28 February 2010

Direct or Indirect? Two Views on Engaging Climate Change

Across the page from each other in todays NYT, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Al Gore express polar opposite views on how to enagage climate change. Gore recommends a direct approach focused on using science a a political sledgehammer against the "deniers":
What is important is that the overwhelming consensus on global warming remains unchanged. It is also worth noting that the panel’s scientists — acting in good faith on the best information then available to them — probably underestimated the range of sea-level rise in this century, the speed with which the Arctic ice cap is disappearing and the speed with which some of the large glacial flows in Antarctica and Greenland are melting and racing to the sea.

Because these and other effects of global warming are distributed globally, they are difficult to identify and interpret in any particular location. For example, January was seen as unusually cold in much of the United States. Yet from a global perspective, it was the second-hottest January since surface temperatures were first measured 130 years ago.

Similarly, even though climate deniers have speciously argued for several years that there has been no warming in the last decade, scientists confirmed last month that the last 10 years were the hottest decade since modern records have been kept.. .

Some analysts attribute the failure [of the Senate to act] to an inherent flaw in the design of the chosen solution — arguing that a cap-and-trade approach is too unwieldy and difficult to put in place. Moreover, these critics add, the financial crisis that began in 2008 shook the world’s confidence in the use of any market-based solution.

But there are two big problems with this critique: First, there is no readily apparent alternative that would be any easier politically. It is difficult to imagine a globally harmonized carbon tax or a coordinated multilateral regulatory effort. The flexibility of a global market-based policy — supplemented by regulation and revenue-neutral tax policies — is the option that has by far the best chance of success. The fact that it is extremely difficult does not mean that we should simply give up.

Graham, profiled in a column by Thomas Friedman, proposes an indirect approach, one that sidesteps the science and focuses on areas of common interests:

“I have been to enough college campuses to know if you are 30 or younger this climate issue is not a debate. It’s a value. These young people grew up with recycling and a sensitivity to the environment — and the world will be better off for it. They are not brainwashed. ... From a Republican point of view, we should buy into it and embrace it and not belittle them. You can have a genuine debate about the science of climate change, but when you say that those who believe it are buying a hoax and are wacky people you are putting at risk your party’s future with younger people. You can have a legitimate dispute about how to solve immigration, but when you start focusing on the last names of people the demographics will pass you by.”

So Graham’s approach to bringing around his conservative state has been simple: avoid talking about “climate change,” which many on the right don’t believe. Instead, frame our energy challenge as a need to “clean up carbon pollution,” to “become energy independent” and to “create more good jobs and new industries for South Carolinians.” He proposes “putting a price on carbon,” starting with a very focused carbon tax, as opposed to an economywide cap-and-trade system, so as to spur both consumers and industries to invest in and buy new clean energy products. He includes nuclear energy, and insists on permitting more offshore drilling for oil and gas to give us more domestic sources, as we bridge to a new clean energy economy.

“Cap-and-trade as we know it is dead, but the issue of cleaning up the air and energy independence should not die — and you will never have energy independence without pricing carbon,” Graham argues. “The technology doesn’t make sense until you price carbon. Nuclear power is a bet on cleaner air. Wind and solar is a bet on cleaner air. You make those bets assuming that cleaning the air will become more profitable than leaving the air dirty, and the only way it will be so is if the government puts some sticks on the table — not just carrots. The future economy of America and the jobs of the future are going to be tied to cleaning up the air, and in the process of cleaning up the air this country becomes energy independent and our national security is greatly enhanced.”

Remember, he adds: “We are more dependent on foreign oil today than after 9/11. That is political malpractice, and every member of Congress is responsible.”

Clearly, Gore is going to appeal -- in both positive and negative fashion -- much more to people who are monomaniacal about the climate issue and fervent partisans in the debate. This includes many in the blogosphere who are singularly focused on climate change. Gore's approach is the classic "political wedge" that forces people to take sides and demands a winner and a loser. Gore ends his piece by demanding that voters address this issue politically, by voting out people who do not share his views.

Graham's approach is far more pragmatic and realistic, with far greater potential to appeal to the masses on terms that they care about. Graham focuses on areas where people already have expressed strong interests, like jobs and the economy, and suggests that climate policy be addressed indirectly by capitalizing on what people already value. Graham's proposal is much less focused on political winners and losers than is Gore's approach. Graham's policy recommendations, he would argue, make sense regardless who is in office.

Both Gore and Graham offer their predictions for U.S. climate policy in the near-term, Gore:
The pathway to success is still open, though it tracks the outer boundary of what we are capable of doing. It begins with a choice by the United States to pass a law establishing a cost for global warming pollution. The House of Representatives has already passed legislation, with some Republican support, to take the first halting steps for pricing greenhouse gas emissions. Later this week, Senators John Kerry, Lindsey Graham and Joe Lieberman are expected to present for consideration similar cap-and-trade legislation.

Cap-and-trade as we know it is dead, but the issue of cleaning up the air and energy independence should not die . . . The future economy of America and the jobs of the future are going to be tied to cleaning up the air, and in the process of cleaning up the air this country becomes energy independent and our national security is greatly enhanced
I suspect that Graham is right in his short-term prognostications about the fate of cap-and-trade. But more importantly, he is right about the longer-term politics of engaging the climate issue. Action to accelerate the decarbonization of the global economy will remain in gridlock so long as climate is approached as a wedge issue. Bloggers and partisans like wedge issues, but as we have learned good public policy rearely results from framing issues in such terms.


  1. I agree pretty much with Sen Graham. I am a skeptic on CAGW but we will have a better economy and greater national security with less reliance on foreign oil.

    Thus, I am strongly in favor of nuclear power (ala France) to be the backbone of our energy supply.

    For those who are concerned about the current nuclear waste there is a vastly (1000x) better "green" nuclear technology already developed ready to be taken off the shelf, updated, and deployed.


    "Green" nuclear is drawing support from both Dems and Reps, warmers and skeptics. "Green" nuclear is the grand compromise that the country can be happy with. It satisfies concerns about co2, national security, a strong economy, and nuclear waste management.

  2. This 'energy independence' argument is silly unless one is willing to support coal (which the US has plenty and can be turned into oil) and offshore drilling.

    i.e. energy independence and reducing CO2 emissions are two unrelated and conflicting objectives. You can have policies that support one or the other - but not both.

  3. I agree with Graham on the future of Cap and Trade. However, his "younger than 30" argument seems pretty ridiculous. Looking at the demographics, the sort who things climate is a problem has been a lot more likely to protest and other similar thing. Squeaky wheel much?

    In any case, he's saying that Republicans should change their position not because it's correct, but because he thinks there's an advantage to be had. Usually, this is called pandering. Of course, when a right-of-center politician moves leftward, it's called pragmatism.

    Either way, the term "carbon pollution" is a question begging euphemism that cheapens the real progress we've made against real pollution.

  4. Raven said

    "i.e. energy independence and reducing CO2 emissions are two unrelated and conflicting objectives. You can have policies that support one or the other - but not both."

    Shifting to nuclear is consistent with both co2 reduction and energy independence. Any energy source that doesn't emit co2 and is not imported satisfies (e.g. nuclear, solar, wind, ...).

    Now if you add in the need for a competitive economy you are pretty much left with nuclear. We have existence proof that nuclear can form the backbone of a competitive economy (e.g. France), not so with wind/solar.

  5. #4 I might add that wind (turbines) and solar (PV cells) are likely to be imported as some already are.

  6. charleshart,

    Nuclear power requires uranium or possibly thorium which must be imported into the US unless uranium mining is allowed - an unlikely event given the politics. So nuclear power will increase dependency foreign sources of finite fuel sources.

    Providing more electricity also does nothing about oil consumption required to run vehicles or to produce plastics. Replacing gas powered vehicles with battery powered ones requires lithium and some other rare metals. Currently, 90% of the world's supply of those rare metals is in China which means that switch to electricity for vehicles will also increase dependency on foreign suppliers.

    Plastics are perhaps the most problematic since even thought we can produce some of the industrial plastics we need from plant fiber that would displace food production. This means that a descreased dependency on imported food to replace the land used for plastic production.

    Energy self-sufficency is a nonsense argument that is only used to deceive people that do not accept the need for emissions reductions.

  7. Raven #6 said:

    "Energy self-sufficiency is a nonsense argument that is only used to deceive people that do not accept the need for emissions reductions."

    Yes, also by and for those ignorant of economics, or possibly by those trying to sell something (e.g., T. Boone Pickens).

  8. I think the approach represented by Gore is one of the reasons there is so much push back on climate science itself at this time.

    Basically Gore is saying, hit them over the head with the science so that we get Cap and Trade legislation. But the science doesn't say one word at all in support (or opposition) of Cap and Trade. Yet any time someone argues about Cap and Trade, folks like Gore shift the talk back to the science of AGW.

    Cap and Trade proponents don't want an honest debate on whether Cap and Trade will reduce carbon emissions. Any effort to engage on that is met with the "AGW is science fact and you can't debate that" rebuttal. They are purposely funneling the debate into the science arena. Because of this, opponents of Cap and Trade (for a variety of reasons, including vested interest and ideology, but also those with sound economic and policy objections) feel that the only area left to engage in the debate is on the science itself.

    I'm amazed scientists don't get upset with Gore over this tactic. It's probably the grossest misuse of science in all of the back and forth going on in the climate wars. It's one thing for Cap and Trade to be a political issue and even having one's political orientation affect how you perceive it (though I'm sure many bankers are Republicans and they are loving Cap and Trade, and many Liberals see it as business as usual).

    But Gore and other C and T proponents are politicizing the science of AGW itself, reframing the debate, forcing scientists into a political battle that is unrelated to the science itself.

    Scientist may think they are defending AGW, but in reality, they are defending a specific mitigation policy for a specific group of individuals and special interests.

    Folks like Lindsey Graham are among my least favorite people, and the positions they have taken often defy logic, or at the least, my own values. Yet on this issue, I find myself saying "boy, he's making sense". Indeed, politics makes for strange bedfellows.

  9. Certainly this was an interesting point - counterpoint to say the least. At a time when belief in AGW is dramatically declining, and climate change ranks at the bottom of the public's priority list, Al Gore's "toss them out of office" stance would seem to meet the classic definition of a true fanatic's redoubling of one's efforts.

    While I may not be a fan of Sen. Graham, I certainly agree that his pragmatic stance may be the only sale-able strategy given an increasingly skeptical public supported by a business community that sees cap-and-trade as just another tax in an increasingly competitive world.

    In that context, selling alternative energy as being in America's best interests, with the resultant decrease in pollution as a byproduct is a strategy that nearly all of us can support. If we shifted the debate from the antics of the CRU and IPCC, toward a focus on the grim reality that we're buying our energy from America's enemies and from some of the most unstable regions of the world, we may be able to gain some consensus on viable change that will, as a byproduct, also reduce CO2.

    This may not be the true win-win scenario that we would all want -- clearly much more has to be done here. But it is not the lose-lose battle that fanatics on either side have adopted, simply increasing the volume while the average American becomes issue deaf.

    Roger, thanks for the post (and many others, I'm somewhat new here and just catching up). We do need some honest discussion as well as workable solutions. Sen. Graham's may in fact be one of them.

    Jack Heismann

  10. Raven,

    "This 'energy independence' argument is silly unless one is willing to support coal"

    You really need to look at the 2009 USGS assessment of coal. They broke out coal supplies down into 3 categories. Exists, recoverable, economically recoverable.


    The US currently consumes 1,000 million tons of coal a year.

    The Gilette coal field has 136,000 million tons of coal. WooHoo...136 years worth at current consumption.

    Of that 136,000 million tons only 23,000 million is economically recoverable. That's 23 years of US consumption. If one adds up all US coal we have maybe 30-35 years left of 'economically recoverable'.

    If we built 1 nuclear power plant a month it would take us 40 years to replace all the existing coal fired electricity plants.

    Here's a recent press release on cancellation of a new coal fired electricity plant..

    "The main reason: Costs that have jumped 37 percent since May to nearly $4 billion, making the 1,000-megawatt coal-fired plant potentially uncompetitive.

    Two years ago, the plant's estimated cost was $2.5 billion."

    "Energy self-sufficency is a nonsense argument that is only used to deceive people that do not accept the need for emissions reductions."

    Having served in Saudi Arabia during the Carter Administration and having had 2 children serve in Iraq I don't think "no war for oil" is a nonsense argument. We've had enough wars for oil. If it was up to me I would tax imported oil at $500 a barrel.

  11. Harryw2,

    The definition of 'economically recoverable' increases with the cost of the resource. In any case, I don't disagree with nuclear - I am simply saying energy independence is not a rational argument for nuclear.

    You also changed the 'energy independence' argument to the 'national security' argument which is very different in important ways. For example, you cannot rationally claim that importing oil from the Canada oil sands is a security concern, however, it is this oil that will be first hit by any anti-CO2 policies.

    The consequence will be two fold - first, lost production from the oils sands will be replaced by even more saudi oil. Second, the Canadians will encourage the Chinese and Indians to invest in the infrastrature required to get the oil sands oil to the coast which means the US loses the exclusive access it has to the resource today.

    IOW, you can either have an energy policy based on 'national security' needs or you can have a energy policy based on CO2 reductions. You can't have both.

  12. Direct v Indirect approaches reveals that the grand narrative of global warming has failed. It was never about the science it was always the pursuit of a political agenda.

    Gore still believes it is possible by the direct approach employing an emotive and scaremongering rhetoric. That has been consigned to the dustbin. Gore is yesterday's man.

    The indirect approach won't work either it is fundamentally weak, prone to side-swiped by events.

    The game is up for global warming. People have stopped believing it will take more than a seried on newspaper articles to turn that around.

  13. As a mother, I am with Harrywr2. I would definitely rather have uranium mines (having lived and worked near some old uranium mines) than direct deaths from wars- both the people in the country and our own sons and daughters.

    This is ultimately a technological problem and the sooner we design a way to put technologists and engineers in charge of delivering potential answers, the better off we'll be.

  14. Energy independence is when the world is awash in it. The case were talking about is oil since just about all the rest of our energy is home grown. I think the number is 29% imported almost all for the transportation sector. Also if all our oil supplies came from Canada we wouldn't be having this discussion. If enough liquid fuels get generated for biomass then this topic becomes mute. They have huge taxes on liquid fuels in Europe, but it doesn't influence driving behavior much. Yes they use less gasoline and diesel but this has more to do with population density. Using cap and trade or direct taxes is a smoke screen by politicians to make the real problem go away. Decarbonizing is a huge huge engineering problem that needs leadership and planning. Just a short comment on nuclear. I recently read that much of the fuel for US reactors is coming from decommissioned Russian boombs.

  15. I forgot one thing in my latest post. Pres. Obama recently announced loan guarantees for new nuclear power plants. In his speech he said it would reduce our need for oil. So much for the politicians being informed. Did Chu or Holdren brief him? If they did we're in real trouble.

  16. Raven- as with pretty much everything that involves the future, there appears to be some controversy on the lithium thing..

    However, this illustrates my previous point. Solving the climate problem is substantively bout technological pros and cons.

  17. Hmmm... Some fleeting thoughts:

    If you include the true energy cost of lithium batteries into the equations, Hummers are much more efficient and produce less CO2. Sorry Prius drivers, but it's true...

    I suspect that the attitudes of lots of those folks under 30 are changing as they find it impossible to get jobs. And emphasis on "alternative energy" will exacerbate the problem, as clearly shown in Europe, most notably (so far) Spain.

    I hope someone explains to Lindsey that he is "dirtying" the air by breathing. I could more easily take his type of argument, if he didn't try to con people by using emotion-provoking statements about "dirtying the air." DESPITE WHAT OUR HOPELESSLY POLITICIZED EPA SAYS, CO2 IS NOT A POLLUTANT. IT IS PLANT FOOD.

    I also agree with the good arguments above showing that our dependance on foreigners for energy will never be lessened with solar cells, wind farms, and biofuels. Our only real hope in this regard was expressed by Sara Palin: drill, baby, drill!

    One thing sorely missing from the "alternative energy" arguments are facts on how much CO2, IF ANY, will be saved by such schemes. Just what is the total amount of CO2 that must be devoted to produce a wind farm, including mining of the copper and steel, casting the parts, maintenance and all the switching and wire to put it into the grid? And please don't tell me that the wind generators last 30 years. California has thousands of defunct generators that prove otherwise.

  18. 1. The economics evidence does not support cap and trade. The science evidence does not support CAGW (the science is so pathetically incompetent, we don't even know what the real temperature change has been. We do know that it hasn't been what the CAGW crowd has claimed.)

    Finally, the political evidence does not support cap and trade.

    Without the economics, the science or the politics, the only place Gore has support is from blatantly left-wing news media outlets and their customers. And that bunch isn't populous enough to carry the day.

  19. Sharon,

    I feel the lithium and rare earth shortages will resolve itself as demand increases. However, that will not change the fact that US economy will be completely dependent on raw materials from unstable places no matter what politicians do about energy policy. Which is why I say it is silly to use 'self-sufficiency' as a argument for a policy.

  20. Graham's general policy prescription seems closer to my own view of a rational decarbonization policy (which takes heavily from Drs. Pielke, Hulme, von Storch, etc.'s statement here), but his quotes are still worrisome to me in that they seem to suggest that under a carbon tax he would propose, the pricing of carbon would be the main engine of decarbonization.

    If I understand Dr. Pielke et al (in any case, this understanding or misunderstanding of mine has made sense to me for a while now), the main driver of long-term decarbonization under a proper (ring-fenced) tax would be the improved technology that could be developed out of R&D grants given from the tax's revenues.

    If Graham and company intend to introduce a carbon tax that acts primarily through the pricing of carbon, I'm troubled, mainly for two reasons:

    1) Given the wide open uncertainties on future temperature changes due to carbon dioxide, and effects of those temperature and atmospheric changes, putting an accurate price on carbon under a tax, like under cap-and-trade, seems nearly impossible. Given that, I would worry that the pricing would trend towards being based on estimates of what would achieve already-stated emissions targets, and would be much higher than necessary under the other approach described above, and would exacerbate the economic and competitiveness issues associated with pricing carbon.

    2) Given that he doesn't mention where the revenues go, but does seem to state that the carbon-pricing itself is the main engine in the tax, I'd worry that revenues here might go to the general coffers, rather than towards research towards decarbonization. I'm sure this would make the legislation easier to pass, but it would also be far less effective in addressing the problem in the long-term, and completely unethical as a "sin" tax. (In my view, if you're going to, for example, justify a tax increase on tobacco by arguing that smokers cost the state X number of dollars a year in uninsured medical costs, then the revenues from that new tax need to go cover uninsured medical costs, rather than to the general fund, or even some other deserving but completely unrelated specific area like primary education. The scope is vastly greater in climate policy, but I think the same principle would apply).

    Here's to hoping I'm just wildly and inaccurately speculating based on a few short quotes, and that these Senators aren't instead beginning to eye an alternative to C&T that would put more general revenue in their hands than the nearly auctionless Waxman-Markey would seem to at the moment.

  21. A few points:
    1. France is also spending money on Wind, Wave and Solar power at an increasing rate too. Why does everyone like to reduce it to either/or discussions? Special interest lobbying perhaps?

    2. Energy independence is something you might appreciate if you got all your gas from Russia via a Ukrainian pipeline. For oil Obama only has to make friends with Chavez who offered his oil to the US at $50 (in exchange for help in extracting his huge deposits of heavy oil), but Big Oil in unholy union with Government Sachs, who together write US energy policy, combined with pathetic US corporate media, made sure nobody heard that offer in the USA. Ergo you pay twice as much as you might. Oh happy, happy free markets!

    3. Reduction of oil dependence surely starts with using Diesel engines and upping that 15/20 mpg US average to 50 mpg. A carbon tax would be more effective there. Nor does it mean wearing a hair-shirt: The new diesel Jaguar gets 50mpg while simultaneously heating up all the comfy seats. Other cheaper Diesels can now happily get up to 70 mpg.

    4. In any scenario surely natural gas has to come in before nuclear in the USA. It's there, it's abundant, it's now as cheap as coal, it's a darn site easier, cheaper and quicker to build and it also cuts CO2. The USA is lucky to have it in abundance. Any discussion that favours nuclear power therefore is likely being influenced by the huge amount of money sloshing around from the nuclear lobbyists.

    5. Lastly Thorium, while a good idea isn't quite an off the shelf product: It is a back-burner project. I'd say the Candu reactor is more sensible than the PWR's that were originally spawned for nuclear weapons needs. Candus don't need Uranium enrichment. The big problem with encouraging nuclear power as a CO2 substitute is mainly that we encourage unstable regimes to use it as subterfuge for building their own nuclear bombs. Shelving all reactors that need uranium enrichment would be a big step forward therefore with the proliferations argument imho. While yes you can make a bomb with heavy water reactors it isn't quite so straightforward.

  22. Jae
    The jobs problem in Spain is nothing to do with alternative energies, it is down to the collapse of the housing market which was the main driver of the economy as in the US and UK.

    As they can't print their own money they have to face their problems now rather than steal from their children, which seems to be the US preferred solution. And since they don't have coal or gas either it isn't that much of an issue using wind power, which now in fact would be hugely missed, since it is vital for the Spanish grid.

    If you were influenced by those two Spanish economists who said that wind power was costing jobs then please be aware that they were likely to be as wrong as every other economist of the Chicago school has ever been; most especially with their huge assumption that government spending would have been used better elsewhere. I can assure you that it would most certainly have been used to employ yet more entrepreneur-stifling bureaucrats. Any spending at all is better than that!

    Incidentally the Spanish banks emerged very well from the crisis since they didn't have that Chicago-school inspired deregulation frenzy and they weren't allowed to buy junk debt from the US investment bank fraudsters.

  23. It is truly amazing how so much hope is put in R&D. Perhaps it is a salve for folks that don't have any other ideas?

    As I've noted many times the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, which is practically in Roger's back yard, has been spending millions and millions for over 37 years on such R&D. Despite all that R&D, "Alternative Energy" is still "Alternative Energy" because it still costs way more than conventional energy sources. Now, if our policy makers want to force America, through any way possible--fiat, taxes, cap and trade, gold stars----, to invest more in this more costly energy, then you will force jobs and wealth to countries where the socialist monsters are not forcing such investment. It really IS that simple, although it still appears too complex for most environmental-extremists.

  24. jgdes,

    Can you clarify your comments on Candus? My understanding is they made it must easier for states divert technology for military purposes (e.g. they were key to allowing India to develop its bomb).

  25. jdges,

    1) France has a 'peak power' problem. It's one of the problems with nuclear energy. Unless the plants are running at more then 75% capacity 24 hours a day then they aren't particularly cost effective.

    2) Chavez's has less then 2 million barrels of oil per day to export, the US needs to import 8-10 million barrels.

    3) CAFE standards are set to rise to 38 MPG for a passenger car by 2016. Gasoline accounts for 54% of imported oil usage, it doesn't account for the other 46%.

    4) Natural Gas. $5/million BTU is not cheap. A ton of coal has 26 million BTU's. A ton of coal would have to cost $130/ton before natural gas was price competitive. At $80/barrel oil is $14/million BTU's.

    5) Thorium. India is trying that out. There is only a handful of unstable regimes.

  26. jgdes,

    "The jobs problem in Spain is nothing to do with alternative energies, it is down to the collapse of the housing market which was the main driver of the economy as in the US and UK. "

    See here: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/06/24/AR2009062403012.html