Sunday, October 14, 2007

The Skeptical Pacificst, The Enthusiastic Environmentalist

I was not aware that one could be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for environmental advocacy. Outsourced to New Hampshire's own Eagle Times:

There's no shortage of potential Nobel Peace Prize winners who might have more closely reflected Alfred Nobel's intent than Al Gore. What of the student protesters in Iran who dare to challenge the repressive theocracy led by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad? What of the Buddhist monks recently slaughtered by the repressive government of Myanmar? What of the Lebanese political leaders seeking to end Syrian domination of their country? Other nominees this year included a former Finnish president who worked for peace in a region of Indonesia and a Vietnamese monk who leads pro-democracy efforts.
Okay, on to a more constructive note.

I've seen two very interesting things this past week about climate change. The first was Bjorn Lomborg's op-ed in the Washington Post last Sunday. As Lomborg stresses, regardless of your views about each element of the climate change debate, there ought to be some consistency in your proposals about reform. To an economist, the consistency comes from being explicit about the problem to be addressed, the costs and benefits involved for each possible solution to that problem, and committing to the possible solutions that have the highest projected benefits relative to costs. Here's a good example from the op-ed:
The Kyoto Protocol, with its drastic emissions cuts, is not a sensible way to stop people from dying in future heat waves. At a much lower cost, urban designers and politicians could lower temperatures more effectively by planting trees, adding water features and reducing the amount of asphalt in at-risk cities. Estimates show that this could reduce the peak temperatures in cities by more than 20 degrees Fahrenheit.

Global warming will claim lives in another way: by increasing the number of people at risk of catching malaria by about 3 percent over this century. According to scientific models, implementing the Kyoto Protocol for the rest of this century would reduce the malaria risk by just 0.2 percent.

On the other hand, we could spend $3 billion annually -- 2 percent of the protocol's cost -- on mosquito nets and medication and cut malaria incidence almost in half within a decade. Malaria death rates are rising in sub-Saharan Africa, but this has nothing to do with climate change and everything to do with poverty: Poor and corrupt governments find it hard to implement and fund the spraying and the provision of mosquito nets that would help eradicate the disease. Yet for every dollar we spend saving one person through policies like the Kyoto Protocol, we could save 36,000 through direct intervention.
I'm not enough of an expert to know if the magnitudes check out, but this reasoning should be welcome in the debate over reform, as long as there remains a commitment to by all parties to getting the best reforms done. (It echoes other sensible voices here and here, though coming to different conclusions in some cases. I've made analogous points about reforms to Social Security here.)

The second thing was a presentation by Dan Reicher, a member of the Rockefeller Center's Board of Visitors, and now the Director of Climate Change and Energy Initiatives at It's "" initiative is one of the coolest approaches to reshaping energy use and distribution that I've ever seen. Listen to Dan's podcast here.


Felix said...

are you aware of the arguments against Lomborg?

In a nutshell, Lomborg implicitly asserts, without any real scientific backing, that the chances of future environmental catastrophe are very low. But the fact is that we don't know that. And if you include a low probability of utter catastrophe, it makes sense to try to stop global warming, rather than simply trying to address its consequences.

Andrew Samwick said...

I support a carbon tax. I think we should show more prudence in dealing with the unknown than is evident in Lomborg's writings. However, that doesn't mean he is wrong in his insistence on considering other alternatives quite prominently. Some of the options for accommodating the consequences of (some of the) global warming may be more cost effective than some of the options for preventing (some of) the global warming.

eightnine2718281828mu5 said...

The Kyoto Protocol, with its drastic emissions cuts, is not a sensible way to stop people from dying in future heat waves.

Using this line of reasoning, one could also point out that Iraq/Afghanistan is not a cost effective response to the loss of 3000 lives on 9/11.

But that would obscure the larger issues at stake; likewise, deaths directly attributable to heat waves aren't a dominant concern here, and treating it as such is merely an attempt to obscure the larger issue.

At least we can agree on carbon taxes. :-)

Louis said...

Even Lomborg now recognizes that global warming is real and caused at least partly by human activities. That's a real step forward for the global warming deniers and a welcome change in the tenor of the debate.

Even Lomborg realizes that we might have to do something about it, though not drastic stuff like the Kyoto agreement.

In another generation or so I'm sure the conservatives will be claiming they championed efforts to fight global warming. But I am pleased to see conversations occurring other than those that just deny global warming is real or that even if it is real, there is nothing to be done about it.