Let’s talk about a little place called Aassspen. Jared Polis, member of Congress from Boulder and a Democratic candidate for governor of Colorado, touts a “bold goal of 100% renewable energy” in the state by 2040. Surely Colorado can do it, he suggests on his campaign page, given that Colorado’s own Aspen “became the third city in the country to already achieve 100% renewable.”
The climate apocalypse is coming now that Donald Trump has stepped the United States away from the Paris climate agreement, if we believe some critics. Never mind that compliance was voluntary and that, at least absent tighter controls in the future, the agreement was unlikely to have much effect on global temperature increases by 2100.
The effects of continued industrial emissions of carbon dioxide—and what (if anything) governments should do about it—are important discussions. Unfortunately, those discussions frequently are derailed by nonsense economic claims by some advocates of “climate action” that throttling fossil fuels and subsidizing solar and wind energy somehow deliver an economic boon rather than a painful cost. Continue reading “The Nonsense Economics of “Climate Action””
Rather than pursue command-and-control industrial planning, governments should unshackle energy producers and, possibly, recognize property rights in carbon emissions.
Governments can approach the potential harms of climate change caused by carbon dioxide emissions in three general ways. It can take no direct action but unshackle energy producers and private organizations to take whatever actions they deem appropriate; it can treat carbon emissions as a type of property right; or it can engage in Soviet-style micromanaging of the economy, complete with national and international subsidies and industrial planning.
The command-and-control approach is the worst possible one. So of course that’s the one governments currently are pursuing in Paris. To the extent the United States pursues the agreement, we can expect the federal government to subsidize hopelessly infeasible forms of energy; to confiscate wealth from U.S. citizens to subsidize corrupt foreign governments; and to throttle producers and consumers of fossil fuels through bureaucratically imposed regulations. The result is that government will slow economic growth relative to what it could and should be, and we will be poorer for it.
There’s a lot to be said for the “do nothing” approach—which really means that government should get out of the way and let innovators innovate. Simple economics dictates that people will stop burning fossil fuels when they can get cheaper electricity from other sources. Except in special circumstances (such as where a large river can be dammed), the only feasible way to get inexpensive, large-scale energy is via nuclear power, as far as I see. Arguably, but for government throttling the development of nuclear power, we’d already live in a mostly emissions-free world.
Of course, in a free society, private organizations also are free to fund research of their choosing; to engage in public education campaigns; to buy up mineral rights for conservation purposes; and so on.
Although I cannot at present offer anything other than a tentative sketch of the proposal, I’m also interested in the possibility of treating carbon emissions as a type of property right. (Please note that my views in this area are tentative and subject to change.)
Obviously we already deal with other types of pollution via property rights. For example, I can emit a certain amount of odors and toxins from my property (such as a certain amount of smoke from fires), but beyond a certain amount my emissions interfere with my neighbors’ use of their property. We handle many kinds of pollutants, ranging from toxins to noise to light, via property rights. I see no reason, in principle, why this could not be extended to carbon emissions.
Of course, it is an open question whether increased emissions actually will cause substantial harm, relative to the clear and immediate harm of throttling energy production. Matt Ridley argues that slightly warmer average temperatures might even be beneficial on net. In his book The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels, Alex Epstein argues that the effects of carbon emissions are “decelerating” and “logarithmic,” meaning that the more carbon dioxide we emit, the less additional impact each unit of emissions has.
But, for a moment, let’s assume that the mildly alarmist view of climate change is correct, and that if we more than roughly double our total cumulative carbon dioxide emissions, we’ll get ourselves into some serious trouble. As Ronald Bailey explains, the typical thinking along these lines is that “humanity has already used up 515 billion tons of its carbon budget, which means that there’s only 485 billion tons left.” (Bailey further explains that to “get carbon dioxide equivalents, multiply by 3.67.”)
If it could be objectively proven that total emissions of (let’s round) 500 billion tons of additional carbon is the most we could safely handle (and that’s a big “if”), then one obvious approach would be to recognize property rights in that amount of emissions, if the legalities of such could be worked out (another big “if”).
It’s unclear to me how governments should pursue a property rights regimen in this area, or if it can even be done. But one hypothetical possibility would be to simply give each living person one equal share of the emissions. The problems of enforcing such a thing globally are enormous, but the matter potentially could be handled through treaty. If such a thing were possible, obviously the result would be the immediate creation of a market by which energy producers bought up rights to emit. In practice, producers in the U.S. and in other wealthier regions would pay out individuals (not governments) in poorer regions, resulting in higher fuel costs at home.
Notice that one result of a property rights system in carbon emissions would be that some people would think seriously about how to “farm” emissions. For example, if I could remove a billion tons of carbon from the atmosphere, I could sell the right to emit that much to a producer of fossil fuels. I haven’t looked into the science of this, but my guess is that it would be a lot better to use solar energy to suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere so that we can burn more cheap coal.
Notice also how a property rights system would result in market innovation that government regulators otherwise would squash. For example, the current government strategy is simply to outlaw coal. But, in a property rights system, it might make sense to burn coal in a cleaner plant.
The broader point is, government planners cannot possibly know the best ways to generate energy and control carbon emissions, and they’re extremely likely to direct funds and regulatory controls to favor the politically powerful.
Here’s another wrinkle that could be built into a property rights plan, to handle the uncertainty of future problems. Let’s consider one possible scenario. We could say that we’re going to burn through another 200 billion tons of carbon without limits, then check to see what the results are. If the results are milder than expected, then we could ditch or revise the property rights rules as needed. On the other hand, if the first 200 billion additional tons of carbon strongly indicated that 500 billion total tons is indeed the responsible limit, then we could implement property rights for the additional 300 billion tons.
Again, what I’m offering here is merely a sketch. I don’t know if property rights in carbon emissions can be sustained in legal theory or as a practical matter of international politics. But what is clear is that the command-and-control approach will be disastrous. Certainly government should unshackle energy producers and other innovators. That alone may resolve the problem. Beyond that, a property rights approach is the only other potential strategy that governments should pursue—if it can be established that such can be practically established within the boundaries of justice.
Water flows on Mars, NASA announced September 28. “Using an imaging spectrometer on [the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter], researchers detected signatures of hydrated minerals on slopes,” NASA reports. I first heard about this surface water from an August 19 video from Comic-Con (see minute 9:40), in which NASA representatives discuss Mars and The Martian film; some evidence for this water has been around for several years.
This is huge news with respect to potential human missions to Mars as well as to the potential for discovering life on Mars.
But how did Mars get so dry in the first place, and what does that phenomenon teach us about Earth?
I was somewhat amused to read the following Tweet: “‘Mars suffered climate change and lost its surface water.’ There are words to scare the s**t out of all living humans.” I agree with that sentiment, but not for the reasons the Tweeter presumably had in mind.
What the Tweeter probably thought was something like this: “Mars experienced climate change that would have been catastrophic for any life present and that likely prevented new life from developing. Earth, too, is experiencing some climate change, largely because of human activity, and this could lead to catastrophic results such as we see on Mars.”
Obviously, such a take on Martian climate change is a little silly. Mars lost almost all of its greenhouse gasses; Earth is gaining greenhouse gases. (Due mostly to human activity, carbon dioxide has risen from around 300 parts per million of the atmosphere, or 0.03 percent of the atmosphere, to 400 parts per million, or 0.04 percent.) Outside the realm of pure fantasy, not even the most hysterically alarmist predictions about Earth’s climate change predict a future remotely as dire as what happened on Mars.
But the extreme changes on Mars do offer a warning to humans. We’ll come back to that.
First, let’s review in brief what happened on Mars. As the geography of Mars makes evident, water once flowed in great abundance on Mars. But then Mars lost most of its atmosphere and the oceans boiled away. Why? Apparently Mars just didn’t have enough mass to hang on to its air, especially given the violence of meteor impacts, and the atmosphere dissipated. (Another theory I’d heard, that Mars’s weak magnetic field allowed solar winds to blow off the atmosphere, appears not to be much of a factor.)
The main lesson of Martian climate change, then, is that for the most part the universe is extremely hostile to life, and even places most hospitable to life may not stay that way. If life evolved on Mars, it was either killed off or driven underground by purely natural causes.
The Earth is not magically immune from such potential natural catastrophes. Indeed, less-severe natural catastrophes, ranging from earthquakes to hurricanes to volcanic eruptions, happen fairly routinely. Asteroid collisions have dramatically impacted the evolution of life on Earth—and a sufficiently large asteroid could destroy all life on Earth. At one point, humanity “damn near went extinct” due to an ice age likely caused by a supervolcano.
The lesson I take from this is that, to ensure the survival and expansion of our species long-term, humans absolutely must colonize space—and Mars is a great place to begin.
I want us to have a self-sufficient, human population somewhere other than Earth, because, twenty-five years of being a computer programmer has taught me the value of backing things up. And, as long as our entire species is on one planet, we risk extinction. It’s not very likely, but it could happen. It could be plague, it could be a war, it could be a meteor strike or something like that. But, if we’re on two planets, it is practically impossible for us to die.
Similarly, in Welcome to Mars, Buzz Aldrin writes, “The pioneers who settle Mars will . . . ensure the long-term survival of life in our solar system. Earth faces challenges. If there were a disaster, Mars would give us a place to get resources or to make a new home” (p. 6).
Speaking of climate change, Aldrin has some intriguing ideas for pursuing human-made climate change on Mars:
Giant mirrors in orbit could direct . . . sunshine to heat Mars’s polar ice caps. A temperature increase of just a few degrees would thaw the carbon dioxide frozen there. . . . As the temperature rises, more carbon dioxide is released. . . . If the mirrors aren’t enough, we can knock an asteroid out of its orbit to slam into Mars. Some asteroids are rich in ammonia, another greenhouse gas. An impact would produce a lot more heat and carbon dioxide, too. Once it is warm enough for water on the surface, plants can grow. (pp. 88–89)
I’m not sure how well that would work long-term, especially given Mars’s apparent difficulty keeping its atmosphere. But, one way or another, humans can make Mars hospitable to life.
Sure, human activity brings with it certain risks, harms, and trade-offs. But these risks are nothing compared to the risks of humans not acting to expand and improve human life on Earth and, eventually, beyond.
People living in the world’s poorest regions “desperately need cheap sources of energy now to fuel the economic growth that lifts families out of poverty. They can’t afford today’s expensive clean energy solutions, and we can’t expect them wait for the technology to get cheaper,” Bill Gates said recently. Alex Epstein discusses Gates’s remarks and their context in a recent article for Forbes. Epstein discusses the issue at length and summarizes his own view: “Life has gotten much better in poor countries with massively increased fossil fuel use.”
Gates also believes that “we” (by which I suppose he means government) should invest in research to “make fossil fuels cleaner and make clean energy cheaper than any fossil fuel.” I oppose government forcibly seizing wealth for the purpose, but obviously private R&D can be great. Gates himself is funding research into nuclear energy.
As Amanda Maxham writes for the Ayn Rand Institute, some anti-GMO activists have called for the murder of scientists who conduct, and of writers who support, genetic engineering of plants. Maxham also discusses environmentalists who advocate population control. In a 2012 interview with me for the Objective Standard, Robert Zubrin aptly characterizes such environmentalist attitudes as a “scourge of antihumanism.” And recently I discussed an environmentalist plan to engineer humans as a way to reduce their “carbon footprints.” So, for environmentalists, apparently it’s not okay to engineer food for human benefit, but it is okay to engineer human beings for the sake of the “environment.”
My grandfather Theo Eversol was a peach farmer in Palisade, Colorado. When I saw him spray his orchards in the 1970s and 1980s with pesticides, he wore protective gear. But back in the 1950s he didn’t wear protective gear, at least judging from a ca. 1953 film about the Palisade peach industry that’s archived online by the Palisade Sunrise Rotary. The film shows my grandfather spraying DDT out of a hose on the back of a tractor, wearing nothing but regular clothing. The images shown are captured from that film.
Today no one doubts that spraying DDT without protective gear is not a great idea health-wise. But, given mosquitos are the world’s most deadly creature, killing some 725,000 people each year, I can’t help but think that widespread bans of DDT (previously used to kill mosquitos, among other things) has killed untold millions of human beings over the years.
The peach film is remarkable for many other reasons besides its depiction of pesticide control. A lot of things have changed since then, but in many ways the industry is similar to the way it was back then.
The Objective Standard just published my article, “The Environmentalists’ War on People,” about an environmentalist plan to “engineer” people to reduce their carbon footprints (also their literal footprints). As I write, “It’s as though the paper’s authors read the dystopian novels of the 20th century such as Brave New World and adapted them as a blueprint for their environmentalist agenda.” Among the proposals are drugging or otherwise manipulating people to make them hate meat and to make fetuses smaller. The Ayn Rand Institute published an article on the same subject.