25 Jan 2020

Dirty Secrets About the CLEAN Future Act

Climate Change 11 Comments

This article is a pretty good summary of my main points on climate change econ/policy over the last several years. An excerpt:

The official framework for the CLEAN Future Act repeatedly alludes to “the scientific consensus that all countries must shift to net-zero GHG emissions by 2050 to avoid the most devastating consequences of climate change,” and it cites the UN’s IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C as the source for this claim. As this statement is the bedrock upon which the entire CLEAN Future Act rests, it’s worth analyzing.

In the first place, even on its own terms, and even if there were nothing misleading about it, the statement does not justify a policy of moving to net-zero GHG emissions by 2050. Don’t believe me? Consider this analogous claim: “The medical consensus is that Americans must stop driving motorcycles to avoid the most devastating consequences of traffic accidents.”

If we play with definitions, this claim about motorcycles is true. After all, “the most devastating consequences” of traffic accidents are that people die, and apparently you are 37 times more likely to die in a motorcycle accident than a car accident. So QED, we should ban motorcycles, right?

Most readers will probably disagree, or at the very least will understand that a mere statement about the downside of an activity—in my example, motorcycle riding—is not proof that it should be eliminated.

11 Responses to “Dirty Secrets About the CLEAN Future Act”

  1. Transformer says:

    On the motorcycle analogy:

    If people knew that they were 37 more times more likely to die while driving a motorcycle than driving a car then probably less people would drive motorcycles, but most would still see it as a matter of individual choice what others drove and wouldn’t push for a motorcycle ban.

    If it turned out that some other form of transport was 37 more likely to kill pedestrians than are killed by cars then people would probably look to whoever controlled their roads to make the drivers of this dangerous (to pedestrians) form of transport meet the costs of this heightened risks to others.

    • Transformer says:

      And one can imagine that the manufacturers of this dangerous form of transport might create lobby groups to cast doubt on the science behind the ’37 time more dangerous’ claims and focus only on the benefits and ignore the external costs of their industry.

      • Harold says:

        Whilst I agree with Transformer that the analogy is not that good because one is external cost an the other is internal, it still probably hits the mark that we must consider both costs and benefits. The statement that we must do such-and-such by 2050 to avoid the most devastating consequences does not on its own mean should do this. This applies to greenhouse emissions and using stairs. We do need to consider what those consequences are.

        I do have some issues.
        “In the first place, carbon dioxide is not “dirty” or a “pollutant” in any normal sense of those terms. ”

        It is a pollutant in the normal sense of the word. Heat is a pollutant in the wrong place. Thermal pollution is real and can kill a lot of fish.

        ““As a colorless and odorless gas, indoor carbon dioxide is impossible to track on your own.” In contrast, if you visit Beijing you are well aware of the actual pollution and dirty air (though it’s gotten much better in the last 20 years). You don’t need a special monitor.”

        It is clearly an absurd definition that it is not pollution if you cannot detect it yourself without any monitoring, such as heavy metal contamination.

        So what is the point of making such a claim? It adds nothing to the discussion except to obfuscate the issues and make a big point about terminology. We have the same thing with ocean acidification. That cannot be happening since oceans are alkaline, but as a chemist I assure you the term makes perfect sense and to make this an issue is missing the point.

        This is why reasonable discussion is impossible. Once a debate has become so politicised it is impossible to have a reasonable public debate.

        If one side deals in misinformation and refuses to engage in reasonable debate, then the other side must effectively deal in kind or be swamped. It is the case that many people with large audiences deal in disinformation to undermine the science behind climate change. Given such strong and over-simplistic messages that people are happy to hear, it is understandable that similar methods will be used by the other side.

        With something as political as this, political methods must be used. The statement above is a political rather than a scientific one.

    • Dan says:

      Cars have killed a ton of pedestrians. Clearly way more than horse and buggies.

      • Harold says:

        I think horses may be more dangerous than cars.

        • Transformer says:

          I bet horse riding would come out as way more dangerous per mile traveled but cars (and motorcycles) would win in terms of total deaths.

          • skylien says:

            So, per pedes it is then..


            • Harold says:

              Freakonomics do an interesting analysis showing that drunk walking is more dangerous than drunk driving, so maybe we should all just stay in one place.

              • Transformer says:

                But the numbers still show that in total more sober walkers are killed than drunken walkers. So I’m going to be sure to get drunk next time I go for a walk.

              • Tel says:

                Drunk walkers don’t kill sober drivers.

              • skylien says:

                I would be careful about stats that say drunk people get hurt. Common wisdom says drunk people don’t get hurt…


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