Bryan Caplan  

The Cartoon Introduction to Climate Change

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Stand-Up Economist Yoram Bauman is back with another non-fiction graphic novel, The Cartoon Introduction to Climate Change.  As with his previous Cartoon Introductions to Economics (micro and macro), there is much to like.  Bauman thoughtfully interweaves physical science and economics.  I particularly liked his chapter on scientific uncertainty, and he provides good quick explanations of technological and incentive-based abatement schemes.

bauman.jpg

Still, this book feels like a missed opportunity.  He spends so much time on the climate science that he has little time left for the economics.  Perhaps as a result, Bauman neglects many economic insights that climate activists sorely need to hear.  Especially:

1. We can use cost-benefit analysis to put climate change in perspective.  Multiple leading economists have done cost-benefit analysis of climate change, and as far as I've heard even high estimates are a small percentage of global GDP.  Maybe I've heard wrong, but why didn't Bauman review the point estimates and confidence intervals of the main studies?

2. Cost-benefit analysis is sensitive to discount rates.  The graphic format seems like a great way to teach this vital yet off-putting issue.  I immediately picture multiple variants on the Wheat and Chessboard Problem.  But the book avoids the topic.

3. Insurance is NOT a no-brainer.  Yes, insurance sounds wonderful; that's Social Desirability Bias for you.  But economics tells us that the desirability of insurance depends on the coverage and the cost.  That's why most economists (including famed behavioral economist Matt Rabin) consider extended warranties the height of stupidity.  Instead of exposing readers to these inconvenient truths - and possibly trying to surmount them - Bauman repeats the cliche that "It's a good idea to buy insurance, just in case."  Then he adds, "It turns out that our best insurance policy is to reduce emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases," without any cost-benefit analysis to speak of.  Not good.

4. Leading techno-fixes really do look vastly cheaper than abatement.  (see here, here, and here for starters) Bauman has two pages on geoengineering, but hastily dismisses it as not "terribly realistic."  [UPDATE: In the comments, Bauman points out that the "not terribly realistic" claim applies to the idea that geoengineering is a "painless cure-all," not geoengineering per se.  My bad.]  But why are eighteen-mile garden hoses less "realistic" than making a serious dent in the world's expected 250% increase in fossil fuel consumption by 2100?

5. National emissions regulations can have perverse global effects.  If relatively clean countries switch to clean energy (via command-and-control regulations, cap-and-trade, pollution taxes, or green norms), fossil fuels don't vanish.  Instead, their world price falls - encouraging further consumption in relatively dirty countries.  The net effect?  I was hoping Bauman would tell us, but he didn't even raise the issue.

6. Expressive voting is a big deal.  A lot of green activism is clearly expressive - focused on showing commitment rather than improving outcomes.  When I was a kid, our family routinely drove to the recycling center to drop off a few bottles.  Bauman really should have explained Brennan and Lomasky's expressive voting model - not to dismiss reformism, but to alert readers to the danger of loudly sacrificing to "help the planet" without verifying the effectiveness of the sacrifice.

As usual, I genuinely liked this Cartoon Introduction.  I was entertained and enlightened.  But economics offer many lessons that environmentalists need to hear - and Bauman largely fails to teach them these vital lessons.



COMMENTS (15 to date)
Yoram Bauman writes:

Thanks for the review, Bryan! More later, but first just a factual matter: the book doesn't dismiss geoengineering as not "terribly realistic". What it does dismiss as not terribly realistic is the idea that geoengineering is a "painless cure-all". If you want to argue that it IS a painless cure-all then go ahead, but you should factually accurate about the book.

Newell White writes:
But why are eighteen-mile garden hoses less "realistic" than making a serious dent in the world's expected 250% increase in fossil fuel consumption by 2100?

You seem ignorant of what garden hoses are made from - the raw aterial is fossil fuel, even in a hose factory powered by renewables.

More generally, failure to control CO2 emissions will destroy edible fish stocks well before rising sea-level or temperature causes significant damage to the quality of life of the median human.

Yours in hope.

Pajser writes:

The libertarian on the wrong side of fence, again.

Thinking about use of fossil fuels in terms of cost-benefit analysis for the whole society is approach for utilitarian socialists, for example. From libertarian point of view, pollution, particularly use of fossil fuels is aggression against one's private property, legally possible only if state protects polluters from accusation for trespassing.

One should be consistent in applying his ethical arguments, not pull it in cases it is good for business (like immigration) and forget on them when it is bad for business (like pollution.)

Brian writes:
expected 250% increase in fossil fuel consumption by 2100?

What fossil fuels? The oil and gas will be almost gone before 2050 and there's a limited amount of coal. Oil production peaked in 2005, gas will peak in about ten years, and oil shale and such are unlikely to ever produce much more oil than the amount needed to liquify it. Coal is abundant, but not nearly enough to keep fossil fuel use growing up to 250% for 85 years.

In 2100, nuclear, hydro, solar, wind, and new sources will be substantially all the energy humans consume.

Ted Levy writes:

"The oil and gas will be almost gone before 2050 and there's a limited amount of coal."--Brian

I recall a Peanuts cartoon where Charlie Brown and another character watch Lucy teaching Linus something, making obviously false statements. Charlie says, "It's not the things he doesn't know that will hurt him. It's all the things he knows that are wrong..."

Brian's claim about oil almost being depleted was as fashionable in the 1860s as it is today.

Jay writes:
Coal is abundant, but not nearly enough to keep fossil fuel use growing up to 250% for 85 years.

In 2100, nuclear, hydro, solar, wind, and new sources will be substantially all the energy humans consume.

Care to back up any of this with evidence? It sounds like a lot of speculation and what you want to happen versus what actually will.

Joshua writes:
From libertarian point of view, pollution, particularly use of fossil fuels is aggression against one's private property, legally possible only if state protects polluters from accusation for trespassing.

So what is the libertarian solution to the possibility of catastrophic climate change? Class action lawsuits against coal-fired power plants?

Granite26 writes:

Oil Production by year:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:World_Oil_Production.png

ThomasH writes:

Good points but I have a quibble with #4. I don’t see the contrast between “techno fixes” and “abatement.” If “techno fixes” are a vastly cheaper way of reducing concentrations in the atmosphere of CO2 (and methane and other greenhouse gasses) than “abatement” then these will be among the multitude of changes in consumption and investment decisions made in response to a tax on carbon emissions/subsidy on sequestration.

MingoV writes:

If he accurately assessed the science of climatology, he would realize that there is zero unbiased evidence of anthropogenic global warming. The economic assessment would consider the impacts of self-serving changes by governments to supposedly mitigate the effects of nonexistent global warming.

michael pettengill writes:

4. Explain how geoengineering is possible from a libertarian standpoint

Doesn't a libertarian ''hastily dismisses it as not "terribly realistic." ''??

Dan JJ writes:

Coal and oil will run out? Heavens to Murgatroyd!!!

Didn't they say this in the 60's....70's...80's...90's?

We were supposed to have run dry every year for the past 50years, yet, there is such an overabundance that govt has added on taxations, regulations, and legislation to block production to increase the prices so we would use less.

Windmills?!?! Good, Lord.... Has anyone bothered to investigate these behemoths? Study how they are made? Study their impact? Study how much energy is produced? Study their maintenance and costs associated with them? Study their environmental impact (hint: MIT has.... it ain't good)? The govt website IEA. Govt used to supply much information on all energy production sites, their avg production compared to capacity, where they were located, etc. The site used to offer info in regards to where windmill sites were feasible(had enough consistent winds to produce energy) based on a scale of 0-6. Three quarters of the US is 0-3, meaning windmills won't work. What is needed are sites that fall in the 5-6 range. There are few on the continental US. Most are located In regions of high and difficult, undeveloped/unimproved terrain like mountain tops of the Rockies and Appalachians. The other sites are on the much coveted coastlines. Connecting the windmills from high terrain regions is very expensive as shall be the maintenance. Building at sea is also very expensive. The windmills are a nice idea but not suited for mass production of energy.

Mark Bahner writes:

Hi,

These were some recent comments I made in a familyt email on the difference between CFCs and CO2. The question to me was, "We (in the U.S.) didn't dither on CFCs, why are we dithering on CO2?" Kinda long-winded, but I'm too lazy to cut it down. ;-)

Some good reasons not to dither on CFCs, but to dither on CO2:

1) CFCs were manufactured by only a handful of companies, mostly in the United States.

2) CFCs were used for some absolutely frivolous purposes. Seriously, who would say that the ozone layer should be destroyed so we could use spray deodorants (remember them)? Or CFCs in hairspray? And even for more important uses of CFCs, like automotive and home air conditioning, had relatively straightforward solutions for reducing emissions, like recycling of the refrigerants during repairs.

3) Ozone layer destruction was unambiguously bad. The ozone layer protects all life from UV radiation, which harms virtually all life. And the ozone layer destruction was happening extremely rapidly at the time of peak CFC production.

4) The companies that were manufacturing CFCs were able to come up with replacements that were not substantially more expensive in just a couple of years.

In contrast:

1) Everyone, all around the world, emits CO2. The country with the largest emissions at present is China. And India's emissions are rising rapidly. No one has the right to tell the Chinese or Indians that they should be reducing CO2 emissions. But if they don't, then nothing the U.S. does will make any significant difference.

2) CO2 emissions are from absolutely essential things like electricity and transportation. There are some trivial applications (Al Gore's gas-fired lamps near his heated pool in Tennessee being an example that comes to mind. ;-)) But the bulk of emissions are from pretty important aspects of our way of life.

3) There are no easy replacements. For example, federal mandates and price supports for ethanol from corn have been an absolute disaster. It hasn't reduced emissions by much at all, and it's raised both fuel prices and more importantly *food* prices. That's the sort of thing that happens when there is some sort of crisis mentality (and powerful lobbyists like farmers and agribusiness).

4) Focus on CO2 emissions diverts us from much more important problems. For instance, China needs to reduce emissions from coal...but not because of CO2, but because of particulate and sulfur dioxide pollution from coal. Particulate and sulfur dioxide pollution literally kills more than 1 million people in China every year:

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/02/world/asia/air-pollution-linked-to-1-2-million-deaths-in-china.html?_r=0

And I just saw a Frontline piece on antibiotic resistance in U.S. hospitals a week or so ago. You want to talk about some scary stuff!

There's an "opportunity cost" associated with focusing on *any* problem. If you work on that problem, it means you're *not* working on other problems. For instance, I'm currently writing a blog post on the misrepresentation of a bogus paper on the scientific consensus on global warming. But I'm not working day and night on my portable storm surge protection system. Because I get distracted by problems that don't matter.

5) Global warming from the "Little Ice Age" of the 1600s to the 1900s has almost certainly been a good thing. (The Thames River used to freeze solid so that it could be skated upon almost every winter.) It's kind of silly to think that we're right now somehow in the best possible global temperature. But even if we are, most economists who have looked at the issue of how much global warming could hurt the world economy come up with only a few percent decline from an addition of 2-3 degrees Celsius warming. The world won't warm that much until the end of the century, at the earliest. At that time, the average income in the world will be about 10 times**** the average income in the world today adjusted for inflation back to today's dollars. (Since today's income average annual per-capita income is about $9.000, that means an average world per-capita income of $90,000 in 2100, in year 2014 dollars. So even including a few percent damage from global warming means they'd be making like $85,000 per year, rather than $90,000 per year. In my mind, it's immoral to ask the less-well-off (the people of today) to sacrifice for the much-better-off people of the distant future. We should be focused on problems that hurt people *today*, like:

a) various diseases in Africa, such as malaria;

b) particulate and sulfur dioxide emissions from coal, rather than CO2;

c) Alzheimer's disease and cancer;

d) child abuse;

e) did I mention antibiotic resistance?

f) ...and a host of other things I'm probably forgetting.

Mark

****P.S. I think the people of 2100 will have incomes more like 100 or 1000 times greater than now, due to the economic benefits of computer intelligence (such as computer-driven transportation). But 10 times more income is a nice conservative estimate.

Mark Bahner writes:
Coal and oil will run out? Heavens to Murgatroyd!!!

Didn't they say this in the 60's....70's...80's...90's?

Coal and oil won't "run out." They *will* become less attractive than alternatives. In the U.S., it's already happening with coal for natural gas. Eventually it will be even natural gas for photovoltaics (at least in the southern U.S.).

Fossil oil will either be replaced by oil from renewable sources such as algae and bacteria, or will be replaced with electricity. (I'm guessing electricity.) The electricity would be from natural gas or photovoltaics.

Liquid fluoride thorium reactors could supply all humanity's energy needs for centuries at potentially very low cost. Even lower than photovoltaics, especially for cities in northern areas.

See: "Is the IPCC high emissions scenario impossible?"-->No, just very unlikely

...and some other commentary on that blog,


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