Dare to attribute a particular storm to climate change! by mattsteinglass
October 2, 2009, 1:23 am
Filed under: Environment

Incidentally, can we retire the ritual disclaimer that no particular storm can be attributed to the effects of climate change? No particular smoking death can be attributed to any one cigarette, either. But when someone with pulmonary emphysema takes a long sweet drag on his Lucky Strike and rationalizes it by saying “Well, one more cigarette isn’t going to kill me,” we recognize that this is a stupid and suicidal thing to say to yourself, not a praiseworthy acknowledgment of scientific rationalism.


In East Asia we call global warming 'typhoons' by mattsteinglass

Last weekend Typhoon Ketsana caused massive flooding that killed over 300 people in the Philippines. It then moved on to Vietnam, where it killed 101 people (and counting). In the Philippines it caused an estimated $100 million in damages. In Vietnam it had the bad luck to strike a major city, Danang, so the damages were higher. Preliminary estimates by the national Storm and Flood Control Committee came in today: $600 million.

[youtubevid id=”U7bZMItXuck&feature=related”]

A week after Ketsana, the Philippines is about to get hit by another typhoon. Typhoon Parma currently boasts wind speeds of 120 knots, faster than Ketsana. It will hit the northernmost island of the Philippines within the next couple of days. It is currently heading towards Taiwan and China. (Taiwan suffered hundreds of deaths in Typhoon Morakot in August.)

But clearly trying to limit rising CO2 emissions will be very costly, and it would be much cheaper to just adapt to climate change. And limiting CO2 emissions would especially hurt poor people in developing nations. Surely it would be much worse for people in developing nations to have to pay an extra couple of dollars a gallon for gas than to deal with 120-knot typhoons every week or so during monsoon season, or however frequent they’re likely to become by 2050 if CO2 levels and temperatures continue to rise unabated.

Hu Jintao's speech on climate change at the UN by mattsteinglass
September 22, 2009, 10:52 am
Filed under: Environment

Live-blogging this is the most tedious live-blogging ever in the history of the blogosphere.

That said: Hu just said developed countries need to subsidize the greening of the energy economies in the developing world. This is a pretty significant point. At the GreenBiz 2009 conference here in Hanoi last week, a questioner asked several senior officials from the Ministry of Planning and Investment why the country was going towards nuclear rather than doing more immediately to build out wind power. The response was quite forceful: where does the money come from? Vietnam sells electricity to consumers cheap, at about 5 cents per kilowatt hour. It can do that because it has huge amounts of installed hydropower. But major new wind farms will produce power for 10 cents a kilowatt hour. At current prices, that means the government would have to be subsidizing a 1000-Megawatt wind farm to the tune of around $100 million a year. Vietnam doesn’t have the cash for something like that. This kind of shift is going to have to require, in the long run, that Vietnamese consumers start paying more for their power. But in the meantime, the people who have the money are going to have to pay for the greening of the global economy.

Further: “We will endeavor to cut carbon emissions by a notable margin by 2020 from their levels in 2007. Endeavor to cut portion of fossil fuel by 15%. Increase forest coverage by 40 million hectares from 2005 levels.” — At least Hu has some numbers. Obama had none. But “endeavor” isn’t “commit”.

Applying cost-benefit analysis to global warming by mattsteinglass
July 7, 2009, 5:08 am
Filed under: Economics, Environment

Kevin Drum had a very trenchant post the other day responding to Jim Manzi’s much-discussed back-of-the-envelope cost-benefit analysis on the Waxman-Markey bill. Drum’s point was basically that long-term economic estimates are extremely inaccurate, while long-term scientific predictions are fairly accurate. So trying to counterpose a reasonably solid scientific prediction of severe damage to the global climate against an extremely foggy guess about the future of the world economy is bound to yield garbage results.

I thought about this again the other day while talking to an acquaintance here in Amsterdam who’s a senior executive in strategic planning at the Dutch national railroads (Nationale Spoorwegen, or NS for short). He was talking about the different perspectives one has at state-owned companies and pure private ones, and as an example, he noted that the NS’s strategic planning generally runs many decades into the future, and often up to a century. They perform cost-benefit analyses on such long-term projects, he said, but they don’t set much store by them. “They’re so dependent on interest rates,” he said. “You make one tiny change in your expectations about future interest rates, 0.3% one way or the other over 50 years, and suddenly your project is profitable, or not.”

Sasha on train near Amsterdam. © Matt Steinglass

The problem with performing cost-benefit analyses on major infrastructure projects is that you’re actually reshaping the society whose economy is going to be creating those profits or losses. This is particularly vivid in the Netherlands, because the entire country is an infrastructure project. In the picture above of my daughter Sasha on the train south of Amsterdam, one’s subconscious assumption is that the interior of the train represents “state infrastructure” while the exterior represents “natural (private) enterprise”. But this is the Netherlands. The fields those cows are munching on were pulled out of the Rhine delta by exactly the same kind of public investment that created the railroad network. To submit the railroad project to a cost-benefit analysis makes only a little more sense than submitting the entire country to a cost-benefit analysis. Should the Netherlands exist at all? Could the money and labor that was spent pumping those polders free of water, and building the dikes to keep out the sea, have been better employed elsewhere, resulting in a richer global economy? How could one even begin to make such a calculation? Is this a question that even makes sense?

This isn’t to say that cost-benefit analyses on huge infrastructure projects aren’t necessary at all. The NS has made at least one major mistake in the last 20 years, pumping billions into a high-speed freight line to Germany that may never be profitable (though the main problem may have been poor cost control rather than miscalculation of demand). And another major Dutch infrastructure proposal to build an artificial island for a new airport in the North Sea has been rightly rejected as too expensive. But when you’re addressing these kinds of existential questions over a period of many decades and centuries, the cost-benefit analysis seems like an exercise in smoke and mirrors that pretends to hard-headed objectivity.

Border adjustments in cap-and-trade by mattsteinglass
July 1, 2009, 2:17 pm
Filed under: Development, Environment, Uncategorized

Like Paul Krugman and Ezra Klein, I think the border adjustment amendment to the Waxman-Markey bill, which would impose tariffs on countries that have no carbon emissions limits beginning about a decade from now, makes perfect sense. It seems particularly logical with regard to China and Southeast Asia. The whole anxiety over imposing cap-and-trade carbon emissions limits has been that China will refuse to go along. What better incentive to encourage them to join the rest of the world and impose some limits? The potential tariffs appear to be legal under WTO rules, and economic theory argues they make perfect sense — they simply equalize the playing field by preventing countries from exploiting a lower environmental standard to gain an unfair advantage.

If there’s any reason for the US to fear the idea of border adjustments for carbon reductions, one would think the fear should be directed towards Europe and Japan, rather than China. If Europe and Japan get they idea that they could impose tariffs on US goods based on their much lower carbon emissions per dollar of GDP and the US’s vastly lower gas taxes, that might hurt US exports. But it would also be good for the planet.

Oh, on the subject of sea-level rise by mattsteinglass
June 30, 2009, 5:07 pm
Filed under: Environment, Netherlands

I’m now posting from my wife’s home country, the Netherlands, where we’ll be for the next 3 weeks or so.

Nice country they’ve got here. Shame if something were to happen to it.

The “Waxman-Markey by itself will do nothing” critique by mattsteinglass
June 30, 2009, 4:55 pm
Filed under: Environment

Andrew Sullivan correctly explains where I am coming from in responding to the reader whose critique is that the specific effects of Waxman-Markey don’t justify its cost. That reader wrote:

By all accounts, the bill’s not nearly radical enough to cause the sorts of changes that would save Venice, or the polar bear, or the snows of Kilimanjaro.  If Waxman-Markey is the end of the story, polar bears are still a goner by the end of the century, and probably much sooner than that.

We’re standing here after 30 years of debate over the effects of man-made global warming and what we ought to do about it. We have finally come to a consensus (most of us, anyway) that something has to be done. (I have to restrain myself, each time, from writing “about a problem that threatens to destroy the Earth as we know it.” But that’s not hyperbole. As Joe Romm summarizes, MIT’s mainstream predictions now put CO2 at 866 ppm by the end of the century, while the Copenhagen meeting of 2000 climate scientists last December put it at 1000 ppm  — more than double the unacceptable 450 ppm level at which scientists envision an ice-free planet. The ultimate trajectory in such scenarios is for sea levels 250 feet higher than today. Of course it would take centuries for enough ice to melt to raise sea levels by 20 feet or more — or maybe not, according to more recent research.)

Anyway, at this point in this miserable, far-too-slow process, we finally have grudging agreement that something has to be done. And Waxman-Markey is the something that we can get done, at current levels of political willingness. So now, mutatis mutandi, the argument being raised is that Waxman-Markey is insufficient to accomplish the things that need to be done. Of course this argument will always be raised against whatever step we try to take first, no matter what it should be.

And here, that Matthew Yglesias post from a while back is right: this really is precisely one of Parfit’s “Mistakes in Moral Mathematics” — namely, the idea that a measure which, by itself, is insufficient to achieve a moral goal unless everyone else takes similar measures is therefore without moral value. In Parfit’s example, it remains moral for each person to individually try to save a group of trapped coal miners, even if the absence of any one of those individuals would make no difference in the end. To say that there is no point trying to rescue the miners because it will have no effect unless everyone else tries, too, is to embrace an obvious moral monstrosity.

We are trying to arrest global warming before it destroys the planet as we know it. The bill we have is nowhere near sufficient to do that, but it is a first step. It is always possible to argue against taking the first step in a task that appears tremendously difficult. Two familiar arguments of this form are “But no one else will join us, they will abandon us,” and “The task is too great, so better to accept reality and make the best of things while we still can.” In Tolkien, these arguments are respectively illustrated by the characters of Wormwood and Denethor.