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Weekend reflections

March 19th, 2011

It’s time again for weekend reflections, which makes space for longer than usual comments on any topic. In keeping with my attempts to open up the comments to new contributors , I’d like to redirect discussion, and restatements of previous arguments, as opposed to substantive new contributions, to the sandpit(s). As always, civilised discussion and no coarse language please.

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  1. john
    March 19th, 2011 at 14:51 | #1

    As Ian Plimer is in the news again thanks to Cardinal Pell, I take the liberty to post a review of his book that I wrote but never circulated at the time:

    In climate sceptic Ian Plimer’s 2009 book ‘Heaven and Earth’, I was struck by a point that few of his critics have mentioned: quite apart from the accuracy of his science, it’s just such bad writing in every way.

    Most of the book is an inordinately long list of factoids about anything and everything that could be relevant to modern climate change (but mostly isn’t). Most of it is devoted to repeating ad nauseam, in excruciating detail, a point which no-one denies – over geological time, climate has changed from natural causes.

    It is disorderly and repetitive. There is no clear line of argument. [note 1] There is no clear distinction between information that is important and merely contextual. It is full of sloppy writing that leaves you wondering what he really means. [note 2] It is full of over-long digressions of uncertain relevance (personal favourite: waxing lyrical about ‘failed doomsday predictions’, he spends 5 pages giving us !25! examples. [note 3]

    It’s hard to give the flavour of it with examples, because the effect is cumulative. But try p.117, about the sun: ‘Solar storms are common. The Sun emits a relentless current of charged particles, the solar wind. These warp the earth’s magnetic field. There are also vast balls of ionised gas that are released by the Sun as solar flares. These are best seen during a total eclipse. Minor solar flares occur once or twice each decade. Solar activity had its first effect on the modern world when at 6.30pm on 28 August 1859, the telegraph lines out of Boston failed. Elsewhere, electrical equipment burst into flames. The Northern Lights were seen as far south as the Bahamas.’

    And so on, in exactly that bald, ugly, breathless style, with no clue as to which flakes among the blizzard of information are actually relevant to his argument, for almost 500 pages. The overwhelming impression it leaves is: this is the product of an undisciplined mind. It’s like being button-holed at a party by someone who doesn’t know when to stop. [note 4]

    Climate deniers are fond of emphasising the high qualifications of their expert supporters. ‘Ha! Your Ph.D was only in economics! So who are you to criticise professor so-and-so?’ So it’s worth stressing how much of the badness of this book doesn’t relate to the science details, but should be obvious to anyone educated enough to read it at all.

    You don’t need to be a scientist to notice the sloppy writing. You don’t need to be a scientist to notice that many of the summary points at the start of the chapters are poorly justified by the text that follows. You don’t need to be a scientist to notice that, in spite of the famous 2311 footnotes, many key claims and figures are not properly referenced.

    You don’t need to be a scientist to be taken aback by the off-the-wall nutty statements that pepper the book, [note 5] and by the over-the-top hostility that he shows towards his opponents. [note 6]

    You don’t need to be a scientist to wonder what all this says about the author’s judgment, and to think it might be wise to treat his views with caution pending some expert response.

    In light of this, it’s bizarre to see how gushingly Plimer’s boosters praised him when the book came out.[note 7] How quiet they’ve been more recently.

    Note 1: His main argument is clear enough: modern climate change, if it exists (he seems ambivalent on this point), is not of concern. By ‘line of argument’ I mean material that mixes facts, hypotheses, analysis and conclusions in suitable proportions to prove the point.

    Note 2: Frequent failure to distinguish situation from change and from change rate of change – for example, use of ‘global warming’ that confuses the senses ‘the natural greenhouse effect’ and ‘getting warmer over time’. Frequent failure to distinguish ‘temperature’ and ‘temperature anomaly’ correctly on graphs. Bizarre bloopers like p.229 ‘In about 9000 years time perihelion will occur in the northern hemisphere’; p.237 ‘It takes one calorie to raise the temperature of water by 1 degree C’ [how much water?]. Meaningless catchphrases like ‘the sun drives climate… water drives climate’.

    Note 3: p456ff.

    Note 4: His earlier pop geology book ‘A Short History of Planet Earth’ (2001) has similar features.

    Note 5: p.25: ‘There is no problem with global warming. It stopped in 1998’ [nutty if you know anything about statistical significance]. p.377: ‘One can argue that it is human vanity to imagine that our relatively small inhabited percentage of global surface has the ability to alter the climate of the whole planet, as some 98.6% of the planet is essentially uninhabited.’ p.403: ‘If human addition of CO2 to the modern atmosphere is producing climate change, then how can previous pre-industrialisation warmings be explained?’ [answer: ‘by some of the natural causes which you yourself have been banging on about for 400 pages’]. p.461: ‘More people die in winter than in summer, there is more depopulation on global cooling events than in global warming events, and yet we are the first generation on planet earth to fear warmth.’ p.486, Plimer’s take on the precautionary principle: ‘…legitimises unfounded fears… raises irrational decision-making to an art form… if we followed the precautionary principle to its logical conclusion, then we would never get out of bed.’

    Note 6: ‘global warming fundamentalists… climate zealots… urban atheistic religion… doomsayers… anti-human totalitarianism… rabid environmentalism…. political and social collectivism…’

    Note 7: ‘While his thesis is not new, you’re unlikely to have heard it expressed with quite such vigour, certitude or wide-ranging scientific authority.’ James Delingpole, The Spectator, 7 July 2009

  2. Jim Birch
    March 19th, 2011 at 22:41 | #2

    @john
    There’s a style of argument that consists of heaping up the biggest possible collection of factoids that appear to support your cause in an attempt to overwhelm the opposition. It sometimes seems to work, on some people.

  3. Donald Oats
    March 19th, 2011 at 23:55 | #3

    @john
    Having waded through the turgid prose myself, I couldn’t agree more with your review – and that is leaving the scientific rebuttals to others who have already demolished the few points of relevance to Plimer’s main thesis.

    A summary of Plimer’s main thought bubble on the subject is:
    Climate change happened in the past before humans were on the Earth, therefore humans aren’t causing or affecting (global) climate now.
    Of course, Ian Plimer has made an elementary mistake in deductive logic in his thesis, namely that of ignoring the fact that humans are altering several of the factors that caused or jointly affected global climate in the past, things such as atmospheric carbon dioxide content, and therefore humans may be having an impact upon the global climate. This inversion of premise and conclusion, this alone should have disqualified Plimer’s main line of attack against anthropogenic global warming as a theory. Oddly it didn’t.

    Plimer’s secondary lines of attack are really all about diminishing the relative size of human versus natural contributions to changes in factors that are known to affect the global climate – this is his backup defence just in case the reader noticed his f*ckup in logic 101 in his primary thesis. For example, he claims erroneously (and incongruously, considering he is a professor of geology) that volcanoes can emit as much or greatly more carbon dioxide than humans do over comparable periods. Way back in the geologic past, eg a couple of billion or more years ago (that’s 2 with nine zeroes after it, a freakin’ big number), when nothing with a spine walked the Earth, some volcanic activity might have emitted a hell of a lot of carbon dioxide. It also had a hell of an impact upon the Earth, warming the global climate mightily. Currently humans emit perhaps 130 times as much as volcanoes do in the present on a global, annualised basis. In other words, Plimer attempts to conflate factoids from the deep geologic past with what is happening at the present, and he presumably hopes that his readers are too dull-witted and sluggish – without direct sunlight – to notice this written sleight-of-hand trick. Bastard.

    There must be another hundred or so similar stunts. John, you identify one of the more egregious ones, that of Plimer citing articles he purports validate his line of argument when in fact they don’t, or even flatly contradict his argument! This happens so often that it is highly unlikely to be by chance, any reasonable person would conclude at least that much.

    All in all his book is ironically a rock-solid boulder of evidence that some ways of knowing are claptrap – see other thread on the whimsy of Cardinal’s Folly [extended mix], howled down in a porno world.

  4. Ikonoclast
    March 20th, 2011 at 07:56 | #4

    It seems to me that “the earth’s climate has always changed” argument is also used to argue that it doesn’t matter if humankind changes the climate as well. This argument ignores the significance of the relative benignity of the holocene climate. This benignity may well be related to the rise and continuance of human civilization itself. We disturb this benign climate at our own peril.

    Natural climate changes do occur but the rapidity of human induced climate change seems to be at the upper end of the scale (with the exception of catastrophic one-off events like large comet impacts).

  5. Fran Barlow
    March 20th, 2011 at 09:38 | #5

    @Ikonoclast

    It seems to me that “the earth’s climate has always changed” argument is also used to argue that it doesn’t matter if humankind changes the climate as well.

    That’s true, although the main reason that those opposing mitigation run this line is the implication that climate change owes nothing significant to human agency with the (specious) conclusions that

    a) acts in mitigation would be futile/not measure up in cost-benefit terms

    and

    b) business-as-usual will not prejudice ecosystem services since human activity will be lost in the wash of “the natural”. Sometimes one read them saying that it is “arrogant” to think us “puny” humans can change the climate. In this view, humans are mere flotsam in a much grander macrocosm. The disingenuous and misanthropic character of this latter claim seems plain.

    What this account misses of course is that not all climate change is equal. Questions of time scale and magnitude are salient. Whatever one makes of human agency, climate change taking place over millions of years does not have the significance for societies that regard decades and even shorter time periods as important as does the same or a greater rate of climate change taking place over 50-150 years. Equally, the base from which climate change takes place is important. Emerging from a general glaciation at a fairly rapid (in geological time) rate is not the same as warming very sharply during an interglacial period. And just as it makes a difference whether a Category Five cyclone hits a heavily populated area or a sparsely populated area, so too it matters whether the impacts of climate change are upon services to millions of people or none at all. We humans count ourselves as of primary significance. Previous extinction events, (such as the End Permian) though interesting, were not catastrophic for our species. Something much less significant that nevertheless imposed a serious decline in the fortunes of our species would be deemed far more salient by almost everyone, and it is rational to hope that our governments would act effectively and efficiently to parry such a threat. If the threat were from the impending near pass of a comet or asteroid, the fact that this was not of anthropogenic origin would not be germane to how people responded. If someone argued that “there have always been comets and asteroids; one probably wiped out the dinosaurs and we ought merely to adapt or accept our fate” or “won’t someone please think of the costs on business?” they would surely be howled down by any within earshot.

    Yet this is effectively what the dissembling enemies of mitigation are doing here. We ought to howl them down too.

  6. john
    March 20th, 2011 at 15:04 | #6

    @ Ikonoclast: Natural climate changes do occur but the rapidity of human induced climate change seems to be at the upper end of the scale

    @Fran: Questions of time scale and magnitude are salient.

    Failure to describe or discuss the significance of different rate of change at different times: I nearly put this as an example under ‘sloppy writing’ , but didn’t because * noticing it suggests some scientific acumen, which was not my point of view; * it may well be not merely sloppy, but part of a more serious dishonesty.

    The prehistory parts of Heaven and Earth, at almost all points, conspicuously avoid talking about rate of change in useful detail, while at the same time giving a general impression that the climate of the last 100,000 years has been a positively roller coaster ride.

    It’s full of vague statements like ‘the glaciation ended *about* 14,000 years ago (32); ‘during the last glaciation the rate of temperature change *varied wildly* (32); ‘the last glaciation ended with a *sudden warming” about 14,700 years ago (36); ‘forests in Europe disappeared *abruptly* 107,000 years ago’ (38); ‘a *short sharp* cooling from 13,900 to 13,600 years ago’ (42); “the western desert became arid in 4300BC’ (50). (emphasis added).

    The aim of this style seems to be to give the impression that modern climate change is nothing special by comparison.

  7. TerjeP
    March 20th, 2011 at 17:31 | #7

    Gillard seems to be leaning closer towards a revenue neutral version of a carbon tax. It isn’t there yet but it’s a positive sign.

    http://www.theaustralian.com.au/national-affairs/treasury/gillard-flags-tax-cuts-to-offset-cost-of-living-pain-from-carbon-tax/story-fn59nsif-1226024865387

  8. Fran Barlow
    March 20th, 2011 at 17:38 | #8

    @TerjeP

    Of course, the fixed price period is not a carbon tax, but anyway …

  9. rog
    March 20th, 2011 at 17:56 | #9

    @Jim Birch For a lot of people the factoids are overwhelming.

  10. TerjeP
    March 20th, 2011 at 18:41 | #10

    Fran – looks like a duck, walks like a duck.

  11. Freelander
    March 20th, 2011 at 19:14 | #11

    Its not a carbon tax. Rather, it is a highly fluctuating quota with the instantaneous level of the quota conforming with a uniform carbon price. A whole different beast entirely (not).

  12. Peter T
    March 20th, 2011 at 19:19 | #12

    I read this:

    http://modeledbehavior.com/2011/03/18/not-getting-it-on-climate-change/

    and I thought how amazingly good a job education had done of cutting this person adrift from reality – and how common this is.

  13. Freelander
    March 20th, 2011 at 20:51 | #13

    @Peter T

    Interesting link with interesting logic on climate change. If your country’s actions (that is, the USA’s actions in producing greenhouse gases) cause massive damage and loss of life in other countries, there is no reason why you should stop those actions if they are producing a net benefits for yourself.

    If you follow that logic, then carpet bombing the inhabitants of those other countries would also be justified if it resulted in a net benefit when you got all their resources for free.

    And who said the colonial/imperialist mentality was dead?

    Interesting name of the blogger – Karl Smith. His parents had a sense of humour.

  14. Fran Barlow
    March 20th, 2011 at 21:27 | #14

    @TerjeP

    Fran – looks like a duck, walks like a duck.

    Hardly. The High Court decalred that a tax was a compulsory charge imposed by the government not in exchange for a service {my emphasis}. I’d call the freedom to pollute the biosphere and to store your toxic waste in living tissue a service.

  15. Freelander
    March 20th, 2011 at 21:56 | #15

    @Fran Barlow

    I would agree with you Fran. It is payment for the pleasure of polluting. Similarly, that so called tax on mining is also not a tax, but a payment for the pleasure of extracting and keeping the minerals or metals concerned. Of course, a complicating factor in that case is that the states seem to think they are their resources.

  16. Fran Barlow
    March 20th, 2011 at 22:38 | #16

    @Freelander

    It is payment for the pleasure of polluting {…} that so called tax on mining is also not a tax, but a payment for the pleasure of extracting

    You blur distinctions between things that are different. The FPP is a charge for dumping into the commons. Doing so for free is clearly a market-distorting externality AND a charge upon a rival but non-excludable service — in this case ecosystem services. It also harms the commons and even imposes costs on people not yet born. This is not the same as a levy on income or acquired assets.

  17. Freelander
    March 21st, 2011 at 09:14 | #17

    @Fran Barlow

    The ‘levy’ on net super profit is simply a more efficient way of charging for the resource. The charge is for the resource. The problem is that the resource is of various grades having various costs to extract. If the charge were direct rather than the way they have arranged it there would be all sorts of pricing problems. The way they are doing it is intended to avoid these problems. The miners never acquired the resource asset. They have simply been getting to use it for way below its value. In other words, we have been providing them with a great big subsidy. As it is, we will continue to provide them with a great big subsidy, just not quite as horrendously large.

  18. Fran Barlow
    March 21st, 2011 at 09:33 | #18

    @Freelander

    You seem to have inferred that I opposed a resources rent tax on extractive industry. I can’t imagine how you made such an inference. Like most Greens, I thought the original Rudd proposal rather generous to extractive industry, and was scandalised when this too was trimmed back..

  19. TerjeP
    March 21st, 2011 at 09:42 | #19

    Yes and GST is a fee we pay for being allowed to shop. Income tax is a fee we pay for being allowed to earn. Import duties are a fee we pay for being allowed to import. Land taxes are a fee for being allowed to own. In fact there are no taxes at all. Just fees for permission to do stuff. We live in a zero tax world.

  20. Fran Barlow
    March 21st, 2011 at 09:53 | #20

    @TerjeP

    Yes and GST is a fee we pay for being allowed to shop. Income tax is a fee we pay for being allowed to earn …{more silliness truncated}

    You invite ridicule when you throw a tantrum like this Terje. Your semantic contrivance notwithstanding, the examples you show lack what a CO2 emissions fee has — the provision of a supporting service.

    A fee for parking as you shop is not a tax, even if the state owns the carpark. A fee for converting your income into some other currency is also not a tax even if the government owns the bureau de change.

    Take a deep breath and then come back and apologise for your utterly specious rant. You aren’t as silly as you made out here.

  21. TerjeP
    March 21st, 2011 at 10:15 | #21

    Fran – I was ridiculing your position, not having a tantrum. I’m not angry with your silly position I merely think it is silly.

    You assume that the government owns the atmosphere. It does not and if it seeks to then it is the largest property grab in two centuries. And irrespective of what you wish to call it the carbon tax is as much like a tax as you can get.

  22. TerjeP
    March 21st, 2011 at 10:17 | #22

    Fran – I was ridiculing your position, not having a tantrum. I’m not angry with your silly position I merely think it is silly.

    You assume that the government owns the atmosphere. It does not and if it seeks to then it is the largest property grab in two centuries. And irrespective of what you wish to call it the carbon tax is as much like a tax as you can get. It is not like a car park fee much at all. It is more like a fee on shopping, earning, land ownership etc. In short more like a tax than a fee.

  23. TerjeP
    March 21st, 2011 at 10:43 | #23

    If access to the atmosphere is a government service then a poll tax can be considered a fee not a tax. We just need to call it a breathing fee and exempt those that wear a scuba tank.

  24. Fran Barlow
    March 21st, 2011 at 11:43 | #24

    @TerjeP

    Terje

    First rule when you are stuck in a hole — stop digging.

    You assume that the government owns the atmosphere.

    I assume governments (the legitimate ones anyway) are trustees of the atmosphere, and indeed all ecosystem services.

    If access to the atmosphere is a government service then a poll tax can be considered a fee not a tax.

    Access to the atmosphere for the purposes of commerce is a service. Access to the atmosphere for the purposes of life is not. People have an intrinsic and inalienable right to live. They have no corresponding right to commerce, and certainly, bearing in mind that commercial use of the atmosphere is clearly rival, in a way that breathing is not, it cannot be unfettered. One person’s commerce is another’s depleted ecosystem service.

    Moreover, since 100% of the population of the planet benefits from the right to breathe the air and in largely the same amount no good purpose could be served by charging for access to it. This is not so with commerce however. The quality of air/ecosystem services is not uniform, but differentiated, typically by wealth. Here, charging for usaghe serves the purpose of destroying perverse incentives, in much the way that we charge to dump our other wastes — sewage, household refuse etc.

    No amount of semantic chicanery can refute this point. Debauching the language in the service of a cultural claim as you do here, and then getting into a tizzy about it reflects poorly on your seriousness.

  25. Fran Barlow
    March 21st, 2011 at 11:46 | #25

    FTR, poll taxes are typically imposed to keep what the elites regard as the riff raff from voting, in much the same way that high fees for private schools are imposed to keep out the “wrong” kind of people.

  26. sam
    March 21st, 2011 at 11:56 | #26

    Three things seem quite clear to me.

    First of all, TerjeP is right to call the proposed carbon arrangements a tax. In particular it is a Pigovian tax, applied to a negative externality in the hope that the quantity will be reduced. The standard economic description of such an arrangement is a tax.

    Secondly, TerjeP is quite wrong to believe that the air doesn’t belong to the public. Whenever a previously un-scarce resource owned by no one becomes scarce, the public rightly assumes control, and is the recipient of any unavoidable economic rents. Aeroplanes flying in congested skies pay fees to traffic control, radio operators lease spectrum from the government, noisy nightclubs are only permitted in certain non-residential zones, and have to pay a license fee. Why should carbon dioxide be any different?

    Finally, Fran is in no position to criticize other people for indulging in semantics.

  27. Fran Barlow
    March 21st, 2011 at 13:09 | #27

    Sam misses the point as follows:

    In particular it is a Pigovian tax, applied to a negative externality in the hope that the quantity will be reduced.

    It is a charge or fee with a policy goal — which can be called Pigovian — but it is attached to a service (see for example Air Caledonie v Commonwealth 1988). If a service is involved, it is not a tax.

    If you want to say that I am arguing semantics you should take it up with the High Court.

    Finally, Fran is in no position to criticize other people for indulging in semantics.

    I love semantics, and syntax more generally, in the way that some people are fascinated with sports. If people misuse semantics to found cultural claims then I am in as strong a position as anyone to object. You can try refuting it.

    Let us be clear — the main reason the opponents like calling this a tax is because tax is a dirty word for rightwingers. It’s the key to activiating simple-minded populism. The government accepts this (stupidly in my view) because it doesn’t want to appear to be trying to offer a “read the fine print” defence of Gillard and reasons that few will listen to the reasoning.

    I don’t think it matters if most don’t follow it. If they pointed out that Abbott was either ignorant or dissembling and eventually forced him to stop using it, that would be a tactical victory because he would then have to admit that the charge was not impsoed because the government likes taxing or wants to lower the deficit but because the commons are being harmed and businesses should not be able to harm for free. That is much stronger ground.

  28. Jim Birch
    March 21st, 2011 at 13:12 | #28

    @sam
    Except that if it is revenue neutral it’s odd to characterise it as a tax, Pigovian or otherwise. It’s a tax on some, a benefit for others. A Pigovian correction, perhaps? :)

    It’s not obvious to me who the “recipent” of the proceeds “should” be. In the idealised scenario all earth citizens would get an sustainable allocation of CO2 and be allowed to trde up or down. In the real world getting a full international system going is a big ask so it’s better to start with individual states cleaning up their own acts and encourage/coerce others to do the same.

  29. Sam
    March 21st, 2011 at 13:41 | #29

    @Fran Barlow
    You and the High Court of Australia may have a view, but virtually every first year economics textbook in every country in the world calls it a “Pigovian Tax” and they got there first. Under a section called something like “Externalities” or “Pollution costs,” they always offer two quasi-market solutions to an excess of “economic bad”, one a system of tradeable permits, the other a tax. They always call it a tax. TerjeP was using the word in a way most people around the world understand it. That’s not misusing semantics. That’s speaking plainly.

    Regarding the propaganda value of the word, I think the Labor party have the correct tactical intuition. In a popularity contest like this, it’s usually best to bite the bullet, own the nasty word “tax” that the opposition is trying to force them to run away from, and then clearly explain the means of compensation.

    People respond well to plain speaking. Conversely, if they even think you’re trying use lawyerese to hide an unpalatable truth, they will be united against you.

  30. Sam
    March 21st, 2011 at 13:53 | #30

    @Jim Birch
    I feel like the GST was supposed to be more or less revenue neutral and it is still called a tax. Revenue neutrality comes about from a reduction in other taxes/ increase in welfare payments. The carbon price on it’s own is revenue positive.

    Anyway, none of this matters very much, it’s just a name.

  31. Tim Macknay
    March 21st, 2011 at 14:06 | #31

    Fran, an ‘ecosystem service’ like a stable climate is not what the High Court had in mind when it distinguished between taxes and fees for service. It is not a service provided by government (or anyone) and it is not a service that is provided specifically to some people (i.e. those who pay the fee) and not others. If the argument was raised before the High Court, I strongly suspect it would support Terje’s interpretation.

  32. Tim Macknay
    March 21st, 2011 at 14:08 | #32

    I agree with Sam though, that the word used to identify the carbon price doesn’t really matter too much.

  33. Fran Barlow
    March 21st, 2011 at 14:59 | #33

    @Tim Macknay

    It is not a service provided by government (or anyone)

    Technically, it is provided by the community since the community gives up amenity in order to underpin the asset values of the polluters feedstock and further allows them to rrade on more favourable terms. It is a subsidy in kind (i.e. a waived benefit).

    and it is not a service that is provided specifically to some people (i.e. those who pay the fee) and not others.

    That’s exactly what it is. Those who use the service — dumping CO2e into the atmosphere — pay the fee. Those who don’t (or who do but fall under the government’s CO2-emissions threshhold) don’t pay the fee.

    I agree with Sam though, that the word used to identify the carbon price doesn’t really matter too much.

    Well it does because it facilitates the Abbottistas running a rightwing populist disinformation campaign: “The ALP never saw a tax it didn’t like”; the government is robbing the public”; “Juliar Lied”; “GBNT!”.

    It’s too late now, but the ALP really dropped the ball on this one. They should have insisted from the first on getting the nomenclature right. “As we have said all along, let us have this discussion based on the facts rather than ignorant sloganeering. We are determined to put a suitable price on pollution so as to protect the public interest

  34. Tim Macknay
    March 21st, 2011 at 15:13 | #34

    Fran, you’re stretching the concept of a fee for service way too far on this one. You should have another look at how the High Court understood ‘service’ in the relevant sense in the case you’ve cited.

    If the ALP had tried the kind of sophistry you’re using, the public response would have been even worse.

  35. Freelander
    March 21st, 2011 at 15:16 | #35

    Yes. Fran is clearly correct. The charge to the companies is for the right to put that quantity of CO2 into the atmosphere. Just as you might charge a company on a per unit basis for the right to put effluent into a river. If you own the river, rather than the government, you wouldn’t have the power to tax but you might be able to charge someone to allow them to put their waste in your river. Or charge your neighbor so they can throw their lawn clippings over the fence on to your property.

    Clearly, except maybe for that ‘unrepresentative swill’ in the High Court, it is a charge for the rights provided and not a tax. I wouldn’t expect the unrepresentative swill to necessarily distinguish the difference. Good and clear judgements would result in massive unemployment in the legal sector, even among the judiciary.

    Just imagine the harm that would cause. Legions of unemployed barristers and judges roaming the streets. Lord knows what they would get up to?

  36. Tim Macknay
    March 21st, 2011 at 15:34 | #36

    Clearly, except maybe for that ‘unrepresentative swill’ in the High Court, it is a charge for the rights provided and not a tax. I wouldn’t expect the unrepresentative swill to necessarily distinguish the difference. Good and clear judgements would result in massive unemployment in the legal sector, even among the judiciary.

    Well, the High Court’s concept of a service was pretty clear actually, and in line with common sense. But no matter. The important thing is that lawyer-bashing makes you feel better. ;)

  37. Freelander
    March 21st, 2011 at 15:45 | #37

    You shouldn’t interpret my comment as ‘lawyer-bashing’. Really, I was simply paying them a professional complement. The majority of lawyers are somewhat like the majority of economists, expert at parting client’s or client’s opponents from their money on often quite dubious grounds. Count my comment as praise for their capacity for revenue maximization.

  38. Fran Barlow
    March 21st, 2011 at 15:46 | #38

    @Tim Macknay

    Fran, you’re stretching the concept of a fee for service way too far on this one. You should have another look at how the High Court understood ‘service’ in the relevant sense in the case you’ve cited.

    I have and here it the salient portion:

    Thus, a charge for the acquisition or use of property {e.g. the use of the biosphere as a sewer}, a fee for a privilege {…} are other examples of special types of exactions of money which are unlikely to be properly characterized as a tax notwithstanding that they exhibit those positive attributes. On the other hand, a compulsory and enforceable exaction of money by a public authority for public purposes will not necessarily be precluded from being properly seen as a tax merely because it is described as a “fee for services”. If the person required to pay the exaction is given no choice about whether or not he acquires the services and the amount of the exaction has no discernible relationship with the value of what is acquired, the circumstances may be such that the exaction is, at least to the extent that it exceeds that value, properly to be seen as a tax. {emphasis and comments in braces added by me: FB}

    The emhasised portions very clearly underpin my claims.

    It is clear that the biosphere is a piece of property albeit a public property rather than a private one. Access to it for private purposes is a service — and a very valuable one at that. Commercial entities can choose not to avail themselves of the service or avail themselves up to but not beyond the point at which the marginal utility, considering the fee fell to zero. Stern estimates the community cost of CO2 emissions as being above about $85 per tCO2. A fee of $30 would be well under that mark.

    QED — it is not a tax.

    If the ALP had tried the kind of sophistry {explanation} you’re using, the public response would have been even worse.

    It’s possible, but in the end, is that relevant? Politicians ought to be candid with the public, otherwise the dissemblers in the Murdochracy simply get a free hand to boost their preferred charlatans, and the politicians simply appear witless to those who are paying attention. In the longer run, had they put this case before the election (as I outlined it above, I believe that they would have had the best of the ground to fight on. Inexorably, the argument would have shifted to the value of the externality to polluters, or put another way, the extent of the public subsidy (measurable also in public harm) to which free pollution amounted. The government could have spiked Abbott’s GBNT claims, showing him as either a dissembling snake-oil salesman or an ignoramus.

    Even after the election, had they immediately taken this view, I suspect they’d have eventually reframed the debate in their favour. Of course, this is the ALP we are talking about and they are nothing if not spineless, craven and dull-witted.

  39. Tim Macknay
    March 21st, 2011 at 16:08 | #39

    It is clear that the biosphere is a piece of property albeit a public property rather than a private one. Access to it for private purposes is a service — and a very valuable one at that.

    Er, actually it isn’t clear at all. The claim in your first sentence is highly contentious, and at the least requires argument rather than assertion. The claim in your second sentence appears nonsensical. What is “access to [the biosphere]“, exactly? (Almost all human activities, public or private, take place within the biosphere at all times). And how is accessing the biosphere a “service”, let alone one “provided” by government?

    Thus, a charge for the acquisition or use of property {e.g. the use of the biosphere as a sewer}, a fee for a privilege {…}

    Again, I think the characterisation of releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere as “the acquisition and use of property” is highly problematic, and at the least requires more than mere assertion. The “privilege” is available to everone who has access to combustible material of any kind. Claiming that this is a “service” provided by government stretches the concept well beyond credibility. That is the fatal weakness in your argument IMHO.

    If the government was taking a different approach to its greenhouse policy, say, an approach that would generally be characterised as “regulatory”, in which it intended to prohibit the emission of greenhouse gases, except with government authorisation, and then proceeded to levy licence fees on the entities who had received authorisation, then I think it would be accurate to refer to the arrangement as involving a fee or charge rather than a tax. The emission of GHGs would then become a “privilege” in the relevnat sense. But the government has not taken that approach. It has not chosen to prohibit or regulate the emission of GHGs, but to impose a cost on them.

    It’s possible, but in the end, is that relevant? Politicians ought to be candid with the public, otherwise the dissemblers in the Murdochracy simply get a free hand to boost their preferred charlatans, and the politicians simply appear witless to those who are paying attention.

    I agree. The focus should have been on the public policy reasons for introducing a carbon price, rather than the issue of Gillard breaking an election promise and imposing a new tax (the election promise was the biggest mistake here IMHO). I’m not sure finding tricky ways to argue that it’s not a tax would be helpful, however.

  40. Freelander
    March 21st, 2011 at 16:17 | #40

    Good. So its finally resolved. We all agree its not a tax.

  41. Tim Macknay
    March 21st, 2011 at 16:22 | #41

    @Freelander

    You shouldn’t interpret my comment as ‘lawyer-bashing’. Really, I was simply paying them a professional complement.

    A rather left-handed one, it seems. ;)

  42. Tim Macknay
    March 21st, 2011 at 16:25 | #42

    Good. So its finally resolved. We all agree its not a tax.

    Well, not exactly. Suffice it to say that, as I said before, I don’t really think it matters that much whether you call it a tax or not. The sooner the debate moves to the substantive policy justifications for it, the better.

  43. Ernestine Gross
    March 21st, 2011 at 19:27 | #43

    Interesting interdisciplinary discussion without one of the most important disciplines, natural scientists. I can’t fill in this gap.

    But I do know that the problem is:
    Line 1: Scientists specify a reduction in the emissions of ghg over time periods with the proviso that new information may change these emission reduction targets.
    Line 2: What do economists have to offer on how to achieve the target? Sam represented this line with the widely known ‘Pigovian tax’. There is an alternative, which I used in my model of transport noise pricing, derived from the general equilibrium literature, known as Lindahl equilibrium (Lindahl also used the word ‘tax’). I used the term ‘administrative price’.
    Up and including this line one doesn’t need many words. One needs models specified in mathematical relationships and one needs numerical data. Communication (as in information transfer and not as in pomo) between economists in the relevant area and scientists is relatively easy. They can read each others work – at least the conceptual models.
    From hereon it gets difficult because the words get in the way. Hope I’ll be forgiven for saying I took some pleasure in Terje’s removal of tax by means of words – a very nice application of pomo.

  44. jakerman
    March 21st, 2011 at 19:47 | #44

    TerjP writes:

    You assume that the government owns the atmosphere. It does not and if it seeks to then it is the largest property grab in two centuries.

    The counter position is to assume that the atmosphere is owned on a pro-rata basis of who ever pollutes it the most. And dumping their waste into the atmosphere is actually the largest property grab in three centuries.

    Polluters are currently illegitimate dumpers in our atmosphere.

  45. Ernestine Gross
    March 21st, 2011 at 23:32 | #45

    “Polluters are currently illegitimate dumpers in our atmosphere.”

    So everybody is illegitimate.

  46. Ernestine Gross
    March 21st, 2011 at 23:46 | #46

    TerjP writes:

    “You assume that the government owns the atmosphere. It does not and if it seeks to then it is the largest property grab in two centuries. ”

    Terje, on this one you can relax. Nobody owns the atmosphere. The atmosphere, vital as it is for our survival, can’t be turned into a ‘marketable commodity’ because it is not possible to even approximate exclusiveness in consumption. This is exactly an example of the incompleteness of markets. The government can only legislate to limit pollution of the atmosphere via legislating a ‘mechanism’ (direct quantity controls, administered price, cap and trade are examples).

    (Relying on voluntary actions may work in very small societies without corporations – hard to find these days – where suitable customs and traditions evolve and ‘profit’ could be understood to mean something like: Today I caught a very big fish in 1 hour rather than the usual 3 hours.)

  47. Fran Barlow
    March 22nd, 2011 at 05:30 | #47

    @Ernestine Gross

    Nobody owns the atmosphere. The atmosphere, vital as it is for our survival, can’t be turned into a ‘marketable commodity’ because it is not possible to even approximate exclusiveness in consumption.

    The above is a mess. Placed together, one is invited to read the latter claims as underpinning the initial claim and the the two latter claims as related. They aren’t.

    Whether something can be turned into a “marketable commodity” tells us little useful about whether it is property and whether access to it is excludable to individual human beings (as distinct from business entities) little more.

    The environmental commons, as the term implies, are the inheritance of all humanity — an asset which, precisely because it is both vital to human existence and not excludable to any human, imposes upon all in the human community who attests to the integrity of human life, an obligations of protection. Every individual human stands in relation to it as a bailee casting our governments as executive trustees. They are our agents and must stand above and separate from those seeking to make private use of the commons in ways that would undermine its value to present and future humanity. It is a very special piece of inalienable community property, and not “marketable” save in ways consistent with the above brief to protect), but it is property nonetheless. To suggest that communities (or their agents, the governments of the world) could be indifferent to the subversion of the community interest in the protection of the integrity of this asset is plainly paradoxical. A government that purported to so act would undermine its status as agent of community. A government may err in discharging this duty — typically they do — or lack the means to discharge the duty adequately — but the duty remains.

    Inevitably, when commercial activity makes use of the commons, the biosphere is, at least to some extent, disrupted and degraded — which is one reason why debates about “sustainability” have aroused such passions but it is scarcely conceivable that sustainability would be meaningful when raised against commercial or private interest unless the idea of the community being bound to treat the protection of the integrity of the biosphere as a binding obligation lay at the foundation of human expectations. We are all aware that those who subvert its integrity, do so at the expense of remaining humanity now and until the end of days. Such folk are embezzlers of the commons, or perhaps guilty of the tort of conversion by wrongful user albeit that few apart from tort lawyers might articulate the problem that way.

  48. Ernestine Gross
    March 22nd, 2011 at 08:31 | #48

    @Fran Barlow

    Would you please tell me in a few lines what you want to say?

  49. Fran Barlow
    March 22nd, 2011 at 09:53 | #49

    @Ernestine Gross

    Would you please tell me in a few lines what you want to say?

    I’ve told you in more than a few lines. A few lines is a subset of that. See if you can pick out those you find most intriguing and then get back to me. I’ve hitherto assumed you were literate, but if this is not the case then even a few lines will be too much for you.

    It could be that you want different lines, much as someone who ordered ravioli will complain when brought stir-fried noodles. If this is your problem, then you will need to be more specific. I’m not about to guess what you want.

  50. sam
    March 22nd, 2011 at 11:04 | #50

    @Fran Barlow
    We’re all literate here. We’ve all read books longer than your comments. Ernestine is right though, lengthy expositions can obscure the often simple point one is trying to make. It feels inefficient. I am also guilty of this. I respectfully suggest you try (as an exercise in clear writing) to keep your comments terse for a while. Use more Anglo-Saxon, and less Romance. I’m not saying “don’t use big words,” just “don’t use unnecessary words.” You might find it improves your focus and the quality of your argument.

    By the way, I agree with your actual position in #47.

  51. Ernestine Gross
    March 22nd, 2011 at 11:05 | #51

    @Fran Barlow

    “In der Beschraenkung zeigt sich erst der Meister”. Think about it.

    http://twitter.com/koenvandamme_be/status/38509778988834816

    Poor translation:
    http://www.proz.com/kudoz/german_to_english/advertising_public_relations/1037774-in_der_beschr%C3%A4nkung_zeigt_sich_der_meister.html

    Application in management research:
    http://dissertaties.ub.unimaas.nl/stelling/17870.pdf

    Examples:
    Our hosts’ posts.
    Freelander’s “no nukes are good nukes”
    Stretch: “International expert, Andew Bolt, has reassured the people of Fukushima that he is safe and well in Melbourne” , posted on JQ’s thread, The chain of scientific authority
    21/3/2011,

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