Posterity Environmentalism

I don’t write much about environmental issues on this blog, even though I used to think about them a lot. I ended up sitting next to a high school kid earlier this week on an airplane, though, and we got to talking about the AP Environmental Science course- which he was thinking about taking and which I used to teach- and then about the Paris Climate accords and Trump’s proposed changes to Obama’s regulations on power plants. I went into a bit of a monologue, which prompted the older guy on the other side of me to sigh audibly in irritation, but I’ll repeat some of the main points here, since I’m shielded from your inevitable sighs of irritation (though I suppose you can put them in the comments.)

a) The American environmental movement, taken as a whole, has had enormous benefits to the nation. Putting aside the preservation of our most spectacular scenery through the National Park system, we were able to clean up our air and water long before most of the industrialized world. (Remember that London, for example, had a smog in 1952 that killed thousands of people in a single day.) More recently, although the Clean Air and Clean Water all had significant costs as well as benefits, the fact is that we live in a much more wooded and pleasant land in, for example, the East Coast, than you could a hundred years ago. The beautiful orange-and-gold autumns of New England and the Mid-Atlantic simply didn’t exist, not so long ago, nor were there so many large animals so close by our homes.

b) The effects of fossil fuels on the local environment are much more ambiguous than most environmental advocates will acknowledge, especially for gas and oil. To a very large degree, the reason we can have such a clean environment is because of fossil fuels. We no longer have to denude the land of forests for firewood, no longer have to choke on particulate matter and smoke in our homes. By the time it gets to your furnace or stove or power plant, natural gas is very clean, and its combustion just produces carbon dioxide and water- nothing bad, in the short-term, local sense. This isn’t just of theoretical or historical interest: deaths due to smoke inhalation and indoor air pollution, mostly from burning wood and dung biomass in unventilated homes, are one of the top five causes of death worldwide, killing around four million people yearly, more than three times as many people as AIDS. Gasoline-powered vehicles produce more local pollution but, thanks to catalytic converters, not all that much. Putting climate change aside, there’s just not all that much reason to switch away from natural gas-based electricity (the newest power plants are extremely efficient in harvesting electricity from gas) and gasoline-based vehicles, especially since battery production and putting more strain on the electricity grid have their own environmental costs.

c) Both solar and wind have made real progress in the last few decades. The geek in me gets very excited that you can, for example, buy a portable panel that can charge a cell phone or laptop in the middle of nowhere for not all that much. But because renewables are erratic and inconsistent sources of power, they are very badly suited to forming the infrastructure of a new energy system (rather than supplementing an existing one, perhaps.) This is especially true if you are trying to build and maintain a system cheaply. Put this together with the biomass/indoor air pollution issue, and pressure from funders and philanthropy and foreign aid organizations for poor countries to “leapfrog” over fossil fuels straight to renewables isn’t just wrong-headed, it’s probably killing people while making little benefit to the environment in those countries. Helping poor countries to build more traditional, fossil-fuel based power infrastructure has a lot to be said for it, though it would be good if these efforts didn’t become a rat’s nest of cronyism and corruption even before they get started on the ground.

d) More generally, if the environmental movement within the United States has been in large part a success, the effects of the environmental movement on other countries is often far more harmful than good.We hear a lot about “Effective Altruism” that wants to distribute bed nets for malaria, but very little about mosquito eradication and DDT, even though it’s been used very effectively in decades past.  This, again, isn’t small potatoes: hundreds of millions of people are infected with malaria and it’s the number one killer of children worldwide. Within a democratic society, environmental concerns- like the potential effects of DDT on wildlife– can be weighed against other values. But when extremely powerful foundations or aid organizations step into much poorer countries, this kind of balancing of values has a much harder time happening. This is especially true as advocacy organizations have an incentive to blend various kinds of issues together and say “poverty reduction and environmental remediation are really the same thing,” even when it’s obviously not true. There’s nothing wrong with people in wealthy countries spending their money to, say, safeguard frogs in Panama or gorillas in Rwanda; spending money is what rich people should do.  But we should be clear that this is our own consumption we are enabling.

e) The political economy problems of international environmentalism are magnified for international environmental treatymaking. The economist Scott Barrett has an excellent if technical book on environmental treatymaking called Environment and Statecraft, where he predicted in 2003 why the Kyoto Protocol on carbon dioxide would fail while the Montreal Protocol on ozone-depleting chemicals succeeded. The central point is that nations tend to act in their own interests, even when they’d like it to appear they do not, and as long as the benefits to individual nations of mitigating their pollution do not exceed their individual costs of doing so, few treaties will succeed. The Montreal Protocol may well have caused a fuller and more rapid decrease in CFC usage than would have happened in its absence, but each individual signatory was likely to do significant reductions either way- not so with the Kyoto accord or its other climate change follow-ups.

f) I’ve spent a day talking with scientists at one of the big climate modeling labs, and they seemed like serious, self-critical people, willing to adjust their assumptions to the data coming in. (For example, the early models didn’t predict nearly so much carbon would get absorbed by land plants or nearly as much heat would get absorbed by the oceans as more recent models do.) I’ve read a few books on the science of climate change- it seems pretty solid to me. The fuzzier parts aren’t in the “will quadrupling atmospheric methane and doubling atmospheric carbon dioxide through emissions make a difference to the climate” part: obviously they almost certainly will. Nor does it seem so tendentious for many scientists to have moved towards arguing that greater heat absorption in the atmosphere will lead to more variability rather than just or mainly higher temperatures. The real uncertainty is in the economic and social effects of these changes. Sure, we’re going to have rising ocean levels- especially with the heat ending up in the water rather than in the air- but people can build dams: the Netherlands ain’t called the Netherlands for nothing. The evidence that crop yields will go down instead of up (some crops have more efficient photosynthesis in high carbon environments) isn’t just partial, it’s non-existent. And there is an awful lot of land area in the world that is too cold for habitation now, that might conceivably be opened up by global warming:


g) This isn’t to say that global warming is good instead of bad, or that the social cost of carbon is negative: it’s probably positive. But the vitriol that, for example, William Nordhaus (a serious environmental economist) received when he argued that Nick Stern and the UK Labor government’s projections were wildly inflated shows how far the whole discussion is from a “free and frank exchange of views. ” Again, the biggest costs may come in broader distribution of disease vectors or even (to out myself as a tinfoil-hatted crank) in physiological responses to changed atmospheric composition– the carbonic anhydrase-regulated conversion of carbon dioxide to carboxylic acid is one of the main ways our body regulates physiological pH, and we’re in equilibrium with the air at certain parts of our body:

carbonic anhydrase

As good old Le Chatelier’s principle says, you can push a reaction one way or another by adding its reactants or products. I’m not sure about obesity (which the SlateStarCodex link above discusses), but I’m pretty sure this reaction has something to do with why uric acid-based conditions like gout are increasing so fast even among the non-obese, and perhaps why inflammation-related conditions like asthma and allergies are increasing so universally.

h) So climate change (or rather carbon emissions) might indeed have huge costs, but it’s not clear what they are yet. It would seem wise to try out some different kinds of nudges (very small-charge carbon taxes rather than cap-and-trade schemes, perhaps), along with continuing to put significant money into research and design for low-carbon alternatives. As mentioned above, though, this can only work in practical terms if we are doing it for ourselves– if the purpose is to ameliorate Americans’ own future lives through environmental safeguards. If we want to help people in Bangladesh, send them money or buy the clothes they make (which has been pretty helpful to Bangladesh over the last few decades), don’t buy a Tesla.

i) Similarly, the argument for reducing our use of coal- which, unlike natural gas and gasoline, is pretty strong even apart from climate change- has to be made on the basis of “ourselves, and our posterity,” as the Constitution’s Preamble would put it, not for the world at large and all possible agendas we could force upon it. It is unfortunate but not ignoreable that some of the poorest and most struggling parts of the country also depend significantly on coal for their economy. The Washington Post may argue today that Arby’s employs more people than coal miners, but coal miners average more than $23.00 an hour, Arby’s front-line employees average $7.98. My neighbors, two comfortable teachers with master’s degrees and decades of experience, like to vacation in Myrtle Beach- where their kids make friends with the coal miners’ kids who come down every year at the same time. That’s middle class money, in a part of the country without enough of it.  I hate to see the pictures of mountaintop removal coal mining as much as anyone, but if even the Obama Administration’s staunchest allies were saying their new rules were going to make it effectively impossible to build a new coal-fueled power plant, you’re damn right that’s a political problem that Trump had every reason to seize upon. If the Obama Administration had paired these rules with a rebooted Tennessee Valley Authority, on a grand scale, maybe things would be different. If the Democrats want to win back Appalachia some day, they need to think about what they’re offering to these parts of the country beyond transfers and benefit programs with some hidden and not-so-hidden costs.

j)  Again, the country has serious environmental challenges- that aren’t always so distinguishable from our serious challenges more generally. Take water. Is California’s decaying, collapsing, and overstretched water infrastructure a problem of too much population (and rapid immigration) overwhelming the system, or of too much environmental regulation making it impossible to build big the way we used to? Well, both. Is the depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer that supplies water to much of the Southwest the result of tens of millions of people moving to a part of the country that a hundred years ago was nearly uninhabitable, or of Big Agriculture getting everything they want with no strings attached? Well, both. Is the lead-contaminated water in Flint the result of incompetent and corrupt local government or a Federal government that can’t seem to do anything for anyone who’s not a government contractor or within fifty miles of DC? You get the idea.

Conflict over environmental issues is a necessity: the duties to ourselves and our posterity, as well as the mighty and beautiful continent we inhabit, are hardly all pointing in the same direction, and you would hope that those several conflicting powers would yield ultimately a democracy that could weigh prosperity against conservation, enjoyment of nature against economic solidarity. But the prospects for this kind of productive polyphony at a global level are very small.


10 thoughts on “Posterity Environmentalism

  1. I like leaving a nicer country for my children and fellow citizens too; it just frustrates me how many nuts the environmental movement seems to attract at this point. This seems unfair, given just how successful this movement has been in the United States, but I call it like I see it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. No, you’re right. It takes a peculiarly misanthropic movement to somehow make “making life that little bit nicer for your grandkids” seem so, well, dickish. It’s become a hiding place for people who feel nothing but contempt for their compatriots.


  2. Fantastic post. I have a couple of thoughts coming from a similar perspective:

    a) The urgency of the timeline to decarbonize is very sensitive to assumptions about the rate of change. If temperatures keep going up at about 0.15-0.2 degrees per decade, we’re probably going to be OK. If it’s double that as some of the modeling predicts, we may be toast. Until a few years ago I would have guessed it’s the former, but we’ve had a few very hot years and maybe we’re returning to a trend line. I’m not a climate modeler but I know small changes in assumptions can create radical differences.

    b) The politics of the progressive climate movement are disturbing to me. What happened in Seattle is that left wing groups rejected a carbon tax because the proposal didn’t let them divvy up the revenue for “green jobs” (of course they argued it was actually because of a disparate impact on the poor, but that wasn’t true.) Some of the politics of solar panels are bizarre: California has special grants to put solar panels on section 8 homes in the name of “climate justice”. What the hell? The Earth does not care one bit whether marginalized people or rich people are burning coal; CO2 is CO2 and residential solar is freaking expensive and usually wasteful.

    c) I’m overall pretty optimistic about the economics of not just solar and wind but electric vehicles. EVs are probably going to have near 100% of the market share within a few decades, since the only thing holding them back is battery cost and that’s improving faster than anyone thought — with another 50% drop in cost per kWh, they won’t be any more expensive than regular cars, plus autonomous vehicles will likely be electric because of low marginal cost and durability. Grid storage is important in making 100% renewable energy possible and I think once demand kicks in the solution will be even better than stacks of lithium ion batteries.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree that efficient grid storage would totally change the calculus for wind and solar, and that in terms of “are we fucked” or not, everything comes down to assumptions about positive and negative feedbacks. For example, we melt more ice, so lower albedo from ice (higher absorption) but also colder water (higher absorption); plants grow much faster (eg, ) but not certain how much more that can increase, methane is coming out of ocean beds and permafrost ( ) but unclear how much, and so on. I feel like the climate modelers try to account for this stuff as best they can, but as always there’s so much uncertainty. The response seems to be- precautionary principle says we should assume a higher-risk scenario- but then that response doesn’t seem very realistic about how growing economies will respond to cheaper fuels from our lower demand. Complicated!


      1. Hi there,

        I’m a friend of Andrew Sabisky’s wife (and of Andrew’s too, I suppose…) – very interesting reading your views on environmentalism – it’s an interest of mine too. I mostly agree with your observations, but I’d like to make a few points (apologies, you probably already know them and didn’t want to make your post too long):

        b) I believe a fair amount of leakage occurs when transporting natural gas? Don’t get me wrong, I’d still much prefer it to coal or wood, or freezing in winter. I guess what I want to say is the way we use gas could still do with examining. I don’t know what it’s like in the US, but in the UK most houses have individual gas boilers – we never seemed to manage combined heat-and-power district heating at the scale they have it on the Continent, and ground/air-source heat pumps are yet to take off (I think most of the housing stock is just too poorly insulated) – even if the electricity for them still comes from gas plants, using less of it would be great. As would nice houses that don’t cost a fortune to keep warm. Thankfully few houses still use gas heaters, though I had the misfortune to rent a room with one (no central heating) – the smell from the stenching agent made me so dizzy I kept the heater off all winter (ok, so I did prefer freezing to using gas in that case). But yeah, I guess this is more about technology than environment.

        d) I too thought it’s pretty obvious the most ‘effective’ ways to combat climate change are socially unacceptable (like keeping (energy-)poor people in (energy-)poverty) – I was once surprised to meet a native of Botswana who campaigned against consumerism in the villages around his home. It baffled me how anyone could ask people who had so little, to make do with even less – Benson said it was relatively easy because there were frequent blackouts so people really understood the link between their consumption and its consequences! (Though this was more about overloading terrible infrastructure than harming the environment…) I don’t imagine the Bensons of this world are particularly widespread – and I’m not saying he was right or wrong – I just mean it’s more complicated than idiotic westerners demanding poor people in developing countries to stay poor, I guess?

        Re: plants growing faster – isn’t that only up to a point? If the planet keeps warming, then other limits come into play, like sunlight (Earth’s rotation and day/night aren’t changing (as much)), and increased probability of extreme events destroying crops? People go on about the hubris of ‘warmists’ dictating the ideal planetary temperature – but it seems to me the real hubris is in thinking we can get to this slightly higher, slightly ‘better’ temperature, and then stay fixed there?

        f) Also, the consequences of the Earth’s unexpected capacity to absorb heat and CO2 aren’t brilliant, are they? Ocean warming and acidification, coral bleaching, effects propagating up the food chain possibly eventually to us? I don’t know as much about this as I’m sure you do. I realise the ocean habitat has both intrinsic and instrumental values and they shouldn’t be conflated.

        I suppose on balance I’m more pessimistic than you about the climate risks humans have contributed to – though I share the evident frustration of most of your commenters towards eco-nutters (but would probably evoke their ire at times, despite my best efforts!). And I certainly hope energy storage will change the game (otherwise I’m really wasting my time on this PhD!) – but looking at how cheap gas is (and all its other virtues you’ve extolled), the challenge seems daunting at times. :-\

        To pick up on your last point, on cheaper fuels from lower demand – yes! That’s what the EU are trying to push for a carbon price floor for! I’m curious, what do you think of the idea of TEQs? It seems rather utopian to me, but probably really good if it could be managed and audited properly…?

        Liked by 1 person

    2. The green jobs/energy/etc movements are notorious for rent seeking behavior. Then again, so are a lot of other industries, like banking.


  3. The post sounds a lot like “The Skeptical Environmentalist” by Lomborg, who has similar conclusions.

    As for the water scarcity issue in California, it’s been to highly subsidized for too long, that it is in fact, undervalued. At least that’s the conclusion I come to as an occasional reader of the blog Aguanomics.

    Liked by 1 person

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