Why I find it difficult to discuss climate policy

I generally try to avoid discussing climate policy specifically. One obvious reason is that I don’t have any particular expertise in that area, or any special insights. However, there is a somewhat subtler reason as to why I find it a difficult topic. When I read something like this post about carbon taxes (which I discussed here) it makes a lot of sense. There are lots of factors to consider. If we do too much now, the current generation could pay much more than their fair share, and we could do more harm than good. If we do too little now, we could pass on too much to future generations. It’s a difficult balancing act.

Then I start to think a bit more like a physicist. Our climate is a complex, non-linear system. We have the potential to change it substantially, and to do so very quickly. We could change our climate by an amount comparable to the change between a glacial and an inter-glacial, but could do so ten times faster than has occured in the past. For small changes, we expect the response to be linear, and maybe it will remain linear even if we induce what is quite a large change. On the other hand, maybe not; it’s not impossible that it could flip into some kind of new state. Maybe such a new state would be beneficial. However, I would guess that the region of parameter space in which changes would be beneficial is dwarfed by the region of parameter space in which it would be very detrimental.

On top of being a physicist, I’m also involved with finding planets around other stars. This makes me very aware of the fact that the only place in the universe where we know life to exist is on our own planet. In fact, the only place is in a very thin shell around our planet. What makes this planet habitable is our atmosphere, into which we’re currently dumping CO2 like there’s no tomorrow. Even if there is life elsewhere – as there probably is – it also doesn’t really make any difference; this is our home for the foreseeable future. Treating our atmosphere like a waste dump, seems like a really bad idea.

So, of course I think that dumping giga-tonnes of CO2 into our atmosphere and pushing our climate hard and fast is something we should probably avoid doing, but how? I just end up back at the beginning again; just because we should probably not be dumping giga-tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere doesn’t mean that it’s easy to work out how best to not do so. There are clearly many factors to consider. However, ignoring – or even dismissing – that what we’re doing carries risks and is probably unprecedented, doesn’t appear to be an effective way of encouraging that we take this seriously and actually start doing something substantive. It’s why I find myself getting frustrated by some of the social science comments on this topic; they seem to often ignore what makes this an issue worth taking seriously.

Anyway, I’m not really sure where I’m going with this. I guess it’s that climate policy (by which I mean what we should decide to do) is a very difficult and complicated issue. On the other hand, deciding whether or not we should actually do something, doesn’t seem all that complicated; to me, at least.

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69 Responses to Why I find it difficult to discuss climate policy

  1. Is there any serious person anywhere who thinks we shouldn’t be doing something about such a colossal risk to the orderly future development of human civilization? Reasonable people may differ about how to reduce emissions, but the need for rapid and sustained emissions reductions is undeniable.

    Try not to get trapped by the benefit-cost framing of the problem, which is not the right way to look at it: Koomey, Jonathan. 2013. “Moving Beyond Benefit-Cost Analysis of Climate Change.” Environmental Research Letters. vol. 8, no. 041005. December 2. [http://iopscience.iop.org/1748-9326/8/4/041005/]

  2. Jonathan,

    Is there any serious person anywhere who thinks we shouldn’t be doing something about such a colossal risk to the orderly future development of human civilization?

    It’s possible that I’m too deep in the blogosphere and that all serious people recognise the reality of the situation. On the other hand, the House of Lord’s Select Committee on Economic Affairs are tomorrow interviewing Lord Lawson on the Economics of UK Energy Policy. Lawson might be an ex-Chancellor, but he is also Chairman of the Global Warming Policy Foundation. I certainly have the impression that there people who claim to be serious who do not think we should be doing anything (or not doing much).

    Try not to get trapped by the benefit-cost framing of the problem, which is not the right way to look at it: Koomey, Jonathan. 2013. “Moving Beyond Benefit-Cost Analysis of Climate Change.” Environmental Research Letters. vol. 8, no. 041005. December 2. [http://iopscience.iop.org/1748-9326/8/4/041005/]

    Thanks, I’ll have a look at that.

  3. Yeah, those are the lukewarmers, but they just claim to be serious so they get invited to media events. Their time has come and gone.

    Let me know if you have questions on the ERL article.

  4. Yeah, those are the lukewarmers, but they just claim to be serious so they get invited to media events. Their time has come and gone.

    Indeed, they do seem to have less influence than seemed the case a few years ago.

    Let me know if you have questions on the ERL article.

    I will do, thanks.

  5. William T says:

    To me, this debate seems something like the joke about “first world problems”. It is all very well getting tangled up in debates about procedural matters when the issues aren’t very major. But if the issue is in fact extreme, then worrying about the most appropriate way to debate what to do is simply a waste of time. At the risk of Godwinning, if you’re in a battle, you just do everything and anything that is necessary to win. Our ancestors were almost too late in learning that lesson 75 years ago. Thank goodness they didn’t spend years or decades arguing about who was eligible to make policy arguments.

    Seriously though, your main point is critical – until people / politicians are convinced about the seriousness of the crisis, they will fiddle.

  6. On the other hand, we should be having a discussion on the policies. The mitigation sceptical movement is clearly not interested in the science what so ever. Whether a paper is praised or rejected on WUWT & Co. depends on its (imagined) policy implications, not on the quality of the work.

    Their objection to the science is political and we will not come to an agreement with them by talking about something else, like science. With some we will never come to an agreement because they like the consequences of climate change and how it hurts the poor. Some claim to think that property can only be based on fossil fuels and without it we go back to substance farming. It should be possible to explain this group that the energy sector is nowadays just 6% of the economy and that even if less pollution were more expensive, (I think it is cheaper) that that is a quality of life we can afford to pay for.

    (We do not have to wait for an agreement, fortunately. We can implement the policies necessary, the side that accepts climate change is larger, even in the USA, and specific policies, such as the transition to renewable energy, are in most cases supported by huge majorities.)

    I wish more non-scientists would step up and play a role in this weird “debate”. They are in a better position to talk about policies. As long as a scientist or the Science Guy debates Malcolm Rogers or Jim Inhofe we are having the fake science debate. These politicians should be debating Bill McKibben, Greenpeace or Jill Stein.

  7. Mal Adapted says:

    ATTP, your fundamental error may be thinking of AGW as a problem that “we” will solve.

    We’re fully aware here that as long as the global economy externalizes the climate costs of energy production from fossil carbon (“business as usual”), a few individuals and families will accumulate vast wealth; a larger fraction of the global population will enjoy modest economic benefits; and another substantial fraction will obtain little if any benefit. We also know that the costs of AGW are borne unequally as well: the people who benefit the most from BAU are well-buffered against its external costs, while the people who benefit least from cheap fossil energy pay those costs with the loss of their homes, livelihoods and lives.

    I’d frame the problem this way: for AGW to be solved, the people who have the most to gain by a transition to a carbon-neutral global economy must somehow overcome the potent opposition of the people who have the most to lose, in the face of — at best — vast indifference from the rest.

  8. John Hartz says:

    ATTP: Now you have gone and done open an exremely large can of worms. More people have strong opinions about policy than the have strong opnions about climate science. Batten down the hatches for a lenghty comment thread. 🙂

  9. Vinny Burgoo says:

  10. John Hartz says:

    Here’s a “hot-off-the-press’ discussion of the carbon tax …

    Why We Need a Carbon Tax, And Why It Won’t Be Enough, Op-ed by Bill Mckibben, Yale Environment 369, Sep 12, 2016

    The teaser line for this article:

    Putting a price on carbon is an idea whose time has come, with even Big Oil signaling it may drop its long-standing opposition to a carbon tax. But the question is, has it come too late?

  11. “Maybe such a new state would be beneficial. “

    I know why you say this, aTTP. But sod’s law tells us (and I would guess a lot of physics) that that’s a very, very long shot. More likely there may be the odd benefit but the negatives are almost bound to outweigh them. I mean; look at the other way. Minus 4C and most of the northern hemisphere was under a mile of ice. Does anyone sane really think +4C will be even a little bed of roses?

  12. John Hartz says:

    ATTP: If Trump succeeds in his quest to become the next President of the US, Republicans are likely to retain control of the House and the Senate. Under this scenario, the official policy of the United States re manmade climate change would become, “It doesn’t exist”. If that possibility doesn’t scare the Bejesus out of you and everyone reading this thread, nothing will.

  13. John Hartz says:

    In the context of my prior comment, it is important that we distinguish between discussing science policy and working to elect qualified people to our respective institutions of government. If someone like Trump ascends to power, all the policy discussions in the world will not be worth much more than a bucket of warm spit.

  14. John Hartz says:

    What is Trump’s policy position on manmade climate science you ask?

    The logical place to find the answer would be the Trump Campaign website. As of today, the terms “climate change” or “global warming” do not appear anywhere on it.

    The only official statement that the Trump campaign has issued on climate change is the following:

    Donald Trump (R): There is still much that needs to be investigated in the field of “climate change.” Perhaps the best use of our limited financial resources should be in dealing with making sure that every person in the world has clean water. Perhaps we should focus on eliminating lingering diseases around the world like malaria. Perhaps we should focus on efforts to increase food production to keep pace with an ever-growing world population. Perhaps we should be focused on developing energy sources and power production that alleviates the need for dependence on fossil fuels. We must decide on how best to proceed so that we can make lives better, safer and more prosperous.

    The above statement is the response to a question posed by ScienceDebate.org, a nonprofit advocacy group supported by dozens of nonpartisan science and engineering institutions, from Duke University to the National Academy of Sciences to the American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists.

    The source for the above quote is:

    What Do the Presidential Candidates Know about Science? by Christine Gorman, Scientific American, Sep 13, 2016

  15. John Hartz says:

    For a discussion of Trump’s response to a question re the health of the oceans, see:

    Trump’s no Einstein: But his ignorant, illiterate answers to the campaign science quiz reflect a non-stupid strategy by Andrew O’Hehir, Salon, Sep 13, 2016

  16. Bill McKibben and Greenpeace are doing their bit as well as they can. Jill Stein is irrelevant, doing more harm than good. Your allies are Markey and Warren and Whitehouse and a whole bunch of other good people.

    We need to Podesta to get to Clinton:

    Prime time US TV 2009: far as I could tell, didn’t stir a heartbeat, but it’s never been better said (except what somebody called the unappealing soviet-style graphics). There was a great meeting at MIT in 2009. Things were hopeful then but they’re more dangerous now.

  17. I’m all for greens. Jill Stein is not good about science or capable at politics, just taking advantage and making things worse. I do wish we had European style proportional representation so we could get good green candidates.

    That’s what I’d do, given a chance.
    http://whogoeswithfergus.blogspot.com/2014/09/the-speech-i-havent-heard-yet-open.html
    or here:
    http://whogoeswithfergus.blogspot.com/2015/03/this-is-important-and-should-be-shouted.html

  18. The case for climate policy was, as far as I know, first made by Nordhaus in 1977, and all literature since has argued that we should reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

    The question is not whether. The question is how, and how fast.

  19. John R.,
    Yes, I agree. That’s why I added

    However, I would guess that the region of parameter space in which changes would be beneficial is dwarfed by the region of parameter space in which it would be very detrimental.

    In fact, it’s quite hard to see how a potentially large and rapid change could end up – by chance – being good for us. Even if the final state is one in which we could thrive, trying to adapt to a large and rapid change will be difficult, given the short timescales.

  20. Andrew Dodds says:

    Well..

    We have a denialist lobby, who are opposed to any and all action to reduce CO2 emissions. Often regardless of the actual economics..

    We have a Green lobby, who are convinced that only renewable energy should be used (over and above any climate-related concerns).

    We have an engineering lobby, who tend to be concerned with keeping the lights on and in favour of nuclear power.

    We have a power company lobby, who are keen on getting a chunk of any subsidies going for doing things they would have to do anyway..

    We have an Economist’s lobby, who take it as an article of faith that no solution can be chosen, it must emerge by putting the right incentives in place.

    And we have the actual politicians, who look at these lobbies and try to find some way of keeping all of them happy at the same time.

    (The solution, of course, is to make me benevolent-dictator-for-life. Others may disagree on the value of ‘me’)

  21. Andrew,
    Indeed, I almost made some of those points in the post. We seem to have a combination of people who think we should do nothing (or little) and then those who do want action spending a good deal of their time criticising others who also want action – renewables lobbies criticising nuclear, nuclear lobby criticising renewables, those who want a carbon tax blaming environmentalists for a lack of action, etc.

  22. pete best says:

    Mitigating carbon is down to technology as far as I can see. So we need low to zero carbon solutions that don’t wreck the notion of a beautiful countryside, don’t cost the energy paying public much if anything more than it presently does and does not impact their lifestyle in anyway (remember shipping and flying are exempt from Paris 2015), don’t change the status quo too much with regard to political and economic power if at all and does not disrupt us from our plan for economic growth of 2 – 3% per annum so that everyone can drive to work.

    So you can see that solar and wind blights the countryside according to some, that solar and wind costs more according to some for us energy payers, that electric cars are crap and give us range anxiety, that wind and solar upset the political and economic balance (think lobbying and stink loads of money etc) and hence where are we then in regard to deploying ww2 style energy infrastructures that will keep a lot of people happy and reduce emissions. Presently, not very far and even though global emissions have presently stalled its still 30+ billion tonnes of Co2 and methane is increasing too.

    Personally when it comes to a carbon tax I reckon its a good thing as it puts the emphasis on organisations and individuals to reduce emissions with incentives to do so. Presently its all about economic growth and hence consumption.

  23. Richard Tol wrote “The question is not whether. The question is how, and how fast.”

    The problem with that being that we can’t agree on discounting in arriving at the proper compromise between the present and the future, and one of the reasons we can’t agree is that we are not rational about it, or even necessarily honest with ourselves about what we really want (Kahneman’s “thinking, fast and slow” thing) and so we are in denial about it, thus we bicker about the science (or even against there being a consensus on the science), where things are much less uncertain, as an excuse not to do anything [I think this is probably the longest sentence I’ve ever written – sorry]. Sadly I think Prof. Quatermass and colleague are quite right – we don’t want to think that our actions are going to cause hardship for future generations, but the reality is that we are mostly too self-centered to do anything much about it now if it has a negative impact on us, but we need to hide the uncomfortable truth from ourselves.

    If this were Vulcan, we would have stopped discussing it long ago and done something already!

  24. angech says:

    How do you wean Australia off carbon?
    We have two problems.
    One is lots of sunshine for solar, wind and pockets of Hydro but a large semi arid continent with long distances to travel and transport any produced goods
    Overall personal CO2 production and reliance can certainly be reduced.
    However, we export Coal ,oil, natural gas, uranium and minerals.
    The country and people as a whole do very well out of this with the largess redirected amongst our struggling population so that we can buy Apple I phones at twice the price in America.
    I for one and twenty million others would be very reluctant to give up our supported bludging lifestyles and actually work.
    I like a 4 dollar coffee and a morning newspaper.
    The people overseas who take the coal and oil use it to run their factories and produce goods and employment in their home countries.
    Where does their responsibility lie? It is still Australian CO2 in my eyes.
    Similarly in USA built on oil exports and wealth what does a carbon tax achieve if you keep exporting oil and gas and products produced from them.
    A carbon tax may give a cool inner glow, The hard decisions are just put off. Shut down the oil and gas wells. Shut down Exxon. Go renewable, but not just lip service local if you are serious.
    That is the true carbon reduction principle

  25. Willard says:

    > The question is not whether. The question is how, and how fast.

    Indeed:

    But deferring to those who know better is not the sort of Socrates Malcolm Roberts wants to be. If you want to be a Roberts-style Socrates, instead of conceding your ignorance, you cling to some foundational bit of putative knowledge that allows you to dismiss anything else that’s said, like so:

    It is basic. The sun warms the earth’s surface. The surface, by contact, warms the moving, circulating atmosphere. That means the atmosphere cools the surface. How then can the atmosphere warm it? It cannot. That is why their computer models are wrong.

    https://theconversation.com/senator-youre-no-socrates-65397

    That is the true carbon reductio principle.

  26. lerpo says:

    We have an Economist’s lobby, who take it as an article of faith that no solution can be chosen, it must emerge by putting the right incentives in place.

    Does anyone here think the economists are wrong on this point? I had thought the only quibble was how to determine the right incentive.

  27. The Very Reverend Jebediah Hypotenuse says:

    Does anyone here think the astronomers are wrong on this point?

    It’s basic.
    The Sun moves around the Earth.
    This means that the Earth isn’t moving.
    How could it?
    It cannot.
    That’s why the model of Copernicus is wrong.

    http://www.theprinciplemovie.com/about/

  28. Does anyone here think the economists are wrong on this point?

    I think, by itself, it’s probably insufficient, but I suspect that noone is really suggesting that we halt research funding, or that we don’t also find ways to help emerging technologies.

    I had thought the only quibble was how to determine the right incentive.

    There’s this, but there’s also the issue that the range of estimates for the Social Cost of Carbon is quite wide. Presumably somewhere in that range would be optimal, but do we really know what it is?

  29. John Hartz says:

    Since Willard brought up Malcom Roberts, check out Michael Slezak’s excellent in-depth article:

    Debunking Malcolm Roberts: the case against a climate science denier by Michael Slezak, Guardian, Sep 13, 2016

    Given Slezak’s deep-dive into climate science in the above article, I suspect that he had a silent partner or two advising him.

  30. John Hartz says:

    ATTP: You state:

    There’s this, but there’s also the issue that the range of estimates for the Social Cost of Carbon is quite wide.

    In other words, “While economists fiddle, Rome burns!”

  31. Eli Rabett says:

    Eli really really reallllllly hates that bit about “this is our home for the foreseeable future”. This is our home period. Ain’t goin no where and to write what you write gives an out to the idiots.

  32. David B. Benson says:

    We need to do all of the above, starting now. Determine later which is the most cost effective to keep doing for the next several centuries.

    Avoid analysis paralysis by just acting.

  33. Anders,

    There’s this, but there’s also the issue that the range of estimates for the Social Cost of Carbon is quite wide. Presumably somewhere in that range would be optimal, but do we really know what it is?

    In my considered and highly educated opinion, we don’t have an effin clue what SCC really is. Way I see it the options are:

    1) Set it to the estimated cost of decarbonization, discounted and amortized over the period of replacement.
    2) Set it to the price that obtains the desired reduction.

    Or basically, what Benson just wrote: Avoid analysis paralysis by just acting.

    Whingeing about the “real” cost of carbon just plays into the hands of delayers and deniers.

  34. Eli,

    Eli really really reallllllly hates that bit about “this is our home for the foreseeable future”. This is our home period. Ain’t goin no where and to write what you write gives an out to the idiots.

    Yes, fair enough.

    Brandon and David,

    Avoid analysis paralysis by just acting.

    I agree, there does seem to be a lot of talk, and little action.

  35. Richard Tol wrote “The question is not whether. The question is how, and how fast.”

    Says Prof. Tol, an academic adviser to the GWPF whos chiarman of the board of trustees according to the Independetn “says carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas that warms the atmosphere – but says the UK would be ‘crazy’ to do anything about it”.

    Looks to me like the GWPF are not taking Richard’s advice very seriously.

  36. Maybe Richard should pass on a copy of his recent Working paper, which says:

    First – best climate policy is simple: A uniform carbon tax, rising steadily over time, is all we
    need.

  37. John Hartz says:

    Perhps Richard Tol will experince a “Road to Damascus” event in the future. Could happen.

  38. Raff says:

    Is a carbon tax necessarily sufficient? I can imagine that we tax carbon and find that fossil fuels and emissions are still more convenient even if they are no longer cheaper. Is there any way to know that a tax really will change behaviour without additional regulation?

  39. Raff,
    My understanding, though, is that if that were to happen the carbon tax would continually increase given that the damage due to 1 tonne of CO2 is greater if it is emitted into a world with an atmospheric CO2 concentration of 450ppm, than into a world with an atmospheric concentration of 400ppm. So, if we do continually increase the carbon tax in line with these estimates, it seems unlikely that it wouldn’t change behaviour.

    What I had wondered, though, was what would happen if the impacts do turn out to be highly non-linear and if – as a result – the carbon tax estimates rise so rapidly that fossil fuels would become much more expensive than alternatives on a timescale that it too short for fossil fuel sources to be replaced. My guess is that it would not be politically expedient to increase it at that rate, which might then imply that it wouldn’t be as effective as suggested.

  40. John Hartz says:

    The current political and financial barriers to taking meaningful national and international action on the climate change front are nicely detailed in Michael Klare’s essay, Will Trumpism, Brexit, and Geopolitical Exceptionalism Sink the Planet? posted today (Sep 15) on TomDisptach.

    I highly recommend that everyone read Klare’s article and Tom Englehardt’s introduction of it. Both Klare and Englehardt are excellent writers and embed many links to their source materials.

  41. John Hartz says:

    ATTP: Re your OP, it’s hard for one person to be both a competent science wonk and a competent policy wonk because each are full-time jobs. Both experts have to inform each other. In other words, “It takes a village.” This is especially true for addressing the global challenges psed by manade climate change. In fact, it takes a village of villages of villages….

  42. Michael Hauber says:

    “Maybe such a new state would be beneficial. “

    And how long will it take to adjust to any potential benefits of the new state. Example – melting the Greenland ice cap will have the benefit of new land that was locked under 2km of ice. (No I’m not saying this benefit is large or will outweigh the drawbacks of that ice becoming seawater and drowning other stuff). Lets pretend that in the long term we can set up some worthwhile farming on the new land. How long will it take to do so? To move population there, to get the soil balance and ecosystem working well enough? Will any farming be possible while some of the icesheet is still there dumping melt water every summer?

    One issue with climate change is that the current pattern has good rain in some places, arid conditions in other places etc. Society has had centuries to adapt to this pattern and build our infrastructure and populations according to this pattern. A new pattern might be better once we adapt to it, but how long to adapt?

  43. John Hartz says:

    The polling results described in this article suggest that the American public would not welcome a high carbon tax with open arms.

    Americans willing to pay to fight climate change (but only a little), AP/CBS News, Sep 15, 2016

    These poll results beg the overarching question of whether or not a carbon tax high enough to get people to change their energy consumption habits will ever come to pass in a democratic form of government.

  44. Ken Fabian says:

    It’s hard not to think that climate science denial and/or ignorance by those in positions of trust, responsibility and power remains the greatest stumbling block to effective policy.

    Whilst a determined majority of the community at large can overcome much, achieve much and influence it’s leaders a well informed community is itself largely a consequence of where it’s leadership stands. Denial is legitimised and amplified within the broader community by the ignorance and denial of it’s leaders. Policy is obstructed, compromised and made ineffective by being more about achieving populist appeasement than serious change. I wonder if even that is a kind of market failure – when avoiding climate responsibility by remaining ignorant or indulging in denial is bought into as a way to avoid the costs of acting responsibly.

    Perhaps only when low emissions energy is lower cost than high emissions energy will that market in responsibility avoidance collapse – it having no direct relationship with the validity of climate science. Perhaps by being lower cost even part of the time, just on sunny and windy days, renewable energy can undermine some of the foundations of economic alarmist fears – the enduring perception of certainty pervading the thinking of influential leaders of commerce and industry as well as politics that climate responsibility is an economic burden that cannot be borne – and undermine the perceived economic value of climate science denial in turn. Just by shifting the status-quo out of it’s familiar track, even if significant uncertainties about how far they can take us remain, the “disruption” of rapid RE growth can have significant impacts on the thinking of those in positions of trust, responsibility and power.

  45. Andrew Dodds says:

    The closest example I can see to a carbon tax is fuel duty. Which has reached ‘political rebellion’ levels in the UK without causing a big shift away from oil-powered transportation.

    It’s possible to guess that extending a carbon tax to natural gas would do little to shift people away from using gas for home heating and cooking; the alternative is to use electricity, which also comes from natural gas. Or spend a huge amount of money on insulating your house.. which people don’t have.

    To answer lerpo..

    A pure incentives-based approach means things like a carbon tax, which is explicitly designed to avoid picking technologies. This is a highly idealized ‘spherical cow’ approach, which makes little sense if we already know what zero carbon technologies are available, and what their costs, benefits and drawbacks are; we are essentially throwing that information away. Furthermore, electric grids and transportation networks are very politically sensitive; if ‘the market decides’ that certain people should not have electricity or transport, that’s a big political problem. So like 9it or not, a big element of transitioning to a zero carbon economy will have to involve political decisions and central planning (hopefully engineer-led).

  46. John Hartz,

    These poll results beg the overarching question of whether or not a carbon tax high enough to get people to change their energy consumption habits will ever come to pass in a democratic form of government.

    One of my long-outstanding questions has been how high carbon taxes need to be to have a desired effect. Rogelj et al (2013) may offer some guidance:

    Temperature projections for any given pathway have a spread owing to geophysical uncertainties 18 (Fig. 1b). In the absence of any serious mitigation efforts (present global carbon prices of less than US$1 per tonne of carbon-dioxide-equivalent emissions (tCO2e-1)), the likelihood of limiting warming to less than 2 °C is essentially zero (<1%; Fig. 1c). However, imposing a carbon price of about US$20 tCO2e-1 in our model would increase the probability of staying below 2 °C to about 50%, and carbon prices of more than US$40 tCO2e-1 would achieve the 2 °C objective with a probability of more than 66% (‘likely’ by the definition of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 19). Similar trends hold for other cost metrics (Supplementary Information). For example, a carbon price of US$20-40 tCO2e-1 translates in our model to cumulative discounted mitigation costs (2012–2100) of the order of 0.8–1.3% of gross world product (Supplementary Fig. 10).

    According to CDIAC, US CO2 emissions per year per capita in 2011 were 17 t, so a carbon tax in the indicated range works out to US$28-57 per month per person. Per capita GDP for the US in 2011 was $49,800, so a carbon tax in this range works out to 0.7-1.4% of GDP. These numbers seem to work.

    From the article you cited:

    If the cost of fighting climate change is only an additional $1 a month, 57 percent of Americans said they would support that. But as that fee goes up, support for it plummets. At $10 a month, 39 percent were in favor and 61 percent opposed. At $20 a month, the public is more than 2-to-1 against it. And only 1-in-5 would support $50 a month.

    I wonder how the answer might change if people were told that $50 per month gave a ~60% chance of staying under the 2 °C limit.

  47. John Hartz, PS:

    There’s good news and bad news in this 2016 study from Yale. One bit of bad news is old news, AGW ranks low on the priorities list:

    Some good news is that voters tend to favour candidates who support AGW mitigation policy and disfavour those who don’t. As well, Americans are broadly supportive, at least conceptually, of various mitigation policies:

    I also think it’s worth noting that some major oil companies, publicly at least, are supportive of equal and global carbon taxation:

    BP:

    Calling for a price on carbon

    BP believes that carbon pricing by governments is the most comprehensive and economically efficient policy to limit greenhouse gas emissions
    Putting a price on carbon – one that treats all carbon equally, whether it comes out of a smokestack or a car exhaust – would make energy efficiency more attractive and lower-carbon energy sources, such as natural gas and renewables, more cost competitive. A carbon price incentivizes both energy producers and consumers to reduce their GHG emissions. Governments can put a price on carbon via a well-constructed carbon tax or cap-and-trade systems.

    Our view is that putting a price on carbon will reduce emissions at a larger scale and at lower cost than alternative policy measures, by reducing the demand for carbon-intensive products. It might make our operations and products more costly in some cases. We consider that this is fair – as long as the carbon price impacts all GHG emitters equally – and we are keen to compete on this level playing field.

    Exxon:

    ExxonMobil believes that effective policies to address climate change will put a price on greenhouse gas emissions and will:

    Ensure a uniform and predictable cost of carbon across the economy;
    Let market principles drive solutions;
    Minimize regulatory complexity and administrative costs while maximizing transparency;
    Promote global participation; and
    Provide flexibility for future adjustments in response to scientific developments and the economic consequences of climate policies.

    A revenue-neutral carbon tax is the best option to fulfill these key principles and could be a workable policy framework for countries around the world. It is the policy most likely to preserve the ability of every sector of society to find new efficiencies and develop effective technologies.

  48. angech says:

    “I wonder how the answer might change if people were told that $50 per month gave a ~60% chance of staying under the 2 °C limit.”
    With amazement really,
    I did not realize that the USA was the sole cause of rising CO2, rising temperature and that the answer was as simple as Americans only, out of all the world, paying a 50$ carbon tax per month, would fix it. Rogelj et al (2013).
    Or was that article implying a world wide US 50$ a ton tax Which would be more than a lot of peoples wages for the month in many parts of the world.
    Would you be able to run your airconditioners for 30 minutes a day and be happy?
    Of course our grandparents got by without airconditioners, I guess

  49. John Hartz says:

    Here’s another article about the same opinion survey covered in the AP/CBS News story I cited above. The author of this article, Michael Greenstone is the Director of The Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago (EPIC).

    Americans Appear Willing to Pay for a Carbon Tax Policy by Michael Greenstone, The Upshot, New York Times, Sep 15, 2016

  50. angech,

    Read what I wrote. Did I say that per capita emissions are 17 t/yr for all countries? Did I say that per capita GDP is $49,800/yr for all countries? Did I say anything about a monthly flat fee of $50 per person globally?

    For the record, the world average per capita GDP is, let’s call it US$14,000. Average per capita emissions globally is about 5 tonnes. So that’s $7/month or 1.4% of GDP which is in line with the 1.3% of GDP Rogelj et al (2013) estimate for a $40/t CO2 tax.

    Perhaps you’re worried about Africa. Well, who isn’t whenever the subject of carbon taxes come up. For Sub-Saharan Africa, per capita GDP was US$ 3,250 and CO2 emissions 0.8 t per person in 2011. A $40/t CO2 tax works out to $2.7/month and 1.0% of GDP.

  51. Matt B says:

    Brandon G,

    Per that Yale study:

    1. There are 23 issues on the voter priorities. An average “very important” % score for the 4 voter group categories listed are:

    All voters: 44.4%
    Dems: 49.2%
    Repub: 39.6%
    Indy: 41.0%

    so Dems have significantly more important issues than Indy or Repub.

    A. Does that mean Dems care more about important issues, and Indy & Repubs don’t care enough?

    B. Indy & Repubs more focused, and Dems too diffused?

    My vote? I vote for B, as an Indy.

  52. Matt B,

    Issue priority was not surveyed as an open-ended question. Instead, the issues were provided by the pollsters. My first instinct would be to ascribe the difference to the list of issues being biased toward those which Democrats typically care more about than Republicans.

  53. John Hartz says:

    Brandon: Based on what they have done and continue to do about manmade climate change, I conclude that BP and Exxon statements you have posted are pure, unadulterated, greenwashing poppycock.

    As reported in the following article, the fossil fuel companies continue to “buy” the services of US Republican Senators and Representatives through hefty campaign contributions. I sincerely doubt that the fossil fuel industry will use their contributions to leverage support of a carbon tax in the foreseeable future regardless of who is elected President. [9-17-16]

    Fossil Fuel Money to GOP Grows, and So Does Climate Divide by Marianne Lavelle, Inside Climate News, Sep 15, 2016

  54. angech says:

    brandonrgates says
    “Read what I wrote.”
    “One of my long-outstanding questions has been how high carbon taxes need to be to have a desired effect
    I wonder how the answer might change if people were told that $50 per month gave a ~60% chance of staying under the 2 °C limit.
    And only 1-in-5 [Americans] would support $50 a month.
    so a carbon tax in this range works out to 0.7-1.4% of GDP”

    I still don’t understand.
    You seem to imply that Americans paying $50 a month carbon tax from now on would prevent CO2 for the world breaching 2 C.
    Correct?
    You did not mention other countries, did you mean to?
    If all it takes is Americans to take a pay cut of $ a week to save the world fine but it would seem to imply that CO2 is not a real problem if one country acting alone can do it.
    If you mean everyone in the world working together has to take an equivalent pay cut, which seems fair, you should say so. After all it would be a real problem.
    Not to mention the effect it would have on their people and economies.
    In that case you should be more specific.
    A 1.4% reduction in GDP is not a simple minor nuisance. There are knock on effects. If the USA did that it would promote a massive global recession and depression worse than 2008.
    Seems 4 out of 5 Americans understand this only all too well.

  55. angech,

    You seem to imply that Americans paying $50 a month carbon tax from now on would prevent CO2 for the world breaching 2 C. Correct?

    Nope. That’s just an estimate of what the average American’s end of a global US$40/t CO2 tax would be.

    You did not mention other countries, did you mean to?

    Again, no. I was prevailing on otters’ general knowledge that average per capita GDP and CO2 emissions are different in countries other than the US, and I left further exercises for the reader.

    A 1.4% reduction in GDP is not a simple minor nuisance.

    Who said anything about a 1.4% reduction in GDP? You don’t actually think taxes disappear from the economy when they’re collected … do you?

    Seems 4 out of 5 Americans understand this only all too well.

    Perhaps 4 out of 5 Americans need to remember the benefits of public investment in infrastructure and technology.

  56. John Hartz,

    Based on what they have done and continue to do about manmade climate change, I conclude that BP and Exxon statements you have posted are pure, unadulterated, greenwashing poppycock.

    I more or less expected that to be your response, and you could very well be right. On the other hand, we also know courtesy of Inside Climate News that Exxon internally at least took the risks of unmitigated CO2 emissions as a serious global risk as early as the late 1970s. My assumption is that both organizations recognize the threat as real, and are not interested in putting themselves out of business by killing their customers en masse. I’m quite sure, however, that they will use whatever their influence is on policy makers to get the best resolution for themselves in terms of timing and severity of global carbon taxation schemes.

    The real truth is not easily knowable, and I would argue in this case secondary to how their public statements in line with IPCC assessments can be leveraged to

    a) influence public opinion and
    b) hold them to their publicly stated concerns.

    Part of the public opinion calculus here is that a significant portion of the population doesn’t see fossil fuel companies as The Enemy, but rather a main reason that *we* enjoy the modern comforts of industrialized society.

    Something else I’m fairly certain of: part of decarbonization is necessarily going to involve liquid fuels for transport. Existing refinery equipment is well-suited to producing them from renewable feedstocks the same as from fossil ones. Hence, I don’t see Big Oil going away any time soon … and I don’t think perpetually demonizing them is the best long-term strategy.

  57. John Hartz says:

    Brandon: I’m 73 years old. You can rest assured that I will not be demonizing Exxon and BP in perpetuity. 🙂

  58. lol, you have me there.

  59. Angech says:

    Brandon the whole point of a carbon tax is to reduce consumption. To make us use less carbon even though we do not have renewables in place. It will force down energy use, production and consumption and cause a recession.
    You seem to think GDP will stay the same when you sling people 1.4%?
    Or that the public will invest in infrastructure and technology in a recession.
    Dream on.
    Thank you for explaining that the figures are world wide and different values based on who has to be taxed.

  60. angech,
    Clearly, a reason for imposing a carbon tax would be to reduce emissions, but it’s not “the whole point”. The economic argument for a carbon tax is that there are costs associated with emitting CO2 that we are currently not paying. Some future generation will pay these costs. If we don’t pay a carbon tax then we are paying less for using fossil fuels than is their actual full cost. Including a carbon tax then means we are paying the full price (assuming we can accurately estimate what this should be) which then means we are – in principle – not taking advantage of future generations, and means that fossil fuels don’t have some unfair advantage in the marketplace.

  61. Taxing carbon rather than labour would be a good idea even without climate change. It would reduce unemployment.

    brandonrgates says: “Again, no. I was prevailing on otters’ general knowledge that average per capita GDP and CO2 emissions are different in countries other than the US, and I left further exercises for the reader.

    FWIIW: I got that. There is a specialised organ for that trick near the top of one’s body. It told me that Europeans with a similar or higher standard of living than the USA have only half the CO2 emissions and most of the rest of the world even less.

  62. Joshua says:

    Anders –

    ==> Some future generation will pay these costs. ==>

    In theory, at least, it is not only that future generation will pay the externalized ” costs. There is a rationale for us paying more for fossil fuels even if we aren’t considering the effects of climate change

  63. Willard says:

    > a reason for imposing a carbon tax would be to reduce emissions,

    Angech said “consumption,” which hints at all these poor babies enviro-warmunists are trying to kill.

  64. William T says:

    “The closest example I can see to a carbon tax is fuel duty. Which has reached ‘political rebellion’ levels in the UK without causing a big shift away from oil-powered transportation.”

    Part of the reason being that there hasn’t been any real alternative so such taxes seem punitive. However if there are alternatives then it is easy enough to choose another. Norway is a good example of that.

  65. Angech,

    the whole point of a carbon tax is to reduce consumption.

    Not necessarily. I’d say the broadest goal of a carbon tax is to reduce CO2 emissions.

    To make us use less carbon even though we do not have renewables in place.

    And/or nukes. None of which will magically materialize at some point in the future just because neither of us aren’t around to witness them being deployed.

    It will force down energy use, production and consumption and cause a recession.

    Which economic model are you using to divine this certain future?

    You seem to think GDP will stay the same when you sling people 1.4%?

    If I imposed it instantaneously tomorrow, yeah, that would certainly wreak havoc. I have difficulty imagining how anyone would *honestly* think I’d be dumb enough to actually propose something like that.

    Or that the public will invest in infrastructure and technology in a recession.

    There’s precedent. I realize that some of the public have short memories and/or buy into trickle-downers’ revisionism that FDR’s New Deal programmes prolonged the Great Recession. I don’t know the Australian equivalent, so you’ll have to suffer my insufferable ethnocentrism on this point.

    But basically yes, when private equity and credit start to dry up for lack of investor confidence due to whatever reason (e.g., economic shocks), public spending props up aggregate demand and stems the bleeding. Ideally, we’d not be deficit spending during the upside of the business cycle, but the Cold War and globalization appears to have made perpetual leverage fashionable in addition to historically low marginal income tax rates.

    Yet (a certain loud contingent of) Baby Boomers in this country complain about being over taxed. I don’t get it. Must be my Gen X angst for them shipping our manufacturing jobs to China or something.

    I’m *mostly* kidding about that last little dig.

  66. Victor,

    I thought I’d posted the Aussies’ stats, but apparently not. Similar per capita GDP to the US (PPP basis), and ~16 t/CO2, which is just slightly lower. Colonies’ Revenge perhaps.

  67. Andrew Dodds says:

    Norway is a good example of..?

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carbon_tax#Norway

    I’m tempted to say ‘A rich country with very large hydropower resources, in which emissions rise in the presence of a carbon tax’. Did you mean something else?

  68. Andrew Dodds says:

    Brandon –

    With current government borrowing rates in the zero-to-negative region for many countries, and with economies well under capacity, and with a significant pool of reserve labour around, it takes some serious mental gymnastics to justify NOT making large infrastructure investments financed by direct public borrowing.

  69. Andrew, good points, I agree.

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