04/22/2007: "Another View on Global Warming -Parts One & Two"
(The following is part two of a a two part article on climate change. Part one defined the problem, and part two offers a solution>)
by Charlie Bodenstab
Part two: The highly complex problem is the critical need to get people to minimize their use of energy derived from burning fossil fuels. It’s immaterial whether you believe that this is needed to minimize global warming or that it simply makes sense as responsible “caretakers” of our planet.
This problem is begging for solutions but let’s talk about what won’t work and what has not worked so far. The first thing that won’t work is intensive micromanaging of the solution by specific government regulations on a point-by-point basis. Our reliance on vehicle mileage standards, subsidies of renewable energy sources, and government penalties of various types has more frequently than not yielded either marginal results or unintended adverse consequences.
Vehicle mileage requirements have been undercut by political intervention to reclassify certain large cars as trucks and to delay the tougher standards year after year. Subsidies to favor ethanol has had a shattering impact on the whole corn based agricultural system with prices spiking in the most unexpected places combined with the new realization that ethanol from corn doesn’t even meet it’s original objective. And the latest little surprise is that the rather silly pull-forward of daylight savings time isn’t having any impact on energy use.
One of the most damaging aspects of these unsuccessful government policies is that they are never rescinded, but perpetually remain in operation, thus causing disruption of the economy and misallocation of resources.
The other solution of “moral persuasion”, while very noble, is at best only marginally effective. Endless forums, seminars, articles, and TV programs urge a wide range of actions that individuals can take to minimize energy use. These efforts help and do motivate a certain segment of the county to act, but it is a modest contribution compared to the task at hand. Let’s face it. We tend to do what we like as long as there are no direct consequences.
You have a right now to ask, “O.K. wise guy, you have beat down all the solutions to date, where is this ”simple solution” that is going to rescue us from our dilemma?”
As a “pragmatic libertarian” I am usually leery of any government program. Only the government however has the scope and power to create the change needed for the total social good, and breaking our heavy reliance on fossil fuels is one of those cases, but not via the type of micro- meddling mentioned earlier.
The solution is to exploit the free market system that has been, and continues to be, the mechanism by which we optimize the flow and use of resources throughout our society. In fact, it works so well we tend to take it for granted and are almost unaware of its continuous operation.
We need to enact a single but comprehensive body of legislation that insures that the price of products derived from fossil fuels is significantly increased and will never go back down. The concept is often called a “carbon tax”, but the key point is to create a pricing structure that motivates people in the direction of making continuous day-to-day decisions that favor fossil fuel savings.
The law should cover all forms of fossil fuel use, but for discussion purposes, let’s focus on gasoline, which we all deal with every day. The legislation should establish a tax on oil such that gasoline will never fall below $3.00 a gallon, adjusted for inflation, and in fact, over the next two years the cost will go up to $4.00 in small quarterly increments. No backing off, no reconsiderations.
Once this policy was clearly understood and no future cost reduction could be expected, there would be an infinite series of energy saving decisions throughout our society by single individuals, businesses, utilities, etc. Individuals and institutions would take innumerable actions that would optimize their particular energy situation that no government policy or regulations could ever hope to match.
Knowing that the price will never drop again will give assurances that long-term decisions such as purchasing a car, or a business preparing to spend millions on an alternative energy facility will not be undercut in the future. Frankly, it started to happen back during the shortages of the 70’s with dramatic short term effect, but then the cost of oil dropped and we went back to “business a usual”.
You could then rescind all the complex regulations and incentives such as mandated fuel efficiency, subsidized purchase of hybrids and alternative energy uses, etc. Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” would drive our practices in exactly the direction needed. Once it was clear that oil, for example, would never go below $80 a barrel, all these energy alternatives would automatically become viable. If these alternatives can’t compete with oil at that price it means that they are highly marginal by definition, and should not survive.
The new price structure would also drive innumerable more obscure energy tradeoff decisions that no legislation could ever anticipate or cope with. A 60-mile, each way, automobile commuter, for example, would have to decide whether to purchase a min-car, find a partner to share the ride, move, or get a new job closer to home.
As another benefit, reduced oil consumption would drastically drop demand, thereby reducing the wellhead price of oil and thus deprive the unsavory rulers of the Middle East and South America their treasure chests with which to do mischief. Just think if we’d had the political guts to enact this legislation in the mid-1970s.
We have to recognize that the high cost of fuel would fall disproportionately on lower income groups, which must be mitigated. This can be accomplished by feeding back the enormous resulting tax revenues to the lower income groups via elimination of the wage tax or some similar policy. The details are not all that difficult. The key however, is not to directly tie the payments to offset the fuel cost increases. The economic energy tradeoffs by individuals and groups must not be interfered with.
We have shown recently that our society can live with this level of fuel cost without significant economic consequences. Additionally, a recent national survey indicated that the American public would support such a tax policy if it were tied to the awareness that it could eliminate our dependency on Middle East oil and help the environment. Note, the survey indicated public support without even the benefit of a strong political leader championing the cause and explaining it in detail.
We are not talking about an increase in overall taxes, but rather taxing things that hurt the environment, but rewarding “work” via elimination of the wage tax or some of the income tax burden. Now that has a nice rational sound, doesn’t it?
Interestingly, this concept allows us as individuals to make a major personal contribution. We need to badger our political leaders with messages urging this course of action and let them know that it is not “political suicide” to embrace this solution. Please do it!
by Charlie Bodenstab
The global warming debate has given rise to two camps; One denies human activity as a significant factor in the current warming cycle. The other camp dogmatically says that we have mega problems directly due to human activity via CO2 emissions that will have catastrophic consequences unless we take drastic action now. I have a serious problem with both groups.
There is little doubt that the globe is in a significant warming trend, but the relative contribution of human activity vs. natural cycles is far from fully understood. Moreover, many of the “true believers” in both camps have disseminated false or misleading information coupled with an attitude of smug certainty in their frantic efforts to convince the public to their view.
For example, the “natural cause” folks trumpet volcanic emissions as playing a far larger role in CO2 contributions than all of human activity. From what I understand, this is not so. But note again, the certitude of the proclamations. Actually, we have only a rough approximation of how much CO2 is contributed to the problem since most of volcanic activity is taking place unobserved in the ocean depths.
Al Gore’s film, “An Inconvenient Truth,” typifies hype from the other camp. When the film came out I was intrigued by the opportunity to acquire some hard facts. Yet, the only really fascinating part was his display of a graph of earth’s temperature and the CO2 levels over a 450,000-year period as recorded in arctic ice cores.
This was impressive! As presented, there was no question about the correlation of the two plots. They tracked each other very closely with numerous turning points and Gore made a big issue of it. There was a continuous implication that CO2 levels drove the earth’s temperature throughout this awesomely long period. Moreover, CO2 levels were rising at an unprecedented rate, and were forecasted to rise even further and faster. He then left the clear impression that temperature would eventually follow this upward trend with disastrous consequences. As Gore put it, “human creation of CO2 is causing global warming, and it will get a lot worse.” He has also, on more than one occasion, declared the global warming debate closed.
Shortly thereafter however, I came across a well-respected 1999 scientific paper that points out, yes CO2 and temperature are highly correlated, but temperature is leading CO2 levels! Temperature is going up or down independently, and then later the CO2 levels follow. Gore was telling us that wet streets create rain. He had his cause and effect backwards.
Al Gore had to be aware of this fact. To display a graph in such a way that the “inconvenient” opposite reverse correlation is obscured and then to publicize his pre-held judgment is appalling.
As I pursued my quest for enlightenment I keep running into references of “scientific studies” regarding climate predictions. I agree that there can be scientific studies on specific elements of climate and weather, but how can there be such studies as it relates to the infinitely complex system of the globe’s climate?
For something to qualify as a “scientific conclusion” it must pass four absolute criteria. It must explain a phenomenon, be validated via a prediction process, be independently repeatable, and must pass peer review. Anything else is conjecture, hypothesis, or unconfirmed theory. Maybe provocative and interesting theory, but still theory.
Mathematical models of large complex systems in general have come a long way and are powerful tools in many areas. In the climate area however, they are they are far from that. They try to explain an infinitely complex system with no mechanism for validation. And since they can’t be validated, they do not pass one of the most important tests to qualify as scientific. You cannot go back a thousand years, put in the necessary values that existed then and then run the model to see if it predicts conditions into the future. The measurements aren’t available for the full array of variables.
So what are my conclusions?
● We are in a warming period. Relevant data are measurable. Moreover, the consequences could, and most likely will be, quite significant.
● Since the globe is ether warming up or cooling down at any point in time (it’s practically never static), it’s safe to say that the globe must be in a natural warming period. It’s hard to imagine that we are in a natural cooling period and human activity is actually counteracting it to the point of creating a warming trend. Besides, the start of the trend predated the current level of industrial activity.
● Human activity does pump significant CO2 into the atmosphere. Do understand however, that our current “alarming” level is at .038% concentration (that’s less than four one hundredths of a percent) and it has the lowest molecular impact of any of the greenhouse gasses. For example, moisture is 100 times more prevalent and has three times the greenhouse effect.
● The current clamor to get on the “CO2 produced by humans bandwagon” strikes me as having become a political movement rather than a scientific one. Where is the scientific validation of these models that supposedly supports these conclusions? This idea that “the scientists have spoken” and it’s not for us mere mortals to question, is not acceptable. CO2 is no doubt contributing to the problem but it’s far from clear by how much, and relative to what else.
The stakes on this issue are too high however to rule out any possibility, and it also makes sense to move forward on aggressive, but sensible conservation programs. What is sensible? Something like a carbon tax that will place the financial burden where it belongs, thereby harnessing the free market system to powerfully and methodically sort out which actions will be effective and which will not be effective. What does not make sense? Sweeping government regulations that have unintended consequences and in the end fail to achieve their objectives. (Ethanol from corn – anyone?)
In my opinion, it is absolutely crucial that we should continue and expand our efforts to reduce the negative impact of human beings on the natural world. However, the consequences of plunging headlong into a frenzy of misdirected, and in the end blundering government micromanagement could be dire for both the developed and undeveloped world.
(Charlie Bodenstab lives on San Juan Island, is a Fortune 500 executive, an owner of a distribution company, a consultant, software producer, and author of Information Breakthrough (Oasis Press) “Information should impart knowledge and direction - and ultimately trigger positive action”.))