Tuesday, December 08, 2009

While Thinking About Climategate, Copenhagen

Freakonomics recently had a nice article on Climategate as a Rorshach test. Original coverage here. For the record, I originally read Climategate thinking, "One the one hand, a lot of academics have these sort of aggressive private conversations about their dissatisfaction with their data. On the other hand, the data really should have been released years ago if we're going to set global policies based on it."

Fossil fuels have undeniably bad side effects, but cheap energy means cheap everything. Not just luxury goods, but also cheap food on the table and cheap clothes on the backs of a ton of impoverished folks around the world. Research facilities, schools and hospitals all benefit from cheap power. Moves to reduce access to cheap energy will work like a consumption tax on everything. Consumption taxes are regressive, so ultimately higher energy prices end up as just another way to rape the poor.

Not only is cheap power good for the poor, it also has conservational benefits. We often substitute water for power and vice versa, reduced use of one necessarily means increased use of the other in agriculture and manufacturing. (See NYT journalist Charles Duhigg's work on water conservation for details).

So granting that fossil fuel consumption leads to terrible harms, reduced access to cheap energy leads to terrible harms as well.

There's a scene in Gore's film where he says that moving off carbon it's a question of rich people getting piles of gold or global annihilation. That's an unfair picture on both sides of the analysis, and it trivializes the problem.

But here's the part of the story that excites me. Solar, unlike any other power technology, responds to Moore's Law. As Ray Kurzweil points out, we are generating twice as much of our power from solar panels every couple years. While every other power generation technology is increasing linearly, or stalling out in competition with cheap-as-in-nearly-free coal, solar is doubling its deployment every two years. In a decade and a half, we can generate all the world's power through then super-high-density solar collectors. We're talking about collectors that are one hundred times as effective per square inch as current technology.

Even if the doubling doesn't continue, we have a finite amount of improvements to make in this technology before it will always be more efficient than coal.

So at Copenhagen, we can fight human nature and tell folks to stop using the cheap mountains of energy beneath their feet, and in so doing, punish the people who are worst off around the world. Or we can try to pour resources into hastening the day when we have ubiquitous cheap (as-in-unmetered) solar power for rich and poor alike.

I'm not a global warming skeptic, I'm just for option two.


The FT is discussing climate in advance of Copenhagen. Found here, or here (alternate link).

In it, Martin Wolf makes two arguments especially worth noting.

1) "[I]t is not enough to argue that the science is uncertain. Given the risks, we have to be quite sure the science is wrong before following the sceptics."

This is a bit like Pascal's Wager, so let's revisit Pascal's Mugger. Suppose I write Mr. Wolf a letter saying that I have uncovered new data which shows me a way to avoid global catastrophe, but I need $100 to do so. It's uncertain that I'm telling the truth, but the risks I outline are horrendous. We'll see if Mr. Wolf is willing to bear this small cost after performing the probability calculus.

This is not to say that carbon consumption has no risk, but we're now determining how aggressive our response should be, so we need concrete analysis and a concrete timeline. Must we radically deindustrialize tomorrow or face the destruction of the world? Or, as India recommends, can we put this whole thing off 40 years? If we take the most uncertain model simply because it has the most dire consequences, we will undoubtedly make the wrong decisions about how to proceed.

2) The World Bank suggests that costs of carbon reduction to the poor will be low.

Well, not exactly. The World Bank has pointed out that the poor consumer spends far less on power than the rich consumer. But the World Bank has also noted that poor consumers spend far higher percentages of their income on power.[PDF, p11] We should measure the impact to a consumer not in raw dollars, but in how much additional income must be diverted to overcome this new cost. I stand by my assessment that blanket increases in energy prices hurt the poor more than anyone else.

In principle, I agree with Mr. Wolf that with any abatement, "the cost should fall on the wealthy." But this is easier said than done. The factory and merchant who supply low cost clothing to the poor, might themselves not be poor. The research facility which designs and manufactures solar panels might itself not be poor. The hospital which admits poor patients might itself not be poor...

Also notable, Superfreakonomics has some climate coverage which has raised some eyebrows, you can find out more on their blog. Here's a post responding to criticisms, explaining how they came about.