Climate change impacts in the United States

The United States Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) has released the most comprehensive report so far on climate change impacts in the United States: Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States. The USGCRP consists of thirteen departments and agencies of the US federal government.

Some of the key findings include:

  • Climate changes are underway in the United States and are projected to grow.
  • Crop and livestock production will be increasingly challenged.
  • Threats to human health will increase.

It’s good that accurate scientific information is being released by American government agencies. Hopefully, accurate and non-partisan information on the seriousness of the climate change threat, as well as the behaviours that can effectively mitigate it, will help drive the adoption and tightening of effective climate policies in the United States.

Ontario rethinking new nukes

Bridge sculpture at the University of Ottawa

Apparently, the government of Ontario is reconsidering its decision to build more nuclear power plants, due to concerns about cost overruns and the status of Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd (AECL). The province was previously planning to spend $26 billion over the next few decades, expanding and refurbishing nuclear reactors.

Apparently, the Ontario government has rejected foreign bids from France’s AREVA and the American Westinghouse corporation, but doesn’t have sufficient confidence in AECL to commit for sure at this stage. They want guarantees from the federal government, in order to proceed.

I am torn on the question of whether to support nuclear power. It is certainly more appealing than additional coal power, when all the risks of each are taken into account. That being said, nuclear has always benefitted from large direct and indirect subsidies. It isn’t clear whether that public money would be better spent on alternatives, such as renewable generation, an improved electrical grid, energy storage, or demand management. I also have serious doubts about the competence of AECL, as well as our government’s effectiveness in regulating and managing it. It would have been nice for a foreign corporation with domestic support from its own government and taxpayers had taken on some of the risk associated with the new projects, rather than leaving it all in Canadian hands.

As an aside, Canadian nuclear regulators have discovered that Canada’s existing CANDU reactors are more dangerous than previously appreciated. In the event of a coolant leak, the chain reaction inside them actually speeds up, instead of slowing down. This could lead to dangerous overheating if a serious leak isn’t followed by a rapid shutdown.

Looser collusion laws for oil sands producers

Apparently, Canada’s Competition Bureau is considering loosening rules on collusion to benefit oil sands producers. Specifically, the proposed rule would permit firms to coordinate on megaprojects, without risking criminal charges for anti-competitive behaviour. Firms could do things like plan staggered construction schedules, to try to avoid the large increases in costs that accompanied the run up to $150 a barrel oil last year.

While the chaotic booms and busts of Alberta’s oil patch probably aren’t economically efficient or environmentally benign, it’s not clear that giving firms more scope to coordinate their behaviour is a good solution. Already, the government of Alberta is far too lax in the regulation of oil sands projects. Given how the interests of oil sands producers can conflict fundamentally with those of the population as a whole (especially when long-term environmental damage and cleanup costs are considered) it seems a lot more sensible to improve coordination through government policies intended to enforce the public interests, rather than giving oil giants more leverage through which to seek their own.

Environmental laws and security laws, after passage

Purple flowers on green

There is an interesting difference between the basic pattern that crime and security legislation tend to follow, after passage, when compared with the development of environmental laws. In general, crime and security legislation is too strong at the outset: it exaggerates a particular risk (say, youth violence) and then creates draconian measures intended to counter it. Generally, the measures are less effective than expected and there are virtual always harmful side effects not fully anticipated by the drafters of the law. Often, the courts compel the evolution of such laws into more pragmatic vehicles that strike a better balance between mitigating a problem and creating new ones, such as abuses of authority.

Environmental laws, by contrast, often start out weak and riddled with loopholes. As they operate, people realize that they do have the power to mitigate the target problem, are they are often tightened to that effect. Usually, costs turn out to be lower than the opponents of the law claimed they would be at the outset; after all, opponents of environmental legislation know that scaring politicians with talk of economic destruction and job losses is an effective approach to blocking stricter environmental rules.

A major difference between the two, I think, has to do with the psychology of politicians. Nobody wants to be seen to be ‘soft on crime’ or insufficiently committed to fighting terrorism. In either case, there is a big downside risk if you oppose a law and then the problem it targeted gets worse. Since environmental outcomes are usually less clear (and less closely observed by voters), that is less of a risk when it comes to opposing environmental regulations.

There is also the flawed by widely accepted view that there is a trade off between economic and environmental health. You rarely hear politicians opposing tough crime or security legislation by evoking such a notion of ‘balance.’ While air pollution kills far more people than terrorism, the point is rarely raised in political forums. In order to improve environmental outcomes – and deal with the major threat of climate change – it seems necessary to improve the risk perceptions of both politicians and the public at large, as well as the sophistication of the debate about public policy issues.

The sociology of avoiding travel, due to climate change

Adopting a personal ethical position where you don’t fly or otherwise travel long distances because of climate change is rather problematic: it has no upside, and a lot of downside. There is no upside because nobody is willing to copy you. Even people who agree that the science on climate change is compelling, that our emissions harm future generations, and that this creates moral obligations are unwilling to give up the opportunity to travel to interesting distant places, as well as visit friends and family members in far-flung locales (like the other side of this massive country). Tony Blair won’t give up his holidays in Barbados, and people with family, work, and school split between different regions won’t give up the option to cycle between them regularly.

The downside associated with making this kind of personal example is clear, and goes beyond sacrificing new experiences, family, and friends. Once you have taken the stance, any abandonment will be perceived by a lot of people as proof that environmentalists are hypocrites, that obligations to avoid highly-emitting activities are weak, etc. While the example of being abstinent isn’t forceful enough to make others equally scrupulous, the counter-example of lapses from abstinence provides rich material to rationalize morally dubious actions.

All this is true regardless of the strength of weakness of the key moral arguments that would underpin such a personal position. They are just undesirable secondary sociological characteristics.

Getting Green Done

Morty looking unhappy, with hidden limbs

Auden Schendler’s Getting Green Done: Hard Truths from the Front Lines of the Sustainability Revolution fills an important niche in the overall discussion about climate change and building a low-carbon global society. As the director of sustainability for the Aspen Skiing Company, he has personal experience with pitching and sometimes executing green projects, including those involving efficient buildings and renewable energy. His book offers some valuable on-the-ground observations that are lacking in higher level discussions like that of David Mackay. While the detail is welcome, the book does sometimes lack a sense of the bigger picture. The language and tone can also be annoyingly jocular, at times.

The most useful information in the book concerns the hurdles that exist to getting green projects done, even when they are well justified on the basis of lifecycle cost analysis. The initial investment is always larger, both in terms of time and complexity, and there are real risks associated with deviating from normal practice. Policymakers could clearly benefit from more direct discussion with the people who are ‘closest to the action’ and actually responding to policies when making their choices. In the end, Schendler sees a huge role for government: putting minimum standards into codes, providing financing to get projects going, and restricting the ways in which corporations can act while pursuing profits.

Schendler also weighs in on the value of individual actions, highlighting how only societal changes have the capacity to overcome climate change. Even so, personal actions are important for establishing credibility, which translates into some of the influence required to drive bigger changes. As a practical discussion of successes and failures, rather than a higher level theoretical work, this book is worth the time of those concerned with dealing with climate change.

WTO rules allow carbon tariffs

Helpfully, the World Trade Organisation (WTO) has made it clear that members can use border tax adjustments to deal with other jurisdictions that lack carbon pricing. For instance, steelmakers that are subject to a domestic carbon tax or cap-and-trade scheme could have their profitability protected from steelmakers in unregulated jurisdictions, through the use of an import tax.

The standard WTO position on environmental rules is that they are fine if applied equally to both domestic and international firms. For instance, you can require that both domestic fishers and those trying to sell imported fish use nets that are designed not to catch sea turtles. What you cannot do is impose the restriction on foreign firms in other WTO countries, but not impose it on domestic firms. Of course, as with all international legal issues, the practicalities of implementation and enforcement are complex.

More discussion of the statement is on the Free Exchange blog.

Getting serious about climate change

Mica Prazak in black and white

The key thing that is required for dealing with climate change, and which our society does not yet possess, is seriousness. Seriousness of the kind that accompanied winning the Second World War – far more seriousness than we are displaying now in Afghanistan. We can afford to effectively lose that war, watching control pass back to the Taliban, but we cannot afford the consequences that would arise from decades of additional unmitigated emissions.

The threat certainly justifies an effort on the scale of winning a world war. The business-as-usual outcome of more than 5°C of temperature increase would cause enormous disruption. It is quite probable that it would disrupt global agriculture to such an extent that the global population would drop significantly, amid a lot of bloodshed and suffering. Preventing that requires replacing the energy inputs that run everything with carbon neutral ones: a process that will cost trillions and probably require converting areas the size of states into renewable power facilities.

Where could the necessary seriousness come from? The scientists have already given us a vivid and well-justified picture of what continuing on our present course will do. Some political parties and entities have accepted the direction in which we need to travel, though they don’t really understand how far we need to go along that road, or how quickly we need to begin. In the worst case, seriousness will come with the first concrete demonstration that climate change is a major threat to civilization. By then, however, even action on the largest scale and with the utmost urgency would probably be more of a salvage effort than a save.

Something needs to prompt us, as a global society, to take action on an environmental issue at a scale and a cost never previously borne. Rational scientific and economic analyses are already urging that, but don’t seem to have the psychological motive power to make people stop dallying. Finding something to provide the needed push into serious thinking must be a major task for the environmental movement.

Hansen arrested, protesting coal

James Hansen, head of NASAs Goddard Institute for Space Studies, was arrested while protesting mountaintop removal coal mining in West Virginia. Hansen has been one of the most prominent scientists giving warning about the seriousness of climate change.

The problem of climate change is certainly serious enough to warrant civil disobedience, as recommended by Al Gore. Hopefully, such actions can help to draw attention to the myriad harms associated with coal mining and use. Increasingly, it makes sense to see coal as a densely packed form of carbon dioxide, already helpfully located underground, rather than a fuel we should be using.

Vote nearing on Waxman-Markey

Oleh Ilnyckyj

There seems to be a good chance of a vote on the Waxman-Markey climate change bill in the US House of Representatives in the coming week or so. Coverage on the bill has been very mixed, even among strong supporters of action on climate change. Partly, that reflects the sheer complexity of the thing, with all the special favours and unexpected consequences that represents. Partly, that is the product of obvious mistakes, such as giving away rather than selling the right to emit greenhouse gasses. Some have gone as far as to say that this bill is worse than useless. It certainly seems that the overblown cost estimates that some groups have produced are inaccurate. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget office estimates the cost at just $175 per household. Of course, there are legitimate questions about how many greenhouse gas emissions reductions can be secured when households are not presented with strong financial inventives.

The basic strategic questions are (a) is the bill so flawed that it should be rejected as a starting point and (b) what are the timing issues involved here? Timing is important both domestically and internationally. While climate change has had a relatively high profile within the Obama administration, it seems that they are refocusing their attentions towards health care reform – another issue rife with complexity and special interests. Missing this opportunity may mean a great deal of delay before another attempt can be made, as well as making it likely that the administration will have less overall energy and political capital to put forward. Internationally, the UNFCCC negotiations in Copenhagen this December certainly seem likely to go rather more smoothly if the United States has brought forward domestic legislation. If something can get through the Senate – even if it has some serious flaws – it might significantly improve the chances of an effective new global treaty.

How flawed is Waxman-Markey? This isn’t a question I feel that I can answer, given how sources I consider trustworthy have come down on opposite sides of the argument. Organizations like the Sierra Club have seen deep internal splits between those willing to accept the bill’s flaws and those who see it as beyond redemption. It is certainly a corrupt piece of legislation, in the sense that laws that do special favours to influential industries are corrupt, but that seems to be inevitable when advancing complex pieces of legislation in places like the US. In the end, I hope it passes, revealing that the US Congress is at least willing to take the first steps in dealing with climate change. The task then, as with many other environmental laws and regimes, will be to tighten the rules, eliminate the most egregious loopholes and handouts, and hopefully eventually produce an effective system for decarbonizing the American economy.

[Update: 26 June 2009] The bill passed in the House of Representatives, by 219 to 212, with 44 Democrats voting against it. While it is an imperfect piece of legislation, it is nonetheless exciting to see that it squeaked past this hurdle. The Senate will be tougher to convince.