Climate Change, and the Tragedy of the Commons

This post, a little while ago, was in response to this Althouse blog post.  As an update, it noted a rather intriguing comment, and tried to put it in context.

There were a number of other spirited comments to Althouse's post, that are worth pointing out briefly. One of the more germane, was this:

And, Skeptical, I'm not sure how "going green" could only be done collectively.

All you have to do is convince a substantial portion of the population that the world will end if we don't stop producing CO2. Apparently, all the science is behind you, as well as the media, Hollywood, etc. Shouldn't be hard, in that case. Just convince them that we'll all die, the land inundated, the Statue of Liberty exploding, etc.

Any rational person who believed this would then minimize their own CO2 production
Actually, the whole point is that they wouldn't. A rational, yet consistently and thoroughly altruistic person who is willing to make sacrifices on their own, for the environmental benefit of all, and for no recognition might (and some people do, somewhat). But from a pure, calcuated, rationality perspective, a rational person would not. (Another commenter did point out that this argument is like recognizing that we need a national treasury, with funds, to take care of national defense and other related items, and asking all taxation to be "voluntary.")

The reason for this is that each person's actions are conducted in isolation of everyone else's. If one person on the globe did nothing to try and help climate change, it will not have an effect upon the ultimate outcome. Therefore, a purely "rational" approach is to keep doing what one wants to do, and hope that everyone else takes action -- in other words, thinks and acts differently.

Here was another comment, though seemingly in some contradiction of our post here, that was pretty good. Or at least funny:

If we can't burn coal, then hell, we NEED global warming. Chilly otherwise.
Coal is a predominant part of the problem. It is, CO2 emissions aside, also extremely polluting, often environmentally degrading, and is often mined and acquired, as a practical matter, by extremely destructive practices to local ecologies, watersheds, and landscapes.

There were also multiple comments posted that presume all of this coercion, and loss of freedom (some with rather hysterical sounding language) from sensibly addressing climate change. But it is not clear where all of this is coming from. We have far more restrictive laws right now than no more coal burning, as even an extreme example.

But that is not even the best solution. What is a much better one, is to simply not issues new plant permits (as it's already something that we have eexercised authority over, for far less reason), and and allow the market place to decide with respect to the rest of existing coal based energy production in what direction it goes, by heavily taxing the deleterious activity (which rewards those who find innovative ways to cut back and thus put their money into other, far more productive uses). And then in turn using those funds, ideally, not to then reward "better alternatives" but for tax refunds or stimulus if short term effects are to retard growth while our economy transitions. (In a perfect ccapitalistic market, everything would adjust instaneously, and there would be not a dime of cost or harm. But the real world is not like that. Markets take time to adjust, and any undue short term harm via policy changes to certain sectors can easily be balanced out via remediation. As well as could, for those so concerned, undue harship to the poor who use a disproportionate amount of their available funds on energy, and may not have the flexibility to as readily and creatively adopt.)

As for the "intrusive" idea that some activities that we have taken for granted will "cost" more: The unfair subsidy that those activies received because their environmenatal harm -- which is real even if it does not seem to matter as much to everybody -- was not integrated in to their pricing structure, thus giving them a competitive advantage over otherwise more beneficial productive practices and processes, will be lessened. That's not an infringement upon anything.

The only real philosophical issue here is: Why would person A's right to pollute transcend person B's right to be free of such pollution caused by person A's activity? Or even vice versa.

Neither should transcend, without more facts. If your neighbor is polluting the air that you must breathe, and you say "no go," she may very well be infringing more on your rights than vice versa.

The fact that this issue is something that we all share -- increased atmospheric greenhouse gase induced climate change is global by definition -- doesn't really change this. It's still a harm. Even if more abstract to some, than to others.

Lastly, here was a comment referencing perhaps one of the most misinformed books in the history of science.

Skeptical - wrong. If you bothered to read Superfreakonomics you'd know that there are cheaper solutions to cooling the planet other then flushing 25-50% of GDP down the drain.
For an example of just how stupid this book is (though this blog normally refrains from the use of the word "stupid,") it was suggested that solar panels "are probably not a good thing" when it comes to global warming because they are "black," which, of course, absorbs heat, and they are only able to translate a percentage of that heat into usable energy.
On a scientific level, it is difficult to conceive of a statement that is more idiotic, than this. In any context.

The sun produces that heat (that the "black" solar panel absorbs) anyway. It goes somewhere. Even if the solar panel is black (though many are not), it might otherwise hit a black roof. Or dark ground.

But the real problem is the idea that the sun's heat energy that the panel absorbed is anywhere near equal to (let alone greater than) the warming potential of greenhouse gases saved  --even if, somehow, "all" of the sun's heat that hits that panel would otherwise have miraculously disappeared as if it did not exist in the first place, in the absence of said "solar panel."

This is beyond comical science. It is like Beavis and Butthead do science. But that would be unfair to Beavis and Butthead, who don't hold themselves out to the world as experts, and write books making these assertions.

Even if only a small percentage of the sun's energy is captured (though technologies are well ahead of the perecentages that the book uses), the heat warming differential of the energy is up to several hundred thousand times greater by using at least some of that captured energy to produce non greenhouse gas emitting, usable energy.

[Instead of technical explanations, google science and engineering sites if you really want to know why. But common sense ought to tell you. One quick reason, among several, is that this heat from the sun is transitory. By turning a small fraction of it into energy which does not emit CO2 in the process, it replaces CO2 emitting sources, and thus heat trapping CO2 molecules. These would have become part of the (now increasing) carbon cycle, but they do not break down. In other words, instead of just trapping or accumulating heat for that instant (as in the absorption by black, blue, slightly less by yellow polka dotted solar panels), a portion of the carbon dioxide emitted by fossil fuel consumption, will persist, and trap heat, indefinitely.]

That's only the beginning of the problems with the wildly misinformed "Superfreakonomics." But it ought to give one a bit of an idea of just how hard the authors sought to be "provocative,"and contrarian -- all the way to the point, of abject idiocy, in consideration of the fact that they wrote a book postulating this.

Lastly, let's take that idea that addressing climate change will "flush 25 to 50% of GDP down the drain." This is the type of widely presumed thinking (if an extreme example of it) that allowed Superfreakonomics Author's Dunbar and Levitt to come across as really sharp, creative thinkers in the only slightly less inane (but seemingly sound) "Freakonomics."  Dunbar and Levitt would often speak (or write) in terms of "this costs" this without having any idea of that that means, or "if you would do that, that means implicity" when it means nothing of the sort. (Just because they are economists,and so called "contrarians" doesn't prevent them from falling prey to some of our most innately held and seemingly intuitive assumptions, that are housed in a complete misunderstanding of just what "value" is and the inherent limitations upon tangible valuation measurement across things that are not comparable even if we are constantly forced to make choices with respect to them on a daily basis. )

GDP is ultimately a measure of total cost. It is the sum total of all goods and services produced. (Which, over time, roughly equates to what we have spent, since supply tends to equal out to demand. Oversupply, we cut back production, undersupply, we increase more. ) All addressing climate change does, worse case scenario, is change what is in fact spent, that constitutes GDP. (Which in the long run should not matter anyway; what does matter is growth, and job opportunity). It will not lower GDP.

There is a caveat, however. Our economy does not transition instaneously (as noted above). IN the short run, random proscription, as opposed to sensibly thought out policy, can have a shorter term repressive effect, before the marketplace fully adapts and reallocates goods, products, production processes (in this case energy productio processes as well as sources, for instance), etc. The effect is small, but that effect then has a fractionally smaller effect as well. Thus the more abrupt, radical shifts in policy to achieve a more important goal, should be accompanied by some sort of ameliorative action. (Using funds raised initially to subsidize those most hurt, on a decreasing scale, so that the motivation to alter the behavior is not undermined.)

Aside from this effect -- which may occur if we suddenly just started shutting everything down, instead of started using marketplace oriented motivation to let the market make its own adjustments -- there will be no "loss" to GDP. What is proscribed, or what becomes more expensive, will be substituted by what is then more attractive, and less expensive, while heightening market based development, production and implementation of those alternatives, all of which will contribute to growth (and smarter growht, by the way), whereas they would not have before.