Climate Idealism Can’t Hold a Candle to Collective Action

Why do Copenhageners ride bicycles? The key reason, says Yale economist and best-selling author (“Irrational Exuberance”) Robert J. Shiller, is that Danes are idealists who resolved, after the oil crisis of the 1970s, “to make a personal commitment to ride bicycles rather than drive, out of moral principle, even if that was inconvenient for them.”

“The sight of so many others riding bikes motivated the city’s inhabitants and appears to have improved the moral atmosphere enough,” Shiller wrote in yesterday’s New York Times, that the share of working inhabitants of Copenhagen who bike has reached 50 percent.

From “Copenhagen: City of Cyclists” (2010), a report by the City of Copenhagen.

From “Copenhagen: City of Cyclists” (2010), a report by the City of Copenhagen.

In much the same way, Shiller argues, “asking people to volunteer to save our climate by taking many small, individual actions” may be a more effective way to bring down carbon emissions than trying to enact overarching national or global policies such as carbon emission caps or taxes.

Goodness. Rarely do smart people so badly mangle both the historical record and basic economics. I say “people” because Shiller attributes his column’s main points to a new book, “Climate Shock: The Economic Consequences of a Hotter Planet” by Gernot Wagner of the Environmental Defense Fund and Martin L. Weitzman, a Harvard economist. And I say “smart” because the three stand at the top of their profession. Shiller won the Economics Nobel in 2013, Weitzman is a leading light in the economics of climate change, and Wagner is highly regarded young economist.

But mangle they have (I haven’t seen the Wagner-Weitzman book but assume that Shiller represents it fairly).

Let’s start with the history, which is fairly well known to anyone versed in cycling advocacy, as I’ve been since the 1980s, when I spearheaded the revival of New York City’s bike-advocacy group Transportation Alternatives (as recounted here.) Copenhagen’s 40-year bicycle upsurge, and indeed much of the uptake of cycling across Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands, came about not through mass idealism but from deliberate public policies to help cities avoid the damages of pervasive automobile use while reducing oil dependence.

If idealism played a part at the outset it was a social idealism that instructed government to undertake integrated policies ­― stiff gas taxes and car ownership fees; generously funded public transit; elimination of free curbside parking; provision of safe and abundant bicycle routes ― that enabled Copenhageners to do what they evidently desired all along: to use bikes safely and naturally.

The telltale is in the graphic. Only one in nine Copenhageners who cycle have environment and climate in mind. The majority do it because it’s faster than other ways to travel, and around a third of cyclists say they ride because it’s healthy, inexpensive and convenient ― belying Shiller’s meme of Danes idealistically choosing bikes despite their inconvenience vis-à-vis cars.

The mangling of economics, meanwhile, is baked into the very idea of “Putting Idealism to Work on Climate Change,” as Shiller titled his article. Expecting more than a small fraction of humanity to place deals above convenience and economy has to qualify as magical thinking under current social and economic arrangements. Market failures simply won’t allow it. Unpriced externalities, whereby carbon emitters get to pollute for free, in effect make it expensive to move off fossil fuels. The prevalence of free riders, whereby your emissions reductions benefit me and every other person as much as yourself, is a further disincentive.

Shiller touched on externalities and free riders, but only in passing. Perhaps they didn’t fit his narrative centered on Wagner and Weitzman’s “Copenhagen Theory of Change, [by which] we should be asking people to volunteer to save our climate by taking many small, individual actions.”

One wonders if any of the three economists studied the actual evolution of cycling in Copenhagen before coining that term. Did they talk with Copenhagen officials, who might have cautioned them that the individual’s decision to cycle depends on social constructions such as elaborate and continuous bike lane networks, ample and convenient bike parking, and a traffic justice system that holds reckless drivers accountable, and who could have explained that bicycle infrastructure works best in conjunction with policies to raise the price of urban driving closer to its social cost? Did they learn that the citizenry has to clamor for these measures to neutralize the inevitable opposition from car-owners and auto interests?

Concerning climate, recognition appears to be growing, if slowly, that carbon pricing, ideally delivered through transparent and robustly rising carbon taxes, is essential to correct the market failures that Shiller mentioned. The individual actions Shiller touts are important. I practice them and I constantly beseech everyone around me to try and do the same. But even more important are collective policies, like carbon taxing, that can make those individual actions possible and natural. That’s the only way our and other societies will succeed at pushing out carbon-emitting fossil fuels in favor of renewable energy and efficient use.

Big thanks for assistance on this post to Jon Orcutt, who as senior policy advisor to DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan engineered the extraordinary expansion of NYC’s bicycle infrastructure during 2007-2014.

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Last modified: March 30, 2015

Is the rift between Nordhaus and Stern evaporating with rising temperatures?

Lead author of this joint post is Peter Howard, Economic Fellow at the Institute for Policy Integrity at New York University School of Law.

The political task of enacting carbon taxes ­― and maintaining those in place ― has proven so daunting that questions of the tax’s appropriate level have gotten short shrift. Carbon tax advocates do not often discuss: How high is the optimal carbon tax? Along what trajectory should it increase over time? What, if anything, can climate science tell us about the right carbon tax to aim for?

Prof. William D. Nordhaus, Yale University

Prof. William D. Nordhaus, Yale University

In the academic realm, the distinguished Yale economist and public intellectual William Nordhaus has taken a leading role in the discussion. Nordhaus first modeled energy-economy interactions in the 1970s, and since the early 1990s successive versions of his Dynamic Integrated model of Climate and the Economy, or DICE model, have been used to estimate costs and benefits of carbon mitigation strategies in one prestigious report after another ― most recently in the Fifth Assessment Report by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Given Nordhaus’s concerns over global warming, reflected in his ongoing repudiations of climate change denialists as well as his impatience with cap-and-trade schemes, it has been jarring for some to see him advocate for a relatively low carbon tax. In his 2008 book, A Question of Balance, which relied on the 2007 version of DICE, Nordhaus proposed a year-2005 starting price of just $8 (U.S.) per short ton of CO2 (from his Table 5-4, adjusted to 2012 dollars and recalibrated from metric to short tons and from C to CO2), which would then take two decades to double and another 30 years to double again.

Nicholas Stern (Baron Stern of Brentford)

Nicholas Stern (Baron Stern of Brentford)

In contrast, the Carbon Tax Center and its allies at the Citizens Climate Lobby have long advocated a steeper, stepwise ramp-up, with an initial price of around $10 per ton of CO2 followed by annual increases of the same magnitude for at least a decade and perhaps much longer. This policy recommendation is more in line with the views of Nicholas Stern ― lead author of the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change (2006) ― who argues that strong climate policies are necessary immediately to forestall large future damages from global warming. In the past, Nordhaus (along with several other economists) disregarded these findings based on the low discount rate assumed in the report.

Recently, however, this difference in opinion between the Nordhaus and Stern camps with regards to policy (though not discount rate assumptions) has lessened. Using the latest version of the Nordhaus model, DICE-2013, Nordhaus finds an optimal initial (2015) carbon price of approximately $21 per short ton of CO2 in 2012 U.S. dollars (a near tripling from DICE-2007). Moreover, the optimal tax according to Nordhaus rises more rapidly over time as compared to DICE-2007.[1] A tax of this amount would restrict the average global temperature increase to approximately 3 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.[2]

As economist and NY Times columnist Paul Krugman noted in his review of Nordhaus’s 2013 book, The Climate Casino,even Nordhaus seems surprised by his finding that both the international consensus of a 2 °C limit and the carbon tax necessary to achieve it are nearly economically rational.[3] And given that DICE-2013 fails to account for climate tipping points (as Nordhaus himself notes), an even lower temperature limit and higher carbon tax are justifiable.

Stern has now taken this recent scholarship a step further. In a June paper co-authored with economist Simon Dietz, Stern demonstrates that the DICE framework can support an even stronger mitigation effort than the latest Nordhaus specification of the model.Their paper, “Endogenous growth, convexity of damages and climate risk: how Nordhaus’ framework supports deep cuts in carbon emissions” (co-published by the Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy as Working Paper No. 180, and by the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment as Working Paper No. 159), is not a rehash of the Stern-Nordhaus dispute over discounting. Rather, the paper accepts Nordhaus’s choice of discount rate for argument’s sake but modifies the 2010 edition of Nordhaus’s model in three critical ways. [Read more…]

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Last modified: September 22, 2014

The Thin Reed Supporting the White House’s “Legacy” Climate Plan

Post hoc, ergo propter hoc

I took Latin in high school, and I loved unraveling classic phrases like After this, therefore because of this ― a common logical fallacy that attributes event B to event A because A preceded B.

Okay, so that’s not quite what Politico and the New York Times did this week when they linked the sharp drop in power plant emissions in the Northeast U.S. from 2005 to 2012 (“B”) with the regional CO2 trading system known as RGGI (“A”). But they came pretty close:

Politico: Nine Northeastern states already take part in a regional trading network that puts an economic price on their power plants’ carbon output . . . The Northeastern states saw their power plants’ carbon emissions drop more than 40 percent from 2005 to 2012, the trading network told EPA in December — without any of cap-and-trade critics’ apocalyptic expectations for such a system.

The Times: The regional program [RGGI] has proved fairly effective: Between 2005-12, according to program officials, power-plant pollution in the northeastern states it covered dropped 40 percent. [Read more…]

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