Insomnia Log

This is what keeps me awake at night???

Who needs sleep? (well you’re never gonna get it)
Who needs sleep? (tell me what’s that for)
Who needs sleep? (be happy with what you’re getting,
There’s a guy who’s been awake since the second world war)

-- words and music by Steven Page & Ed Robertson

Location: Boulder, Colorado, United States

Everything you need to know about me can be found in my posts

Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Only Way to Stop Global Warming?

I write quite a few essays about global warming. These include several ideas on how individuals can help address the problem. But I'm not naive enough to think that even a significant minority of well-intentioned consumers doing what they think is right will have a measurable impact.

Some of my Libertarian-leaning friends say that the solution should be left to the free market. (At least they are mostly agreeing that the problem is real.) But here's the problem with that. Given enough time (say, 100,000 years), the free market will arrive at a solution. But in the meantime, lots of people and species will suffer, and most of them are not directly related to the companies and individuals causing the biggest impacts. You see, the flaw in this thinking is that spewing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere is definitely impinging on others' rights, and the free market should not allow individuals or companies to infringe on the rights of others in the name of profit, even if those others are not yet even born.

One politically popular approach is cap and trade (carbon trading). Here, companies are issued the right to emit a certain amount of greenhouse gases. If they emit more, they have to purchase the right to do so from someone else. If they emit less (or if they remove carbon from the atmosphere), then they can sell the credits.

The problem with cap and trade is that it assumes people and companies have the inherent right to put greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, impacting future generations around the globe. That would be like saying that, since there are 16,000 murders per year in this country, we are going to cap and trade permits to kill people. The permits will be issued proportionally to the number of murders you committed last year. If you kill more people next year, you will have to buy more permits from someone who came in under their cap. (Have no fear, each year we will cut the number of permits issued. By the year 2050 we will only be allowing 10,000 murders per year -- uh, subject to change based on input from organized crime's lobbyists.)

I've always thought that a carbon tax (actually a tax on any greenhouse gas emissions) is the ideologically best way to approach the problem. You charge a tax for any fossil fuel burned. It can be charged when the fossil fuels are mined, when they are burned, or any point along the supply line, but we would need to be consistent so they are charged exactly once.

You may ask, what about other countries? This will have no impact on China, India, or any other part of the world that may be contributing significantly to the problem.

I have two answers to that. First, we slap a tariff on all imported goods and services, proportional to the amount of greenhouse gases used to produce and ship to the U.S. If the producer can provide proof that they have an equivalent tax in their home country, this tariff will be waived. And second, if this program is successful, it can provide a model for other countries, and a useful tool in negotiating international agreements.

There's one more big problem with a carbon tax, and this is where I got stuck. Such a tax is highly regressive. The people who will suffer the most are those that already can't afford the gas to drive to work and the energy to heat their homes.

I pondered this last issue long and hard until I ran across this idea from Jim Hansen. Dr. James Hansen is none other than the scientist who first brought climate change to the attention of the U.S. Congress in the 1980s, and he continues to be active in the field.

Dr. Hansen suggests (actually demands) a carbon tax, but he adds a twist: 100% of the revenue of the tax is refunded immediately to the citizens. People would receive monthly direct deposits into their bank accounts. None of the received new tax money would be spent by the government. Instead the money would be divided equally among every man, woman and child.

How does that work? Say this new tax causes massive inflation (after all, the companies paying the tax will just pass it on to consumers). People might be paying $1,000 more per month for home heating, electricity, gasoline, and goods and services produced using these resources. But, the same people would be seeing the same $1,000 appear like magic, like clockwork every month.

If I'm a smart consumer, I'm going to figure out how to cut back on my energy usage and set aside some of that new money to make my home more energy efficient, or buy a plug-in hybrid, or any number of investments designed to allow me to live more efficiently and hence spend less money.

And, if I'm a smart business, I'm going to figure out how to get some of that new money. I'm going to start selling some of those energy-efficient products. And it won't be something goofy like carbon credits. Instead it will be something that will actually cause less greenhouse gas emission.

How much money are we talking about? Well, one estimate was that it would take an investment of about $100 per ton of carbon dioxide to stabilize greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. Each person in the U.S. emits about 22 tons of CO2 per year. So, we're talking about new taxes (and new dividend checks) of about $200 per month per person, or $800 for a family of four. Most of the cost for the typical family, I assume, would be in the form of higher prices for energy, and for good and services produced using fossil fuels. That cost would be offset by direct deposit of an approximately equal amount each month.

Of course, we'd need a scientific panel to determine the correct amount of the new tax for each product or service, as this should not be a political decision. And we would likely want to phase this tax in over a small number of years.

Is this the best solution? I don't know. But it seems to me that we need to be thinking about radical ideas such as this, instead of relying on do-gooders, relying on the free market, or relying on the ability of politicians to solve this in a timely manner. Because a timely manner is the thing that is most important.

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Thursday, December 18, 2008

Smarter than Mother Nature?

While traveling from mainland Ecuador to the Galapagos Islands, I wrote about how a species, whether bird or human, can actually drive itself into extinction through the actions of a few rogues. We're back now, and I have a few more thoughts on the topic.

Lonesome GeorgeI still haven't organized the hundreds of pictures and videos I took in the Galapagos, and I'll post more when I can make some sense of them. But here is a picture of Lonesome George, the very last member of his species, the Pinta Island Tortoise. He is kept at the Charles Darwin Station on Santa Cruz Island in the hopes that eventually another of his kind (hopefully female) will show up in some private collection sometime in the next century (his expected lifetime), to keep this species alive. For companionship, he shares his space with a couple of females of a different species of Galapagos tortoise, but the hybrid eggs produced, even if they hatched and were fertile, would not be the same species.

George is so lonesome because, prior to the protection currently enjoyed by the native and endemic species of the archipelago, the giant land tortoises and other animals were hunted extensively. Four species (out of fifteen) of the tortoise are extinct and the fifth is down to just George.

Moai at Rano Raraku, Easter IslandDuring the down times on the boat during our cruise, I read about Easter Island, among other things. Easter Island is about 3000 kilometers southwest of the Galapagos. When the Polynesians first moved to Easter Island, they built an amazing culture. It is symbolized by the Moai, huge stone statues like the one shown here, up to 33 feet high and 82 tons.

But the Polynesians destroyed the ecosystem on their paradise island. They destroyed all tree species, which meant they could no longer build, transport, and erect the statues, nor could they make seaworthy vessels for fishing. They destroyed most of the food sources on the island as well, and descended into cannibalism by the time the Europeans stumbled onto them.

These examples make it clear that people can have a huge impact on their environment, and that they have the capability to literally make their home unlivable. In the middle of the South Pacific, the Easter Island natives had nowhere to retreat (and no more ability to build any vessel capable of getting them anywhere else). Similarly, the human race is stuck on this planet. If we mess it up and are forced to eat each other, don't say I didn't warn you.

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Saturday, December 06, 2008

Survival of the Fittest

I hope that's me -- "the fittest", that is. Reporting from Ecuador this week, I've been enjoying swimming in the Pacific ocean. Actually, I probably swam further in the past week than any other previous week. The folks on the beach were looking at me funny when I climbed water-logged from the ocean after my marathon adventures.

It was near here, in the Galapagos Islands, where the Theory of Evolution got its first seeds. Also, that's where so much research has been done on that subject. Recently, scientists have been measuring the sizes of the beaks of every single finch every single year and proving that evolution really is happening.

We're heading to the Galapagos next week, and it got me thinking (what else to do while putting in the big swimming miles) about the whole idea of the survival of the fittest. Seems like lately folks are talking more than usual about the free market and business Darwinism. And the free market may indeed "work", but there are a couple of problems.

First, survival of the fittest is messy. You may end up with the most fit species/business at the particular time. But there is guaranteed to be lots of blood along the way. In nature, lots of individuals die so that the best among them can live. And in business it's the same way -- lots of economic turmoil so that the best businesses can survive.

When reading about the finches, I came upon a second "problem" with evolution. It seems that on one island a few cactus finches (about a dozen) came up with a bit of a shortcut to sipping their nectar. To make their lives easier, they were actually, with a simple snip of the beak, killing the cactus flower just to take a sip.

Now, these individual birds will never pay evolutionarily. They got their dinner. When things get tight later in the year, these may be the same birds who will be strong enough to get what little nectar remains. A tiny subset of the population is actually destroying the food source for all, and the only solution evolution may offer is extinction.

The logical comparison is the businesses that snip humanity's cactus flower. They may, for example, dump tons and tons of CO2 into our atmosphere. There is no incentive for them to stop or slow down, because it would just hurt their bottom lines. The only solution that the free market has to offer is to allow them to destroy the global economy, with the only consolation being that these rogue businesses will go down with the rest of us.

We are smarter than finches. We can see what we are doing, that the actions of a subset are harming the livelihoods of all. So, it seems like it is up to us to come up with a solution. Perhaps we just need to trim the beaks on these metaphorical finches a few millimeters and the problem will take care of itself.

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