Political change and climate change

September 23rd, 2014 41 comments

Judging by the comments on my “derp and denialism” post, we seem to be mostly agreed on the proposition, amply demonstrated by economic studies, that the global economy could be decarbonized at a very modest cost in terms of foregone growth. On the other hand, it is equally obvious that the commitments made so far are nowhere near enough to achieve this goal[^1], and that the reasons for this lie in the operation of political systems, most importantly in the US, China and India. This raises several questions

(a) Why have political systems failed to yield the responses we need
(b) Can climate stabilization be achieved without fundamental transformation of political systems
(c) If so, what transformation do we need
(d) If not, what kinds of more limited change do we need

In this context, it’s only really necessary to look at the US, China and India. The EU may drag its 27 pairs of feet a little (it is the EU, after all) but will certainly match anything the US does. And, if the US were fully committed to climate change, denialists elsewhere in the developed world, like Harper in Canada and Abbott in Australia, would have the ground cut from under them.

In the US (and other English-speaking countries), the primary obstacle is not the entrenched power of interests that would lose from climate stabilization such as fossil fuel companies. The big global energy companies, like Exxon and BP, are perfectly capable of shifting their focus from oil to gas and if the market gets large enough, to renewables. In any case, they are balanced by potential losers from climate change like the insurance and finance sectors. Rather, the problem is the climate change denial is a rightwing culture war issue, which has became (one of many) Republican shibboleths.

Sustained action against climate change requires that the Republican party either be marginalized or replaced by something quite different (though it would probably still be called the Republican party). That’s a big challenge, but not impossible. A two-term presidency for Hillary Clinton, even without full control of Congress, would probably be enough to get things done through a combination of regulation and international agreements, the model currently being pursued by Obama. And four losses in succession would probably be enough to force a shift within the Republican party.

The situation in China is more opaque (to me, at any rate) but also more promising. Having been the worst of the spoilers at Copenhagen, and suffered a fair bit of opprobrium as a result, the Chinese leadership now seems willing to take a constructive role. Moreover, the pollution crisis in Chinese cities has led to a dramatic shift in sentiment against coal. So, it seems likely that renewables will be given a fair chance, including effective pricing of coal externalities, which is all they need.

Finally, there’s India. For a long time, Indian rhetoric on the issue was dominated by Third World grievance politics: the rich countries had burned lots of coal to get rich, and India had the right to do the same. But that seems to be changing, in part because most of the losers from climate change are also in the Third World, and in part because India’s coal sector is a total mess, making renewables more attractive. The new PM, Modi (from the deeply unattractive BJP, but that’s another issue) seems strongly committed to renewables. The historical arguments have shifted to the more productive terrain of arguing about how to share an emissions budget constrained by a 2 degree/450 ppm target.

At some level, all this is academic, in the pejorative sense of the term. Either existing political structures, with the kinds of changes I’ve discussed above, will manage decarbonization of the economy, or they won’t. There’s no chance that any kind of fundamental transformation of the political systems of the US, India and China[^1] will take place within the next 10-15 years, which is the time in which the necessary decisions need to be made.

To sum up this post and the previous one: even though the global climate could be stabilized at a very modest cost, the political obstacles are formidable. It may not be possible to overcome them in time, but we have no alternative except to try.

[^1]: I’m a little less confident in making this judgement about China. The apparent solidity of a one-party state can crumble quite fast. But the initial result of such a collapse would almost certainly be chaotic, and the outcome unforeseeable.

[^1}; There used also to be a lot of concern over whether these commitments would be met. While a couple of countries, such as Japan and Canada, have reneged, and Australia seems likely to follow, most of the big players are meeting their targets quite easily, reflecting both the softness of the targets and the low cost of decarbonization.

Categories: Environment, World Events Tags:


September 22nd, 2014 12 comments

A new sandpit for long side discussions, idees fixes and so on.

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

Monday Message Board

September 22nd, 2014 12 comments

It’s time for another Monday Message Board. Post comments on any topic. Civil discussion and no coarse language please. Side discussions and idees fixes to the sandpits, please.

Categories: Economics - General Tags:

From derp to denialism

September 21st, 2014 51 comments

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve seen four major reports (details over the fold) from very different sources, all making the same point: decarbonizing the world economy will involve economic costs that are
(a) small; and
(b) far outweighed by the benefits
And, the empirical evidence so far is strong. The EU and US have both reduced CO2 emissions significantly, at negligible or even negative economic cost. The measures announced by Obama, including vehicle emissions standards and restrictions on coal-fired power stations appear set to achieve further substantial reductions, again while yielding net economic benefits.

Against the expectations of doubters, wind and solar PV are steadily increasing their share of electricity generation, to the point where they constitute the majority of new installations in many countries. Again, the costs have been trivially small: in Australia’s case, made up almost entirely of the reduction in asset value imposed on existing generators.

There is as far as I am aware, no credible analysis to support the opposite claim (call it the economic armageddon hypothesis) that decarbonization will involve economic costs sufficient to greatly reduce living standards, or, for poor countries, prevent catchup to the developed world. (Again, more detailed argument over the fold.

Nevertheless, past experience suggests that lots of people are sufficiently wedded to the economic armageddon hypothesis that neither this, nor any other evidence will change their minds. I have previously analyzed this unwillingness to respond to evidence in terms of Noah Smith’s Bayesian definition of “derp“: “the constant, repetitive reiteration of strong priors”.

But I no longer think this is sufficient. A central concept of Bayesian decision theory is the separation of preferences from beliefs. That is, your subjective belief about the probability that a proposition is true should be independent of whether (because you have bet on it, or for some other reason) you want it to be true. This is the opposite of what is often called “motivated reasoning” or, less politely, “wishful thinking”.

This, I think, is the central distinction between “derp” and “denial”. Both involve the rejection of factual evidence that would (to a person without strong preconceptions) be overwhelmingly strong. This must involve strong prior beliefs. Denial differs from derp in that these factual beliefs derive from preferences, and are unlikely to undergo any updating. If anything, denial may be strengthened by evidence of the proposition being denied.

This in turn suggests different possible cures. Derp may eventually, if very slowly, be overcome by an accumulation of evidence. By contrast, denial can only be addressed by changing the source of wishful thinking; for example, by convincing rightwingers to stop being rightwingers.

Read more…

Categories: Economic policy, Environment Tags:

Post-School Education in Australia: The Case against Deregulation

September 19th, 2014 8 comments

That’s the title of my submission to the Senate Education and Employment Legislation Committee inquiry into the Higher Education and Research Reform Amendment Bill 2014.

You can read it here

Categories: Economic policy, Oz Politics Tags:

Third time lucky ?

September 17th, 2014 138 comments

So, it seems, we are signed up for our third Iraq war in 20-odd years. Obviously, this isn’t because the last two turned out brilliantly. So, what is the reasoning here? More precisely, given that Australia’s policy is just to follow the US without question, what is the reasoning of the world leaders, most importantly Obama, who are pushing this war? There seem to be two main points here

* ISIS/ISIL are barbaric terrorists who behead hostages. That’s a good reason for trying to capture and try those responsible, and perhaps for trying to kill them if that’s not possible. But there’s nothing special about this particular group. There are plenty of barbaric terrorists out there. And one of our leading allies in the fight, Saudi Arabia, routinely beheads people for such crimes as apostasy and “sorcery”. None of this justifies a war that is going to cost tens of billions of dollars (Australia alone looks to be up for several billion, assuming a long war) and an unknowable, but potentially large, number of lives.

* ISIS/ISIL threaten to take over large non-Sunni areas of Iraq and undertake ethnic/religious cleansing. That threat looked like a significant a month or two ago. But some limited air support for Kurdish and Shia militias appears to have turned the tide. As far as I can tell, ISIS/ISIL are now confined to Sunni areas where they have a fair degree of popular support. Changing that will be a costly and bloody business.

I expect most readers here will agree with me, and don’t plan to argue about with those who haven’t learned from the past. But I would like a pointer to any serious analysis making the case for a new war.

Categories: World Events Tags:

This is the model ? (updated and corrected)

September 16th, 2014 14 comments

The QS World University Rankings have just come out, and, as you might expect the top places (11 of the to 20 and 17 of the top 50) are dominated by US universities. By contrast Australia has five universities in the top 50 (ANU, Melbourne, Sydney, UQ and UNSW) So, you might think, this is a pretty good argument for following the US model. You get a different story, however, if you look at undergraduate enrolments (conveniently listed in Wikipedia)

I calculate that the 15 US universities in the top 50 have a total undergraduate enrolment of 210 000 (that’s dominated by a few public universities: Michigan, UC Berkeley, UCLA and Wisconsin-Madison, as well as Cornell which is partly public). By contrast, the five Australian unis enrol 148 000.

Adjusted for population, Australian students are about ten times as likely as Americans to attend a top 50 university.

Of course, the figures should be adjusted for fee-paying international students, who constitute a much larger share of the Australian student population than in the US. On the other hand, international enrolments at the top US universities are also increasing. And since many of them haven’t increased enrolments since the 1950s, the number of places for domestic American students is actually declining.

Note: I previously used the 2013 rankings. I’ve updated to the 2014 list, which includes UNSW and two more US universities. The ratios don’t change significantly as a result.

Further note In comments, reader Aldonius points to more accurate enrolment stats than I got from Wikipedia

109K domestic undergrads; 135K total (80% domestic) for ANU, Melbourne, Sydney, UQ and UNSW
723K domestic undergrads; 926K total (78% domestic) For all Oz universities

Here’s my US list

MIT 4528
Harvard 7200
Stanford 6980
Yale 5414
Chicago 5134
CalTech 978
Princeton 5336
Columbia 8365
Cornell 13935
JHU 6023
Michigan 27979
Duke 6495
Berkeley 25951
Northwestern 8459
UCLA 28674
NYU 19401
Wisconsin 29504
Total 210356

And for Australia

ANU 10231
Melbourne 38000
Sydney 32393
UQ 34228
UNSW 33000
Total 147852

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

Monochrome swans

September 15th, 2014 33 comments

I have a request[^1] for help from scientifically literate readers. A lot of my research work is focused on the problem of unforeseen contingencies, popularly, if ethnocentrically, described as “black swans”. In particular, I’m interested in the question of how you can prepare for such contingencies given that, by definition, you can’t foresee exactly what they will be. One example, with which I’m very pleased, is that of the precautionary principle. It seems reasonable to say that we can distinguish well-understood choices involving hazards from those that are poorly understood, and avoid the latter, precisely because the loss from hazard cannot be bounded in advance.

Anyway, I was thinking about this in relation to the actual case of black swans (or, from my own perspective, white swans). The question is: what principles would help you to avoid making, and acting on, the assumption “all swans are white (or, in my own case, black)”. It seems to me that the crucial fact here is that the shift from black to white, or vice versa, is, in evolutionary terms, a small one. So, if you used something like cladistics, you would avoid choosing feather color as a defining feature of swans, and birds in general. As I understand it, a phylogenetic approach starts with features that are very strongly conserved (body plans) and proceeds from there. But, rather than assume that my own understanding is correct, it seemed simpler to ask.

[^1]: There’s a blog-specific word for this, but I refuse to use it

Categories: Science Tags:

Go8: The empire strikes back

September 15th, 2014 9 comments

Michael Gallagher of the Go8 has put out a press release in reaction to my piece in The Conversation on higher education reform, accusing me of “an attack on a straw man”. It’s a fine example of John Holbo’s two-step of terrific triviality. Gallagher backs away from his previous advocacy of deregulation as a positive benefit to the much weaker position I mentioned in the article that it is “unpalatable but necessary response to cuts in funding”, or, in Gallagher’s words that “the status quo is not an option”.
Read more…

Categories: Economic policy Tags:

Monday Message Board

September 15th, 2014 14 comments

It’s time for another Monday Message Board. Post comments on any topic. Civil discussion and no coarse language please. Side discussions and idees fixes to the sandpits, please.

Categories: Regular Features Tags:


September 12th, 2014 10 comments

A new sandpit for long side discussions, idees fixes and so on.

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

Weekend reflections

September 12th, 2014 26 comments

It’s time for another weekend reflections, which makes space for longer than usual comments on any topic. Side discussions to sandpits, please.

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

From the ‘paperless office’ to renewable energy, change leaves its critics behind

September 12th, 2014 35 comments

That’s the headline for my piece in The Guardian. Unsurprisingly, given experience here, the comments section is a mountain of derp. Amusingly, it turns out that there are still paperless office sceptics about, despite ample evidence of that demand for office paper has been declining for years, and now seems set to plummet. The sceptics seem immune to the irony of posting comments in a digital-only newspaper asserting that paper will never die.

Given the extreme tightness of priors regarding energy issues, I expect our renewables sceptics to be even more diehard.

Categories: Environment Tags:

Three misguided beliefs of the Group of Eight universities

September 12th, 2014 8 comments

That’s the headline for a piece in the Conversation,looking at the arguments of the Group of Eight “sandstone” universities in favor of deregulation. Readers will be unsurprised to finde me in disagreement.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

Rawls, Bentham and the Laffer curve (cross-post at Crooked Timber)

September 9th, 2014 34 comments

The 1970s saw two important and influential publications in the long debate over justice, equality and public policy. In 1971, there was Rawls Theory of Justice, commonly described in terms like “magisterial”. Then in 1974, at lunch with Jude Wanniski, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, Arthur Laffer drew his now-eponymous curve on a napkin. Of course there was nothing new about the curve: it’s pretty obvious that an income tax levied at rates of either zero or 100 per cent isn’t going to raise any money, and interpolation does the rest. What was new was the Laffer hypothesis, that the US at the time was on the descending side of the curve, where a reduction in tax rates would raise tax revenue.

I’ve always understood Rawls in terms of the Laffer curve, as arguing in essence that we should be at the very top of the curve, maximizing the resources available for transfer to the poor, but not (as, say, Jerry Cohen might have advocated) going further than this to promote equality.

A couple of interesting Facebook discussions have led me to think that I might be wrong in my understanding of Rawls and that the position I’ve imputed to him is actually far closer to that of classical utilitarianism in the tradition of Bentham (which is, broadly speaking, my own view).

Facebook has its merits, but promoting open public discussion isn’t one of them, so I thought I’d throw this out to the slightly larger world of blog readers.

Read more…

Categories: Economics - General Tags:


September 4th, 2014 1 comment

I’ll be at a session of Brisbane Writers Festival tomorrow talking on Advance Australia Fair (inequality and all that).

Also, with about 50 000 others, I’ll be running Bridge to Brisbane on Sunday.I haven’t got around to setting up my charity page for this, but please give to the good cause of your choice.

More events soon.

Categories: Life in General Tags:

Is global collapse imminent ?

September 3rd, 2014 386 comments

Reader ZM points me to a paper with this title, by Graham Turner of the University of Melbourne. Not only does Turner answer “Yes”, he gives a date: 2015. That’s a pretty big call to be making, given that 2015 is less than four months away.

The abstract reads:

The Limits to Growth “standard run” (or business-as-usual, BAU) scenario produced about forty years ago aligns well with historical data that has been updated in this paper. The BAU scenario results in collapse of the global economy and environment (where standards of living fall at rates faster than they have historically risen due to disruption of normal economic functions), subsequently forcing population down. Although the modelled fall in population occurs after about 2030—with death rates rising from 2020 onward, reversing contemporary trends—the general onset of collapse first appears at about 2015 when per capita industrial output begins a sharp decline. Given this imminent timing, a further issue this paper raises is whether the current economic difficulties of the global financial crisis are potentially related to mechanisms of breakdown in the Limits to Growth BAU scenario. In particular, contemporary peak oil issues and analysis of net energy, or energy return on (energy) invested, support the Limits to Growth modelling of resource constraints underlying the collapse.

A central part of the argument, citing Simmons is that critics of LtG wrongly interpeted the original model as projecting a collapse beginning in 2000, whereas the correct date is 2015.

I’ve been over this issue in all sorts of ways (see here and here for example, or search on Peak Oil). So readers won’t be surprised to learn that I don’t buy this story. I won’t bother to argue further: unless the collapse is even more rapid than Turner projects, I’ll be around to eat humble pie in 2016 when the downturn in output (and the corresponding upsurge in oil prices) should be well under way.

Given that I’m a Pollyanna compared to lots of commenters here, I’d be interested to see if anyone is willing to back Turner on this, say by projecting a decline of 5 per cent or more in world industrial output per capita in (or about) 2015, continuing with a sharply declining trend thereafter. [minor clarifications added, 5/9]

Categories: Environment Tags:

Pushing back on productivity

September 3rd, 2014 15 comments

For the last twenty years, I’ve been engaged in a lengthy debate with advocates of microeconomic reform who claim that reforms produced a surge of productivity growth in the 1990s and that more such reforms are urgently needed. I argued that the apparent surge was the result of increased capital utilization and higher work intensity in the aftermath of the 1989-92 recession. Hardly anyone in the economics profession was convinced.

Their views were unchanged after 2000 when (as I had predicted) productivity growth tailed off and then turned negative as the fear of unemployment decelined and the work intensification of the 1990s was reversed. First, this decline was attributed to a range of special factors (drought, Y2K and so on). Then it was said to be a measurement problem associated particularly with mining (true, but why accept measurement error in the 2000s while denying it then 1990s). Finally, after 2008, it was blamed on the end of Workchoices.

As everyone on both sides of the debate understands (though some choose to deny it at times) “productivity” is code for “working harder”. Microeconomic reform is supposed to increase competitive pressure and thereby keep workers on their toes at all times. In addition, they are suppose to “work smarter” which essentially means “find ways of getting more work done with no additional resources”.

Now, at last, it seems that I’m not alone in casting doubt on all this. Ross Gittins, always more sophisticated than the majority of economic commentators, has picked up some remarks by Ric Simes and Mike Keating telling business leaders to stop complaining about their workers’ laziness and start doing what they are supposed to be paid for: promoting innovations that yield genuine improvements in productivity. I’ve quoted at length over the fold, but do go and read the full piece.

Read more…

Categories: Economic policy Tags:

Hoover channels LaRouche

September 2nd, 2014 10 comments

Despite my attempts at zombie-slaying, the myth that Rachel Carson advocated and caused a worldwide ban on DDT, leading to the deaths of millions, keeps being reanimated. I came across an example that is interesting mainly because of its provenenance. It’s by Henry I Miller of the Hoover Institute and Gregory Conko of the Competitive Enterprise Institute. CEI is hack central, so nothing it produces ought to surprise anyone. But Hoover boasts a Who’s Who of (what remains of) the right wing intellectual apparatus: Hnery Kissinger, Condi Rice, John Taylor and Harvey Mansfield, among many others. And Miller was apparently ” founding director of the FDA’s Office of Biotechnology”. So, the fact he can run this kind of thing is good evidence of total intellectual collapse on the right.

The two main authorities cited by Miller and Conko in their critique of Carson are “San Jose State University entomologist J. Gordon Edwards” author of “The Lies of Rachel Carson” and “Professor Robert H. White-Stevens, an agriculturist and biology professor at Rutgers University”. Unfortunately, Miller and Conko don’t reveal that Edwards’ piece was published (like much of his work on environmental issues) in the LaRouchite journal “21st Century News”. And, while describing White-Stevens academic affiliation (dating to the 1950s as far as I can tell), they don’t inform readers of the more relevant fact that, when he offered a patronising critique of “Miss Carson’s ideas”, he was a spokesman for American Cyanamid. That’s right: as refutation of Rachel Carson in 2012, this Hoover Institute Fellow is offering the PR put by a pesticide company in the 1960s, along with a screed by a far-right loony.

I suspect the reason these facts weren’t revealed is that Miller and Conko weren’t aware of them. Their piece looks to have been cobbled together from various bits of flotsam in the rightwing blogosphere.

I’d be interested to see if any of the rightwing luminaries associated with the Hoover Institute is willing either to criticise or endorse this piece. My guess is that tribal solidarity will preclude the former and residual intelligence the latter.

Categories: Boneheaded stupidity, Environment Tags:

The Australian Heartland

August 31st, 2014 41 comments

A while ago, the Chicago-based Heartland Institute, a conservative/libertarian/denialist thinktank, got into a lot of trouble by putting up billboards with pictures of people like the Unabomber who, Heartland claimed, were climate change believers. A lot of corporate sponsorships got pulled, and Heartland’s insurance research group broke away en masse to form a new, non-denialist group, the R Street Institute.

The Institute of Public Affairs is Australia’s Heartland. Not only does it share the same positions (anti-science on tobacco, climate change and the environment, pro-corporate hackery and so on) there are close organizational ties. The IPA promotes Heartland events like its annual climate change denial conference (a bit more on this over the fold), and IPA Fellows such as Bob Carter have joint affiliations with Heartland.

And, lately, the IPA has run into its own version of the billboard scandal. Not long ago, IPA fellow Aaron Lane (former president of the Victorian young Libs) whose IPA output consisted mostly of low-grade attacks on unions and workers, was a Liberal party candidate in the Victorian state election. Lane was dumped, and lost his IPA gig, when he was found to have posted a string of homophobic and sexist tweets. A much bigger blow was the sacking of longtime Director of the IPA Deregulation Unit Alan Moran, over a string of tweets, of which the most damaging was one saying “Is there ever anything but evil coming from Islam”.

Quite a few interesting points arise here.
Read more…

Categories: Boneheaded stupidity, Oz Politics Tags:

These are our leaders?

August 29th, 2014 66 comments

The website of the Group of Eight long-established universities has a section devoted to “Leaders Statements” supporting the Abbott government’s university reform[1] program. It’s a pretty depressing read. Not only are our leaders going in a direction that almost no-one in the sector wants to follow, but the quality of their arguments is depressingly mediocre. It’s a sad reflection on the university sector if this group is the best we can come up with to lead us.

First, there’s executive director Michael Gallagher (a longtime education bureaucrat rather than a former academic). His boilerplate advocacy of microeconomic reform reads as if he hasn’t had a new idea in 20 years. Most notably, he’s still beating the drum for the discredited for-profit model of the University of Phoenix. After giving the most glancing acknowledgement of the scandals that have exposed Phoenix as a machine for ripping off federal grants, he says

The important policy point is not about individual providers but about the directions of change that pioneering providers indicate for the future through their successes and failures. The thing about the US enterprise culture, unlike Australia’s, is a willingness to accept learning from failure as a step to success.

I thought we’d got over this “succeeding by failing” stuff back at the time of the dotcom bubble.

Then we have Warren Bebbington of the University of Adelaide who asserts

in a competitive environment, some fees will go up and some down. Students will have a range of choice they have never had before

Seriously? If Bebbington really believes this, I have a perpetual motion machine to sell him. His Go8 colleague, Ian Young was much more honest when he said that the Go8 institutions will not only raise fees across the board but will use the resulting financial freedom to cut intakes and offer smaller classes. That is, students will face both higher prices and less choice.

But the prize for embarrassment must surely go to the University of Western Australia whose Vice-Chancellor, Paul Johnson, asserts

“Government does not decide what businesses can charge for a loaf of bread, a litre of milk or any other product or service. Why should universities be any different?”

Apparently Professor Johnson has never heard of the Economic Regulatory Authority of Western Australia which, like its counterparts at state and federal level regulates the prices of a wide range of products and services, for a wide range of very good reasons. This is a level of argument which would be lame even for a random rightwing blogger.

Unfortunately, there is nothing new in this. Back in the 1990s, Alan Gilbert of Melbourne was pushing the Phoenix model and asserting that traditional academics were “handloom weavers” doomed to extinction. Among his many achievements was the $50-100 million or so wasted on U21Global, Melbourne University Private and similar initiatives. Before his unfortunate brush with plagiarism, David Robinson touted Monash as “the world’s first global university”, launching a series of overseas campuses that rapidly turned into money pits. At CQU, Lauchlan Chipman pioneered the use of universities as devices to rort Australia’s immigration system, with expensive central city campuses devoted entirely to overseas students majoring in Permanent Residency, while the domestic students in Rockhampton got nothing. The same advisors who pushed these disasters, along with likeminded successors, are driving education policy today.

fn1. I’ve given up using scare quotes around “reform”. Reform is just change of form, and there’s no reason to expect it will be beneficial.

Fossil fuel review committee report: change rules to benefit fossil fuels

August 29th, 2014 25 comments

That’s the unsurprising outcome of the Abbott government’s review of the Renewable Energy Target, undertaken by climate denialists associated with the fossil fuel industry. It’s hard to see why they bothered with the formality of holding an inquiry.

It now looks possible that the Climate Change Authority, of which I’m a member, will survive long enough to conduct a further review. The Authority is answerable to the Parliament, not the government, which makes for interesting times when the two are directly opposed, as at present.

I can certainly see some ways in which the RET could be improved, but I won’t canvass them here so as not to commit myself in advance. I’ll observe however, that the Abbott government itself has removed the strongest argument against the RET, namely, that it duplicates the effect of a carbon price (there were valid counterarguments, which I’ve discussed elsewhere, but it was still an important issue)

Categories: Environment Tags:

The “Other Operation” (crossposted at Crooked Timber)

August 27th, 2014 12 comments

Like others, I’m mystified by the “ice bucket challenge” in which, as I understand it, people agree to have a bucket of ice water dumped over their heads, rather than giving money to charity. This is reminiscent of the famous Piranha Brothers’ “Other Operation”, in which they threatened not to beat their victims up if they did not pay them the so-called “protection money”.

Still, it seems as if there is some interest in variants on the standard fundraising challenge in which you pay money to charity to encourage friends, bloggers, C-list celebrities to do difficult, painful or humiliating things. It’s struck me that my upcoming participation in the Sunshine Coast 70.3 Triathlon provides a nice twist on the ice bucket challenge.
Read more…

Categories: Life in General Tags:

Republicans see Ebola, think DDT (crosspost from Crooked Timber)

August 24th, 2014 12 comments

I wrote not long ago about the zombie idea that the US ban on agricultural use of DDT, enacted in 1972, somehow caused millions of people elsewhere in the world (where DDT remains available for anti-malaria programs) to die of malaria. A thorough refutation is now available to anyone who cares to look at Wikipedia, but the notion remains lurking in the Republican hindbrain.

So, with the recent outbreak of Ebola fever (transmitted between humans by direct contact and bodily fluids), the free-association process that passes for thought in Republican circles went straight from “sick people in Africa” to “DDT”. Ron Paul was onto the case early, with stupid remarks that were distilled into even purer stupidity in a press release put out by his organization. Next up, Diana Furchgott-Roth, of the Manhattan Institute.
And here’s the American Council on Smoking and Health.
Read more…

Freedom of the press … only if you own one?

August 23rd, 2014 21 comments

As well as my Courier-Mail piece on privatisation published yesterday, I had this one, at the Guardian on the obsolescence of the late 19th and 20th century idea of the Press (or the media) as an institution with special rights and responsibilities.

Categories: Media Tags:

Weekend reflections

August 22nd, 2014 71 comments

After a long break, it’s time for another weekend reflections, which makes space for longer than usual comments on any topic. Side discussions to sandpits, please.

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

Privatisation is not a magic pudding

August 22nd, 2014 29 comments

A few days ago, the Courier-Mail ran an editorial supporting privatisation. They were kind enough to run a reply from me, which I’ve reproduced over the fold. The headline picked up the point at the end about the choice between higher taxes and reduced services, which is relevant more general

Read more…

Categories: Economic policy Tags:

How can we convince rightwingers to accept climate science …

August 21st, 2014 436 comments

… persuade them to stop being rightwingers[1]

I have a piece in Inside Story arguing that the various efforts to “frame” the evidence on climate change, and the policy implications, in a way that will appeal to those on the political right are all doomed. Whether or not it was historically inevitable, anti-science denialism is now a core component of rightwing tribal identity in both Australia and the US. The only hope for sustained progress on climate policy is a combination of demography and defection that will create a pro-science majority.

With my characteristic optimism, I extract a bright side from all of this. This has three components
(a) The intellectual collapse of the right has already proved politically costly, and these costs will increase over time
(b) The cost of climate stabilization has turned out to be so low that even a delay of 5-10 years won’t render it unmanageable.
(c) The benefits in terms of the possibility of implementing progressive policies such as redistribution away from the 1 per cent will more than offset the extra costs of the delay in dealing with climate change.

I expect lots of commenters here will disagree with one or more of these, so feel free to have your say. Please avoid personal attacks (or me or each other), suggestions that only a stupid person would advance the position you want to criticise and so on.

fn1. Or, in the case of young people, not to start.

Categories: Economics - General Tags:

Energy storage getting real

August 19th, 2014 130 comments

Now that renewable energy sources like solar and PV are cheaper than new coal-fired power stations in most jurisdictions (anywhere with either favorable conditions or a reasonable carbon price), the big remaining question is that of supply variability/intermittency. As I’ve argued before, this problem is greatly overstated by critics of renewables who assume that the constant 24/7 supply characteristic of coal is the ideal. In fact, this constant supply produces a mismatch with variable demand and current pricing structures are set up to deal with this. A system dominated by renewables would have different kinds of mismatch and require different pricing structures.

That said, for a system dominated by solar PV, meeting demand in the late afternoon and evening will clearly depend on a capacity to store energy in some form or another. There are lots of options, but it makes sense to look first at relatively mature technologies like lithium and lead-acid batteries. Renewable News is reporting a project in Vermont, which integrates solar PV and storage.

The 2.5-MW Stafford Hill solar project is being developed in conjunction with Dynapower and GroSolar and includes 4 MW of battery storage, both lithium ion and lead acid, to integrate the solar generation into the local grid, and to provide resilient power in case of a grid outage.

The project cost is stated at $10 million, or $4m/Mw of generation capacity.

Assuming this number is correct, let’s make some simplifying assumptions to get a rough idea of the cost of electricity and the workability of storage. If we cost capital and depreciation at 10 per cent, assume 1600 hours of full output per year and, ignoring operating costs, the cost of electricity is 25c/KwH. There would presumably be some distribution costs, given the need to connect to the grid. Still, given that Vermont consumers are currently paying 18c/Kwh, this doesn’t look too bad. A carbon tax at $75/tonne would make up the difference.

How would the storage work? I’m starting from scratch here, so I’ll be interested in suggestions and corrections. I assume that the storage is ample to deal with short-term (minute to minute or hour to hour) fluctuations, which are more of a problem for wind.

How about on a daily basis? It seems to me that the critical thing to look at is the point in the afternoon/evening at which consumption exceeds generation (As I mentioned, prices matter a lot here). This is the point at which we would like the batteries to be fully charged. The output assumption suggests an average of about 12 MWh generated per day. If we simplify by assuming that the cutoff time is 6pm and that output drops to zero after that, the system requires that 8MWh be used during the day and 4MWh at night. That wouldn’t match current demand patterns, but if you added in some grid connected power (say, from wind, which tends to blow more at night) and shifted the pricing peak to match the demand peak, it would probably be feasible.

As regards seasonal variability, this would be a problem in Vermont, where (I assume) the seasonal demand peak is in winter. But in places like Queensland, with a strong summer peak, a system with lots of solar power should do a good job in this respect.

What remains is the possibility of a long run of cloudy days, during which solar panels produce 50 per cent or less of their rated output. Dealing with such periods will require a combination of pricing (such periods can be predicted in advance, so it’s just a matter of passing the price signals on to consumers), load-shedding for industrial customers and dispatchable reserve sources (hydro being the most appealing candidate, given that potential energy can be stored for long periods, and turned on and off as needed).

To sum up, we aren’t quite at the point where PV+storage is a complete solution, but we’re not far off.

Categories: Economics - General, Environment Tags:

The case for fuel efficiency standards

August 18th, 2014 28 comments

Thanks to Joe Hockey’s masterful salesmanship, the idea of restoring indexation of fuel exercise, let alone imposing a carbon price, is dead for the foreseeable future. This is one case where, despite my economistic prejudice in favor of price-based measures, I think regulation is the way to go. Australia is one of the few developed countries that does not impose fuel efficiency standards on motor vehicles. Now that the Obama Administration has greatly tightened US standards, we are set to have the most petrol-guzzling car fleet in the entire world.

The Climate Change Authority, of which I’m a board member, recently looked into the issue and concluded that, over the lifetime of a vehicle, fuel efficiency standards matching those of the US would save motorists thousands of dollars. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to factor this saving into the initial sale price, given that it may not be reflected in resale values. Still, this would be one of the easiest and cheapest ways of reducing CO2 emissions.

In the long run, given the demonstrated feasibility of electric vehicles, it should be possible to decarbonize most motor transport at a very modest cost. Once the infrastructure was set up properly, this would also solve a large part of the timing problem created by the fact that peak solar supply is in the middle of the day, when household demand is low, but when millions of cars are parked, and could be recharged.

Categories: Environment Tags: