Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Whither Copenhagen?

As the debate over the possible Copenhagen climate treaty heats up, and the cap-and-trade bill from months ago died in Congress, and news of the Climategate scandal broke, there are more questions than answers about the very important issue of climate change (aka global warming).

First, the TSAP would like to say that, while we do not invoke the precautionary principle for all issues, we unequivocally do for the issue of climate change (we support the Rio Declaration's version, to be precise).  With no apologies to hardcore libertarians or paleoconservatives, in fact.  We are not fazed one bit by the Climategate scandal as it does not really "debunk" the scientific consensus on anthropogenic global warming.  The only serious debate is about how fast it will happen, and when the tipping point will occur.  It is not a matter of if, but when.  And the less precarious position is to assume it is a real and urgent problem.  We need to reduce CO2 emissions to the point where the CO2 concentration is at or below 350 ppm.  And it is currently at an unsustainably high level, and growing.

That said, there is a right way to address the problem and a wrong way.  In fact, there are several wrong ways.  A cap-and-trade like the one Congress tried to pass would be unlikely to solve the problem, and would likely generate undesirable side effects.  Ditto for what is currently being discussed at Copenhagen to an extent, athough we do need an international treaty of some sort (like we successfully did with the issue of ozone depletion in the 1990s) that is an improvement over the Kyoto Protocol (which we still haven't ratified). 

The TSAP endorses a tax-and-dividend system that would tax carbon (i.e. fossil fuels) at the source, and give all Americans an equal share of the revenue generated from this tax.  Every dollar raised will be used this way without exception.  Yes, prices for various things would undoubtedly rise due to this embedded tax, all else being equal, but the dividend will allow Americans to pay for this increase.  The average American would in fact break even, but those who (directly or indirectly) use less energy than average will effectively pay less tax, while the energy hogs will effectively be taxed more, as they should be.  Thus it is certainly not a regressive tax, and may even be mildly progressive.  This is both the simplest and most equitable way to reduce carbon emissions as well as other forms of pollution, not to mention energy waste.  The real challenge is getting the feds to accept something that won't directly benefit them (in the short term).  We also support raising the gasoline tax, but using that to fund alternative energy sources and public transportation along with highway funding (and including a prebate).  And when the Chevy Volt (or something like it) is the predominant car on the road, which we favor, highways should be funded by a per mile driven tax if necessary.

We also support ending net deforestation completely, and putting carbon back in the ground through carbon sequestration.  One method is known as biochar, a type of charcoal made from the plants that remove carbon dioxide from the air, that is subsequently buried.  This is also an ancient method of soil fertilization and conservation, originally called terra preta.  It also helps preserve biodiversity.

We've said this before, and we'll say it again.  We need more nuclear power plants as well.  Nuclear emits no greenhouse gases directly, and even indirectly it pales in comparison to fossil fuels.  Done properly, it is just as green as solar photovoltaic power, produces less radiation than coal power, and is much safer than in the past (and even those dangers were exaggerated).  Since nuclear plants take many years to build, we need to get cracking ASAP.  Nuclear power is not a substitute to renewables; it is a necessary complement to them since we need a base-loading power source, not just intermittent power.  Our nation's irrational fear of all things nuclear needs to die NOW.  Right now.

But the biggest elephant in the room is overpopulation.  It does not make for pleasant dinner conversation, but it must be addressed or else all other causes become lost causes in the long run.  We need to have fewer kids, or nature will reduce our population for us, and the latter will NOT be pleasant.  The TSAP believes in voluntarily reducing the total fertility rate to 1.5-1.9 to do so, along with reducing immigration dramatically, but we do not support draconian and/or coercive measures of population control (like China has used).   But the current tax and benefit incentives that reward having more than two children need to be jettisoned at once.  We believe more liberty is the answer, not less.  But we cannot keep growing and growing, that's for sure (in fact, we need to shrink).  And our addiction to economic growth (despite being recently decoupled from well-being) is also part of the problem.

Here's a social norms technique for you:  7 out of 10 American women have 2 kids or less.  You are American and you are smart.  Join the majority.

Bottom line:  we need to take the environment much more seriously than we do now.  We ignore it at our own peril.

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