Further thesis planning

The thesis discussion with Dr. Hurrell has further convinced me that I am on a good track. We also sorted out an agreeable pattern for this term’s work this evening: two essays for the core seminar, two papers specifically for him, the research design essay, and a third essay for him to be written during the subsequent break, if necessary. Based on my standard of 3000 word papers, that will mean 21,000 words of writing for this term, in total. (Not counting dozens of blog posts, of course)

While discussing the thesis topic, we edged closer to a real question. The idea, at this point, is to choose two examples of international environmental agreements, then investigate the role that science and scientific communities played in their formulation. Two possible examples at the Stockholm Convention – wherein the coordination of science and policy can be said to have gone fairly well – and the Kyoto Protocol – where the relationship is muddier and the policy outcome less effective. The methodology would centre around looking at the preparatory materials and history of both conventions, as well as interviewing participants. On the theoretical side, I would examine writing on the connections between science and policy in this and other areas, as well as as much philosophy of science as I can push through my limited mental faculties.

The above, expanded and fused with a preliminary survey of the literature, will form the body of the 6000 word research design essay I submit at the end of this month.

Thesis planning

In four weeks’ time, I need to submit a 6000 word paper outlining my research question and methodology. Today, I gave a twenty minute presentation that basically outlined my area of interest and touched upon some possibilities. Until I’ve done more of a review of the literature, choosing a specific topic is probably unwise. There is much to do, and time for it is short.

The general research area is environmental politics: by which I mean the study of international agreements and actions related to the physical environment. Examples include climate change, fisheries, and pollutants. Within that playing field, I have also identified two directing interests: the relationship of science to policy, and the connections between all of this and development.

Science and policy

The natural sciences have a number of characteristics much admired and emulated by social scientists – as IR scholars frequently categorize themselves. As generally understood (and Tristan is going to murder me on this), science is a set of tools and approaches that allows people to learn about the true nature of the world. Theories are developed to account for observations and they are tested using other observation. Deficient theories are refined or rejected and progressively better understandings emerge. This is a very old and powerful account of the nature of scientific approaches.

From a global environmental politics (GEP) standpoint, the first area of interest here has to do with epistemic communities. That’s basically a fancy word for ‘fields’ or ‘disciplines.’ Members of such communities have their own vocabularies and ways of doing things: they have tools and competencies. Critically, they also have credibility in certain areas. What is interesting for my thesis is how science, credibility, and politics interact. When the Union of Concerned Scientists speaks out on nuclear testing or climate change, they wade into fundamentally political waters. Why are people generally willing to listen to what they have to say? On a related note, how do those seeking particular policies select and generate science that can be used to bolster their case; to what extent is science in environmentally relevant areas politicized, or otherwise prescriptive in non-obvious ways?

Another way in which GEP is concerned with science has to do with bureaucratic politics. That’s to say, how different constituent parts of a decision-making organization interact. An example would be the relationship between Congress, the presidency, and other actors in the formulation of American foreign policy. A standard account holds that these subsidiary groups vie for influence while engaged in complex negotiations with one another. Depending on how constructivist you care to be, you can also talk about constitution through iterated interaction. Analyzing global environmental regimes (for instance, the Kyoto Protocol) through a bureaucratic politics framework means examining which organizations helped to form it and what role they are playing now. The practical and theoretical connections between environmental scientists and organizations they dominate and the overall policymaking landscape are certainly worthy of investigation.

The development dimension

The two big environmentally relevant development issues, as I see them, are the emergence of new industrializing powers and the material conditions that have contributed to the absence of development in other areas. It says something that while I raised both in my presentation, everyone who responded mentioned only the question of China and India, never the one of the least developed states.

Anyone who glances at the state of commodities markets today can see that a China growing at near-double-digit rates has a huge appetite for energy and raw materials. The overall impact of that trend on the state of the world environment promises to be huge: more so when you acknowledge that China isn’t the only populous state growing rapidly. If we are to hope that these states will follow a more sustainable path to prosperity than the currently developed states, we are going to need institutional and legal structures that are both up to date with the best of environmental science and politically aware enough to craft incentives so that good outcomes will actually be achieved.

In contrast to the rapidly emerging economies are those that are not obviously improving in basic measures like life expectancy and health. Environmental factors probably play a role here as well: desertification, climate change, and the like. Likewise, an important role is played by factors that are both environmental and political, such as health and the search for raw materials. The more people with whom I speak, the clearer it becomes that this area is probably not a very interesting one for most people in the department, at least in terms of the considerations that go into thesis topic selection. Doing anything interdisciplinary with people in Oxford studying fields like health or geography seems to be quite difficult.


Between the areas mentioned above, there are many lifetimes worth of research that could be done. I want to find a question that is specific, novel, and original and that will allow me to make prescriptive suggestions for the improvement of some important area of environmental governance. As I progress towards that topic, I will put more information here. Of course, comments are extremely welcome.

PS. I got back the numerical result for my qualifying exam from Dr. Hurrell today: 68%. Missing a distinction by such a small margin makes me wish I had studied harder.

Science, the environment, and development

Today’s seminar for the Global Economic Governance Program was really excellent, discussing the future of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. On the panel were Jon Cuncliffe, Paul Collier, and Ngaire Woods. Overall, I would say that they agreed more than they disagreed. They primarily identified and discussed two areas of interest: the global financial consequences of the emergence of China and India and the role the Bank and the Fund should play in assisting development within countries that are either stagnating, or finding themselves at the start of an awkward path to reasonable prosperity.

While there, I realized that development might be the missing factor for my thesis. Conversing with Peter Dauvergne by email, he has identified the incredible variety of work already being done in the field of science and environmental politics. I need more of a focus if I am to say something new. To focus on the scientific and environmental questions that exist within the two areas listed above might be a good way to move forward. It captures concerns like China’s growing need for energy and resources, as well as issues like the problems of desertification and lack of decent access to water in sub-Saharan Africa.

Potentially, this is a way of bringing a lot of reading I’ve been doing that is somewhat peripheral to both the program and my thesis back into line. I don’t think it would be wise to extent the topic to consider health, which is also a fascinating intersection between science and development, but to use development to create a balanced triad between science and environmental politics might lend direction and balance, without going off topic.

Dr. Dauvergne also suggested that I read the last few years worth of issues of Environmental Politics: the journal from the MIT Press which he edits, as well as a thesis entitled Advocates, Experts or Collaborative Epistemic Communities by Lindsay Johnson, an MA student of his.

Comments would be especially appreciated on this, since I need to present my preliminary research plan on Tuesday at 11:00am.

On the price of oil

Tristan asked me a few days ago whether the status of oil as a non-renewable resource means that it must rise in price over the long term. It’s an interesting question. Here is a fairly classical economic answer. The point here is not to consider the possibility of short-term price shocks, which are quite a different sort of phenomenon, and one not related directly to the scarcity or abundance of oil in the ground. Rather, the point is to consider whether the fact that oil reserves develop at a rate that is negligible compared to the rate at which they are exploited means that oil as a commodity is destined to become ever-dearer.

I would contend that there are three prices of oil which we can consider, and two of them are highly relevant. The first cost is simply the nominal cost of any particular grade of oil at a point in time. That is to say, the cost in whatever unit of currency you care to use. These are not directly comparable, over time, because they do not factor in inflation. The second, more relevant, price is the nominal price adjusted for the rate of inflation. While there are difficulties in properly assessing the rate of inflation, a price that takes it into account as can best be managed does a better job of reflecting what the price of oil is, relative to other commodities. Economists call this the ‘real’ price of oil. The third price, which I will get into further below, is the relative price of oil as a factor of production, from the perspective of any firm and firms in aggregate.

Examining the price trend, firstly, there are considerations of supply and demand. These are fundamentally related to the rate of oil extraction, not to the total available reserves. That said, those watching the levels of reserves might anticipate future scarcity (doing things like choosing less oil intensive technology or making bets on higher oil prices in commodity markets). Sticking to flows for the moment, there does seem to be a considerable extent to which oil production can be increased in the medium term. Especially given today’s high oil prices, fields that were previously not commercially viable have become so. Likewise, fields that were depleted to the point where the cost of extracting an extra barrel of oil was at or below the value of that oil have become viable again. This kind of incentive will emerge whenever the real price of oil rises. The potential to bring new oilfields onstream in the medium turn should act to mitigate – though not eliminate – price rises in oil.

The next big issue is substitution. We use oil for a great many purposes: from powering vehicles to making plastics and fertilizers to generating electrical power. In some of these applications, it can be more easily replaced with alternatives than it can in others. While you would be hard-pressed to make many plastics without oil, electricity can certainly be generated in other ways. At present, the global system for distributing natural gas is far less extensive than the one for distributing oil. As greater scarcity and higher oil prices are experienced and anticipated, states will shift their energy production strategies towards those based on other technology. The degree to which such shifts can take place is called the elasticity of demand: the easier is it to substitute, the smaller price rises will be, both in the short and long term. In almost all cases, elasticity of demand becomes greater with time, as firms and individuals have more scope to modify their consumption and production choices.

Relative factor prices provide one market mechanism by which production choices are made. That is to say, if the price of an input – say labour – rises, firms will modify their production strategy in the short, medium, and long term to reduce the usage of that factor to an efficient level. How big the changes they make have to do with their anticipation of future movements in factor prices. Through the existence or anticipation of higher oil prices, firms will be driven to make production decisions that reduce their usage of oil, while increasing their usage of other commodities.

In the long term, major technological change also promises to help us shift away from oil. Biotechnology and genetic engineering promise ways to produce fuels and polymers from plants. Electrical generation based on renewable sources can offset that from hydrocarbons. Organizational change can also play a role. Power sources and power usage can be brought physically closer together, reducing the cost of transport. Likewise, the amount of travel undertaken by individuals and firms can be reduced through planning that minimizes it.

A final inductive point is that, while people have predicted for hundreds of years that all manner of minerals are in danger of running out, this has not taken place for any. Indeed, the real prices of commodities like gold, silver, and copper have been falling in the long term. For a lengthy statistical treatment of this, see Bjorn Lomborg’s The Skeptical Environmentalist.

The short answer, then, is that we have reasons to believe that the real price of oil does not need to increase as the commodity itself becomes scarcer, provided the above assumptions about the capacity for factor substitution and technological change are accurate. Even if not, the same considerations indicate that price rises will at least be moderated in the medium and long-term. It should also be remembered that the overall phenomenon of economic growth increases the buying power of individuals and firms. That is to say, they can each afford more goods and services than they could before. As such, the total proportion of an individual or firms spending power devoted to oil need not grow at the same rate as the price of oil.

Diseases and factory farming

Despite how mad cow disease (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) and avian influenza have been in the news for years, I’ve never seen any coverage that explicitly makes the connection between industrial factory farming and the emergence of these diseases. While things like close human-animal contact in the developing world seem to be important when considering outbreaks of influenza, it is entirely a product of an industrial farming system that turns cows into cannibals that BSE has emerged as a threat to human health at all. BSE is a prion illness that spreads between cows when they are fed portions of the brains and spinal cords of their dead brethren. The fact that it keeps cropping up means that this is continuing to happen.

I don’t doubt that if people were aware of the realities of where the bulk of humanly consumed meat comes from, there would be a lot more people wary about eating it – on environmental, health, and hygienic grounds. On the disease front, people should at least acknowledge the dangers inherent to keeping thousands of closely packed animals together, all of them on hormones and other drugs to make them grow faster. Additionally, the constant use of antibiotics to try to suppress disease among populations of factory farmed animals contributes to the emergence of bacterial strains resistant to antibiotics. Food animals have also been genetically weakened over time as they have been both ‘standardized’ so as to produce single definitive variants and bred for qualities like the quantity of a certain kind of meat they produce, rather than being able to resist diseases or even function on their own.

A lot of people seem to take the attitude that “given that I want to eat meat, and I am dimly aware that learning about where it comes from may put me off it, I will resist learning about where it comes from.” While psychologically understandable, such approaches do not live up to the standard of good sense, or due diligence with regards to how we behave as individuals and societies.

Questions of governance and respect

While I was revising IR theory, I found myself wondering how we establish whether an approach to development assistance is patronizing or not. For example, we can send a team of economic advisers to help create macroeconomic stability in a developing country. As Jeffrey Sachs’ role in ending hyperinflation in Bolivia seems to show, this is a strategy that can yield results. Of course, this kind of ‘we know better’ approach might hamper the development of governance structures and new ideas in the long run.

That said, leaving countries to sort things out for themselves could still be considered patronizing. Not only do we know better, but we know even better than that: we know to allow countries to make their own mistakes in the interests of developing legitimacy and their own capacity. Maybe, by that point, the patronizing aspect has become neutralized or non-corrosive.

These questions are relevant to my research when we start thinking about environmental governance and development. No problems crop up where new technology is both more economically efficient and cleaner. The trouble comes when situations like China’s growing need for energy and its huge reserves of coal are considered in combination.

There are situations where choices that would not be made in the rich world might make sense in the developing world, even at the cost of a somewhat damaged environment in those countries. Look how many forests were cleared in Europe during the period of industrialization. The trickiest issue is in places where the ecological harm is borne, in some measure, by everyone. How do we reconcile the teleological objective of a healthy planet with the deontological imperative to respect the freedom of states to make their own choices?

Taxes, exams, and changing seasons

Anteroom to the Codrington Library, All Souls

From the way Oxford looks already, you can tell that it is going to be gorgeous in the summer. That is especially true for those of us who arrived in September and October; we’ve never been exposed to the verdant face of Oxford. I confess that it is something of a surprise to actually see leaves on a tree here.

The overall feeling created by long, bright days is quite at odds with the knowledge that there is a whole other term left. Eight more seminars, another batch of papers, and of course the research design essay. Having a room increasingly full of boxes combines with the sunshine to make me feel as though summer is very nearly here. Far better, for the moment, to focus on the short and medium term.

Running into Emily at the Codrington was enjoyable – a reminder of when we were there reading about the middle east and the interwar period the first time around. To study that time period and region in the same college and library where T.E. Lawrence wrote his two books and innumerable letters has a certain excellence of authenticity to it. Moving on: I am off to study international relations theory in the SSL.

This evening, I even managed to roll over my financial spreadsheets into the new fiscal year. Because it’s all done using formulas I’ve made myself, it’s no small task to shift so much information around. Updating and connecting four databases, listing information on seven accounts in two currencies and countries, along with two credit cards, is tricky. Doing all that under conditions where you document every transaction over the entire year, down to the penny, is really laborious. All the same, I prefer a system that I designed and hence understand to the incomprehensible datasets produced by programs like Quicken. Tax audits do not scare me. I even have all of the receipts more or less sorted.

The Skeptical Environmentalist

I am presently reading Bjorn Lomborg’s The Skeptical Environmentalist: a book that has created a huge amount of controversy since it was released, because it questions the empirical basis for the idea that the global environment is undergoing severe degradation. There are two major kinds of arguments in the book, each of which is somewhat problematic to deal with:

  1. The empirical argument that, for instance, forest cover is increasing in Canada, while the Worldwatch Institute says that it is decreasing, and that the rate of contraction in places like Brazil is far lower than it is generally listed as being. These kinds of arguments are difficult to access because they turn on the level of credibility we assign to experts. While we could theoretically go look at the numbers themselves, we don’t know enough about the numbers to know which are important, which are credible, and why.
  2. The social and political argument about the character of what Lomborg calls ‘the litany’ of environmental decline: here, he is talking about the tendency to exaggerate, to accept bad figures more easily than good ones, and to manipulate data in ways that serve political ends. As in the first case, much of what he says is probably correct. The difficulty is in assessing the overall importance of competing claims, as well as the overall legitimacy of different claimants.

I shall write more about it as I progress through the book. I will be especially interested to see what he has to say about fisheries. Organizations like the Sea Around Us Project at UBC seem to employ the kind of rigorous statistical methods Lomborg espouses, and the picture they paint of the state of world fisheries is hardly a rosy one.

Thinking about the Copenhagen Consensus

The Copenhagen Consensus was a project organized by Denmark’s Environmental Assesment Institute, meant to identify areas where relatively modest sums could lead to large improvements in human welfare. Unsurprisingly, most of the initiatives most strongly endorsed involved things like improving basic health and nutrition, as well as the control of infectious diseases. Almost without a doubt, these are the things that can produce the biggest gains in human welfare for the lowest cost. They should all be funded, using any available mechanisms for doing so.

At the bottom of their cost-benefit ranking come schemes to tackle climate change. This is a methodology that I feel inclined to challenge on a couple of grounds. Firstly, it’s fallacious to say that we have a simple choice between providing clean water in impoverished areas and developing less carbon intensive forms of electrical generation. There isn’t a set lump of spending to be allocated to one activity or another. When a government spends money to deploy aid supplies and sandbags to a flooded area, it should do so by dipping into funds for long-term environmental management.

Secondly, it may well be that things exist that are both exceptionally expensive and still necessary. When it comes to climate change, we are talking about the long-term habitability and character of the planet. This isn’t something that can be reasonably thought about in standard cost terms, because the value of it does not discount as we look farther into the future.

What is necessary to complete the Copenhagen Consensus project is an awareness of politics. It’s wonderful to know which areas can profit most handsomely from modest investment, but we must be mindful of the decision making processes that go into the allocation of such funding. We must take the sensible and identify the plausible within it. On the issue of climate change, that probably means continued efforts to learn just what the changes will entail, in terms of human beings and the planet’s biological and climatological systems. It also means developing means for mitigating the problems that are already certain to arise: especially for those who lack extensive means of their own to either deal with the problem of climate change or its consequences.

Finally making some connections to other environmentally inclined people

Statue in BathAfter the interview for the mood study and our qualitative methods class, I attended a talk delivered as part of the Linacre Lecture Series, as run by the Environmental Change Institute. It was given by John Gummer MP, of whom I had no prior knowledge, but whose presentation I found quite impressive. He managed to convey a great deal of useful information about environmental policymaking in a way that wasn’t obscured through the excessive use of jargon. While some of the solutions he presented may have been a bit over-simplified, his overall tone of optimism and humour was very much appreciated. Especially interesting was his mini-tirade at the end against an environmental perspective founded in what he described as a Puritanical ideal of misery and self-denial.

While the speech was heavily focused on domestic policy – in areas like energy, waste management, and transport – it nevertheless made points that were more broadly applicable. When I asked him afterwards about fisheries – having learned that he is Chairman of the Marine Stewardship Council as well having served as UK Environmental Secretary from 1993-1997 – he expressed both a severe concern and a realistic perspective on the prospect for improvement. Another international matter that came up a number of times during the questions was that of cheap airline flights. He made the strong point that taxing the fuel that makes up 10% of the cost of a £20 ticket isn’t going to change anyone’s behaviour. His long-term idea of a personal carbon allowance, which could be traded or used against things like such flights, was a more inventive answer that you expect to hear at the end of such a speech.

In summary, the speech was effective and humorous. Very well captured was the essential concept that it isn’t enough to make people aware of environmental issues – or even to make them care about them in a general sense. What is necessary is the creation of institutional and legal mechanisms that make it both easy and economically efficient to behave in an environmentally responsible manner and both difficult and expensive to do otherwise. That happens through things like internalizing the full cost of transport or waste production.

Afterwards, I found myself in a cluster of wool-clad Canadians, most of them doing Master’s degrees over at the Environmental Change Institute. That is to say, the degree that I sometimes wish I had chosen to do, particularly after spending whole days reading about elements of large-I large-R International Relations that are only tangentially related to my intended research topic. It was particularly interesting to meet Erin Freeland, from Yellowknife, who is doing a Master’s with the ECI and with whom I’ve agreed to swap notes on the respective programs. A bit more interchange between the Department of Politics and IR and the ECI would serve both quite well, I think.

Now I am off to try and convince a recalcitrant external hard drive (not mine) to exchange data with a computer that has so far proven unwilling to speak to it.

PS. Speaking with Edwina – a D.Phil student in the DPIR and friend and collegemate of Claire’s – and Shohei during the period between qualitative methods and the John Gummer talk was both intriguing and valuable.

PPS. I am buying a bike with my brain scan experiment money. Does anyone know which place in Oxford is best for getting a decent used bike, as well as lights and a helmet (to protect the brain for future scans)?

Nuclear Test Sites

As we were both experimenting with Google Earth tonight, Neal pointed out an area in Nevada to me. You can see the crater where an atomic bomb in the 100 kiloton range was tested:

Nuclear test site

Surrounding it are more test sites:

They sure felt the need to make sure these things would work:

Many test sites

It definitely makes you more certain that Eisenhower was on to something when he talked about a military-industrial complex in his farewell address:

Yet more

In the words of Ike: “Every gun that is made every warship that is launched every rocket fired, signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed”

Final shot, the whole area

It really defies all belief, doesn’t it?

[Update: 5 November 2005] Here are some more of my posts on nuclear weapons.