Tuesday, December 15, 2009

More thoughts on carbon

In light of all the brewhahaha at Copenhagen still finding its way into the news, and having faced an accusation my views on this topic follow from my heart and not my head, I thought I'd expand a little on my views about carbon emissions.


I am far from what most people would consider an environmentalist, as perhaps readers of my first ever blog post might have inferred.

I am strongly in favour of nuclear power (with costs such as waste management duly internalised) as part of the strategy to mitigate climate change.

I support the farming of GM crops and livestock and continued research into genetic engineering techniques.

I think most anti-whaling sentiment in this country is fuelled by sheer racist hypocrisy - there is a legitimate case to make against the practice, but most Australians aren't in a position to make it.

As far as limited resources I am a relatively radical Cornucopian - I don't believe we will run out of any material economic inputs for a very long time, for reasons that are best left for explanation in another post.

I believe the lives of all other animal species are worth significantly less than human lives (which is a distinct proposition from animal suffering being less important than human suffering, for me a far murkier issue.)

More generally I think nature and the biosphere are wondrous and precious things in their own right, but human civilisation is overwhelmingly more precious. The universe in which humanity destroys every other living species on earth but survives to colonise another star system is infinitely preferable to one in which humanity itself goes extinct but life goes on for the rest of planet Earth.

Anyway, that is probably enough ranting to establish my non-green credentials.

Why I support a price on carbon

If I'm not an environmentalist, why on earth would I support reducing emissions?

Well, in spite of how some may read the above, I do care about the environment, for both its own sake but especially to the extent that damaging it is bad for humanity. And to be extremely generous to the climate skeptics, lets measure such damage to human welfare chiefly by reductions to global GDP - so this becomes pure economic number crunching and never mind moral abhorrence of so many impoverished Bangladeshis dying.

There are lingering (although small and diminishing) uncertainties over how much of the climate change is anthropogenic. Likewise concerning exactly how much warming we can expect. Most crucial to my mind are the oft neglected economic benefits of the world heating up - and I'd say there are more of these than most people are admitting. Weigh all this up in a hugely complex and uncertain cost-benefit analysis, and you might come out with carbon restrictions reducing the expected value of global GDP in say 2100. I tend to think you don't, but I'm really not well versed enough in the science or economics of it to have a solid idea.

However, I will openly admit that in this context I am quite risk averse, and also what you might term volatility averse.

The former is a concept with wide currency in economics. It means I am very happy to lose 1% of GDP guaranteed, to avoid a 1/20 chance of losing 20% of GDP, even though probabilistically this is a neutral trade off.

By the latter, I mean that I'd rather see 20 years of flat 2% GDP growth, than 17 years of 3% growth followed by 3 years of 3.5% decline, even though the resulting GDP level after the 20 years is the same.

I think these are utterly reasonable positions to take concerning the global economy, and that strong carbon reductions now are sure to minimise both the risk and volatility associated with potential economic change that follows from what's happening in the atmosphere.

So that's how you can be a filthy planet hating economic rationalist bastard, and maintain reservations about the probability of global catastrophe from a changing climate, and still be very firmly in favour of a carbon price.

An equitable solution

What would a genuinely fair and workable globally binding agreement look like, if it were actually politically possible to come up with such a thing (which is clearly not the case at the moment)?

Since the effects of emitting are truly global - my carbon ends up in every other person's atmosphere and heats every other persons' planet - its incoherent to view the problem on the scale of nation states. The climate is the equivalent of a commons for our entire species, and we are trying to instil some market forces to prevent a classical tragedy.

To me, the only just way to do this in a morally justifiable fashion is more or less to partition the resulting property rights equally, between every single person on the planet.

So there should be a global emissions market, initially with as many permits as our current total emissions. These should allocated to each government on a per capita basis - it being impractical, even within this idealised world I am imagining, to assign them directly to individuals - to do with as they wish. (There are a few countries where the government is simply too corrupt or powerless for this to be a good idea - but they aren't significant to the carbon picture. The permits for the populations of such countries can accumulate in trust until they get better governments.)

Most developing countries would sell the bulk of their permits to the developed world, as they don't need them. This would amount to a massive "wealth transfer", as Tony Abbott has put it, but I am no opponent of wealth transfers as a rule.

Would this amount to too radical a shock to the structure of the global economy? Perhaps. Certainly I don't think the U.S., to take an obvious example, is in a financial position at the moment to buy all the carbon permits it would need to sustain its current levels of economic activity. Now, shocks are bad, as I hope we agreed earlier when I was making arguments concerning volatility. To halve the real wealth of the top 10% of the worlds population and spread it amongst the remaining 90% is not bad thing - in the long term. Occurring instantaneously, though, it would likely prove disastrous.

So, to temper my thought experiment scheme with some pragmatism, I would say countries should also have the option of buying additional carbon permits at a fixed price. This would act as an upper ceiling on the price of permits, which mitigates one of the major disadvantages of an ETS with respect to a tax. The money spent purchasing these "excess" permits would be invested into a fund that countries having to adapt to negative effects from climate change could make claims against - much less messy, politically, then the small Pacific island nations having to beg for the odd billion here and there from their rich counterparts. Of course, what body could be left in charge of stewarding and dispensing all that money is itself a vexatious political question - can you say One World Government, conspiracy theorist nutbags?

Back in the real world

All the speculation above is of course ridiculously idle. No such scheme is likely to come into existence for decades, if ever, as the farcical arrangement decided upon recently in Denmark shows all too clearly.

So how do I see the course of events playing out? I don't think climate change, directly, will be responsible for wiping out human civilisation. My generation, or the generation to follow us, may end up paying dearly for humanity's current folly. But eventually, pay we will - the hotter the planet gets, the clearer and more precise the science comes, and the richer we get (making carbon reduction comparatively cheaper), the more political will to actually do something about the problem should grow. Perhaps there will be a horrible runaway positive feedback cascade via sea bed deposits of ice-trapped methane or some other mechanism, but I take liberty to doubt it, given all the evidence we have suggests the biosphere has survived through significantly higher temperatures and carbon concentrations than what the foreseeable future holds. It is the shock of the change occurring so rapidly that is the problem, but while this no doubt spells doom for many species, humanity should survive, in some form, in nearly any conceivable scenario.

What bothers me more are the possible indirect effects of climate change. Consider the Middle East, where scarce water is already a cause for conflict in an area that hardly needs more excuses for war to break out; where one nuclear power already exists, surrounded by enemies, and where another state, already an international pariah, may soon come into possession of the atomic bomb. If Iran and Israel are close to the brink of war now, as many observers believe, and unrest grips many of their Arabic neighbours, how much worse will the situation be when the only fresh water to be found in the region is that manufactured in desalination plants?

Or what of China and America? Although the current global deal is in truth the agreement these two countries reached bilaterally, the negotiations fell far short of success, and the world's two biggest carbon emitters both seem keen to manoeuvre so that the blame falls upon the other. The world desperately needs these two countries to establish better relations, not find new grounds for conflict. We have enjoyed such a remarkably peaceful era over the past 20 years in part because of the dominance of a single, unchallenged super power. The transition back to a world more akin to pre-1914 Europe, where multiple entities vie for supremacy, is fraught with danger. We, as a species, can afford to pay a carbon tax, and we can even, probably, afford to pay the costs of living in a world that is 3 or 4 degrees warmer. I doubt we can afford to fight World War 3 over the issue, though.

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Witching Hour

It's been a while
Since four a.m.
Things have happened
While you slept soundly

At four a.m.
I'm still not sleepy
Where do I go, now?

Have you been to Lothlorien?
I could give you
The full guided tour
It is never four a.m. there
Or it always is
I can't quite tell

Once at four a.m.
I journeyed to Oxford
And sought after Truth
From a silver tongue
And truly, I found It
It was not to my liking

Do you remember
That time at four a.m.
We were on the fourth round
Of long island iced teas
And all laughing
And I wished I didn't know the punchline
We drowned our mirth
But I walked on water
You couldn't see it
I'd walk to Andromeda
Fence singularities
Ascend the arithmetic hierarchy
And then some
Would you have followed
If I'd have asked?
Then again, I don't ask

A little while later
And it's still four a.m.
It's funny like that
No one has been here
I can smell their footprints
They didn't linger
I can see why
I could tell the ones left
I could answer their questions
I'm not yet that cruel

I dragged you to four a.m.
On a rip tide of conciousness
What were we still doing
On that bench in that place
At that time in that dream?
We should know better
By now, you would think
We'd have learned not to think, there
Where the wild shining notions
Haunt the lives we can't reach

What have I been up to
All this time that has passed?
That's a very good question
I've been asked it, before
I have stared long
At the burning gates of heaven
And listened, close, and deep,
To the seductive song of hell
Things I've learned
That I'd never tell you
And if I told you
You'd never believe me
And if you believed me
You'd scream yourself silent
And under diamonds you'd dance naked on a hill
And not care
As much as you'd never cared before
But you wouldn't want that
And neither would I

I keep coming back here
I play tricks with clocks
I'm drawn by the beauty
So says my attorney

How long since you wandered
Through the streets at four a.m.
And how long since you've wondered
What waits round the corner
You never realised
No one ever does
Where that terror abides
To roam unafraid
It was not worth the price

At four a.m., for a drunken hour or so
I'd say more than you'd hear
In a lifetime
If only
You'd catch me

Its four a.m.
Dawn will be here soon

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

What they should teach you in school

I anticipated a post along these lines long ago, didn't I?

So let's say tomorrow, I get sworn in as NSW Minister for Education. Hey, given the theatrics of the State Cabinet lately, its not entirely beyond the realms of possibility. Enough of that though, as I promised they'd be no politics this time around.

Well, there are some basic steps I'd take. I'd decouple the core English curriculum of reading, writing, and speaking from the study of literature, for reasons Paul Graham has explained better than I ever could. I'd make mathematics compulsory through to year 12, although with a reworked syllabus; few people really need to know what the derivative of tan is, but I recently got into a Facebook argument with a well-educated, science-literate person who couldn't tell the difference between a positive feedback loop and negative feedback loop. Software design and development needs to be redone, from scratch - high school age kids are more than capable of doing real programming and real computer science.

All this is merely tinkering, though.

Civics really needs to be core to the curriculum. It used to be, I'm lead to believe, but now, its not, for some bizarre reason. See, in a democracy, school isn't just vocational training, much as everyone seems to want to pretend otherwise. School is where you learn what a citizen of a society needs to learn. This includes knowledge and skills that help you become an economically productive individual, sure. Citizens aren't merely consumers and employees, though. They are voters, and members of political parties. They are plaintiffs and defendants in law suits, not to mention jurors. They are, ultimately, sovereigns, and to leave school and attain majority with absolutely no real knowledge of the government they are both members of and subject to is absurd. I could crap on about this for ages, but really I think its a pretty straight forward point. Hell, if I recall correctly there currently isn't an HSC course in Politics or Government you could take, even if you wanted to! Ridiculous.

OK, some changes to existing subjects, and the introduction (or perhaps its reintroduction) of a subject. Nothing too revolutionary there.

Do I have any grander schemes? Any more radical proposals?

Well, education is hard to do well, and there are lot of interesting theories floating around with little hard evidence to support them, and a lot of criticisms of existing arrangements and dreams

I'd like to say I'd like to teach teenagers to be good critical thinkers, but probably most educators would say the same thing. I could say that it'd be nice if there was less focus on specific factual content like who won the Battle of Thermopylae or the name of the law which ended no-fault divorce, and more focus on applying reasoning skills to those facts. Except, besides from pragmatic issues like the greater ease of measuring factual knowledge, as a rule people aren't innately good at generalising, and so giving someone a lot of information and then asking them to analyse it is quite possibly a better way to teach them abstractions then actually starting with the abstractions themselves.

What is critical thinking? It's focused on the idea of criticism, in its substantial sense - to consider something carefully, and find any weaknesses or flaws. Specifically, a good critical thinker is a strong critic of ideas - they are able to spot errors in people's arguments and theories. Most importantly of all, a critical thinker learns to criticise their own ideas, to see the holes in their own arguments - either with a view to papering the holes over, if they are a professional advocate like a trial barrister, or, hopefully, with a view to aligning their beliefs more closely with reality.

Can you teach this? Well, some people can teach it, and some can learn it, without a doubt, since it is clearly an acquired ability in particular to be self-critical of one's beliefs - by default we are overwhelmingly not rational so much as rationalising, forever finding reasons to justify our intuitions and behaviours. How to reliably and practically teach such skills to every school child is another question entirely.

Again, I think there is an extent to which it is futile to start in the abstract. Everyone learns abstractions at first via examples, even the deepest thinkers - the axioms of group theory were discovered by mathematicians interested in the common properties of integer addition, permutation composition, geometric transformations, matrix multiplication and the like.

So schools should have lessons about the most well know and comprehensible cognitive biases. It is just as easy to explain the sunk cost fallacy to a bunch of year nine school students as a bunch of first year undergraduates in Economics. Framing isn't just something psychology majors should learn about, its something everyone should learn about.

This stuff doesn't require any prior knowledge, nor an indepth understanding of the causes of the biases or any of the rest of the surrounding science. It is not, conceptually, that difficult; certainly its comparable in intellectual rigour to asking teenagers to write about the causes of World War I or to prove something by mathematical induction.

The best part about it is, you can very easily do the relevantt experiments, in the classroom, and then explain them. Here's why you all answered this way, and here's why you're wrong. And here's a ton of examples from real life about how this kind of utterly commonplace mistake in your thinking can lead you into trouble.
Now, would there any point to all this? Well, I believe, the jury is still out on that question; studies indicate some cognitive biases can apparently be corrected for by telling people about them, while others can't; and I'm unaware of anyone trying to explain them to children and then checking five years down the track if it helped them as adults.

At the very least, though, it should give the kids a thorough sense that they can be mistaken. If school were to have only one lasting influence on their reasoning, that would be a good pick. Even for the smart kids; in fact, especially for the smart kids - most of histories worst ideas came from smart people.


With special thanks to Nonchalant Adventurer, or whatever his blogging pseudonym is these days, for the long hours of philosophical exchange about critical thinking that helped shaped my current views, and of which this post is but the smallest of appetisers.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Oh, Hideous Trilemma

Tony Abbott, by announcing he will not support any form of ETS or Carbon Tax, has essentially signalled to the electorate that one of three things must be true.

1) The Liberal Party no longer believes in Free Enterprise and Free Markets

This one would be a bit of a shock, since Free Enterprise is supposed to be at the core of what Liberals believe in. Indeed a lot of supposedly small government, pro-capitalism advocates both here and other places like Europe are opposing putting a price on carbon, as a big socialist, environmentalist conspiracy, a power grab by centralised decisions makers.

Au contraire. If as a political party you propose to do something to reduce Carbon Emissions, and its not taking money off Carbon Emitters, you're the commie pinko in the debate.

If you put a price on carbon, aimed however imprecisely to try and match the amount of damage it is doing, the market then comes in and solves global warming for you. This is the whole damn idea. Entrepreneurs figure out how to make profits from cleaner sources of energy, because they are competitive with coal and oil now that the externality - the economic damage done by burning these things that no one buying or selling coal pays for - is corrected.

Any other government policy, instead of being a "terrible new tax" on carbon, instead becomes a terrible new tax on the entire rest of the economy.

Going to give bureaucrats a whole bunch of money for subsidising solar panels? To pay for them you will have to tax people's income, and profits, and other productive economic activities. And if it turns out the bureaucrats' picked the wrong solution, and some smart 22 year old engineer could have given you tidal power for half the price with some capital to back him and no subsidy to compete against? You've outright wasted the taxpayers money. Right wing people are supposed to hate that.

Going to mandate cars become more fuel efficient? What if as a result it then becomes more profitable to just burn the oil for main grid power? Hell, greater energy efficiency can increase energy consumption, in some circumstances - this is known as Jevin's Paradox.

Invest in Smart Grid technology? Al Gore's gotten rich doing this, largely because of the expectation that energy will get more expensive globally when carbon starts costing more. As the conspiracy theorists are all too quick to point out. If you were to actually put such taxes in place, why, even more private parties would probably sink billions into such research! Who needs a government grant when your idea is already profitable?

The fact is that any and all such government policies presume that government can fix the problem better than the market; that bureaucrats and politicians come up with better ideas than business people. I personally happen to think that's true, some of the time, but Liberal party folks sure aren't supposed to.


2) The Liberal Party do not believe in reducing carbon emissions

This one is credible. Nick Minchin certainly doesn't, and I begin to wonder whether Tony Abbott does, now that he's admitted that even an international framework in Copenhagen won't actually make a difference to his stance after all. The government and Malcolm Turnbull are both fond of the phrase "do nothing on climate change", in reference to the new leadership corps, and you've got to give more than a little credence to the idea.

What this means though is that when the Liberals say they will have a policy to fight climate change, just not a tax or an ETS, they are essentially lying; and not just a distortion of facts or a false promise to try and stay in power, but an outright fabrication of what they actually believe and stand for on a core election issue. Whatever they propose to do, it will amount to taking no action to actually reduce emissions. Oh sure, they might deregulate Nuclear Power - which would be a great start - but that's not nearly enough to fix the problem, or else nuclear would be the most dominant source of energy in America today, and not a niche sector. Absent a carbon price, even nuclear is not yet competitive with coal.

So the Coalition's full policy, when finally revealed, is likely to be nothing more than elaborate window dressing piled on top off their current position, which is "Deregulate Nuclear, and say it would be nice if emissions went down, knowing full well that saying so is in absolutely no conceivable way actually going to cause emissions to go down. But we'll run a campaign of misinformation that might confuse people into thinking we're going to do something, because we certainly don't have the guts to fight an election over the science itself."

If they were willing to come out and dispute the science, openly, as their party platform, then we'd have a genuine debate on our hands. The Liberal party conservatives simply don't have the minerals, so to speak, to own their convictions; or rather, their take on the polling, or the moderates in the party, have convinced them they can't win over the public in an open argument.

Yeah, that sounds about right. Except, this wasn't a dilemma. What other possibility am I entertaining?

3) The Coalition honestly don't have a clue that they're not making any sense.

They haven't renounced their core ideological principles, and they're not just lying outright. In fact, they are utterly economically illiterate, never mind what you think of their scientific credentials. Misunderstanding isn't just going to be pumped out to the electorate, it lies at the core of the Coalition non-policy. Partly they are dishonest, and partly they are divided, and partly they are wavering, but mainly, they are just confused.

Now that Malcolm Turnbull and Peter Costello are both out of the picture, there is, perhaps, not a single person left of influence in the parliamentary party who is capable of following why economists who accept climate change are nearly universally in favour of either a tax or an ETS. Or, they don't even care.

Don't some of them have economics degrees? Surely that's what Liberal members of parliament study at university. Were they paying any attention in class?

One thing I've said in Abbott's favour a lot lately is even if I disagree with him on most things, at least he has some intellectual muscle. Now, I'm beginning to have very serious reservations.

The Opposition are, for the moment at least, an absolute disgrace.


I promise the next post won't concern the Liberal Party, or politics, in any way, shape or form.