Friday, October 31, 2008

Global warming, circa 1990

Long before blogs, inconvenient documentaries and climate scientists urging political leaders to place a price on carbon, astronomer and science populist Carl Sagan was sounding the alarm about global warming.

In the early 60s, Sagan did some back of the envelope calculations that showed that our neighbour Venus was subject to a runaway greenhouse effect. It led to a lifelong interest in the greenhouse effect on Earth. In 1990, Saturday Night Live spoofed his Earthly obsession in the "Carl Sagan Global Warming Christmas Special" (here's the transcript, the video may not cooperate).

Notice the confusion between ozone depletion and global warming. Oh, we've come so far.

Thanks to Jaymie Matthews of UBC for mentioning this in a recent talk.


Friday, October 24, 2008

"Ocean deoxygenation"

Our friend Caspar Henderson has been searching for a good short phrase to describe the increase the ocean's "oxygen minimum zones" expected to happen as a result of climate change. His query led to a pretty fascinating exchange between a number of experts and the suggestion of ocean deoxygenation.

Just what is this "deoxygenation"?

A lot of intermediate and deep parts of the open ocean are depleted in oxygen. It is natural. First, algae growth on the surface leads to a rain of dead matter to the bottom. Decomposition of that material consumes oxygen. The deep oxygen can be refreshed by oxygen diffusing out of the air into surface waters if there is a lot of vertical mixing. But if the water is highly "stratified" -- say, a light, warm layer lying about a cold, dense layer -- there is little vertical mixing of waters.

This mechanism alo explains coastal hypoxic zones like the famous Gulf of Mexico "Dead Zone". The waters on the continental shelf of the northern Gulf are very stratified, thanks to the influx of fresh, light water from the Mississippi River. Hypoxia develops in the bottom water during the summer in part because of the lack of vertical mixing. That's why when a hurricane blows through, and the water gets all mixed, the dead zone tends to dissipate, or at least decrease in severity and extent.

The "ocean deoxygenation" concern comes from the fact that if climate change heats up the surface ocean, we get more stratification, less vertical mixing, and expansion of the existing ocean minimum zones in the ocean. Recent evidence suggests that is just what is happening.

Large areas of the intermediate and deep ocean have "naturally" low levels of oxygen.


Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Market meltdowns and the drawbacks of trading carbon

There are valid economic arguments on either side of the carbon tax vs. cap-and-trade debate. If implemented properly, either policy instrument could accomplish the goal of pricing carbon and gradually reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

One common conclusion after the Canadian Liberal Party's electoral drubbing is that a carbon tax will never sell. It is deemed a political loser, because of the public's knee-jerk reaction to any invocation of that dirty little three-letter word. People much prefer the idea of industrial caps on emissions and a market system. Let the market solve the problem, not the government is a common refrain.

Right. How well are our markets do today?

There's a reason that many of the major investment banks from Goldman Sachs on down are in favour of establishing a carbon market. And it ain't polar bears or coral reefs. They see a massive opportunity for profit in trading of carbon permits.

It is incredibly naive to think the same problems that sunk the financial system won't arise in a carbon market. This article from the Wall Street Journal investigating sales of landfill "carbon offsets" on the voluntary Chicago Carbon Exchange offers a window into how profit-seeking would win out over greenhouse gas reductions in a freely traded carbon market.

I'm not against a cap-and-trade system. But we need to wake up and realize that a carbon trading system will be fraught with the very complications that have created and burst financial bubbles in the past twenty years. Traders will come up with complicated derivatives and trading instruments that regulators do not understand. Companies will propose offsets and reduction measures that cannot be guaranteed. And so on and so on.

Sure, a carbon tax may look like a political loser. Given the way lack of regulation and open cross-border financial trading is causing a meltdown of the global financial system, is the really public is willing to open a multi-billion or trillion dollar carbon trading system, not to mention the future of the planet, in the hands of the markets and investment firms?

Call me crazy, but I think the Liberals should save the Green Shift from the shredder.


Friday, October 17, 2008

A mesmerizing end to the week

This fin-fish blimp is from an entry to an airship competition in Germany. The jaws of ichthyologists and biomechanists are dropping.

Air Art from flip on Vimeo.


Wednesday, October 15, 2008

RIP theGreen Shift

Of all the political obituaries written last night, the most troubling is not that of a person, but that of a concept.

The Liberal Green Shift, specific inadequacies aside, would have done exactly what economists have been recommending for years. Shift taxes from income to carbon.

The Conservative victory, particularly here in BC where a provincial version of the income-to-carbon tax shift has met public resistance, is likely to convince a generation of politicians in Canada and abroad that an income to carbon tax shift is good policy, but bad politics. It make take years to overcome that judgment.

For now, one can hope that the opposition parties at least push the Conservative minority to install a more politically viable cap-and-trade system.

It would be ironic. Under cap-and-trade, companies are likely to pass some or all of the cost of emissions reduction on to the consumer. Despite the NDP's protestations about making the big polluters not the consumers pay, the net effect on a cap-and-trade system everyday activity will be quite similar to the carbon tax.

The biggest difference? The large bureaucracy and regulatory structure required for reporting, monitoring and management under cap-and-trade. That increase in government bureaucracy is exactly the sort of thing that no Canadian political party wants to support.


Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Canadian scientists and economists plead with voters

A group of top climate and environmental scientists from across Canada have released a letter stating that "climate change is the defining issue of our time" and urging voters to "vote strategically for the environment" in Tuesday's election. That means vote for a party advocating a price on carbon. [Update: the Pembina Institute has a great analysis of the parties' carbon pricing policies]

It is a strong, clear statement. I can add only one thing: A vote for carbon pricing and action on climate change is not just a vote for the environment. It is a vote for the economy of the future.

And it is not just scientists. A group of top Canadian economists have released a very similar letter. The economists agreed on key principles:

  1. Canada needs to act on climate change now.
  2. Any substantive action will involve economic costs.
  3. These economic impacts cannot be an excuse for inaction.
  4. Pricing carbon is the best approach from an economic perspective.
    1. Pricing allows each business and family to choose the response that is best and most efficient for them.
    2. Pricing induces innovation.
    3. Carbon is almost certainly under-priced right now.
  5. Regulation is the most expensive way to meet a given climate change goal.
  6. A carbon tax has the advantage of providing certainty in the price of carbon.
  7. A cap and trade system provides certainty on the quantity of carbon emitted, but not on the price of carbon and can be a highly complex policy to implement.
  8. Although carbon taxes have the most obvious effects on consumers, all carbon reduction policies increase the prices individuals face.
  9. Price mechanisms can be regressive and our policy should address this.
  10. A pricing mechanism can allow other taxes to be reduced and provide an opportunity to improve the tax system.