Does the earth care whether you drive a Prius or live in a transit-oriented development?

Robert McLaughlin is a physicist at Stanford, whose essay in the American Scholar is headlined: The earth doesn’t care if you drive a Prius.” This is a misleading because McLaughlin is not really interested in policy or individual choice. He’s interested in writing about geologic time and how inconsequential humans are to it:

The great ice episodes were not the only cases of natural climate change, however. Six million years ago the Mediterranean Sea dried up. Ninety million years ago alligators and turtles cavorted in the Arctic. One hundred fifty million years ago the oceans flooded the middle of North America and preserved dinosaur bones. Three hundred million years ago, northern Europe burned to a desert and coal formed in Antarctica. The great ice episodes themselves were preceded by approximately 30 smaller ones between one and two million years ago, and perhaps twice that many before that.

link: What the Earth Knows: an article by Robert B. Laughlin | The American Scholar

What, if any, are the policy implications of geologic time as a perspective? We interventionists seem to think that we are changing the world, and we need to change it back. Honestly, can we support that idea when humans really are so much dust in the wind? Does McLaughlin’s recounting of geologic time strengthen the argument for intervention or weaken it?

One of the problems with this type of approach is that if you suggest the compact cities aren’t an effective climate strategy, you get labeled “pro-sprawl” as soon as the words are out of your mouth. One of my colleagues did it the other day: once I questioned whether compact development would have the intended effect, I got slotted, immediately, as somebody who opposes rail development (no, only wasteful ones) and who thinks tract housing represents the highest form of human freedom.

Instead, there are many reasons to think about changing urban design and urban form, and climate is only one of them. And if development is not an effective climate strategy; and if, as McLaughlin seems to be suggesting, there aren’t any effective climate strategies, then we should be discussing adaptation in development rather than prevention.

How we’ve already geo-engineered the Earth has a photo essay up on how we are already geoengineering the earth, which should prompt the valid question of if it’s acceptable to people to allow the existing geo-hacks go on, at least in the mainstream, why are people so wound up about geo-hacking to prevent climate change?

However, we should note that none of the we currently do under as geo-engineering here is a smart thing to do. So? One does not legitimize the other; it is instead big list of things we should knock off.

What I learned about Life Cycle Analysis from Josh Newell

Josh Newell from USC’s Center for Sustainable Cities gave a terrific talk on his work in carbon footprinting and life cycle analysis.

1. LCA outcomes depend on whether you trace the life cycle from the finished product backward or form the raw materials forward.

2. Land use transition is a major factor in LCA and in carbon footprint. Preserving tropical forests and preventing their harvest may be the most important thing we can do in climate policy.

3. Transport carbon emissions are a small part of the carbon footprint of paper.

SPPD’s Mazmanian leads up California Climate Change Task Force

SPPD’s Dan Mazmanian, Director of the The Judith and John Bedrosian Center on Governance and the Public Enterprise was recently appointed by California Governor Arnold Schwartzenegger to lead a new statewide advisory panel on climate change.

Dan is one of SPPD’s luminary faculty with a well-established reputation in policy implementation and sustainability, so this is a credit to the school and a great choice for the job.

Climate change conspiracy

David Levinson and I chatted via Facebook yesterday about something I posted on scientific illiteracy. I think he and I basically argued the same thing. He argued, succinctly, that scientists often overstate the certainty of their findings and should be questioned. I don’t actually disagree, but I’d argue that pretty much no one group can be trusted, not singly, and that’s why deliberation matters to both knowledge formation and policy. The goals of academic success are not necessarily social goals or even institutional goals, for one. However, I’d argue that mistrust of professional scientists should lead us to a different point than where we are: it should lead us to demand higher levels of personal literacy on math and science than the attrition to where I think we are: full-blown, hands-up-in-the-air, no-bloody-clue what’s going on or how to evaluate claims at a level more sophisticated than relating to personal experience.

Anyway, the interwebs are abuzz with hacked emails from the University of East Anglia’s Climate Change Research Unit that supposedly prove a worldwide conspiracy to promote anthropogenic climate theories and downplay evidence to the contrary. I’ll link you to BoingBoing, as they have a lot of links you can follow. I urge particularly to read the material from Science Insider and the New York Times.

I read through bits and honestly…tempest in a pot of tea. The takeaway lesson:

1. High-profile, successful scientists try to present their findings in a way that has maximum impact; and

2. People are sloppy with what they put in emails.

3. Scholars form camps around theories and methods and thus disagree with scholars from other camps.

4. Scholars debate things. Seriously, nothing I’ve happened on–yet–in the these emails gets as heated as mine with Peter Gordon do. And I believe that Peter and I are cheerful colleagues who like and respect each other but who simply disagree about what the same data mean.

5. This is type of thing makes you look like even bigger jerks when you refuse to release models and information, which they should have done prior to this, period, the end.

Here are all of the emails if you have a lot of time on your hands. When you start reading, you’ll wish this conspiracy had Elvis because the reading gets dull pretty fast.

Climate change practices and religion

The Telegraph has this story about an executive who took his company to court because they did not accommodate his desire to live a low-carbon lifestyle. The writers say the story is interesting because it suggests a precedent for how employers will be expected to accommodate environmental “beliefs”–such as providing low-carbon transport. That seems to be a pretty big stretch; it is easier to envision a company not requiring air travel than actually providing more for transport than most already do. But it is notable how this exec was able to argue he was a victim based on his environmental principles.

Ian Parry and policies to reduce climate change emissions from vehicles

In the “papers I wish I had written” department, there’s:

Parry, I. 2007. “Are the Costs of Reducing Greenhouse Gases from Passenger Vehicles Negative?” Journal of Urban Economics. 62: (2): 273-293.

You can find it here.

From the abstract:

Energy models suggest that the costs of reducing carbon emissions from transportation are high relative to those for other sectors. This paper discusses why taxes (or equivalent permit systems) to reduce passenger vehicle emissions produce large net benefits, rather than costs, when account is taken of (a) their impact on reducing other highway externalities besides carbon and (b) interactions with the broader fiscal system. Both of these considerations also strengthen the case for a tax-based approach over fuel economy regulation, while fiscal considerations strengthen the case for taxes over grandfathered emissions permits. The paper also comments on the practical relevance of automobile fuel taxes, or their policy equivalents, to broader legislation intended to mitigate climate change.

The climate change bill and low income families

The climate change bill is, like most Federal legislation, an amalgam of good and lousy policy. For the most part, it’s
a decent attempt, except for the part where we are supposed to prompt consumers to save energy without raising their energy costs appreciably.

However, there are protections for low-income energy users. Double however, from the limited research on current usage of lifeline pricing mechanisms, it looks like only a fraction of the households eligible for coupons based on income actually use them. Given how little we are willing to raise costs, this perhaps shouldn’t surprise me. In climate change policy, we should get a lot more aggressive here and suck up a carbon tax and provide lifeline options–and keep our distributional focus on the fact that impoverished Americans, while we want to protect them, have obligations as well to the much more dangerously impoverished and imperiled groups internationally. People need to be sent a price signal, even if that price signal is discounted, to help them understand the costs of their choices.