International Monetary Fund calls missing carbon tax “Fossil Fuel Subsidy”

“The time has come for subsidy reform and carbon taxation.”

–David Lipton, First Deputy Managing Director, International Monetary Fund

Since its release on Wednesday, the IMF’s foray into climate change policy has developed quite a buzz. The headline figure – $1.9 trillion in annual fossil fuel subsidies – is indeed quite eye-catching. And since it’s hard to defend subsidies for mature products with no public-good features, this ought to get even neoliberals lining up behind it, no?

wellswellswellsWell, maybe. It turns out that if you read the paper carefully – or even not-that-carefully – you quickly find that the majority of the subsidies in question are about $1.2 trillion from a missing carbon tax of $25/ton CO2;  about $500 billion annually in direct fuel subsidies, mostly in developing countries; and the balance (another $200 billion) from the exemption of fossil fuels from value added taxes.

The $25/ton figure is taken from the United States EPA’s Technical Support Document: Social Cost of Carbon for  Regulatory Impact Analysis, published in February of 2010 by the Interagency Working Group (see also the EPA’s page on the Social Cost of Carbon). Now, if you are familiar with the debates about the social cost of carbon, you know that the $25/ton figure is, how one might say, not robust. Estimates in the literature span three orders of magnitude (Tol 2005). Even the US EPA’s assessment gives four different pathways (for a given set of assumptions, the SCC rises over time), ranging from  $6 to $73 in 2015, measured in 2007 dollars. Three of the four scenarios are based on alternative discount rates (2.5, 3 and 5%), and the fourth is based on a 95th percentile damage estimate, also using a 3% discount rate. The 3% figure, using the average of the mean estimated damages from three different Integrated Assessment Models, is $24 in 2015 in 2007 dollars. This is presumably what the IMF rounded to get their $25 figure.

There is of course a great deal more to be said about this, not least of which is that the modeled damage estimates are fairly conservative (the $24 figure assumes annual damages at about 2.5% of GWP for a 4 degree increase), and of course it does depend on the discount rate selected. For a good critique, see this report by Frank Ackerman and Elizabeth Stanton for the Economics for Equity and Environment (E3) network. But in this context, there are three particularly important points:

1) The $25/ton value, while not unreasonable, is in some sense completely arbitrary;

2) “Removing” this subsidy would involve imposing a $25 (or some other value) carbon tax; and

3) The subsidy is actually being provided by those who will suffer the damages. That is to say, given the great asymmetry between emissions (highest in the industrialized world on a per capita basis) and vulnerability (greatest in developing countries and generally among the poorest in those countries), the world’s poor are subsidizing the world’s rich.

Excellent for the IMF to have brought this up, and for the Washington Post to have read enough of the report to identify the social cost of carbon value used (which is nowhere to be found in the IMF’s press release, nor in the Reuters story reported by the New York Times). Nonetheless, one can’t help thinking that the IMF is trying a little bit of a bait and switch here… It will be interesting to see who bites.

(Note that there are a completely different set of issues regarding the direct fuel subsidies, which are generally supposed to benefit low-income households but in fact largely benefit wealthier households who actually use more fossil fuels. Another time…)

 

Ackerman, F. and E. A. Stanton (2011). Climate Risks and Carbon Prices: Revising the Social Cost of Carbon. Portland, OR, Economics for Equity and Environment.

Tol, R. S. J. (2005). “The marginal damage costs of carbon dioxide emissions: an assessment of the uncertainties.” Energy Policy 33(16): 2064-2074.

Comments:

  1. Slightly random series of contradictory thoughts, apologies.

    I find it hard to accept the basic premise of using these indirect "subsidies". I asked Chris Hope, is that really a subsidy? "Yes it is; so is not requiring nuclear operators to have insurance to cover the full cost of accidents."

    Economically, I can see how the idea works; it's used in arguments about international trade, where anything that interferes with the free flow of goods is often labelled as a subsidy. (e.g. a trade barrier against imported steel = subsidy to domestic steel producers).

    But it offends my sense of precision of language. That lack of precision shows up in the ease with which the IMF headline number can be circulated as raw fact with no indication that we're talking mainly about the very slippery numbers Paul talks about.

    I've failed to track down a decent outline of the idea of translating negative externalities into subsidy terms, though I haven't looked too hard; no direct refs in the IMF doc.

    My problem with it is perhaps the same as it was when I first saw it being used to discuss international trade. In order to be able to define all and every trade barrier - of any kind whatsoever - as a subsidy, one has to accept the premise that lower trade barriers are always and everywhere a good thing. More than this, it ties to a quite utopian mathematical idea of a perfectly porous world where all those frictions have been trade-rounded away.

    The problem with that isn't necessarily the vision of international trade it supports, but the fact that it hides the actual reality. In the case of international trade, first world countries never actually removed subsidies from their agricultural sectors. So there's a political reality that this kind of economic language can obfuscate.

    (ps. I think open trade *is* generally a good thing but I'm with Ha Joon Chang: if done carefully and with some planning input to account for stage of development, political reality and democratic accountability.)

    In theory, given Paul's point that these 'subsidies' are being paid by the world's poorest, they should provide a lever for their development. I just think I'd prefer those damages were called something else to keep the language clear!

    Hmm. That's interesting. Having just written about it, I might just have completely flipped. Perhaps this is exactly how it should be discussed. How else to describe or frame that we in the first world are enjoying the fantastic benefits (for now) of the carbon we use while the poorest are getting it in the neck and will do so increasingly over the coming decades?

    As Paul mentions too, there's then a question over exact values and - for me - whether in fact we need to be finding a way to move from framing the argument in money terms. I mean, if someone's about to throw a hand grenade into your family's lounge, you don't argue about the potential cost implications, do you? As many people before me have pointed out, there's going to come a point (if we're not there already) where framing climate change in economic terms is going to start to unravel.

    Which sort of speaks to same problem I was worrying about in this recent P3 comment. We need stories that get from "increasing co2 is creating an energy imbalance" all the way through to a global civilisation dying in its own waste products.

    Er, apologies again for wandering massively off-topic.

  2. Yes, I'd prefer to see these being talked about as effective subsidies, or perhaps virtual subsidies, but I like 'effective' better. They are different from subsidies in that there is no direct intention to subsidise and no way to clearly quantify them, but they have the same effect for all that.

  3. "And since it’s hard to defend subsidies for mature products with no public-good features, this ought to get even neoliberals lining up behind it, no? Well, maybe."

    In a sense. Nobody is going to accept the absence of a carbon tax as a subsidy. However, I think you could get agreement that direct subsidies used in the developing world to enable the poor to have access to the benefits is, despite initial appearances, not a good idea. And while exemption from taxes would be seen as a good thing by people who think taxes are too high anyway - the distorting effect of applying those exemptions selectively is less than ideal. The benefits of lower taxes may outweigh the costs of price distortion, but the latter has a cost. You could perhaps more accurately say that rather than being a subsidy on energy it's a tariff on everything else. That makes it clear where the problem lies.

    But the free market view has always been that subsidies for fossil fuels are no more a good idea than subsidies on anything else - where the disagreement arises is when an attempt is made to remove fossil fuel subsidies on free trade grounds without removing renewables subsidies on the same grounds. If you want to campaign to remove both, you'll get support. If you try to campaign for the one and not the other, it will be seen as an outrageously cynical cheat. Free marketeers are not so daft as to be manipulated so easily.

    There are ways of internalising the externalities that I think you could get economic liberals to buy into. They would allow the prices to be set by the market, avoiding the arbitrariness. The cynics think that the reason they're not proposed seriously is that the actual market price would turn out to be very low, and it wouldn't lead to the societal changes or revenue increases the campaigners and politicians actually want. The market price would reveal what people *really* believed, not what they *claimed* to believe, and would therefore damage the activist cause.

    I don't know - I'm inclined to doubt it, personally. I think most of those in favour of higher taxes are the sort that would genuinely find the idea that higher taxes and more state control could be anything less than a good idea under any circumstances incomprehensible. Isn't there an upper limit to how cynical you can be about politicians? Nevertheless, it's a fact that nobody is even considering those sorts of approaches.

  4. This:

    "The market price would reveal what people *really* believed, not what they *claimed* to believe, and would therefore damage the activist cause."

    is the key to the shell game, yes. This plausible claim is historically and, er, engineeringly, naive. But it is ethically devious.

    You slyly call it the "free market" view, claiming the banner of freedom. But what it amounts to "market determinism", delegating choices in how we live to a small group controlling large amounts of capital, and arguably ultimately to a robotic optimization of capital skimming, one in which a gigantic computation engine centered at Wall Street systematically enforces decisions which systematically consume the life support systems of the planet. Maybe under the circumstances it makes sense to parse your argument a little more closely.

    I for one don't care whether my services are provided publicly or privately, just that what needs doing gets done humanely and effectively. I think this boundary is a cultural artifact. I don't think the boundary between "public" and "private" is remotely well-defined.

    (For instance, the faux-scandal about Solyndra ignores the fact that the same government funding of high-tech startups happens hundreds of times a year around the environs of every major research university in America. Startups are routinely government-seeded, and this is not limited to Democratic administrations. So the little three-patent manufactiring startup in Madison has a million dollars in federal subsidies. Is it really "private entreprise"? No, it is monetizing the public investment in public research.)

    Real estate notwithstanding, the planet belongs ultimately to it inhabitants. No system which encourages the consumption of natural capital in the production of other capital, whether public or private, is sustainable.

    The energy sector in particular as a whole is now too complex and too crucial to be treated as an entirely private enterprise.

    So.

    "The market price would reveal what people *really* believed, not what they *claimed* to believe, and would therefore damage the activist cause."

    Yes it appears that way if you accept some easy-to-swallow assumptions, but it is at least burying something under the rug. It begs the crucial tragedy of the commons question.

    Revealed preference is what people believe was in their individual interest in a given social circumstance, and implicitly disempowers them from redesigning the social circumstance.

    What I buy is not "what I want" so much as "what I need to cope with my weird circumstances". Often, what I want is a different context in which different choices were available. But market fatalism denies me the democratic power to choose to influence that context.

    Admittedly, massive redesign is risky and ordinarily to be avoided.

    But the cultural status quo is itself so unstable and dysfunctional at this time that some amount of redesign is indeed necessary. If we act quickly and intelligently, the alterations may be relatively unintrusive. The longer we wait the worse the prognosis.

    I assure you this is not "what people want" though it is, in a marketing sense, more or less their "revealed preference".

    The market has already shown us that what people want and their revealed market preferences are NOT the same thing. In my own life the distinction has always been quite evident. What I choose to do at any moment is a choice from among available options, but I haven't generally liked the options. I would like to revisit the scorekeeping system so as to reward behaviors that are appropriate in the 21st century, not the 19th.

  5. "Revealed preference is what people believe was in their individual interest in a given social circumstance, and implicitly disempowers them from redesigning the social circumstance."

    "What I choose to do at any moment is a choice from among available options, but I haven’t generally liked the options. "

    What do we want? Better options! When do we want them? Now!

    (or bloody well soon anyway)

    But seriously, I think you frame the problem well and raise a lot of the right questions. e.g., you said ""I don’t think the boundary between “public” and “private” is remotely well-defined." I completely agree with that. I've been teaching an undergraduate political economy class and writing a paper about global property rights and thus thinking a lot about public/private distinctions. The terms can hide more than they reveal. It's important to think about incentives, and monetary incentives can be particularly powerful in both public and private institutions.

  6. "There are ways of internalising the externalities that I think you could get economic liberals to buy into. They would allow the prices to be set by the market, avoiding the arbitrariness."

    I'm curious what you are actually thinking of here. For a global commons problem like the externalities of carbon I don't think there's any non-arbitrary "market" system that can be used to set prices. Logically you can set the price or you can set the quantity, but you can't leave both to "the market."

    More generally, however, I think you miss a bigger point: there is a very specific logic of subsidies which determines when they are welfare-improving. A failure to tax the carbon externality leads to a welfare loss because carbon harm is underpriced thus overproduced. Subsidies on (for example) renewable technologies which reduce harmful externalities from carbon but are not privately cost effective are a direct compensation for the failure of carbon taxing.

  7. Thanks Dan - much to ponder. (Also I'm not sure what precisely the connection to the "recent P3 comment" was that you're trying to make, but it was interesting to read anyway.)

    For example you write, "In order to be able to define all and every trade barrier – of any kind whatsoever – as a subsidy, one has to accept the premise that lower trade barriers are always and everywhere a good thing. "

    Now maybe if you flipped you no longer believe this is true. Which would be good, because it's not true. You can analytically identify subsidies as "trade barriers" simply by noting that exactly what they're supposed to do is change relative prices, which will reduce certain kinds of trade; the question is, was the trade harmful at the margin? Subsidies and trade barriers can be on net good or bad, and in spite of the fact that any such decisions involve potentially controversial value judgments, there's actually a surprisingly large domain of agreement about what are likely to be welfare-improving subsidies.

    And I totally share your concern about monetizing everything we care about. I'm a pluralist, and I do believe that relatively straightforward economic metaphors can be indispensable for practical reasoning (and policymaking) -- it's really, really helpful to be able to explain in money terms why reducing an externality is a good thing. But (and every economist actually knows this) there are decisions about rights that are in some deep sense fundamentally prior to any markets. I can't request a payment from you for the service of not killing you directly with a gun, my bare hands, etc.; I have a right for you not to harm me like that.

    At the moment, though, I have no right for you not to harm me by climate change/ GHG pollution. Am I subsidizing your pollution?

  8. I believe the principal enemies of nuclear energy are the fossil fuel interests, and among these, the least accountable and most powerful are first-world countries' public service sectors. Unrebated tax on the carbon in fossil fuels gives them an incentive to oppose effective means of fossil fuel conservation and substitution.

    Adding a cost to fossil fuel use to make each user compensate the rest of us in proportion to CO2 emitted seems good. But one group's cost is another group's revenue. The IMF seems oblivious to the potential for great harm if the money everyone is required to pay to everyone, in reparation for fossil fuel waste dumping damages, is received by a small subset of everyone.

    Elsewhere I spoke of the wrong people getting the concentrated fossil fuel money stream, but is it even possible for any people to be the right ones? If they start out right, they won't remain so.

    But what if a government's fossil fuel income were rebated, Hansen-style, to the citizens in equal dividends? The half of the population whose per-person rate of fossil fuel burning is less than the national average is almost exactly the poorest half. These low users would all become a little less poor.

    The people who would become slightly less rich are the half of the population that burns more fossil fuel carbon per person than the average. Because these people are almost exactly the population's richer half, most investors are among them.

    Also among them are most of the the public servants who decide how and whether fossil fuel conservation and substitution shall be allowed. No longer would they be in conflict of interest.

    There are two extreme options: (1) add more cost to fossil fuel use and let government dispose of the resulting revenue in the same way it disposes of any revenue, and (2) leave the added costs as they are, and rebate to the citizens, in equal dividends, the fossil fuel revenue government is already getting.

    Obviously I like 2. Perhaps someone who likes 1 can phrase it less prejudicially.

  9. Last point first...
    "More generally, however, I think you miss a bigger point: there is a very specific logic of subsidies which determines when they are welfare-improving."

    The issue is how do you determine the right price? The impacts of climate change are individual, subjective, and uncertain. They're neither uniform nor universally agreed. Some people care about wildlife, and others don't. Some people appreciate the fruits of technology, and others don't. Even if we agreed about what will happen, some people will benefit and others will suffer, and some people will claim to suffer more than they actually do, so how do we charge everyone the right amount?

    Isn't it just some bureaucrat's opinion?

    --

    "I’m curious what you are actually thinking of here."

    I mentioned it briefly in a previous comment. There are other situations where actions taken now affect uncertain events in the future, and the way this is dealt with is to create a 'futures market'.

    Contracts are traded the value of which depends on those future events. For example, you can trade grain at the price it will have in two years time. If the price goes up, you make a profit, if the price goes down you make a loss. But the reason it is such a useful thing to do is that it brings the expectations about those future events into the present-day market. If it looks like prices are going to go up - for example, because bad weather is forecast which will damage crops - then it becomes profitable to buy it now, raising investment money that draws more producers into growing grain. Information and expectations about the future are turned into current value, which makes it profitable to acquire that information, and makes doing something about it in advance profitable. This is just what you want.

    The equivalent for climate change would be to set up contracts the value of which depended on future climate outcomes. For example, you could make a contract to pay out face value plus 10%/yr on the day sea level rise passes 1 metre, or becomes void on January 1st 2100. Its ultimate value is either 'lots' or 'zero', depending on what happens. It's value *now* is somewhere between depending on what people believe will happen.

    If you think the value will go down in future, you'll sell them to people who think the value will go up in future. The most money will be made by the people with the best information. The market will settle on an equilibrium price, which reflects our collective best understanding of what is going to happen.

    Equally, you can sell futures whose value will drop if climate change happens. For example, a contract that pays 10%/yr in 2100, unless sea level rises above 1 metre when it becomes void. Let's call the former "up-futures" and the latter "down-futures".

    Once the value of future climate change is reflected in the present, you can now use these assets to fund action on climate change. If you're concerned you're country is going to get flooded, buy a lot of up-futures to act as insurance for the event, to build flood defences or evaccuate. Their value will rise considerably if it happens. If you want to do research into renewable energy, sell down-futures to raise the funds. As the seas rise, the value of the commitment will drop to zero and it won't cost you a cent. If you want an energy-intensive manufacturing company to switch to renewables, offer to pay the cost difference in down-futures. If you want to subsidise renewables, pay the subsidy in up-futures. If you want to impose a carbon tax or tariff, charge it in up-futures.

    People who truly don't believe in global warming can't complain, because as far as they're concerned it's either huge profits for them, or worthless paper that's not costing them a cent. People who are absolutely convinced of global warming can't complain either, because it's either worthless paper being given to polluters, or huge profits which will pay for the action to be taken.

    And as time passes and we know more, those who suddenly realise that their investments are going down will either try to buy them back, providing more funding, or try to do something to stop the event happening. Which they choose also depends on their direct preferences for the different outcomes.

    It's not perfect, and I'm probably not explaining it very well. If you think it's hard to understand what 'money' is, then future derivatives are probably even worse! But I think you'd get more buy-in from economic liberals with a scheme like this than with carbon taxes or regulation. Conversely, though, would there be any support from those sceptical of free markets? I'd be interested to know what you think.

  10. Thanks Paul. In my head, I think I was thinking of examples of publicly funded goods like the UK's NHS. One of the arguments against changing its status from a public service is precisely that it could become susceptible to international competition law that would see any government investment as a potential subsidy and thus a trade distortion. As it happens, it looks like that's exactly what might be happening with the NHS right now. This is a slippery topic that I have a lot of half-formed ideas about: the connection between neoclassical welfare models and their use as political tools. I don't buy into the full-on view of economics as a neoliberal priesthood providing legitimacy to neo-colonialism as I've seen/found too much value in some of the modelling ideas - but it's a complex relationship.

    On revealed preference. MT: "Revealed preference is what people believe was in their individual interest in a given social circumstance, and implicitly disempowers them from redesigning the social circumstance."

    I see revealed preference as like temperature/pressure: a highly useful aggregate way to think about economic outcomes. I don't see why anyone has to mistake it for the only choices available any more than someone would think redesigning a pressure cooker wouldn't have an effect on temp/pressure outcomes. Physicists seem happy to think in different modes; with economic ideas people always seem to want to attach them to a single, intuitive human reality. Maybe that's natural and why economic ideas meet such resistance.

    e.g. for people getting to work, "savings in walking and waiting times are valued at between two and three times savings in on-vehicle time" is revealed preference. A person will drive for an hour to work where they won't walk. I think that's a useful way to think about it - but it doesn't in any way rob us of the ability to ask what underlies it. It is purely an aggregate description of outcomes in a given setting. No-one thinks talking about temperature and pressure means atomic kinetics isn't important.

  11. "I see revealed preference as like temperature/pressure: a highly useful aggregate way to think about economic outcomes. I don’t see why anyone has to mistake it for the only choices available any more than someone would think redesigning a pressure cooker wouldn’t have an effect on temp/pressure outcomes."

    As such I agree. My quote was in the context of presuming for the sake of argument the ideology which NiV calls "free market" ideology, which I prefer to call "market determinism" or "market fatalism", which in the guise of freedom is disempowering and, not incidentally, sets the world on autopilot toward smashing into a wall.

    Consider the vehemence of this reaction to my assertion that "people shouldn't expect to get paid much for some of the most important work. Not everything that needs doing has a business model."

    The dude says "are you working on solving real world pollution problems that are efficient enough to be sold on the free market? If not, you are just part of the problem."

    Market fatalism in a nutshell.

    Philosophically, the ethical argument for a vigorous marketplace is always utilitarian, and as such I entirely agree with it. The trouble is that market fatalists, considering that they have proven the utility of the market in general, proceed to an unshakable belief that they have proven it in any particular instance.

    Which I claim is woefully ignorant of both history and of engineering. It's also immensely convenient for those profiting from the status quo. In the end, their idea of "liberty" is, in fact, the opposite of liberty. Rather than designing a marketplace for maximum utility, they pretend a marketplace emerges without design, despite all the evidence of history.

    Sorry to interrupt your fascinating conversation with Paul but I felt I needed to clarify my point here.

  12. We're so far down the nest that NiV's latest (7:29 am) post doesn't have a "reply" option. But that's what I'm replying to.

    About pricing externalities - you're right, getting the "price right" is in some ways an impossible task. However, like most policy questions, there is evidence that can be brought to bear. Arguably the decision for something like a carbon tax should be democratic, which an implies a legislative decision, or even a bureaucrat with the appropriate legislative authority.

    About climate change futures - I understand the principle and it's not a bad idea in theory. But as a practical matter, I suspect that people are unlikely to want to invest in things which won't pay off for decades. But I don't know how futures markets in new commodities get started in any case. I presume you could get an appropriate lawyer to write exactly such a contract and go try to sell it (ebay?) I don't think it's likely to scale, though.

  13. First of all, in the US in particular there is no substantial added cost to fossil fuel. Don't know if you're thinking of any other countries. So here, anyway, there's nothing to rebate, with the possible exception of gasoline taxes which are generally dedicated to road building.

    Second, the problem you're raising in (1) is primarily about whether government can effectively spend any revenue. If the answer is no, then you're right, there's no point in giving them any money from a carbon tax. On the other hand, the answer plainly isn't no. Most governments spend most of their money reasonably effectively.

    Third, I do think that the carbon tax needed to reduce emissions substantially would be so high that rebating most or all of it is an essential matter for equity. So in fact I'm a strong supporter of cap and dividend or fee and dividend. (The real problem here is that we no longer have any claim to a significant share of the global "atmospheric space" - we mostly need to be dividing up a big bill that we owe to others. But that's another story.)

    Finally, though, I just want to point out that your starting premise - that "First World public sectors are the biggest obstacle to nuclear power" (or any other fossil-fuel alternative) - doesn't pass the laugh test. How is the public sector (and I'm not even sure what you mean here - Congress? The EPA?) in a position to benefit from fossil fuel extraction in a way remotely comparable to say, the management or shareholders of ExxonMobil? And how is anyone in the public sector less accountable than a multinational corporation?

  14. Paul: "I suspect that people are unlikely to want to invest in things which won’t pay off for decades."

    This gets into the discount rate puzzle pretty quickly.

    I still don't understand what money actually is. To be more specific, money makes sense on a day-to-day basis, but over centuries I find that it become meaningless.

    The discount rate applies to economic reasoning as much as it does to money. Beyond a century two, value arguments denominated in dollars become irrelevant. That doesn't let us off the hook ethically. Quite the contrary, I think.

  15. Actually I think that the metaphor you use for "revealed preference" is exactly wrong. It would seem to suggest that, whatever the molecules actually want, the outcome is going to be the average of what's determined by the individual conditions. Go as fast as you want, the bottle won't heat up.

    In economic theory revealed preference applies to individuals; but then it's used to incorrectly draw aggregate conclusions. An example I love to use is wolves. Some people will pay to see wolves, others pay to kill them. If you have the right mix you can show that the net value of wolves is zero. But any conclusion drawn from that aggregate valuation would miss everything important.

  16. "About climate change futures – I understand the principle and it’s not a bad idea in theory. But as a practical matter, I suspect that people are unlikely to want to invest in things which won’t pay off for decades."

    They pay off whenever you sell them to somebody else. At any given time there's a market price for them, which goes up and down as people change their beliefs about the likelihood of the event coming to pass. You buy them at one price and sell them (hopefully!) at a higher price. You don't have to wait for the end date to make money.

    But in a sense "people are unlikely to want to invest in things which won’t pay off for decades" is precisely the climate change mitigation problem. Who wants to invest their own prosperity today in ensuring their far richer and more capable descendents in hundreds of years time will have the payoff of a cooler climate? Assuming you do want action today on climate change, isn't that exactly what you're doing? Aren't you yourself a counterexample to that principle?

  17. This statement is either naive or manipulative:

    I think most of those in favour of higher taxes are the sort that would genuinely find the idea that higher taxes and more state control could be anything less than a good idea under any circumstances incomprehensible.

    It is an age-old problem that on the whole progressives have a great deal of imagination and sympathy/empathy for those who disagree with them. Personally, I know this is not true of a single liberal I know. I have always been sympathetic to true conservative values. History has shown that people don't self-regulate, and anti-regulatory sentiment has been exploited for profit. But that doesn't mean that good old-fashioned liberals like myself can't see the point of view.

    Unfortunately, as far as I've been able to discern, this sympathy for opposing points of view is not a symptom of our current Republican party, but it still evidences itself in social occasions with friends who happen to be politically different.

  18. The staggering assumption that a cooler future is possible and our descendants are in the current situation likely to be far richer and more capable is hard to answer.

    I've been thinking about this in a slightly different context, having appointed myself to answer denial upon occasion. What boggles is the absolute refusal to even look at the majority view of climate science without the filter of some second-rate but clever misdirection about it.

    It's so obvious, but people trained to believe that if they disagree with WUWT or Inhofe or Monckton they are sinning against their tribe seem unable to absorb straightforward unbiased information. They will seize on any minutiae as long as it fits their worldview, and ignore any massive accretion of facts likewise.

    Yes, there is a cooler future in store, in geologic time (multiple millenia), but the hump we face in the next thousand years, particularly in the next decades, is likely to do some massive culling of the earth's biggest predator.

    But I'm wandering from the point about markets and pricing carbon. I can only justify this by saying that if we don't find some way to wean the market off carbon, we will all die together when we go, as Tom Lehrer said in another context, "every Hottentot and every Eskimo". Clever discussions about philosophy are just another way to pass the time, and time is just what we don't have. But as you have observed, it ain't gonna happen. So what's next?

  19. I think that the "cooler" future is meant as relative to the non-mitigating scenario, not to today, so I think we can let him off the hook for that one.

    But the idea that increasing wealth is automatic is plainly belied by the present situation, as well as the fact that the planet is finite and many of its resources are being systematically consumed at the most profligate possible way, optimizing for near-term undiscounted profit.

  20. Are there any event-contingent century-maturing bonds?

    I would discount them mostly on the grounds that they wouldn't be in force at maturity. I don't think either stripe would actually sell.

    Let's be clear. Consider a bond worth $100 if sea level is up over a meter and another worth $100 is it isn't. (If it's a close call, each is worth $50.) Then the total value of the two should be $100 discounted over a century. But I don't think anybody will buy them at any price.

    But I could be wrong; this is far from my expertise. If NiV believes in them NiV can go ahead and try to get some financial institution to issue them. No point arguing the case around here.

  21. "In economic theory revealed preference applies to individuals; but then it’s used to incorrectly draw aggregate conclusions."

    Apols, this is still o/t, but some quick thoughts (bearing in mind that Paul is an economics prof and I'm just someone who read some economics to help with his geography PhD!)

    A lot of economists are really bad for blurring whether they're talking about individuals or aggregates, not least because a lot of the time they're talking about a 'representative agent' standing in for everyone who just happens to have exactly the tastes of a single person.

    It's a tricksy one: too many economists clearly end up in a situation where revealed preference makes their theories untestable: behaviour of any sort is assumed a priori to have some underlying cost explanation. e.g. Becker's rational addiction theory. When this kind of hermetic theory starts being touted - that's when my alarm bells go off, as it starts to cross over into making the world fit the model rather than using the model as an engine of analysis.

    With the wolf example, attempting to deduce anything about individual revealed preferences obviously fails - but that's a statistical issue, isn't it, as well as a modeller's choice? I don't think it contradicts the usefulness of the idea in all circumstances. This is a point that (despite myself) I've found Friedman's writing on modelling to be absolutely fantastic - with the simple message being "everything depends on the problem". Friedman's thinking on modelling comes his "quotidian practice of economics, not abstract epistemology" (Hoover) which is why, in the process of actually trying to model-build, I've found it so useful. Again, it's something that happens in physics without anyone batting an eyelid. Friedman himself uses the example of a frictionless gravity equation working for some objects and not others; I also saw a recent climate example where sometimes you don't have to account for a planet's spin and sometimes you do. In neither case does anyone say that means the modelling ideas themselves are always and everywhere wrong.

    So with the transport example: if I'm saying there's a 'revealed preference' that people will willingly spend an hour driving to work but not an hour walking, what use is that? First, it does entirely allow you to ask 'why'? The structural layout of cities is obviously key. But I'd like to bet there's something more fundamental to do with people's general response to using their own muscles (which is, again, a deeper explanation than 'revealed preference'). I have a colleague who's modelling the physiological and calorific limits to cycling as transport (in the event of there being no fuel at all), which is answerable on those terms. But it won't say anything about people's desire to do so. In the world he's modelling where there's no fuel, of course any revealed preference will show a lot more people cycling!

    But the basic idea of revealed preference is still useful, at least to me. It takes seriously that human behaviour has some basis in the real structures people have to deal with. I find that a more valid approach than a great deal of what I hear from e.g. transition people, where those numbers would merely provoke a lament on the moral failings of people using cars, as if that was ever likely to change anything. This particular revealed preference result says to me, 'take people's preference for car time seriously and work with that; don't work with an idea of people you'd prefer existed.'

    p.s. The individual-aggregate relationship is important for my PhD stuff; I'm bouncing off Kirman's critique of the 'representative agent' where he points out that aggregate economic results might make *more* sense if individuals have heterogenous tastes that aggregate into economically 'well-behaved' (convex), rather than assuming one perfect agent can stand in for everyone.

    So much else on this thread to respond to! Apols MT for not engaging with your discussion about market freedom yet, it's really interesting.

  22. Well, I'm not exactly an "economics professor" (the one time I tried to play one in a graduate microeconomics course ended somewhat ignominiously), but I am a professor, and I've been studying economics for a long time (I do have an undergraduate degree in economics). And I have spent a lot of time in the literature that's critical of neoclassical economics.

    You're right that the "representative agent" issue is a key one. Clearly you've found your way into that literature, so you probably know as much or more about it than I do now. How exactly does the aggregation issue fit into your research? (Feel free to take this off line unless it's relevant to the thread).

  23. Michael's correct - I meant 'cooler' relative to non-mitigation options. I was discussing the decision as from the point of view of somebody who saw that as the choice.

    As for whether people will be richer in the future, that's the prediction of mainstream economics, as used by the IPCC. (http://www.ipcc.ch/ipccreports/sres/emission/index.php?idp=100) Although as you can imagine, I don't see disgreement with the expert consensus as necessarily a bad thing. Still, the people of 2100 will be to us as we are to the people of 1920. It's hard to imagine that things won't look very different.

    What options for adaptation to climate change would open up if we were all 20 times richer? That's a serious question.

    --

    "But the idea that increasing wealth is automatic is plainly belied by the present situation"

    Do you mean the economic recession? But if you look at the top wealthiest years of the past century, they're all in the most recent decades, and if you look at the longer term record, remove 'noise', and smooth it heavily, it's still going up. It's a bit like global mean surface temperature anomaly that way. 🙂

    No, it's not automatic. I can think of several ways it could be stopped, including things like cutting off access to cheap energy. But it's probably the default, unless we decide differently. That's a big part of the decision we have to make now, and why people argue against changing paths.

    --

    "as well as the fact that the planet is finite and many of its resources are being systematically consumed at the most profligate possible way"

    Yes. I think Ehrlich said civilisation would have ended by the year 2000?

    I've been fascinated for a long time by the persistence of the neo-Malthusian belief system. It seems to recur periodically in new forms every few decades. I'm not going to argue. But if you think we're all doomed anyway because we're going to run out of resources, why worry about global warming? Is your idea to try to address both in parallel, or do you think fixing one will fix the other, or do you think fixing one will lessen the overall impact in a meaningful way? Or is it just something to do while you wait?

  24. "What options for adaptation to climate change would open up if we were all 20 times richer? That’s a serious question."

    I'm more interested in what options for mitigation would open up.

    I am totally unconvinced that there is any realistic mitigation-free scenario in which in any realistic sense we "were all 20 times richer". I think your question is based in a fantasy.

    Essentially, though, what we'd want more than anything is climate control. Call it an adaptation, or call it after-the-fact mitigation. But we can't even manage it now, when what needs doing is obvious!

    I am sure your question implicitly envisions a future wherein commerce acts as unfettered as now or more so. But that's necessarily a future wherein international agreement on climate modification is as impossible as it is today and for the same reasons.

    Frankly, though, if anything like our current civilization survives unmitigated climate change, I believe agriculture will be conducted indoors. Perhaps this means food will be 20 times as "expensive" whatever that means. So being 20 times "richer" just means we will still get to eat. Many other things will be 20 times as expensive as well. So we had better get "richer" as a survival strategy in a world weher other people are also "richer". In fact, it's not clear we live better than our 20-times poorer ancestors did on many axes.

    I am sure, for instance, they would not bid much for a butterfly. Have you seen one recently? What was until recently the most common species in North America is in rapid decline.

    How does a world with butterflies compare to one without? Do we have the right to continue to greatly diminish the world in pursuit of the "options" available if we were "richer"? We cannot buy back the carrier pigeon, and soon enough we might be unable to buy back the Monarch butterfly.

    The recession has different lessons for me than for most. Maybe worth a posting.

    As fro Malthusianism, true, Ehrlich turned out to be pessimistic, but so far only by a decade or so. The Club of Rome predictions are still on target.

    "Doc said it'll kill me but he won't say when." like the old song goes. Or "past performance is no guarantee of future results" as the mutual funds are forced to say. Or "I've fallen sixty stories and I'm still just fine" as the man who jumped off an eighty-story building thought.

    The logic of Mathus is pretty solid. We may keep escaping it by technical cleverness, but why maximize rather than minimize that risk? And meanwhile, the Malthusian issues keep piling up.

  25. OT alert!

    I was looking up Martin Rees - an amazing guy - and ended up at the Royal Society wikipedia page. Now, I guess I could have looked up NiV, not having much latin, but there it was! The motto of the Royal Society, which means in that translation "take nobody's word for it". Some fascinating entries, and an error that I will not go back to correct - they neglected Martin Rees, who is some guy!

    One never knows when one will learn something new. And I *love* Martin Rees, even if he is a catastrophist. I have the most amazing book, "The Universe", which it appears is out in a new printing (doubt it will be as good quality as the old, and in this case you want a good copy):
    http://www.amazon.com/Universe-Martin-Rees/dp/0756698413/ref=sr_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1364764373&sr=1-3&keywords=martin+rees

    Do take a look - it lets you see a lot of the front pages, priceless.

  26. "if we were all 20 times richer" => let the future take care of itself

    More selfish than serious IMO.

  27. Yes, but presumably they had a predictable yield in the intervening years. Tying up money in a state-contingent bond without a coupon seems rather unrealistic.

  28. "I’m more interested in what options for mitigation would open up."

    Fair enough. That would be interesting too.

    --

    "I am totally unconvinced that there is any realistic mitigation-free scenario in which in any realistic sense we “were all 20 times richer”. I think your question is based in a fantasy."

    It was based in the IPCC's SRES A1 scenarios. Global income per capita rises from $3700-$4000 up to $74900 (in 1990 US dollars) in 2100. The A1F1 scenario is usually described as the "business as usual" scenario.

    Although I'd personally expect that we'd have moved off fossil fuels by then as technology progresses, so I suppose the BAU I have in mind does involve mitigation too.

    --

    "But that’s necessarily a future wherein international agreement on climate modification is as impossible as it is today and for the same reasons."

    Probably. Although with more information about *actual* costs/impacts the case might be easier to make.

    --

    "I believe agriculture will be conducted indoors. Perhaps this means food will be 20 times as “expensive” whatever that means."

    Good suggestion!

    Hydroponics are already in use for certain high-value crops, is able to supply higher quality produce more conveniently and with less use of pesticides, fresh water, and land.

    One source I've found says the cost of producing crops in a greenhouse is about double that of producing them in fields. Although for current food chain about 80% of the cost is off-farm overheads - marketing, processing, distribution, and retailing. It generally requires either customers willing to pay a premium for quality, or for normal transport costs to be unusually high. (e.g. there's a facility at the South Pole research station that supplies fresh vegetables to the staff.)

    Proposals for "vertical farming" take the concept to the extreme. These do require artificial lighting, though, and are therefore energy intensive. The economics don't appear to be commercially competetive at the moment, but I haven't seen any detailed study.

    --

    "I am sure, for instance, they would not bid much for a butterfly."

    If the cost of saving butterflies is fixed, rich people would be more willing to pay it than poor people.

    People do like butterflies, but the butterflies have to compete with everything else people like. Would poor people give up 20% of their income to save the butterflies? Would rich people give up 1%?

    --

    "The logic of Malthus is pretty solid. We may keep escaping it by technical cleverness, but why maximize rather than minimize that risk?"

    I like Henry George's pithy reply to Malthus:
    "Both the jayhawk and the man eat chickens; but the more jayhawks, the fewer chickens, while the more men, the more chickens."

    The question is: are chickens finite?

    Technical cleverness is what humans do naturally. We use cleverness to *create* resources, and the more of it we do the more resources we have. In the past we didn't have enough resources, and were always on the brink of running out. The risk we fear today was then reality. By creating new resources on an industrial scale now many of us live comfortable lives our ancestors could only dream of, and we are on the path to creating enough for everyone. This *is* the minimum risk approach.

    However, I have found this in the past to be an unbridgeable philosophical divide. So I usually have to agree to disagree, and am happy to skip straight to that on this occasion. But if you was looking for ideas you could get neoliberals to line up behind, I'm afraid this is what you'll be faced with.

  29. "20 times richer".

    This reminds me of mt's question "What is money?". At the basis it is energy (thermodynamically more precise: Energy that can be put to work. Sometimes called exergy). You need lots of cheap concentrated energy to get industry to produce riches. And money is a symbolic representation of produced and future riches. Even gold is just symbolic. That's why the rich industrialized nations have historically had lots of fossil fuel. Ugo Bardi gives a nice illustration about old Italy and Mussolini not getting this economic detail.

    So, with cheap fossil fuel gone (plus the consumption now being geno-suicidal) it is highly unlikely we will be 20 times richer in the future. (Nuclear power is ever farther from getting too cheap to meter, plus it's not as mobile as fossil fuel.) See also: EROEI.

    Actually, I find dreams and "theories" of future riches bordering to pathologic wishful thinking.

  30. "Nullius in verba"
    -- by Horatio Algeranon

    I owe no allegiance to Masters
    Especially not to Jeff
    Who thinks that climate disasters
    Will make us dumb and deaf

    From wikipedia Nullius in verba

    The phrase came from Horace's Epistles, where he compared himself to a gladiator who, having retired, is free from any Master's control.
    These are the words, forming two hexameters in the original context:

    "Nullius addictus iurare in verba magistri, - quo me cumque rapit tempestas, deferor hospes."
    "(being) not obliged to swear allegiance to a master, wherever the storm drags me to, I turn in as a guest."

    The latter is an unambiguous reference to Jeff Masters, who was widely recognized as a global warming alarmist even in Roman times by skeptics like Horace**

    **no relation

  31. Paul Baer says,

    ... rebating most or all [fossil fuel carbon tax revenue] is an essential matter for equity.

    Agreed. So if I understand you correctly, you like dividing out to the citizens any significant income that government gets on carbon, but you think no such significant income exists yet.

    I put together some evidence that this income is significant, but maybe first a thought experiment would be useful. Imagine yourself transported to an alternate world where government does indeed make good money on fossil fuels that it cannot make when they are replaced. What might the signs of this be?

  32. Umm, Congressional Budget Office Reports?

    It seems pretty plain to me that the money that matters to elected officials from fossil fuels comes as campaign contributions, and for for both congresspeople, poitical appointees and civil servants, as promises of future private sector employment at two or four times the salary that any tax-supported position could pay.

    If you can identify "signs" of activities in your alternate world motivated by the fear that FF revenues are going away that are not also plausible signs of (what I said above) in this world, I'll try to be open minded. But I'm very skeptical.

  33. “Take nobody’s word for it” is a translation that neglects the context in which the Royal Society was formed. "Nothing in words" or "mere words cannot suffice" is an explicit challenge to fundamentalism, a claim that a Biblical exegesis carries no weight in scientific discourse. It really means "reject dogma and seek evidence". As such it is still consonant with modern science.

    "Take nobody's word for it" is not. It implies that the soloist's reasoning has equal value to that of the community. It is a recipe for crackpottery. Pure science is far more vulnerable to this than applied science, of course, because in the end the perpetual motion machine does not work.
    The sky dragon hypothesis fails too, but its proponent never has to face the fact, instead constructing further epicycles to defend their original claim.

    We've just seen our own Nullius doing exactly this. It's not clear whether he knows how or why this is not science at all.

  34. Can you tell us an example where we create (rather than transform) resources? (Destroying soil or rain forest to feed chicken, cows and humans does not count.)

    The problem with technical cleverness is that it is often not informed by wisdom and science. And so the cleverness turns into a vicious circle, requiring new cleverness to mitigate the consequences of old cleverness.

  35. it is highly unlikely we will be 20 times richer in the future.

    You mean we won't all have 100 iPads/Pods/Homes/Drones in the future?

    "iWealth"
    -- by Horatio Algeranon

    "Wealth = iPad"
    Where "i" is the count
    "Waste = iFad"
    Where "i" is a mount

    If "i = i"
    Then "Wealth = Waste"
    Pie in the sky
    Riches erased

  36. A billion humans living at 19th century standards could be sustained indefinitely; a little climate engineering to avoid the next ice age would have been easy under the circumstances, as we have convincingly proven. Compared to five thousand years earlier, that is a lot of created wealth already.

    Matter conservation is not violated, so in a sense no "resources" are created, but that is sort of a shallow way of looking at it.

    The crucial thing is to keep ten billion apes reasonably comfortable. Angry apes are not manageable. Technical cleverness is needed even to avoid disaster.

    Consequently the most serious question at hand is how many humans at what level we can sustain.

    It seems unlikely that ten billion humans living like American suburbanites is actually possible. If that's the "revealed preference" for how we want to live, then we cannot have it. If "growth" requires impacting the environment in that way, "growth" will fail somehow and the key questions are what tips it into the new regime, and what that regime will look like.

    It seems to me that difficult as it is, the easiest thing to do is to modify our preferences. It is not easy because "growth" is built into many of our adaptations. We think we can put "money" into a "bank" and get a "return" on our "investment". This belief is so fundamental to our organization that we cannot imagine it otherwise, and consequently we cannot imagine the operational structures of a post-growth economy.

    Whether technical cleverness can keep what we call growth going for some considerable time, and if it can whether it should, do not strike me as easy questions the way they do so many others. But eventually it will fail us; that is inevitable.

  37. "Can you tell us an example where we create (rather than transform) resources?"

    This rather depends on having a shared understanding of the word "resource". Resources are created by transforming material that is of no direct use into stuff that is useful. A useless reddish rock is transformed by the invention of iron-making into valuable iron ore, which is transformed by refining into iron, which is transformed by iron-working into tools, which enable the transformation of scrub land barely able to support a few hunter-gatherers into fertile agricultural land able to support hundreds, which is used to transform sunlight, carbon dioxide and water into food, the inedible waste left over from which is transformed into chickens and hence more food, and the inedible waste from the chickens and cattle and humans is used to create more fertile soil.

    Soil is continually created from sand, clay, and organic waste, both naturally and by farming. If it wasn't, the world would obviously have run out of it millions of years ago. And we would not have been able to expand agricultural production the way we have on the soil that existed naturally. We effectively manufacture it. You could say the more people there are the more soil there is.

    Yes, you're quite right that cleverness often requires new cleverness to mitigate the shortcomings of the old cleverness - progress is gradual, perfection is not achieved in a single step. But at each step, the benefits outweigh the shortcomings, or we wouldn't have done it. The consequences are smaller and easier to manage than the problem the original cleverness was meant to solve. It is very easy for us from the perspective of our post-cleverness world to forget what it was like to have the original problem, and bemoan the remaining lesser problems bequeathed to us. The rich have different concerns to the poor. And after we have solved the current problems, our great grandchildren will in turn think them trivial and have different (and lesser) problems still. That's progress.

  38. "You could say the more people there are the more soil there is."
    But you couldn't say that indefinitely.

    "progress is gradual, perfection is not achieved in a single step. But at each step, the benefits outweigh the shortcomings, or we wouldn’t have done it"
    I strongly doubt your final condition. Do you think there is some collective consciousness which assesses whether on balance a step is a good one?
    As it happens we haven't yet (hopefully, but I'm not overly confident of that) taken any steps which have led to globally significant or irreversible (on any meaningful timescale) reductions in the quality of our lives. Possible candidates that come to mind are CFCs and lead in petrol. There was no thought at the time that the benefits outweighed the shortcomings and it was only later that these shortcomings were properly understood and action taken to reverse the problems. Fortunately both problems were reasonably discrete and easy to solve. Continued burning of fossil fuel is certainly not an easy to solve or discrete problem and I see little evidence that we show collective recognition that the shortcomings are outweighing the benefits. By the time we do so I suspect it will be too late to reverse the problem to avoid some of those shortcomings.

  39. NiV, you hit the prime example. Alas things don't look that rosy...

    Soil is continually created from sand, clay, and organic waste, both naturally and by farming. If it wasn’t, the world would obviously have run out of it millions of years ago. And we would not have been able to expand agricultural production the way we have on the soil that existed naturally. We effectively manufacture it. You could say the more people there are the more soil there is.

    It's not that simple. Just growing stuff and putting the harvest somewhere else depletes soil of nutrients. 19th century soil scientist Justus Liebig already knew that and called current (then and now) agriculture "robbery". The artificial fertilizer widely used today just masks the problem, for it depletes soil life in turn, locking the farmer in a vicious circle of ever more reliance on fertilizer input. But soil life (microorganisms and worms) is essential for stable soil.

    Nitrogen input is easy (Haber Bosch process) - our bodies' nitrogen meanwhile is mostly Haber Bosch nitrogen. Phosphorous needs to be mined - leading to peak phosphorous in the near future. And there's more.

    In theory we could manufacture (at least, sustain) soil by practicing organic agriculture and human excrement recycling. In practice, almost all civilizations have collapsed due to depletion of soil (e.g. look at the "fertile crsecent" of old and the current violent collapse of Syria). The only exception to this historic rule that I'm aware of is Edo period Japan.

    Prof. John Crawford tells:

    A rough calculation of current rates of soil degradation suggests we have about 60 years of topsoil left. Some 40% of soil used for agriculture around the world is classed as either degraded or seriously degraded – the latter means that 70% of the topsoil, the layer allowing plants to grow, is gone. Because of various farming methods that strip the soil of carbon and make it less robust as well as weaker in nutrients, soil is being lost at between 10 and 40 times the rate at which it can be naturally replenished. Even the well-maintained farming land in Europe, which may look idyllic, is being lost at unsustainable rates.

    Which is also a significant cause of global warming (soil life C outgassing as CO2). In theory this could be reversed,
    as Rattan Lal has observed long ago.
    We "only" need to put at least half the world population to work as small-scale organic farmers, with some help from Cuba...

  40. Why is "small scale" necessary?

    I believe that under accelerating climate change, the economic structure of agriculture at least can no longer be local.

    It's also conceivable to me that agriculture and soil restoration are separate projects.

  41. "It’s not that simple. Just growing stuff and putting the harvest somewhere else depletes soil of nutrients."

    Obviously. Which is why we don't do that.

    --

    "for it depletes soil life in turn, locking the farmer in a vicious circle of ever more reliance on fertilizer input."

    Not really. They can stop any time they like and go back to the old ways. But then their yields would *drop*.

    You can hunt/gather from what nature provides naturally. Agriculture provides a lot more food from a lot less land, but then you're locked into the "vicious cycle" of having to do ever more agriculture.

    That's the way it works. Technology enables higher yields, so you have to use technology to get the higher yields. That's not a bad thing, because we have the technology. The old problem was worse. The new problem is much smaller.

    And I'd be interested to know by what mechanism adding extra nutrients essential for life depletes soil life? A bit counter-intuitive, that. Do you mean that if waste vegetable matter is taken away rather than being left to rot, that depletes soil life? Yes, but it comes back again if you start using rotting vegetable matter for fertilizer again. Soil life is easily reproduced, and not in short supply. It's not that we can't have it if we want it. It's that it's simply not necessary.

    If you've got no better use for it, you can leave it to rot if you want to. It's not hard.

    --

    "Phosphorous needs to be mined"

    No it doesn't. Phosphorus is obtained cheapest mined. We're perfectly capable of recycling it. It's just more expensive (currently) than it's worth.

    --

    "In theory we could manufacture (at least, sustain) soil by practicing organic agriculture and human excrement recycling. In practice, ..."

    In both theory and practice, we can do without soil entirely. Hydroponics and aeroponics can provide the necessary nutrients to the plants directly, in the right proportions, no waste, no shortages.

    --

    "Because of various farming methods that strip the soil of carbon and make it less robust as well as weaker in nutrients, soil is being lost at between 10 and 40 times the rate at which it can be naturally replenished."

    Then you need to use better farming methods, that don't. I have to say, I'm not at all sure about the accuracy of this statement. Carbon is not an essential soil nutrient - carbon is freely available from CO2. Farmers replace nutrients at the rate they need to, so if some nutrients need to be replaced every year, and others need to be replaced every 40 to 60 years, that's not in itself a problem. It just means you need a different fertilizer mix. There are potentially other reasons for soil loss, such as desertification and slash-and-burn agriculture, but nutrient loss in itself as a route for soil loss makes no sense. That's what fertilizers are for.

    I don't think there's any argument that we couldn't do things better. We obviously could. But I'm not convinced that there are any problems here we couldn't solve. Or that we wouldn't solve them as and when it became necessary.

    It seems to me that most of these claims are not obviously necessary consequences of modern farming, either being accidental and unproblematic effects of the way we currently do things, or entirely manageable/reversible issues if we want to fix them. Farming simply wouldn't/couldn't be yielding the massive yields it does if there was something seriously wrong. Some are observations regarding bad practice, which I would agree we ought to improve. But mostly it seems to be somewhat artificial ways to try to persuade people that there's a problem. But given the existence and effectiveness of hydroponics, I don't see that there's any magic in soil chemistry. It's technologically reproducible. It's more biologically reproducible, too. The question is only what the most economic means of doing so is.

  42. AAARRRrrrrr! All my text (on small-scale farming) gone - for I forgot to fill out the Name field. I hate that - ridiculousy bad programming! Hang that programmer!

  43. Martin:

    AAARRRrrrrr! All my text (on small-scale farming) gone – for I forgot to fill out the Name field. I hate that – ridiculousy bad programming! Hang that programmer!

    The next time this happens, try looking in the browser cache. I use Firefox on Linux, and I've been able to pick the missing text out of the binary cache files using something like:

    target='some unique string you recall being in your text'
    for each cache-file, do
    strings | grep $target >/tmp/textfile

    If you find the target string, you can edit /tmp/textfile to recover at least some of what you lost. Your mileage may vary, of course.

  44. There's an add-in for Firefox called 'Lazarus'. It saves the contents of ordinary web forms and often allows recovery.

    https://addons.mozilla.org/en-US/firefox/addon/lazarus-form-recovery/

    You might find it worth looking at.

  45. Mal, thanks for the hint. Time to update my Linux box and get the WLAN running. I did the text on mom's windoze box and as always cleared cache and all at the end. So the text is gone, and the moment of inspiration.

    Of course mestupid should have done the text on that insulting windoze text editor, or at least copy the text. But my time and patience was limited yesterday. Usually I know better and don't expect software like this being without ridicu-lousy canonical omissions and glitches.

    --------
    On small scale farming, short summary:

    1) There is micro and macroeconomic reason pleading for it, risk management, and (above all) social reason (particluarly for the global south). (One major obstacle to food sovereignty for the poor is pseudo-free trade domination via e.g. NAFTA plus U.S. subsidies. Guess why Mexican illegal immigrants are working Californian fields and not their own. Reminds of Medieval European gentry and their quasi-enslavement of poor peasants...).

    2) While some organic (i.e. soil sustaining) farming can be machnized large scale, there are practical reasons for small scale: It needs more attention, e.g. weeding, e.g. draft animals. Best organic farming practise cannot be automated: companion cropping, intercropping, agroforestry, ...

    3) Small diverse patches have less pest problems.

    4) Global ecology: We need to mitigate biodiversity loss. With today's disrupted agro-industrial landscapes many animal and plant populations are fragmented metapopulations. Now with global warming they need to follow shifting climate zones. So we need a matrix of pathways made of less disturbed land surrounding small farms.

    A nice introduction to much of the above is the recent book Nature's Matrix.

    Now I need to run to my garden before it gets dark here.

  46. Martin:

    Mal, thanks for the hint.

    You're welcome, but FWIW I just noticed that my pseudocode is wrong. The right way is to grep for the target string in the binary cache files (good reason to keep the target string short), and if you get a hit, THEN run strings on that file and send the output to a text file.

    Good thing I didn't write the software for the Mars rover.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.