Greta Thunberg’s speech at the UN has sparked a discussion about our deeper responsibilities to our future generations. When we made the huge effort to fight World War II, did we ask “how much will this cost?” We face the same existential threat and should make the same commitment. We can do this cost effectively, and avoid making most stupid decisions, but asking whether this effort is worth it is now beyond question. We will have to consider how to compensate those who have invested their money or their livelihoods in activities that we now recognize as damaging to the climate, and that will be an added cost to the rest of us. (And we may see this as unfair.) But we really have no choice.
J. Frank Bullit posted on “Fox and Hounds” a sentiment that reflects the core of opposition to such actions:
What if the alarmists are wrong, yet there is no counter to the demands of enacting economic and energy policies we might regret?”
So our energy costs might be a bit more than it would have otherwise, but we get a cleaner environment in exchange. And even now, renewable energy sources are competing well on a dollar to dollar basis.
On the other hand, if the “alarmists” are correct, the consequences have a significant probability of being catastrophic to our civilization, as well as our environment. We all have insurance on our houses for events that we see as highly unlikely. We pay that extra cost on our house to gain assurance that we will recover our investments if such unlikely events occur. These are costs that we are willing to accept because we know that the “alarmists” have a point about the risks of house fires. We should be taking the same attitude towards climate change assessments. It’s not possible to prove that there is no risk, or even that the risk is tiny. And the data trends are sufficiently consistent with the forecasts to date that the probabilities weigh more towards a likelihood than not.
Unless opponents can show that the consequences of the alarmists being wrong are worse than the climate change threat, we have to act to mitigate that risk in much the same way as we do when we buy house insurance. (And by the way, we don’t have another “house” to move to…)
I chuckled when I saw this article extolling how CAFE fuel economy standards should be replaced with “clean tax cuts.” One proponent said, “If you want more of something, tax it less.”
But apparently, these incentives work only one direction. “It’s very common, historically, for companies to not meet the targets and just pay the fines,” said Josiah Neeley, a senior fellow for the R Street Institute. However, the auto companies were not happy with a proposal to increase the penalty 155%. Does that mean that the penalty got large enough to incent greater compliance?
I like this taxonomy of what type of regulatory/liability framework to use in which situation posted in Environmental Economics. (Reminds me of a market-type structure I created for my 1996 paper on environmental commodity markets.) However, I think the two choices on the right side could be changed:
- Lower right corner to “incentive-based regulation”: The damages are clear and can be valued, but engaging in market transactions is costly. For example, energy efficiency has a clear value with significant spill over benefits, but the costs of gaining information about net gains is costly for individuals. So setting an incentive standard for manufacturers or in energy rates is more cost effective.
- Upper right corner to “command and control regulation”: The damages are known and significant, but quantifying them economically, or even physically, is difficult. There are no opportunities for market transactions, but society wants to act. In this case, the regulators would set bounds on behavior or performance.
Finally, a real world example of how benefit-cost analysis should be used in practice. Alberta takes the revenues that represent a portion of the society wide benefits and distributes those to the losers from the policy change. Economists have almost always ignored the problem of how to compensate losers in changes in social policy, and of course those who keep losing increasingly oppose any more policies. Instead of dreaming up ways to invest carbon market revenues in whiz bang solutions, we first need to focus on who’s being left behind so they are not resentful, and become a key political impediment to doing the right thing.
I follow Matthew Kahn’s, USC economics chair, blog posts. He expresses a libertarian view. He also writes about climate adaptation. He makes an important point that civilization is not static and we will be able to adapt the human ecology to a range of climate change. But his latest post on how climate change might affect marathon performances raised an important issue for me.
Kahn fails to acknowledge that adaptation to small, incremental climate change is not the concern. It’s the large, catastrophic changes with unknown (and unknowable) probability–deep uncertainty–that is of concern–collapsing ice sheets or ecosystems. He is not addressing the problem of what happens if the climate passes a tipping point. These types of articles and blog posts produced by Kahn and his colleagues trivialize the real risks and consequences, as though we’re just trying to adapt to a change in the weather while ignoring the potential systemic changes.
I believe that California’s passage of the extended cap and trade program was a generally good compromise. Most importantly, it decoupled the cap and trade market from separate legislation to regulate local emission impacts. As I wrote earlier, earlier proposals failed on this aspect.
Here’s the two best analyses I’ve seen so far, one legal and the other economic (by a former Michigan classmate), of the legislation.
I follow Matthew Kahn, now at USC, post on June 30 about the how the “Lucas Critique” undermines a recent study forecasting how counties across the U.S. might be affected differentially by climate change. Quoting the New Palgrave Economic Dictionary, “The ‘Lucas critique’ is a criticism of econometric policy evaluation procedures that fail to recognize that optimal decision rules of economic agents vary systematically with changes in policy.” In other words, individuals within the economy are able to anticipate changing events, including government decisions, and can mitigate the impacts of those events when compared to continuing with the status quo. Kahn puts great faith in the Chicago School premise that individuals can readily adapt to all conditions without government or collective decisions.
However, Kahn ignores two important points. First, he misses the distributional focus of the study, and instead focuses on the overall efficiency gains from the net changes. That’s not the point of the study. We can see on example that land can’t be moved from one county to another, so landowners can’t adapt in anticipation of climate change without significant investment to protect their land. Homeowners will lose value in their homes, and others will find their asset value stranded. Sure, the overall economy will adapt and certain counties may gain enough to offset those losses, but residents within the net loss counties will be worse off. Economics for too long has focused solely on net gains without parsing the impacts and considering how to manage better outcomes for the losers. (I see this failure as one aspect of dissatisfaction driving Trump voters–which brings me to my second point.)
And second, if the Lucas Critique was truly valid, coal miners in Appalachia would have long abandoned their towns as they saw the decline of coal, and the need to satisfy West Virginia coal miners would not be driving national policy today. Instead, we see that people are myopic and these changes are likely to have significant consequences.