement, according to current and former administration officials. But they said the United States has growing concerns that, just as in Libya, the Qataris are equipping some of the wrong militants....  
Relying on surrogates allows the United States to keep its fingerprints off operations, but also means they may play out in ways that conflict with American interests....

“....When you have an intermediary, you are going to lose control.”
The obvious reaction is either stop getting involved or stop worrying about showing your fingerprints. I'll go for Door #2.  I supported making the threat of limited military involvement in February and more actual support for the opposition in July, and I think either case would have shortened the time frame of the civil war and improved a future transition.  I remain concerned about ethnic massacres and religious instability in the post-Assad future.  Supporting groups that are less likely to do this, and especially getting Alawite opposition groups into a prominent position in the opposition military forces, could be crucial for the country's future.  Unfortunately, I think the war might still grind for months more, giving time for this option to work out.

For my less interventionist friends, I'll just mention that until recently I hadn't been too opposed to the drone war in Pakistan overall as a legitimate function of self-defense against Al Qaeda, but I'm reconsidering.  Al Qaeda in Pakistan isn't that big of a threat, while Pakistan itself desperately needs stability.  Pakistan is simply more important, and the drone strikes aren't helping.  Not sure if I'd completely eliminate them, but the go/no go decisionmaking needs to change.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

A modest carbon tax has modest carbon reduction results

Been meaning to highlight Brad Plumer's post on a paper about the effect of a carbon tax on emissions (full paper here).  A tax of $20/ton, with an inflation-adjusted 4% annual increase, knocks emissions down 14% by 2020, and a larger number in 2050 if you believe economic projections that far in the future.

I include my caveat about 2050 because economics modeling is far harder than climate modeling.  In particular I can't tell what assumptions they make about the cost of renewables in the future, which seems like a game-changer to me.

Still this seems a reasonable argument that a carbon tax has only modest benefits.  By all means we should do it, but also use the funding for renewables, and pursue stricter regulation.  One aspect that surprised me is how much money this tax would raise, over a trillion dollars in the next decade.  That can really help with deficit reduction and maintaining social welfare programs as well as renewable energy funding.

UPDATE:  I really should've mentioned that an annual 4% real increase is not enough in their model to drive large decreases in emissions.  The implication is that if you choose a small initial tax then you need a higher annual increase.  The California cap's minimum price is even smaller than this study ($10/ton), and has a 5% annual increase.  Still it's just part of the pricing system, with emission allowances hopefully functioning as the real control on the amount, together with regulation.

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Good Yglesias, Bad Yglesias

In the Good Yglesias category, we have "the spice must flow" problem in that stopping the Keystone XL pipeline and other pipeline-fighting as led to a boom in shipping oil by rail.  This correctly points the problem with a regulatory approach to carbon reduction - someone looks for a way around the regulation.   OTOH, oil is not the same as Herbert's spice - it's a lot more price elastic in the long run, and anything running up the price will reduce the quantity purchased.

Regulation is an imperfect substitute for a carbon cap or carbon tax, but it's better than nothing.

For Bad Yglesisas, we have a cursory rejection of the idea that people making over $400,000 could have their entire income taxed at the highest rate instead of just the amount falling in the highest bracket.  The flaw is a simplistic approach Yglesias takes - identify a problem and then pronounce the whole thing dead.  Yes, as he describes, a ten-dollar increase in income could result in tens of thousands of dollars in additional taxes.  He fails to take the next step to see if the problem has a solution.  In this case, just alter the proposal so that the more a person's income exceeds $350,000, the larger the share of that person's income under $200,000 that gets taxed at the top rate.  It satisfies the Republicans' inane criteria of not raising the top rate while getting more tax money out of the top earners.  The solution isn't too difficult.

That's not to say it's a good idea when compared to simply raising the rate as Obama proposes, along with restoring estate tax rates to the 2009 level.  John Sides notes this proposal protects the ultra-rich by going after the rich.  That seems to be a common theme in Republican Party policy.

UPDATE:  Pat Robertson finds a nut.

Climate change would also fall under a "revealed science" category to the extent that category equals "about as proven as you're going to get in science."