Category Archives: Environmentalism

Lomberg on Sustainability

Bjorn Lomborg is often disparaged by environmentalists for questioning what in my view have generally been very questionable public policy prescriptions that environmental advocacy groups have promoted around the issue of climate change.  In a recent Newsweek article, Lomberg takes a great shot at properly defining the concept of sustainability.  He quotes the UN Brundtland report defining sustainable development:

“meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

He suggests:

The measure of success, then, is whether or not we give future generations the same opportunities that we have had.

Lomberg goes on to define sustainable solutions in terms of economic opportunities, educational opportunities and technological opportunities that we provide for future generations. After outlining progress the world has made over the last century or so he suggests:

Rather than celebrating this amazing progress, many find it distasteful. Instead of acknowledging and learning from it, we bathe ourselves in guilt, fretting about our supposed unsustainable lives.

At the end of the article he concludes:

We forget too easily that innovation and ingenuity have solved most major problems in the past. Living sustainably means learning the lessons from history. And chief among those is that the best legacy we can leave our descendants is to ensure that they are prosperous enough to respond resiliently to the unknown challenges ahead.

It would be great if environmentalists could celebrate and learn from our long legacy of creative solutions rather than continually viewing the world as a zero sum game.  Lomberg is right. The path to a sustainable future is not through excessive environmental regulation or redefining the fundamental rules of our economy, but rather through economic prosperity, educational opportunity, technological progress, peace and the fair rational enforcement of the rule of law.


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Filed under Climate Policy, Economic Policy, Energy Policy, Environmentalism, Fundamental Perspectives

Facing The Harsh Reality Of Our Unsustainable Status Quo

Not since Hitler offered his solution to the despair of the great depression has civilized society faced such clear signs of serious danger.  Unlike that era, in which complex problems could be somewhat simplified in a focus on the persona of an evil man, the problems the world face today reflect the accumulated irresponsibility of a short sighted world view that has predominated modern culture for generations. Simple answers of good and evil don’t suffice. The harsh reality of historic flagrant irresponsibility is coming to a crescendo.

The tyrannical stability in the Middle East, that has under girded the western world’s dependency on cheap petroleum for decades, is being reconciled with the aspirations for freedom that our foreign policy rhetoric has encouraged, as the entire mid-east explodes with demands for legitimate governance and a just economy. As we launch yet another war in a Muslim country, the conflicted history of our “national interest” becomes increasingly clear, while the future of the petroleum supply to which our society is addicted becomes increasingly murky.

At the same time, the economic crises in Europe and America escalate with the risk of municipal, state and national insolvency increasing around the world. Large European financial institutions are lining up for more bailouts, while the ever more political power and wealth is concentrated in the “too big to fail” banks in the US.  The Federal Reserve is desperately propping up the bond market with irresponsible levels of  “Quantitative Easing” that will inevitably lead to high inflation, a significant increase in interest rates and greater challenges in funding future US treasury debt. The Fed also continues to accumulate the risk of the speculative endeavors of Wall Street as liabilities for the federal tax payers.

Meanwhile in congress, Democratic Party “leaders” argue the federal government should be spending $1.6 trillion more than it takes in, while the Republican “leaders” condemn the Democrats irresponsibility arguing we should only be burdening our children with $1,5 trillion in additional unsustainable annual debts to support the short term spending they can’t get under control.

With the recent earthquake and tsunami, the fantasy of safe nuclear power has been exposed, as the Fukushima nuclear disaster unfolds in the most technologically advanced and emergency prepared nation in the world.

Reading the news, there seems to be so many serious problems all at once and one has to wonder why there seems to be so few responsible leaders insisting on credible solutions.

Government spending can’t exceed revenues for long. Promising entitlements without realistic means of paying for them is neither kind or compassionate, but rather foolishly cruel and irresponsible, since those promises can’t be kept.  Merely calling it “investment” does not turn unsustainable spending into anything other than what it is.  True investments have realistically profitable projected returns. Unless someone can show how their suggested “investments” will provide significant financial returns and reduce the need for future taxes and spending, we should insist on a balanced budget every year, through reduced spending or increased taxation. We can’t afford more empty promises for a postponed mythical future responsibility based on unrealistic projections.

In a little over a hundred years, we have burned through about half the world’s petroleum and other fossil fuels reserves that have taken hundreds of millions of years to form. Do the math. How sustainable could that be? Even if fossil fuel reserves end up being many times those known today, we cannot pretend that future generations will benefit from the luxuries our generation has enjoyed through wastefully burning through so much of the world’s richest concentrated sources of energy. Our society can no longer allow energy companies to value these resources at the mere cost of extracting them from the ground, or even less with the insane subsidies that governments provide. We have to consider the value to society these stored resources represent and include that value in pricing the use of fossil fuels. What’s the right price? Hard to say. But if it will take another hundred million years to replace them, that price sure should be a heck of a lot higher than it is today. And the value shouldn’t go entirely to a few companies just because they have a permit to mine or drill.

Resources that have taken hundreds of millions of years to form should be treated as an annuity for society to be valued in a manner that accrues to many future generations. Like the massive debt being incurred to support our excessive government spending today, the waste of fossil fuels at unjustifiable and unsustainable low prices represents blatant theft from our children.

As for the chimera of safe inexpensive nuclear power, the evolving mess in Fukushima is once again highlighting the sheer lunacy of using such dangerous technology for producing electricity. After decades of research and compromise focused on Yucca mountain as the sole depository in the nation for nuclear waste, in order to garner the political support of Harry Reid for some short term policy initiatives, President Obama ended consideration of the Yucca Mountain project, abandoning the only option for nuclear waste disposal the US has ever seriously considered. Now and for the foreseeable future, like the waste causing problems at Fukushima, our nuclear waste is accumulating in temporary pools at nuclear power plants around the country, with no plan at all for what to do with materials that even nuclear proponents agree will be highly dangerous for thousands of years. Those waste pools, like the reactors themselves, remain attractive targets for terrorists and some will be casualties in the next not quite adequately predicted natural disaster or the inevitable accident caused by human error, aging equipment or some other unexpected factor. Even if nukes weren’t dangerous on their own, nuclear power is the perfect cover and  materials resource for the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, both for rouge nations and terrorist organizations.

Perhaps the thing most crazy about nuclear power is that the nuclear industry is not remotely cost effective, so the federal government continues to subsidize nukes in all sorts of overt as well as indirect ways.  With the Price Anderson Act, the government absolves this most dangerous industry in the world from the need to cover its own liabilities with insurance in the manner that every other US business does. Without Price Anderson’s unjustifiably shielding an entire industry from responsibility for its real liabilities, no insurer would insure the industry, no investor would give nuclear power even the slightest consideration and the existing nuclear plants would be shut down instantly. No private investor considers nuclear power without the other huge subsidy of giant loan guarantees from the federal government. Meanwhile the nuclear industry’s research and development is funded almost entirely by tax payers.

As the federal government allows fossil fuels that took hundreds of millions of years to form to be squandered in a geological blink of the eye, while it subsidizes a nuclear industry that proliferates nuclear weapons, terrorist targets and the most toxic and radioactive byproducts known to science, we are told that solar and wind energy are not economically competitive. But wind and solar are actually very affordable and low cost in any sensible economic calculation that accounts for the real costs and values of the alternatives. While we squander billions in subsidies to fossil fuels and nuclear power while risking our credibility, the financial viability of our government and the lives of our brave troops in overseas wars to protect this Kafkaesque status-quo, we are told putting a real price on all these “economic externalizes” of our current unsustainable system is just impossible.

We are rapidly approaching the time we have to face the harsh reality that rather than sensible policy solutions that we are told are politically impossible,  it is in fact sustaining our current insane paths in energy and finance that is actually going to be impossible to justify or sustain.

How have these blatant and cruel abuses of our own children come to be accepted conventional public policy? Irresponsible politics is simply failing us. Unless we make some hard choices and real changes, our children face a future of deprivation, economic collapse and armed conflict throughout the world. Politicians who continue to believe they can spout empty platitudes while postponing hard decisions until after their next elections don’t deserve any consideration at all for re-election. The hard problems our nation and our world face need serious solutions now.

The politician that gets my vote is the one who is willing to develop a credible plan to repeal the Price Anderson Act, shut down the nuclear power industry, put a serious tax on fossil fuels while removing taxes on work and productive investment, end the wars and close most our over seas military bases, completely balances the federal budget, break up the “too big to fail banks” and make serious realistic reform to the unsustainable false promises that Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and other social programs represent.

Hard stuff? – You bet. Disruptive? – No question. Can it all happen over night? – No way. But we have to start these hard conversations and address these hard policy questions in a credible manner – Now.

My college aged kids think I am an unrealistic  idealist for even suggesting such radical changes, even while agreeing that they make more sense than the current status quo. But it is increasingly clear to me that if my generation doesn’t act with some self constraint, their generation and my grandchildren will suffer a very diminished future.

There is a fundamental priority coded in the DNA of all life that creates opportunity for the next generation and for the future of the species. The selfish abandon with which we squander resources today and burden our children’s future has become like a cancer of immoral irresponsibility in our society. It is as if we have lost hold of the most basic premise and purpose of life itself.

We need to rediscover and commit to our moral obligation to future generations and make some very hard decisions as a nation. All sides need to just stop the political grandstanding and get serious. We need real leaders offering courageous calls for meaningful change.


Filed under Best Stuff, Economic Policy, Environmentalism, Fundamental Perspectives, Uncategorized

Idealized Notions And Practical Realities Of Feeding The World

My good friend Robert Leaver has recently been writing about the virtues of various “green” solutions. Many are solutions I also strongly support, like efficient buildings and renewable energy generation.  Robert is a very smart guy. He understands people, organizations and politics far better than most people I have met. He is truly insightful on social matters. But like many folks who are most vocal in arguing for “green” and “sustainable” technology solutions, he has relatively little experience with the technologies he advocates. Like most Americans, he has somewhat limited understanding of the technical challenges of supplying energy, building buildings, growing food or other technological realities of providing for a modern civilization.

One of the “solutions” Robert has recently advocated is “vertical agriculture”, the idea that we should transform our food delivery system by growing food in eight to ten story urban hydroponic “farms”.  For those who focus on urban oriented solutions, this idea is enticing with its promise of delivering fresh locally grown food rather than corporate agribusiness delivering bland bred-for-shipping food products from around the world. It promises to consume far less fuel in food transport. It would arguably provide jobs in the increasingly concentrated urban areas many environmentalists advocate. It would seem to correct many of the challenges of modern agribusiness. Until one more realistically considers engineering, agricultural science, land use, energy use, economics and other practical considerations, vertical urban agriculture is an appealing notion.

Today there are almost seven billion people in the world. In thirty years the population is expected to reach nine billion. Despite the continuing growth in the population, we are feeding a larger proportion of the population than at any time in history. There are very real challenges with our current food supply system. But unfortunately, ungrounded idealized notions won’t address them.

My early work was in agriculture, first as a laborer in a horticultural nursery and later organizing small farmers in SE Massachusetts and Rhode Island to participate in what became the largest farmers market in the region.  I saw clearly from the perspective of real farmers, the harsh realities of the limited growing season and narrow range of crops that make economic sense to grow here in New England.  Keeping land in farms has been hard over the last few decades with all the economic pressure for land uses with higher financial benefits. I also organized community gardens in the late seventies and early eighties, with similar notions of idealism that inspire the urban agriculture advocates today. Even with the abundance of fresh vegetables from June to October, there are very good economic and climatic reasons that New England doesn’t supply a significant portion of its own food. I have been a serious hobby gardener myself and have close friends that farm, so I know a bit about of the challenges of agriculture. There is good reason that despite the best efforts of agriculture, land preservation and environmental advocates, New England farms have continued to disappear. I have immense respect for people who are successful farming.

I spent almost a decade primarily building sunrooms and greenhouses and learned first hand the challenges and costs of building and maintaining such structures and managing the climates of indoor environments suitable for growing. Though I never operated a greenhouse myself, I learned from clients and friends the increased challenges of pest and disease control that greenhouse environments entail.

Having owned and worked on large buildings more recently, I know some of the engineering challenges that taller structures entail. Those challenges would be compounded by the loads imposed by hydroponics proposed for vertical agriculture. Building and conditioning these structures would be expensive. The costs of building, owning and operating such structures would significantly impact the economics of “vertical agriculture”.

As an owner of commercial urban real estate, I also understand some of the economic challenges of urban taxes, insurance, regulations, labor costs and other factors that being in an urban environment would also pose to the economic realities of urban agriculture relative to the impacts of those cost factors in rural environments.

Then there is the generally high labor cost factor of any such concentrated agriculture relative to the highly mechanized systems under which most food is grown today in America.

Should all these practical considerations somehow not prove vertical urban agriculture uncompetitive, one would have to wonder what all the current farm land in the world would be used for. Today food prices are so low that the US government feels the need to subsidize farmers to stay in business and we can dedicate over 40% of our corn crop to making ethanol fuel for transportation. If urban agriculture actually had any real impact and more farmland becomes underutilized, agricultural commodity prices would become even lower, pushing even harder against the economics of the idealized notion of vertical urban agriculture.

The reality, for better or worse, is that the low cost of energy makes food production remarkably efficient and cheap in our current system. Unless we see food and energy costs exponentially higher and the overall economies of urban areas essentially collapse, I cannot envision any scenario where growing food in urban areas makes any real significant impact on the agricultural economy or where urban high rise hydroponic farms could ever be anything other than a grant funded curiosity for technologically and economically unrealistic idealists to celebrate.

The scale of the challenge of providing food for billions of people sometimes seems lost on people that advocate ideas like vertical farming. Driving across our nations heartland, one has to marvel at the vast scale of food production now being managed by less than two percent of our population that is  not only feeding America, but providing one of the few consistent export surpluses for our nation.

My father worked in an industry that many of my environmentalist friends abhor. He started out washing test tubes in a lab and ended up managing worldwide research in agricultural chemicals for Rohm and Hass Company, which during his career was one of the world’s largest chemical manufacturers. When I was a young idealist in the early seventies, Dad’s work inspired my youthful rebellion and my choice to get as degree in environmental science. Back in the day, we had a few fights about his work. Later, I came to appreciate the huge contribution to humanity that he made through his work and have become both very proud of that contribution and somewhat humbled by it.

Apparently, when Dad was a student, he was as fervently idealistic as any environmentalist I ever met.  Hundreds of millions of people were starving in India and China.  He and other idealists like him saw technology as the solution to this and many other serious problems in the world.  The pragmatism that those idealistic technologists brought to their careers in the fifties and sixties saved the lives of millions of people, along with creating many positive technology advances of modern civilization. The wealth and prosperity they created provided the opportunity for many of the social advances we take for granted in the US today. In large part thanks to the “Green Revolution” inspired by Norman Borlaug and supported by modern agricultural practices Dad and many other idealists like him spent their careers on, today India and China have the fastest growing economies in the world and are lifting millions out of poverty.  Now they too are beginning to be able to afford cultural luxuries like environmentalism, that historically most poor societies have not been able to sustain.

Relatively early in his career, Dad developed Dithane, a broad spectrum, low toxicity fungicide that even decades after the expiration of its patents is still a primary tool in helping to control crop diseases and feeding the almost seven billion people that our modern agricultural system feeds every day. Later, he guided his company to produce other solutions to help feed the world.

I vividly recall one of the most important lessons Dad ever taught me, though I was too stubborn and ideologically foolish to recognize the value and truth in what he was telling me at the time.  Having studied biological pest control in school, I passionately argued that in his career position, he should refocus research on such solutions. He responded that with the tens of millions of dollars and decade long regulatory gauntlet required for the approval of agricultural pest control products, only very large companies could play in the game and those companies could only afford to consider solutions with billion dollar markets. The huge costs and risks created by very well intended health and environmental protection regulations made it economically impossible to consider solutions that didn’t promise such huge returns.

While those regulations addressed some very real existing and potential problems with agricultural chemicals, an unintended consequence of the regulations was to concentrate influence over agricultural technology in a few large corporations. Despite environmental advocates clear intent to the contrary, those regulations also had the effect of driving the trend toward mono-cropping to maximize the effectiveness of the relatively few solutions that get through the regulatory hurdles. Similar unintended consequences of very well intended policy can be seen in every sector of the economy.

As I came to better appreciate the effective idealism of my father and his generation of technology pioneers, Monsanto, another large chemical company at the time, embraced the criticisms of my fellow environmentalists and recognizing the promise of biotechnology, transformed themselves from a chemical company to a biology company. Monsanto embraced the promise of biological controls that I and other environmentalists had passionately argued for and bet the future of the company on creating biological solutions at sufficient scale to seriously address the worlds need for food while minimizing the use of potentially hazardous chemicals. Through biotechnology, they invented new varieties of crops which both resisted insects and diseases themselves and which were resistant to low toxicity but highly effective herbicides. In return, Monsanto earned the wrath of the environmental community, recently being declared the most evil corporation in the world by many of the politically correct crowd for creating genetically modified food. (Do a Google search for:  Monsanto Evil Corporation)

The current “Green Revolution” of environmentalism is not like the idealistic truly progressive and creative endeavor that Borlaug led. Rather than embracing science, technology, engineering or practical economics, too many environmentalists show little respect for such fundamental building blocks of progress. Too many seem to feel that idealistic good intentions alone are sufficient.

The challenging realities of feeding almost seven billion people seems to be lost on my idealistic friends who argue for economically and technically unrealistic ideas such as vertical urban agriculture. It seems as if the economics and scale of the challenge are sometimes not clear to them. Unfortunately, we can’t feed the world or address the challenges of modern agricultural systems through idealized notions. We need real solutions, both technically and economically suitable for the scale of the challenges at hand.

Fortunately, so far at least, we have been able to feed an increasingly large portion of the worlds increasingly large population an increasingly better diet for decades. And thanks largely to those successes in agriculture, the pressures on population growth are subsiding as people are freed from the drudgery of traditional agriculture to become educated and more prosperous.

According to the USDA in 1900 over 41% of the US workforce was employed on farms, while today only 1,9% of the US workforce provides our food and a substantial surplus for export. Worldwide, over a third of the world’s workforce is still employed in agriculture and related fields, most in poor countries, toiling in inefficient traditional forms of agriculture.

Like vertical farming, traditional peasant agricultural cultures are also idealized by many of my “green” friends. I do not question the good intentions of such idealistic notions. But it is important to realize that the reason that such idealists have the free time and luxury to pay homage to such romanticism is that they don’t have to do that brutally hard work themselves. The efficiencies of modern civilization allows them the luxury to ponder idealized notions like vertical agriculture without the pressures of bothering to consider the practical realities of economics, engineering or agricultural science.

My idealistic friends also decry American jobs lost to China and Indian due to low cost labor and the the intolerable working conditions people in those countries are subjected to. The reality is that the primary reason factory labor in third world countries is so low cost is that most people growing up in traditional third world agricultural communities will do almost anything to escape the grinding poverty, including working in what appear to be miserable factory conditions to those of us living in the developed world.

Idealized notions of agriculture are like too many of the “solutions” promoted by the well-intentioned folks who migrate into politics. Unfortunately history has taught the hard lesson that when good intentions are met by practical realities, reality always wins, yet the bill for the idealized good intentions still always comes due. Perhaps, before allowing people to enter politics, we should demand some real experience in the productive sectors of the economy – growing food, building buildings, creating products or doing some other activity constrained by the practical realities of economics, science and engineering.

We should clearly foster more understanding of science, math, engineering and economics in our educational system, so that even if they don’t work in such realms, all our citizens can more readily sort out the sensible solutions for the future from those ideas that have little hope of becoming practical.

Clearly our agricultural system needs improvement and needs further progress away from its current dependency on high levels of energy and chemical inputs.  But to feed the world, a sustainable agricultural system will need the best solutions modern science has to offer, not just the ones that are most romantically appealing.

I spend much of my time with idealistic friends like Robert. They inspire me to stretch my thinking in new and interesting ways. They are more fun to be around than strictly pragmatic people. Most of the idealists I spend time with are very talented and inspiring professionals in their own realms. Robert’s professional work is bringing people together to find consensus around decisions that they face as an organization or community. I have immense respect for his accomplishment and skill as a facilitator.

Unfortunately, in matters of practical concern, consensus in itself is not adequate unless there are people involved in decisions who are able to inform the discussion with practical experience and guide the consensus in useful and practical directions. As we are now learning as the bill for decades of very unrealistic good intentions are coming due in Washington DC, idealism and good intentions need grounding within the realm of  practicality. Idealism needs to be matched with technical expertise and hard economic discipline to foster real and credible solutions.


Filed under Best Stuff, Economic Policy, Environmentalism, Fundamental Perspectives

Get The Energy Sector Off The Dole

In “Get The Energy Sector Off The Dole“, clean energy investor Jeffrey Leonard offers a great way to make renewable energy more competitive, reduce pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, and help restore our economy to some rationality and health with competitive markets.

The title says it all. Leonard suggests ending all direct subsidies, tax advantages, hidden subsidies in special regulatory treatments and other “externalized” subsidies for all energy industries. Its great stuff.

Some choice quotes:

Government statistics show that about 70 percent of all federal energy subsidies goes toward oil, natural gas, and coal. Fifteen percent goes to ethanol, the only renewable source of energy that consistently gets bipartisan support in Congress (think farm lobby and Iowa). Large hydro-power companies—TVA, Bonneville Power, and others—soak up another 10 percent. That leaves the greenest renewables—wind, solar, and geothermal—to subsist on the crumbs that are left.

None of these estimates account for continuing support to the nuclear industry, estimated to be about $1 to $2 billion, much of it to promote research and development efforts on new nuclear technologies and waste disposal methods. There are plenty of hidden subsidies, too. We place a cap on liability for accidents (like the BP oil spill). We offer the nuclear industry large loan guarantees. And, of course, we maintain an immense military embroiled in the Middle East and elsewhere as it tries to secure access to energy resources around the globe………..

We can waste money and distort the market by subsidizing all of these forms of energy. Or we can just call it quits on the waste. Disarm completely. Kill all the subsidies—yours and mine,,,,,,,,,,,.

So we find ourselves in a new political moment when for the first time it is possible to imagine an alliance of GOP libertarians, disaffected environmentalists, and budget hawks coming together for a grand deal that would sweep away sixty years of bad energy policy. Obama should seize the moment to bring this coalition together in support of a single objective: to eliminate all government subsidies and tax credits on production of all primary sources of energy.

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Filed under Best Stuff, Climate Policy, Economic Policy, Energy Policy, Environmentalism, Fundamental Perspectives, Politics

Lovins On The Financial Folly Of Nuclear Power

In “Nuclear Socialism”, once again Rocky Mountain Institute founder Amory Lovins outlines the continuing and increasing financial folly of the nuclear power industry.  This prolific clean energy pioneer, whose realm of work is generally considered the favored domain of the political left, is once again reaching across traditional political divides to make the free market economic case against the continuing irrational subsidies for nuclear power, this time in The Weekly Standard.

The financial case against nuclear power is so strong that Lovins doesn’t need to discuss the arguments of safety, waste disposal, environmental hazards, national security, terrorism and other negative implications that are all inextricably tied to the nuclear power industry. He didn’t even address the Price Anderson Act, the unique federal legislation that relieves those in the nuclear power industry of the need to cover their own liability through insurance the way every other business in America does. His article also skips the obvious and undeniable ties between excuses justifying “civilian nuclear power” and the ever increasing risks of nuclear weapons proliferation in places like Pakistan, North Korea and Iran.

Lovins is one of the most informed and interesting thinkers in the world on innovative and cost effective energy technology and energy policy. He has been central in helping to transform the thinking and energy related policies, practices and investments of major organizations like Ford, Wal-Mart and the Pentagon. He is the author of “Winning the Oil End Game”, “Natural Capitalism”, “Soft Energy Paths” and “Small is Profitable”, which have helped reshape thinking about business, economics and efficiency in the manufacturing, transportation and energy sectors, as well as in government.

For decades Lovins has highlighted both the financial folly and huge completely unnecessary risks to society inherent in the nuclear power industry.  He has repeatedly made the clear business case that continuing subsidies for nuclear power and risks are completely unnecessary, unwarranted and unjustifiable.

And for decades, nuclear power has been a poster child for corrupt corporate welfare. Yet it continues to garner strong bipartisan support in congress. If there was ever a solid argument for campaign finance reform, a prime candidate is the continuing and increasing subsidies for the nuclear industry, which would never exist without decades of massive socialist handouts.

Its great to see the Weekly Standard publishing articles like this. Hopefully other politically conservative organizations will start aligning their rhetoric with the realities of nuclear power. And hopefully the liberals and blindly naive “environmentalists” who think nuclear materials proliferation is an acceptable solution climate concerns will also start waking up to reality.

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Filed under Climate Policy, Economic Policy, Energy Policy, Environmentalism, Politics

Perspective On Climate Change

Many intelligent people view political and public public policy questions largely through the prism of climate change. They view climate change as the most serious challenge of our times, the science of climate change as a settled matter and the need to curb carbon emissions the fundamental global political priority.

Beyond certainty on these issues my friend David wisely suggests:

“I’m convinced that most of what we need to do to address the problem will improve the overall quality of our lives. That last conviction isn’t particularly scientific.  It’s really a preference for the kind of world I’d like to live in and help build.  I think it would be a world that is more elegant, beautiful, fun, healthy and genuinely prosperous than the one we’ve got.  So I’m sure that influences my view.  Even if I thought climate change were not settled science, I’d still be doing most of what I’ve been doing.  It just makes sense to me.”

He and I agree on all of this other than his presumptions regarding the “settled science” and the primacy of climate change as a political and policy priority. We agree on the technological and policy solutions that would be the best solutions to address human impacts on climate change and that would also help address serious challenges of national security, national balance of payment, our burgeoning federal deficits, unemployment, energy technology, innovation and other broad social and economic goals.

That said, all those solutions can and should be be promoted whether anthropogenic climate change is significant or not. As I have argued here, my sense is that the politics of climate change are getting in the way of the solutions regarding human impacts on climate change. And worse, they are increasing the polarization of our society at a time we need to find ways to reduce that polarization and find common ground.

I am not arguing that climate change isn’t real. It is inevitable that 6.8 billion people and all our technology must be having an impact on our climate. How could we not be.

But unlike these people that I genuinely respect, I am not convinced that the “the science is settled”, or that we understand how all the various human and natural factors impacting climate interact, how those interactions will be expressed or how significant any impact will be.

From my perspective, the key concerns of climate change include: potential increase in storms and severe weather; rising sea levels and resulting displacement of coastal populations around the globe, potential increases in disease; impacts on agriculture; impacts on ocean chemistry; and impacts to wildlife and natural habitats. These are all potentially serious concerns. Each should be evaluated somewhat independently.

Chris Landsea, a lead scientist at the National Hurricane Center recently co-authored an article in the journal Nature Geoscience reporting on studies commissioned by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), the UN agency helps oversee the IPCC. The report calls into question the severe weather forecasts in the IPCC reports on climate change. Lansea suggests:

“We have come to substantially different conclusions from the IPCC. There are a lot of legitimate concerns about climate change but, in my opinion, hurricanes are not among them. We are looking at a decrease in frequency and a small increase in severity.”

The study and report were apparently prepared by a highly respected team of tropical storm experts who have held divergent views in the past regarding the influence of climate change on storm activity, and is thus seen as an important contribution to the latest understanding of the science.

Regarding rising sea levels and population displacements, while surely not inconsequential, it is important to consider time scales in considering this challenge.   No credible studies indicate that sea level rise will happen rapidly, but rather over a period of several decades or centuries. Even the most extreme projections I have seen, predict the sea level rise at only a few meters. If the seas rise, people will move.

Throughout history people have been migrating for all sorts of reasons. While some migrations clearly have roots in natural and ecological challenges, the most urgent and horrific population displacements have generally been caused by war, genocide, severe economic problems and other concerns generally related to bad governance. The United States itself is a good example of the benefits of migration. How many US citizens can trace their family heritage in this country more than a century or so? Yet we have been the most prosperous nation in history.

In 2001, I worked in seaport area of  Boston. Since that time, that whole area has been almost completely transformed. Less than 30% of the buildings now there were there ten years ago. And that whole part of the city used to a part of Boston Bay that was filled in during earlier times. The first year I lived in Providence. my son took a photo of the skyline that is hanging in our hall. Five years later, that skyline is transformed, even with the serious recession. Things change, people move and rebuild.

The more prosperous the society, the more adaptable it is to change. The real challenge in addressing migration caused by climate change or anything else, is to assure economic prosperity generally. Prosperous societies tend to be more welcoming of immigrants than those experiencing economic hardship. Humans have been migrating  since we first came down from the trees and we always will. The challenge is to maintain adequate global economic prosperity and peace so that immigrants are welcomed, as they have been throughout most of the history of the United States.

Disease is a similar issue. While there are clearly environmental factors central to many diseases, economic factors are far more significant. While factors for tropical disease or heat related problems would increase, challenges of the cold would presumably be decreased. In any case, if we want to invest in fighting disease, there are far more direct and effective measures that could be taken in mitigating disease than investments in climate change mitigation.

Regarding agriculture, two issues are at play. First is the possibility of climate change shifting rainfall patterns and thus relegating currently productive agricultural areas too dry for productive agriculture. The other issue is the impact of higher temperatures and increased levels of CO2 on agriculture.

The second matter is somewhat easier to contemplate. Scientific evidence seems to indicate that during the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods when dinosaurs roamed the earth temperatures and CO2 concentrations were both significantly higher, as was the biological productivity of the planet. Some greenhouse growers deliberately increase CO2 levels along with providing warm temperatures to increase plant growth. In general it would seem prudent to presume that other factors being equal, the overall agricultural and biological productivity of the planet should increase with higher CO2 levels and temperatures in the ranges predicted by the IPCC and others concerned with climate change.

Shifting precipitation patterns is another matter and a more challenging one. It appears currently that it is essentially impossible to predict what  might happen to precipitation patterns as the climate changes. In my opinion, this is one of the most significant concerns regarding potential climate change. But there are a number of factors which will all impact precipitation patterns: temperatures, cloud cover, aerosols and particulates in the atmosphere, deforestation, agricultural patterns, urbanization, industrial emissions, natural cycles like El Ninos, sun cycles, ocean currents and other factors. The reality is, changes in precipitation patterns have happened throughout history and it appears numerous civilizations have collapsed in the past for exactly this reason. It is essentially impossible to know if changes in precipitation patterns due to current climate changes will have more significant impacts than others in our past and it is likely impossible to do anything about it on a macro scale. As with many other factors though, prosperous nations have been better able to adapt both irrigation and water conserving agricultural practices than poor nations have. So while changing precipitation patterns, like sea level rise, could indeed cause shifts in agriculture and populations displacements, the best preparation we can have is to assure a peaceful democratic and prosperous future.

In my opinion, changes in ocean chemistry is the impact of potentially most concern regarding increases in carbon levels in the atmosphere. Relatively recent science indicates that as atmospheric carbon levels increase, much of that increase is absorbed in the oceans, increasing the acidity of the waters in a way that can potentially have significant impacts on calcifying organisms. This could potentially have a significant impact on ocean ecosystems along with the fisheries that supply important food resources for humans. It is critical that this science be studied further.

As for the changes to wildlife generally, many of these are inevitable. Species have been arising and going extinct since the dawn of life and will continue to do so. No doubt having 6.8 billion people on the planet impacting all the changes we make will inevitably impact other species. Development and land use patterns from such a large human population likely have a more rapid wildlife impact than temperature and climate changes. Once again, prosperous nations like the United States have proven most able to effectively protect endangered species and to limit the ecological damage of our presence.

From a moral perspective, I come down on the side of humans first, as suggested here. At the end of the day, if we are to prioritize wildlife over human life, the moral challenges of deciding whose children should live and whose should die are going to be ugly. While we should of course limit the damage we do to the planet and to other species as much as possible, yet again it seems to me that history has proven that prosperous nations have been best able to do so, thus the most important thing we can do to assure the protection of wildlife is to assure economic prosperity.

Recognizing that the challenges of climate change are best addressed through economic prosperity, then one has to question whether climate change should be a more serious concern than the very many threats to our economic prosperity, including some of the favored “solutions” to mitigate human impacts on climate change.

I am not questioning that climate change is happening, nor suggesting that it isn’t a serious concern, but rather that it has to be taken in context of many other very serious concerns, many of which are far more urgent in their time frame and potential impact. I am suggesting that to effectively develop a consensus on addressing climate change, we also need to respect the perspectives of the majority of people who are far more concerned about near term impacts of economic issues and other important challenges.

Wars, genocides, economic problems, weapons proliferation, starvation, prejudice, hunger, malnutrition, disease and all sorts of very urgent issues are all plaguing the world today. There are a whole lot more effective and cost effective means of dealing with all of them than through addressing potential climate change, even if we were addressing climate change in a serious and effective manner.

And the politics of cataclysmic climate change is doing significant harm in that it has been seized on as an excuse to legitimize nuclear power and spread all the insurmountable challenges of toxins, terrorism, weapons proliferation, restrictions of freedom and other problems that go along with nukes. If climate change were used to pass corrupt corporate welfare schemes like Cap, Trade and Offset, we would weaken the economy and our resiliency to effectively mitigate the potential impacts of climate change.

From my view of historical evidence, the best thing we can do to protect the environment and address human influences on the climate is to have a strong economy with the luxury of spending money for environmental protection. The good news is that the history of economic progress is one of increasing decarbonization of our economy. There is a very direct linkage between decarbonization, reduction in pollution and economic prosperity, which I explored a bit here

Having majored in environmental studies as a student, I can’t help but recall that the landscape where I live was largely shaped by changes wrought by the sheet of ice that used to cover this place. As recently as 20,000 years ago in the Last Glacial Maximum, this area and much of the planet was covered in ice.  The climate of the planet has always been changing. Public policy cannot stop that.

The issues of concern regarding human impacts on climate change  are long term challenges that won’t be addressed unless we do so in the context of very immediate and urgent problems impacting peoples lives today. So rather than arguing for measures that would threaten the economy like Cap and Trade or oppressive regulation, lets push hard for the real solutions to climate change that also address the urgent challenges of of our economic problems, of creating jobs and which very clearly have other national security and economic impacts that the vast majority of Americans will support.

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Filed under Climate Policy, Environmentalism, Fundamental Perspectives

Replace ALL Federal Government Revenue With A Simple Energy Tax

America needs a new answer regarding energy, economics and the environment.  Our current systems are failing and the solutions currently on the table won’t work.  And everybody knows it.

We also need to rethink how we fund our government. The current tax system discourages work, productivity, free enterprise, job creation and almost every other goal and value our economy is purported to be based upon. The anger growing across America is in large part inspired by the complexity and irrationality of our tax system.

It is increasingly obvious that it isn’t enough trying to address the massive challenges that confront our nation by making minor adjustments to the sclerotic patchwork of contradictory public policies that has emerged over the decades. And recent efforts at government micromanagement of the entire econ0my are clearly not going to work. It is pretty clear from the polls that most Americans are fed up with Congress, the federal government and with politicians from both parties.

But one real solution to address many of our most fundamental challenges is astoundingly simple, clear and bold. It is a solution that can be strongly supported by people across the entire political spectrum of America – once we overcome our profound fear of sensible change.

I propose that it is time that we replace 100% of our federal government revenues with an energy tax and in doing so completely unleash our society  from the burdens and distortions of our current counterproductive tax system.

That sounds completely impossible at first thought, but as shown below, the numbers work. It is actually a far more realistic proposal than all counterproductive pseudo-solutions to the daunting problems our country faces that make their way through Congress these days.

After the failures of the Copenhagen Climate Conference and the Cap and Trade corporate welfare scheme in the Senate, the environmental and clean energy communities are regrouping to figure out what’s next.

Many environmentalists are now jumping on board with the Breakthrough Institute and others who are calling for massive new government research and development for clean energy solutions on the order of the Manhattan Project or NASA’s mission of the 1960’s to put a man on the moon. Surely better technology will be welcome. But after all the recent waste our federal government has been involved in and the massive deficits we already face, it is highly doubtful that Congressional or public support for such a huge government effort will be forthcoming.

Others have long argued that if we are serious about reducing pollution from our wasteful energy system, making renewable energy cost competitive, spurring the growth of dynamic new energy industries, creating bountiful new job opportunities, reducing our dependence on foreign oil, improving our balance of trade deficit and all sorts of other notable goals – then we clearly need to raise the price of petroleum. And we should do it simply and completely transparently through an oil tax. But up until now everyone, including me, has been talking about timid energy tax solutions that are unlikely to be enough to either do the job or garner adequate public support.

Upon reflection, I’ve come to realize conventional solutions aren’t nearly enough. Neither a modest energy tax or  significantly increased public investment in clean energy technology,  while infinitely better than corrupt proposals like Cap and Trade, are bold enough solutions. Facing continuing economic stagnation, as we pass the crest of the era of peak oil production, it’s time to completely re-imagine political possibilities and get serious about  transforming our economy and restoring our nation’s economic productivity.

Replacing 100% of our federal government revenues with an energy tax is a transformative proposal that can inspire the American people and appeal across the political spectrum, while igniting an unprecedented era of economic prosperity.

Look at the numbers:

According to the US Energy Information Agency, our country currently consumes 19,498,000 barrels of petroleum a day, which is the equivalent of 298,904,340,000 gallons of petroleum a year.

All federal revenues for fiscal year 2010 are projected to be about $2,165,000,000,000. That includes all individual income tax, corporate income tax, investment taxes, social security tax, disability insurance, hospital insurance, unemployment insurance, excise taxes, fees, energy and transportation taxes, and every other form of federal government revenue other than debt.

So doing the math, if we were to replace every single source of government revenue with a tax on petroleum, that tax would only be $7.24 per gallon. And if you add in the full recent cost of gasoline of about $2.60 a gallon nationally, not even discounting for the federal and state taxes already built into that price, the total price on gasoline and other petroleum based fuels would be $9.84 a gallon.

According to the US Energy Information Agency, that isn’t significantly more than average European gas prices in March of this year: Belgium-$7.18, France-$6.98, Germany-$7.12, Italy-$7.06, Netherlands-$7.68. And those countries are burdened with massive taxes on top of high energy prices.

On average according to the US Energy Information Agency, along with paying far more for petroleum, Europeans paid about twice what Americans paid for natural gas and coal in 2009. So if we added to the energy sources being taxed to offset current federal revenues both the over one billion short tons of coal consumed each year in the US, along with the 23 trillion cubic feet of natural gas we consume annually, the overall level of fuel taxes could be around the same as  European energy prices, while completely replacing all other forms of federal taxation and government revenue.

Most sensible people would jump at the opportunity to trade a European level of energy prices in exchange for no IRS, no income taxes, no payroll taxes, no business taxes, no inheritance taxes, no government fees and no government interference with our business revenues and personal income.

For those who will inevitably scream this level of energy taxation will make American industry uncompetitive, the one other revenue source the feds should have is a tariff on goods from countries that don’t implement similar levels of taxation on energy. That unilateral action will do far more to spur other countries toward responsible energy policy than complicated well intentioned, but unenforceable climate treaties. At the same time it could further reduce our energy taxes, or perhaps help offset the federal budget deficit.

Of course change this profound couldn’t happen overnight and would need to be phased in. And inevitably in the transition, the winners and losers will all be lobbying madly in Washington to turn a simple idea into the inevitable compromised and complicated sausage making that is all Congress seems able to produce. But if we insist that simplicity and transparency are fundamental to success, perhaps a bold proposition like this could gain enough public support to overcome the corrupting influence of lobbyists.

Is this whole idea completely crazy? …..  Maybe.

Or maybe its so obvious and simple that the only reason not to consider it is all the special interests that will be completely upended by the elimination of our current corrupt and senseless tax system. Lets face it, this kind of change would impact every single American in a major way and will scare the hell out of many. But in the end, anyone honest will recognize that it would be a far more rational and sensible way to fund our government than the increasingly untenable ways we do so today.

Think of the business and investment potential it would unleash. Think of the truly free economy unfettered by manipulations of the tax code. Think of the productivity gains when businesses make decisions based on common sense rather than tax consequences. Think of the rebirth of American industrial opportunity when advantages are eliminated for cheap products from China being subsidized by their low cost energy, lack of environmental standards and the low cost of wasting fuel in transport. Think about the jobs created when we no longer impose punishing taxes on working, on hiring and on productive investment. Think of the jobs restored to this country when we eliminate the insane tax subsidies for shifting industrial productivity overseas and eliminate the payroll tax penalties on hiring people. Think about the time, money and talent it would free up when we no longer have to spend countless hours and dollars reporting our personal business to the IRS. (According to CNS news: The Internal Revenue Service  estimated that about 7.75 billion hours of human labor went into completing all of the 2009 tax forms and that doesn’t begin to count the huge amounts of time and money wasted figuring out how to game the system and avoid taxes).  Think of the personal freedom and productivity regained for everyone when we eliminate the entire irrational tax code.

Many will argue that people will start to conserve energy with high price signals, thus putting government revenues at risk. Radically reducing energy waste and pollution is one of the two fundamental propositions of the whole idea. And yes, significantly reducing the size and scope of the federal government is the other fundamental goal and benefit, one that would be a welcome relief to the vast majority of Americans.

Most Americans fundamentally trust and favor transparent market oriented solutions and don’t want the government meddling in our lives and in our economy.  Watching the sales of fuel efficient cars after the 1973 Oil Embargo, the 1979 Iranian Oil Crisis and the huge spike in gasoline prices in the summer of 2008, as well as the lack of interest in such vehicles when oil prices dropped, nobody should question the reality that unlike government programs, price signals actually  work to inspire the goals clean energy advocates hope to achieve.

This proposal is a real test for environmentalists, as well as political liberals and conservatives alike.

Are environmentalists really concerned about the environment, or as opponents often suggest, are environmental issues merely excuses for increasing the power of elitist bureaucrats to exercise government control over every aspect of our lives?

Are conservatives really interested in political freedom, economic efficiency and free markets, or is all their rhetoric really just a cover for protecting the special privileges and loopholes for increasing the wealth and power of the already wealthy and powerful corporate oligarchies in our country?

Liberals are bound to hate the idea initially because it removes all the redistributionist “progressive” aspects of our tax code. But based on the accelerating levels of wealth disparity in our country, the impenetrable complexity of the tax code and the hypocritical shenanigans that many prominent liberal politicians get caught using to avoid the tax burdens they want to impose on the rest of us, maybe its time for everyone to just admit that the current system is completely failing to meet those idealistic goals, which are negated by all the special loopholes embodied in the unreadable thousands of pages of the tax code. The reality is that when one includes payroll taxes in the overall calculation, our current tax system is neither progressive, fair or in any way rational.

Rather than everyone just pointing fingers and blaming the other guys for our problems, if we focus on finding solutions simple enough, bold enough and sensible enough to actually garner broad support, maybe maybe there is a possibility of rediscovering consensus in our society.

Lets start taxing waste and pollution instead of using the tax system to punish people for working, creating jobs and making productive investments. Let’s actually try real market based solutions and restore the economic competitiveness our nation enjoyed before every aspect of the economy was micromanaged by the government and manipulated for tax reasons.   Let’s encourage the prudent conservation of our limited fossil fuel reserves so we don’t impoverish our children and grandchildren with our prolifigate waste. And yes less sensibly prune back the over-reaching size and scope of our federal government.

Why single out fossil fuels for taxation? Energy is the lifeblood of a modern economy. The highly concentrated energy available from fossil fuels is a precious resource both for us and for future generations. Unlike metals and other minerals that can be readily recycled in a prudent society, once mined and burned, the concentrated energy in fossil fuels is dissipated and unavailable for future use. Arguably, those concentrated energy resources stored over millions of years shouldn’t be squandered, but rather be husbanded wisely, as higher price signals would encourage. Balance of trade, foreign policy, pollution and a variety of other reasons which almost everyone is aware of, further contribute to the selection of fossil fuels as the sensible focus for taxation.

Perhaps as this fundamental idea of tax shifting gets refined, we will find consensus to add other wasteful, dangerous or polluting industries to the mix of appropriate consumption taxes, so we can begin to balance our federal budget and pay down our out of control federal debt, while also making our nation a safer, healthier and saner place to live.

But we should start the conversation recognizing how surprisingly affordable it could be to align rational revenue policy with sensible market mechanisms that would encourage economic prosperity, job and business growth, broadly shared environmental and clean energy goals along with the basic principles of freedom and liberty that our country was founded upon.

Let’s fundamentally reform the American economy with a government funding system that no longer undermines the most essential ideals and principles of our national heritage. Let’s support an idea bold enough, simple enough and compelling enough to actually work.


Filed under Best Stuff, Climate Policy, Economic Policy, Energy Policy, Environmentalism, Politics