The only thing we can be sure of about the future is that it will be absolutely fantastic. So if what I say now seems to you to be very reasonable, then I have failed completely. Only if what I tell you appears absolutely unbelievable, have we any chance of visualizing the future as it really will happen.

- Arthur C. Clarke (h/t Brin)

Monday, September 13, 2010

The Breakthrough Idea

The thing is that the Breakthrough people and their allies, among whom one must include Lomborg and Pielke Jr. at this point (and I'm betting on Kloor to line up real soon), are not asking for the technologically impossible. They are asking merely for the technologically possible at an economically impossible cheap price.

This really makes mindbogglingly little sense to me.

If carbon "costs" more in dollars such that clean energy is therefore competitive, vs. clean energy costing less via pixie dust, all that happens outside the energy sector is that energy costs more.

This leads to a balance between 1) a larger proportion of activity dedicated to acquiring energy 2) improved energy efficiency and 3) exactly the innovation which was wanted in the pixie dust strategy. It's too bad that this is morally equivalent to a Stalinist nightmare for reasons which continue to escape me, because otherwise it actually looks like a perfectly sound right-wing solution: account for externalities and coax the market to do the right thing.

I mean, you still get to look for the pixie dust! If it's really out there, a cost on carbon pretty much means somebody will find it. And if it's not out there, we do not all face a stupid, avoidable cataclysm.

Am I missing something? Aside from the Stalin thing, I mean?

We already have the technology. All the Breakthrough people are trying to do is negotiate with Nature over price. But Nature doesn't haggle. (Because, you know, of her monopoly position and all.)

Breakthrough thinking basically amounts to an idea that if we delay action on climate forcing, the price will go down. It's clear that at some point, if we delay too long, the price will start to go up. The argument is only whether we have passed that point.

I'd say it isn't even a close call anymore.

But it's an interesting question. If economics made any sense there would be an objective way to estimate this; it's a totally objective question if you have an objective definition of cost. If it's not too late to procrastinate yet, when will it be? How long should we wait for a price breakthrough that might not happen?

29 comments:

David B. Benson said...

Don't wait.

Tax fossil carbon now.

Patrick said...

The Enviromental Defense Fund has a nice summary of the history of the cap and trade provisions of Title IV of the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments. In particular they outline the fact that despite the critiques which were offered both by the polluters and by some enviromentalist that the program would fail to acheive its goals and/or be prohibitively expensive it was in fact one of the great success stories of the period. It is also worth noting that it was a Clinton whitehouse victory, and that the costs were less than a third of what had been originally predicted, once again according to the EDF outline.

What do you make of this list of folks who voted Nay or abstained from voting?

Nay votes - 10
Byrd (D-WV)
Dixon (D-IL)
Garn (R-UT)
Glenn (D-OH)
Hatch (R-UT)
Helms (R-NC)
McClure (R-ID)
Rockefeller (D-WV)
Simon (D-IL)
Symms (R-ID)

Not Voting - 1
Hatfield (R-OR)

Patrick said...

To clarify, the Environmental Defense Fund does not relate the history of the debate regarding the amendment of the Clean Air Act, rather they outline how very well it worked.

http://www.edf.org/page.cfm?tagID=1085

The relevance to control of CO2 and other GHGs seems clear enough.

manuel "moe" g said...

I apologize for the long comment. Feel free to delete it, Michael. The link to my own blog is http://manuelmoeg.blogspot.com/2010/09/selling-fantasies-breakthrough.html if you care to indulge.

manuel "moe" g said...

Breakthrough Institute works like the Copy Protection technology wizards selling their tech to record companies. It cannot work, because the pirates will always find a workaround towards copy protection - you are merely punishing your customers and training them to be pirates when they try to use your product in convenient ways. The Copy Protection technology wizards are not selling a working solution - because a solution is impossible - they are selling a pleasant fantasy to the record companies in the few years their business model has left.

People do not confine themselves to buying working products. Sometimes they will purchase fantasies. Look at the exercise gizmos that people buy from TV.

The Breakthrough Institute doesn't have to provide solutions that work - it will provide fantasies that it can sell. So lets try and figure out who their customers are.

If you are in the top 0.5% of incomes, you are intelligent and you may be slightly distressed that your great grandchildren will be born into a boiling world (when you can be bothered to consider the issue). You have the ability to direct funding, and in these few years before the climate disruption really hits human agriculture and infrastructure, you are in the market for fantasies, sold to you by the semi-knowledgeable folk (who are probably sincere, because their confidence in their tech solutions surpasses their scientific capabilities). That is what people like the Breakthrough Institute are selling. For example, Warren Buffet doesn't consider himself a bad person, and he cares for his grandchildren. But he has also made a huge bet on coal transport infrastructure. He would love to support the Breakthrough Institute by some means, to reconcile his position on the responsibility of environmental stewardship for future generations.

"The Breakthrough Institute, a project of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, Inc." lets you know about the customers they are after. How did good ol' John D. make is money?

Lets predict their structure. They will rarely speak in absolute moral terms - they will never flatly state that it is craven to leave future generations a boiling world just because a handful of generations could not bare to lower their standard of living. The absolute moral issues will always be left unspoken. Those that talk about the moral issues will be marginalized as "un-serious" or "alarmist".

They will strive to distance themselves from the worst of the denialists. Pielke Jr and Fuller practically fell over their own feet trying to run away from Virginia State Attorney General Cuccinelli. But they will take "warmist" commentators that have a record of limiting themselves to the published science, like Romm, and equate them with denialists that spout off bat-shit nonsense - even thought the implication of equivalence is ridiculous. But you will know them by their actions, because they will spend most of their energy arguing against those with the clearest grasp of the facts, and moral issues, and political challenges.

It is the foolish "moderate" position of shifting your stance a few inches when you are standing on tracks, freight train coming. The half measure doesn't leave you just half-dead.

All you can do is make the case to ethical decision makers that they are being sold a bill of goods, by comparing the statements and techniques and rhetorical stances of the Breakthrough Institute to bunglers that stood in the way of decisions of moral courage, and the weavers of the Emperors New Clothes. These are the "moderate" apologists for moral failures - like those who stood in the way of eradicating slavery, or were the audience for the Letter from a Birmingham Jail, or were willing to negotiate with Hitler, or were willing to overlook Stalin's crimes. In all these cases, you could find "moderates" that participated in moral failures, and argued for positions with shabby facts and shabby rhetorical devices.

EliRabett said...

You forgot to add that the breakthrough is scheduled to come just in time.

Michael Tobis said...

Moe, bits are cheap, ideas are precious.

You are welcome here anytime.

Michael Tobis said...

Patrick, there is nothing wrong with cap and trade in principle.

That doesn't mean there was nothing wrong with Waxman-Markey.

Any bill with zero Republican support on this matter is worthless as it will eventually be reversed, but Waxman-Markey (rather as a consequence of the lack of Republican support, forcing too many deals to have to be cut among marginal Democrats) was a mess on its own account.

Like it or not, the fate of the entire world seems to come down to either winning over a quarter of the republicans or making their party irrelevant to the economic activity of the US. Neither prospect looks good in the necessary time frame.

So, we march onward to our stupid doom.

I'm not disappointed that Waxman failed; relieved in fact. I thought its failure was the silver lining of the disasters of the last year.

I'm not even mad at Obama for snubbing McKibben last week. He hasn't got the capital to waste on some antique Jimmy Carter solar panel. Nor am I mad at McKibben for making the dumb move; nobody has thought of any smart ones.

The problem is that there is no social connection between science and society. Nor between city and country, which is worse. So someone like Obama seems to your random redneck like an invader from Mars.

They actually miss W. Really.

The worst president imaginable, the man who made us nostalgic for Nixon, and they miss him. Why?

Because they wouldn't have any idea what to say to Obama at a barbecue!

(I haven't become Texan enough that this applies to me, by the way. I'd rather be alone than with W by a long shot. I'd love to bend Obama's stuck-out ears for as long as he'd let me. Anyway I don't think spinning a good Texas yarn is actually a requirement for the presidency, though LBJ was the real deal in that regard, and I find myself nostalgic for him, too.)

Anyway this is not stupidity. It is misplaced blame and confusion and fear hiding behind bluster and posturing. People's emotions are in overdrive, and they are swamped with confusion and misinformation.

Climate is just part of the problem. But we've past the point where the costs of climate change will be sporadic.

Now it's just a matter of whether and when we can manage to stop making them worse without running the train off the rails in some other face-palmingly stupid way.

Steve Bloom said...

Michael, I thought it was crystal clear that Kloor was on board with the Breakthrough Boys. And let's not forget Revkin.

Moe, Rockefeller is the BTI fiscal sponsor; the main funder throughout has been the Nathan Cummings Foundation. By itself the fiscal sponsorship doesn't mean much,although it may well in this instance.

Michael Tobis said...

Revkin makes it a point of pride not to have a public position of his own.

Kloor may also try to maintain that posture. He got awfully ticked once when I suggested he was advancing a position of his own, as if that were an accusation in itself.

I think this is some sort of North American journalistic "ethic". It's become an awfully shabby charade as so many prominent people drift off into lunacy, but there it is.

But they are natural stealth advocates for the Breakthrough boys and their sensible middle betwixt sense and nonsense, to be sure.

Neither duck nor non-duck forever!

William T said...

Ah, but you don't understand... pure market philosophy means that if the market hasn't put a price premium on carbon then it must "know" that there isn't going to be a problem with future cheap technologies. The market incorporates all economically relevant information and ipso facto must therefore be right. Using scientific arguments to call for the addition of carbon levies will only distort the market away from its pure state, and we all know where that slippery slope leads...

And if that argument won't convince anyone, then there's always "It's complicated. You idealists never understand that we need to be pragmatic."

Steve Bloom said...

There are two other elements to their basic argument:

1) People will simply refuse to deal adequately with the problem in a direct sense, and of course everyone likes pixie dust.

2) Yes, mitigation will be more difficult in the future than in the present, but our descendants will be so much richer they'll be able to afford it easily. (This is a little different from saying the price will go down, although maybe just rhetorically.)

The fundamental flaws in their approach IMHO:

1) Without referring to carbon it's impossible to know how much pixie dust is enough, and we end up pursuing only the cheap and esay stuff. If we refer to carbon, we've said we prefer technology development even to mitigation steps that are more effective or even cheaper, which is nonsense.

2) Turning the ship of global society sufficiently is a horrendously hard task, which we are still in the early stages of. An unavoidable stage is the one where the resistance becomes focused, and I think we're at the beginnings of that now. Abandoning the direct approach (which of course must include many pixie dust-like carrots along with the sticks) because of the resistance met so far in favor of pixie dust imagines that the problem is smaller than it really is, or can be made so by taking a different approach.

And of course the boyz are big self-promoters who would be lost in the crowd if they weren't pushing some hot new idea.

Marlowe Johnson said...

Not sure it's necessary to get into a discussion about motives.

IMO what we see here is a disagreement over tactics given current political conditions in the US.

Even if you take the BTI position at face value, I have yet to see a coherent argument that demonstrates why it would have a better chance of success politically than C&T or cabon taxes or direct regulations (e.g. EPA).

Roger keeps telling me that it's in his book (heard that one before)...

Patrick said...

"Any bill with zero Republican support on this matter is worthless as it will eventually be reversed, but Waxman-Markey (rather as a consequence of the lack of Republican support, forcing too many deals to have to be cut among marginal Democrats) was a mess on its own account.

Like it or not, the fate of the entire world seems to come down to either winning over a quarter of the republicans or making their party irrelevant to the economic activity of the US. Neither prospect looks good in the necessary time frame."

My attitude has been that any law which would begin the turn about of our world and result in any real sustainable reduction in emmisions would be welcome. Any thing that started us in the right direction would be a cause for wonderment.

For the moment we continue on our stupid march toward an unhappy future.

Michael Tobis said...

I had enough sympathy for the point of view Patrick expresses to shut up during the Waxman-Markey debate, but honestly, I was actually quite relieved when it was defeated.

There are steps in the right direction that end up going down blind alleys. Any victory for climate that rides on the back of any reversible swing of a social ideology pendulum is not worthwhile.

Slavery is over. Empire is over. Monarchy is over. Short term thinking about the environment must end just as totally and clearly. As long as it's just a political football, the score will shift and any apparent progress will be undone.

It's not the defeat of Waxman that was the big disaster of the last year. It was the utter politicization of the issue.

William T said...

Actually Michael, slavery is not over, and monarchy is not over - in many parts of the world - notably, several of the countries most tied in to the "oil economy". Just think of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and their ongoing support for continued US consumption of cheap oil.

Also, I don't think that "the fate of the entire world seems to come down to either winning over a quarter of the republicans or making their party irrelevant to the economic activity of the US".

The US is steadily becoming less relevant to the global climate response. Sure it still emits a disproportionate amount of CO2, but on present trends it is soon going to lose its position as being able to dominate international efforts. It is easy enough to envisage a time not to far in the future when Europe has put in place significant non-carbon energy infrastructure, China has become a powerhouse of cheap solar and wind manufacturing, and together they say "ok, here are the targets for CO2 emissions per person. if you don't reach them we tariff your trade." The way that the US is headed, it is hard to see it being able to resist a co-ordinated Europe / China push for change. Especially if the economy there is still hugely dependent on imported oil ... (which, getting back to peak oil, seems likely to start becoming more difficult to get hold of in the near future. No wonder the KSA is rushing out to buy billions of dollars of military equipment while it can...)

Anna Haynes said...

Writing style feedback: IMO this post covers an important topic but would cover the topic better with fewer "this", "that", "it", "vs."...

(i.e., it's only reader-friendly for those readers who already know what you're talking about; which means I'm not sure I should send it to my friend who needs to read it.)

David B. Benson said...

Now recite the hard, hard Laws of Thermodynamics.

Ain't gonna be no breakthoughs, boys, sorry about that.

William T said...

China is already playing to win - http://www.huffingtonpost.com/james-p-hoffa/china-needs-to-stop-playi_b_714998.html - get your act together or it's game over for the US hegemony...

Michael Tobis said...

People underestimate how central the US economy is to the world now. It has a very long way to fall.

This was a real eye-opener for me.

Michael Tobis said...

Anna, yes, sometimes I write for a broad audience and sometimes I write just so I won't forget what I am thinking, for the in crowd. This was definitely in the latter category.

What you want to do is stay tuned for the book.

William T said...

"The trend is your friend" as they say. Or not, if you're on the other side. As the Huffington piece says, and this NYT article reports, the US is already struggling to defend itself against carbon-reduction iniatives from China and Europe. Its economy is massively indebted and on a downward trend in relation to the rest of the world, and therefore its ability to influence future global efforts is declining.

Being from Texas, you no doubt appreciate that the power of the US throughout the 20th century was based on its dominance of the oil economy. The US has used every trick in the trade to assert the global power of its oil-based industries and maintain its hegemony. However it seems that these industries have so much power that they are now thwarting the ability of the US to redirect its economy to a post-carbon energy base. As the links point out, the tables are beginning to turn, and the ability of the US to force other countries to accept its choices is fast coming to an end. My prediction is that in a few years the US will effectively be forced to reduce its emissions because otherwise it will face sanctions by Europe and China. One can imagine the tea party outrage then...

Michael Tobis said...

"My prediction is that in a few years the US will effectively be forced to reduce its emissions because otherwise it will face sanctions by Europe and China."

Something like that may work out. I have thought of that too. But I'm not optimistic.

I am not convinced the Chinese will do this any time soon. I think everybody is happy for the Chinese and the US to blame each other and thereby kick the can a bit down the road.

And nobody wants to kick the US over yet even if it were possible. I think we've got decades unless something (climate?) gets badly out of control.

But I agree, any hope for the US to be a major power by 2100 was ruined by W. And like the Russians and the Brits, it will take some people a long time to understand and accept that.

I am not so sure anybody is in ascendancy right now. The Chinese are hopelessly entangled with the US. India is incorrigible. Africa is a disaster. Europe is unambitious. Brasil? Mexico?

William T said...

Michael, I don't think your chart of data traffic means what you suggest it means. It only shows how US-based traffic gets around the world.

As for geopolitics and trade, there are many ways that could play out. It seems that the US is painting itself into a corner though with its reluctance to confront the end of the oil era (whether that is primarily due to "peak-oil" or "climate change" issues). If other countries are pro-actively developing post-carbon economic power then the US will inevitably lose influence.

As to the trade "entanglement" between China and the US, I imagine it will continue, but in a different form. Where else are you going to buy all those solar panels and wind generators from when the crunch comes?

Patrick said...

William T makes the point:

"The US is steadily becoming less relevant to the global climate response. Sure it still emits a disproportionate amount of CO2, but on present trends it is soon going to lose its position as being able to dominate international efforts."

I do not see it this way. My reasons are simple.

US emissions are about 19 tonnes carbon dioxide per capita. Chinese emissions are about 4.6 tonnes per capita. Both as of 2006 according to the US Department of Energy CDIAC.

Chinese emissions were 7217.7 megatonne per year as of 2005 according to the World Resources Institute. USA at the same time had emissions of 6948.20 megatonne per year.

The advantage that America has is that its energy use is wastefull (for lack of a better term) in terms of CO2 emissions for the advantages gained when compared to many European countries. Germany has a 9.7 tonne emission rate per capita. France is at 5.8. Sweeden is at 5.1.

We have room to improve. In doing so we can not save the world, but without us acting it is unlikely that we (the world) will be able to stabalize atmospheric greenhouse gas levels.

There is a moral burden for us to do so.

Oale said...

Worth repeating:
Steve Bloom:
"1) Without referring to carbon it's impossible to know how much pixie dust is enough,..."

And how would this so called 'pixie dust' affect the birds and other stuff on the planet??

William T said...

Patrick. You are right, but my point is that the US if losing its ability to impose its choice on the international community. When other major countries are imposing their "carbon reduction" and "green technology" agendas on world trade, the US is going to have to accept them, because it is no longer in a position to "set the agenda" as was the case in the latter half of the 20th century.

My point was to balance MTs assertion that the fate of the world hinges on a few Rebublicans. I am simply saying that their influence on the "fate of the world" is ending because of the ongoing decline in US influence.

Indeed, if they do gain US power this November and inhibit the US transition to a "post-carbon" economy, then they're probably (in my view) quickening that ultimate decline.

Of course, it's true that an isolationist and aggressive US could still do huge damage to the world's environment, if it chooses to go that way rather than "submit" to pressure for change from other countries.

Michael Tobis said...

Aye, there's the rub.

The red state rural hoi polloi are the sweetest, kindest folk you could imagine, at least if you can pass for white. (I am a master of dialect. I have no problem.)

And in Texas (and some other parts of the deep south), they are fun-loving and charming and funny. (I think all the fun somehow drained out of Missouri and Kansas, drizzled through Oklahoma, and ended up here.)

But they are confused beyond belief, victims of exactly the Aldous Huxley dystopia, not the Orwellian one. And they demonstrably can be confused, all well-intentioned, into ridiculous actions based on their confused beliefs. The picture is not a pretty one at all.

rustneversleeps said...

"You can either take action, or you can hang back and hope for a miracle. Miracles are great, but they are so unpredictable." - Peter Drucker