Our climate future lies in the past

The shambolic state of climate change discourse in Australia (and elsewhere) has left us largely focusing on electricity suppliers and technological solutionism.

But as American economist John Cochrane points out, the answer probably lies less in contraptions and arbitrary interventions than old ways of living:

…a carbon tax is the only way to change behavior. The answer to energy savings isn’t as much new technology as in old behaviors. Turn the lights off. Take fewer trips. Turn the heat down. Move nearer your work. Carpool. Without a carbon tax there is no way for the average bleeding heart Palo Alto climate worrier to realize that one trip to Europe is like driving a car for 10,000 miles. (Planes get about 80 passenger miles per gallon — but it’s a lot of miles to Europe.)

In order to incentivise these behavioural changes we need to make the cost of carbon emissions more salient.

Granted, it won’t work in every sector thanks to varying elasticities of demand. But it’s a start.

Whether or not you think the proceeds should be given straight back as a dividend (or some other mechanism to ameliorate compounded inequality), it’s [past] time to tax carbon.

Let’s stop poisoning ourselves

A horrifying working paper looks at the impact of traffic pollution on students in schools downwind of a major US highway:

We find that attending school where prevailing winds place it downwind of a nearby highway more than 60% of the time is associated with 0.040 of a standard deviation lower test scores, a 4.1 percentage point increase in behavioral incidents, and a 0.5 percentage point increase in the rate of absences over the school year, compared to attending a school upwind of a highway the same distance away

6.4 million American children attend a school within 250m of a highway, according to the researchers.

Children may be particularly susceptible to the carbon monoxide etc. that comes out of exhaust pipes, but really any of us who work or live near traffic should be worried.

If climate change is too abstract, far away or big for us to tackle, this shouldn’t be. The cost-benefit of transport (for starters) is clear and present. At the very least we all need to drive less.

And we’re not just talking about immediate impacts – think of how some of these issues (lower test scores, poor behaviour etc.) compound, as people get labelled troublesome or miss opportunities.

Air pollution, in other words, feeds inequality.

Other papers cited in this study illustrate the breadth of the issue:

…Currie and colleagues found that high levels of carbon monoxide were associated with reduced school attendance… Ransom and Pope (1992) similarly found a relationship between pollution and school attendance, with more small particulate matter in the air associated with more absences… Chang et al. (2016a, 2016b) use hourly variation to show that increased exposure to fine particulate matter decreases productivity per hour of pear packers and call center workers, while Archsmith, Heyes, and Saberian (2018) showed that baseball umpires make more mistakes on days with higher pollution…Herrnstadt and Muehlegger (2015) argue that traffic pollution influences impulse control. They showed that short-term hourly variation in wind direction in Chicago lead to higher crime in areas downwind of highways than on the opposite upwind side…

Also, as an addendum to my last post about randomness and test scores:

Marcotte (2017) used the variation in air quality on different testing days and found that children who took tests on worse days for pollen and fine airborne particulate matter had worse outcomes.

As usual my emphasis.

Everyone wants to be the hero

Whenever there’s an economic incentive to get people to believe something, you’re going to find organizations doing their best to get out the evidence that supports their case. But they may not think of themselves as propagandists. They may simply be engaging in the kind of motivated reasoning that all of us engage in. They’re finding the evidence that happens to support the beliefs they already have. They want whatever it is that they believe to be true. They don’t want to feel like they’re bad people. They’re trying to get the best information out there.

This from a fantastic interview with philosophers Cailin O’Connor and James Owen Weatherall. They have just written a book about how misinformation spreads.

I’ve just downloaded the book and plan to dig into it, but this passage strikes at a tendency many have to want a villain.

I often hear people talk about oil companies (etc.) suppressing climate change research. It now seems like they did know about climate change long ago, but were those executives really sitting in front of a fireplace stroking a white cat?

It seems like it would be more useful, maybe even more accurate, to view them as exactly like the rest of us. We all want to be the heroes of our own stories. None of us want to be wrong. We all dig in, especially given perverse incentives.

We all engage in motivated reasoning, among other scary mental shortcuts and fallibilities.

Rather than treating them as deviant or Machiavellian, surely it’s healthier to realise many of us would react the same given a similar position? At the very least it won’t shut down the conversation.

Once someone in the conversation is evil there is very little room to move – look at contemporary political discourse. Everyone wants to be the hero. That’s the only way we get anywhere.

It’s time for other arguments about climate change

The “debate” about climate change is so poisoned it has brought down at least two Australian prime ministers, and the very term is redacted from US government websites.

So maybe it’s time to retire, or at least rein in, this line of argument. The externalities produced by burning coal and oil, from factory farming etc., have many facets that can be tackled. Notably, health.

Take this recent study on air pollution from researchers at Arizona State:

“We find that a 1 microgram-per-cubic-meter increase in average decadal exposure (9.1% of the mean) increases the probability of receiving a dementia diagnosis by 1.3 percentage points (6.7% of the mean). This finding is consistent with hypotheses from the medical literature.”

“Burgeoning medical literature provides reason to suspect that long-term exposure to elevated pollution levels may permanently impair older adults’ cognition, especially in the case of particulates smaller than 2.5 microns in diameter, commonly known as “fine particulate matter” or “PM2.5”. The small size of PM2.5 allows it to remain airborne for long periods, to penetrate buildings, to be inhaled easily, and to reach and accumulate within brain tissue. The accumulation of particulates in the brain can cause neuroinflammation, which is asso-ciated with symptoms of dementia…”

So, emissions are not just harmful to the environment, but human health as well. The suffering isn’t only in the long term, evident only in a computer model, but in the health of real people living right now.

It’s also worthwhile thinking about who bears the brunt of this. The workers in industries like mining, obviously. But as a recent hurricane in North Carolina showed, polluting industries are also often situated in poorer areas:

“Even after adjusting for socioeconomic factors — and even without a hurricane — life expectancy in southeastern North Carolina communities near industrial meat growers is lower than in places without these hog operations. A recent study published in North Carolina Medical Journal found that residents near the industrial animal operations had higher rates of all-cause mortality, infant mortality, mortality from anemia, kidney disease, tuberculosis, and septicemia, and higher rates of emergency room visits than the residents in the control group.”

As Ketan Joshi has noted, denying climate science is now akin to being an anti-vaxxer both in the scientific illiteracy required as well as the harm being wrought. But we can’t expect to win this fight, especially in the short time we have to take action. Instead, we should change the subject. There are plenty of other arguments to make.

Politicians are the reason there is uncertainty

“At least 14 years ago, our political leaders were told that there was an urgent need to address the crisis in business confidence, in the energy and energy-intensive manufacturing sectors, due to the absence of credible long-term policies to address carbon abatement.

This is Ken Henry, quoted in an extraordinary story in the Australian Financial Review today.

Since then the center-left Labor party enacted a carbon tax, which was then repealed almost immediately upon the center-right Liberal party taking power.

The Liberal government then failed to enact another scheme that was designed to give “confidence” after the party balked. They did not attempt to enlist support from the Labor party.

What’s missing is the realisation that uncertainty is not some exogenous factor, but stems from the fact that there are many points of view. As a result, merely barrelling over political opponents isn’t going to solve anything.

When the Liberals are in power the uncertainty stems from the fact Labor will eventually get in and do something, and when Labor are in power the fear is that it will all eventually be undone. Barring a switch to one party rule, the only way to end political uncertainty is to work together.

Or, as it appears businesses are now doing, cut out politicians altogether:

…They have been talking among themselves about establishing an industry-led, self-regulating set of measures which would reduce emissions, ensure energy reliability and provide investor stability, all of which politics has failed to deliver.