Sunday, June 29, 2014

The Road from Carbonville: A New Series on the Misconceptions Surrounding Climate Policy and How to Avoid Them

This post begins a new series on policies to combat climate change, with an emphasis on clearing away the misconceptions that have grown up around the subject and now practically strangle it.  While it would take a much bigger effort—a book really—to develop and document all the ideas to come, I’ll do what I can with a series of short, bite-size mini-essays.  Given the format, they will sidestep most of the scholarly detail to make their case in the simplest, most direct possible way.  I'd love to do a longer-form version of this series: maybe later.

Here is the plan:

First, any discussion of carbon and the climate has to begin with the scientific basis of the problem, covering the minimum of geology, chemistry and biology necessary to understand why we face a climate crisis and what its potential dimensions may be.  Of course, in a presentation as brief as this it's necessary to cut lots of corners; be forewarned.  For the science read:

Carbon and Climate in the Very Long Run
Climate Change: Why Fatalism Could Be Fatal (Part III of Climate Science)
After this come the misconceptions:

1. Climate change is a pollution problem.
2. We need to set an emission target for 2030/2040/some other year to limit climate change.
3. Measures that reduce our dependence on fossil fuels mitigate climate change.
4. Reforestation can play a big role in combating climate change.
5. Personal change will solve the climate problem.
6. People who drive SUV’s are causing climate change; people who drive electric cars are the ones helping to solve the problem.
7. The goal is for every organization to become carbon neutral.
8. Local direct action against carbon-emitting projects will stop climate change.
9. Investing in clean technologies will solve the climate problem.
10. To set the proper climate policy we need to know the social cost of carbon.
11. Done right, climate policy can be nearly costless.
12. Economic growth is the underlying problem behind climate change.
13. Population growth is the underlying problem behind climate change.
14. Greedy oil companies are preventing action on climate change.
15. Carbon permits will just be a new source of financial speculation.
16. Carbon taxes are so much better than carbon permits as a basis for climate action.
17. Carbon taxes are a great way to raise money for green projects.
18. All we need to do is put a price carbon; the rest of the problems will take care of themselves.
19. Unless all countries agree to act on climate change, any national action is useless.

At the end, it’s necessary to go beyond criticizing other views and stake out my own, what I modestly refer to as a non-misconceived agenda for combating climate change.

Why am I doing this?  Because no one else has.  I'd love to be able to recommend a book that covers this terrain to friends, colleagues, students, and especially climate activists, but it doesn't exist.  A series of blog posts is the easiest way for me to put these arguments in play, pending something weightier and more comprehensive.

If you find problems with any of the arguments I make or the way I make them, let me know!  I've been continually learning about these issues over the years, and I don't assume that I'm “all learned up” today.  And if you think what I'm trying to do is worth doing, encourage me!  It's easier to make an effort like this if you get the message that it's appreciated.

Two concluding notes: First, the tone of most of these posts is pretty negative: they are about criticizing other people's thinking, after all.  I'm not happy with this, especially since many of those who may feel under assault by what I'm writing are, for the most part, on the same side I'm on.  Perhaps the tone is exacerbated by the agonistic culture of blogging.  But to some extent it's the unavoidable result of adopting a format based on identifying and critiquing misconceptions.  I've adopted this approach because it gets right to the point.

Second, I'll admit to a certain amount of exaggeration in the way I've characterized these misconceptions.  They're presented in an extreme form, without the nuance, qualification or context that usually accompany them.  That's because I want to set them in relief and simplify the rebuttals.  In real life, people usually hold more complicated views, but I hope that the logic behind the arguments I'm going to make will still be useful.

UPDATE: This post has been significantly revised to reflect how the series has evolved.

Next post


Larry Signor said...

Consider yourself encouraged. I read mainly hype in the press and feel the need for more accurate information and analysis. Go for it, please.

Unknown said...

The link for this post
In the Future, All Spell-Checkers Will Recognize Biogeochemical Cycling (Part II of Climate Science)
is incorrect on this page.
I found it elsewhere on the site-

Peter Dorman said...

Thanks for the tip about the missing link -- it's been fixed now.

Say, who was that masked man?