Warming World Makes for Strange Bedfellows

by Bill Chameides | December 10th, 2009
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

Permalink | 6 comments

How on earth do these polar opposite personalities agree on wanting the international climate talks to fail? I think I might know.

Sarah Palin, the former GOP VP contender from Alaska, and James Hansen, a climate scientist with NASA, agree: Copenhagen should fail. (See here and here.) Crazy.

We all know all about Sarah Palin, former vice presidential candidate, ex-governor of Alaska, newly minted best-selling author (she currently tops Amazon’s and the New York Times‘ bestseller lists), and the darling of the Republican Party’s ultra-pure conservative bloc.

James Hansen is not quite so famous: he’s the outspoken NASA climate scientist who sounded the global warming alarm way back in 1988.

The two could not be more different when it comes to their thoughts on climate and energy.

Polar Opposite Viewpoints

Palin accepts that the globe is warming, sort of, but maintains that the warmer temperatures are due to “natural cycles.” It’s not clear how she came to that conclusion. No doubt from an extensive reading of the scientific literature. (Maybe in her next TV interview someone will ask her which climate journals she reads.)

Palin also believes that fossil fuels are fundamental to our nation’s economic security and opposes anything that discourages their exploitation — and that, of course, includes climate legislation.

James Hansen on the other hand has spent much of his career uncovering the scientific evidence that global warming is not a natural cycle but a phenomenon driven by human activities and specifically the emissions of carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels.

Over the years, his warnings of an impending climate disaster have become increasingly dire. He is now the intellectual leader of a group of climate scientists who believe that to avoid dangerous climate change, atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations must be decreased to 350 parts per million.

Hansen is against building any new coal-fired power plants and was even arrested in West Virginia at a protest rally against mountaintop removal coal-mining in June 2009. (See video of his, actress Darryl Hannah’s, et al. arrest.)

Polar Opposites Warm to Same Position With Opposing Reasons

Night and day, right? Not when it comes to Copenhagen. Both Palin and Hansen have publicly expressed hopes that the international climate talks currently underway will fail.

For Palin, the science on climate simply does not justify adopting an international agreement that will almost inevitably be followed by domestic legislation. Such government interference, as she might characterize it, would hurt business and economic growth.

Palin opines that “the last thing America needs is misguided legislation that will raise taxes and cost jobs — particularly when the push for such legislation rests on agenda-driven science.” She suggests that the “president should boycott Copenhagen.”

I suppose that in her ideal world, following Copenhagen, America would double-down on our dependence on fossil fuels and place our faith in the good offices of the gods who control “natural climate cycles” and the Middle Eastern sheiks who control the international supply of petroleum.

In Hansen’s case the issue is not the science (he knows only too well the strength of the scientific evidence) but the solution: cap and trade.

While Palin argues that such a system would be disastrous for American businesses, Hansen argues that a cap-and-trade system would be a business bonanza. Cap and trade, he argues, will do “little to slow global warming or reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. It merely allows polluters and Wall Street traders to fleece the public out of billions of dollars.”

In Hansen’s ideal world, failure at Copenhagen will send cap-and-traders packing and the United States along with the rest of the world will turn to carbon taxes.

His favorite solution is a “fee and dividend” proposal where “a gradually rising carbon fee would be collected at the mine or port of entry for each fossil fuel [e.g., coal, oil, and gas] … [and] then … distributed to the public.” The fee would raise the price of carbon-intensive goods and thus discourage their use.

The problem with Hansen’s idea, like the problem with all carbon-tax approaches, is that it does not guarantee a reduction in carbon emissions. Only a cap can do that.

The ratcheting down of emissions is especially difficult for things like gasoline, where we have found that demand is rather insensitive to price. For tax approaches to work, we need legislators with enough moxie to impose significant tax levels and not buckle under consumer pressure to pull back.

Would our Congressional reps be able to toe the line when they are perceived as being responsible for keeping gasoline prices at $4 or $5 per gallon — the necessary price that’s been found to discourage gas guzzlers? The advantage of a cap and trade is that it allows, through trading, for the economy to find the most cost-effective ways to lower emissions.

A Mental Health Issue

At first I found the Palin and Hansen op-eds puzzling. How could two polar opposites be united in their desire to see the world fail to reach agreement on global warming — especially with such high risks, as Hansen understands, at stake?

But then I came across an editorial [pdf] in Psychological Medicine by Lisa Page and Louise Howard of the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College, London. Page and Howard write that “some of the most important health consequences of climate change will be on mental health.”

These psychological effects, the authors argue, can be a direct consequence of climate change (e.g., a natural disaster) or an indirect consequence of the stresses caused by climate change (e.g., economic downturns or migrations caused by climate disruptions). The authors note that “some have postulated that the knowledge of man-made climate change could in itself have adverse effects on individual psychological well-being.”

And then I got it. Why are Palin and Hansen allied in such opposition to a viable solution coming out of Copenhagen? Simple. Global warming is making the world go mad.

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  1. Marcus
    Dec 10, 2009

    “The problem with Hansen’s idea, like the problem with all carbon-tax approaches, is that it does not guarantee a reduction in carbon emissions. Only a cap can do that” I would phrase this differently: a carbon tax does not guarantee a specific quantity of emissions. However, assuming that markets work at all (and I say this as a strong believer in market imperfections), then a carbon tax cannot help but lead to _some_ reductions, and, as the previous commenter noted, in some cases a carbon tax can lead to more reductions than a cap. Especially in a world that tends to overestimate costs of reductions – people are doing their best to set a cap level based on what price they consider acceptable, and my guess is that the actual price will end up being less than the calculated price. Having said that, I think it is more important that we get a price signal soon, that we can then improve upon, than that we wait for the perfect policy.

    • Travis
      Dec 13, 2009

      The only way we get prices (price signals) that are meaningful, e.g., sustainable, is from the voluntary exchanges of private property. The notion that bean-counters in government or academia can divine the right price of anything should be recognized as absurd. Read Mises on the calculation problem and Hayek on the information problem for a beter understanding of the role price and private property plays in the allocation of any good or service. Cap and trade or carbon taxes will be destructive because no one knows, not even Pigou (I know he is deceased), knows the correct price. Travis Travis

      • Bill Chameides
        Dec 15, 2009

        Travis, The whole point to cap and trade is that the price of carbon is determined by the marketplace not by the “bean counters.”

  2. Peter G
    Dec 10, 2009

    Part of Hansen’s argument against a carbon cap is that caps in fact create a floor, below which emissions are not likely to fall, and the caps under discussion now allow far too much emissions according to Hansen’s calculations. Fee-and-dividend on the other hand unleashes market incentives for businesses and consumers to prefer lower carbon technologies, efficiencies, and behaviors. It also addresses MattN’s comment about imports, because it would be applied to the embodied emissions in foreign goods brought into the US.

    • Bill Chameides
      Dec 10, 2009

      Peter: A tax establishes neither a ceiling nor a floor, and therein lies the problem. And most economists will tell you that cap and trade is actually more effective in “unleashing market incentives.” Finally, import of embodied emissions is a problem. That’s why bills like Waxman-Markey include a border tariff. For me personally the question of a tax or a cap is not nearly as important as the need to get some significant policy underway. I think that those who believe we can stop the momentum for a cap-and-trade system to address climate change and then quickly about-face and enact a tax system are very naive. It could mean losing years if not a decade.

  3. MattN
    Dec 10, 2009

    I really think you need to take an economics class. The only thing a Cap system will do is cap our economic development and send our industry to countries that do NOT have Cap systems (ie: China, India).

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