Glass half-full department

The Copenhagen meeting has produced an agreement, though it’s more of an “agreement to agree” than a concrete deal. Most of the specifics have been left for later. That’s problematic of course, but not as bad as an agreement on specifics that are too weak to achieving anything. The deal (draft text here has several important elements

* A warming target of 2 degrees
* Commitment by the developed countries to spend $30 billion over 2010-12 and aim for $100 billion a year by 2020 in assistance to developing countries with a particular focus on preventing deforestation
* A technology transfer mechanism

Of these, the most significant is probably the deal on deforestation, which has actual money (or at least commitments) attached. Assuming this happens, it’s an outcome more significant than that of any international conference in the last decade at least. And technology transfer is important in a number of ways, particularly as a countervailing force against the pressure for ever-stronger intellectual property protections.

I’m a bit surprised, in that I thought the payments to developing countries would be one of the hardest issues of all, whereas the biggest single sticking point seems to have been China’s objections to transparent monitoring – the kind of silly national sovereignty stuff that is par for the course at these meetings but usually gets smoothed over and traded away by the end.

The 2 degree target has been controversial, with lots of countries calling for a 1.5 degree target. But it’s important to remember that only a couple of years ago, the Stern Review was focusing on a 550 ppm stabilization target, which would most likely be associated with long-term warming of 3 degrees. If we can get agreement now on a 2 degree/450 ppm target, there’s a reasonable chance, given technological progress, of bringing concentrations back down to 350 ppm or even to pre-industrial levels (about 280 ppm) by 2100 and that trajectory would have a fair chance of avoiding any sustained period of temperatures more than 1.5 degrees above 1900 levels. Even that trajectory implies significant environmental damage, but it minimises the risk of large-scale climatic catastrophes.

The next step is for Obama to push Waxman-Markey through the US Senate. I’m confident he can do this, given sufficient Administration pressure on the Senate (including, if necessary, the threat of ending the minority right to filibuster legislation with 40 votes). And, given that he has put his credibility on the line, I’m at least reasonably confident that he will do it.

Looking at the Australian implications, I imagine the Opposition will say that there was no need to pass the ETS before Copenhagen. That would have helped them if they had elected, say, Joe Hockey as leader, and settled on a position of deferring, but ultimately supporting the ETS. But it’s hard to see that it will do Abbott any good – sooner or later, he has to come up with an alternative to the ETS, and no remotely affordable alternative is on offer.

The big disappointment is that the longer timetable will give Rudd the option of going for a double dissolution in the second half of 2010, based on the abortive deal with Turnbull.

196 thoughts on “Glass half-full department

  1. Fran Barlow :
    @Ernestine Gross
    And as a secularist I wish you the judgement needed to live well during the coming season.

    and as a (once) medical researcher I wish you all good health now and into the future. It has been my pleasure to be here. And thanks to JQ for communicating his ideas and being moderate in his moderations.

  2. @Fran Barlow

    Tis such a shame Fran..that you think user pays will deliver heaven to the poor but who am I to criticise you for views I find fatalistic and futile? You obviously consider my views in the same light. I could say the same about you as you say about me…except I wont.

    Merry Xmas Fran.

    As I said – I thank JQ most of all, for the diversity of views tolerated here.

  3. Upon some cooler reflection I now take the view that Pr Q is correct: the glass is half full. I am more confident now that China will eventually accept some form of audit process without considering it a threat to their sovereignity; it might take another six to 12 months though. The whole issue of AGW and impacts isn’t going to go away, in spite of Carter, Plimer et al.

    The recent heat in November for Murray Bridge – where I live – blew its previous records out of the water. Whether it was duration of heatwave, severity of the heatwave(s), maximum temperatures or minimum temperatures, it didn’t matter, it was laydown mis'{e}re. Shattered. Other towns had the same sort of experience. More of this throughout the next decade and people will eventually “get it”.

    global averages will give this year as pretty hot too, I expect. For all the talk of the snow in the USA etc, remember that the USA is only 2% of the Earth’s surface. There is a lot of ocean pushing up the average too.

    Anyway, Merry Xmas all, and as Dave Allen used to say, ‘may your God go with you’. [Or not, if you are an atheist like me.]

  4. Fran Barlow :@TerjeP (say tay-a)
    So am I Terje β€” it’s just that I prefer those that are optimal.

    Fran – for what it is worth I generally find your perspective somewhat more tolerable and considered than the one held by Alice. Obviously liberty isn’t the only consideration in life and utility is a good thing also.

    Personally I prefer to run with the liberal position unless and until an argument for a trade off in favour of utility is demonstrated as worthy beyond reasonable doubt. Those that lean towards social democracy seem to start from a different starting point, seem to place the burden of proof elsewhere and seem to expect somewhat lesser amounts of proof.

    p.s. In case I don’t get around to it later – Merry Xmas to all of you, socialists, communists and oddballs included.

  5. p.p.s. Further to my Xmas wishes. If I have needlessly annoyed, irritated or displeased anybody in 2009 then I’m sorry. I’ll try and be nicer in 2010. πŸ™‚

  6. TerjeP

    Yes, solar pundits need to explain how waste from electronics processes goes, and wind generators need to answer questions about noise pollution and eyesore- on-the-landscape issues.

    All this is wrapped-into public policy issues and planning approvals.

    Only nuclear seems adverse to such rigor.

    Clearly then, nuclear is bad public policy.

  7. @Alice
    Well, I won’t make any claim to being in the category of “best christian”, but I get your point. Personally I prefer to take people as they come – at face value, if you will – until such time as it is wise to reassess…politicians excepted of course, and the individual who used to leave dirty plates and dishes in the communal sink at work – you know who you are!

    So by the evidence of my own words above I am hoist by my own petard πŸ˜€

    Might move to Monday Message Board if staying off-topic.

  8. @TerjeP (say tay-a)
    Halllujah Terje!

    Sorry Terje…couldnt resist..for a libertarian perhaps I am most fond of you (that doesnt mean I agree with you btw). Of coure you find Frans point of view more agreeable than mine. Fran may as well sign up to ALS today…and to think she tried to tell me I was supporting the Terjes of the world – what a hoot…. I dont think so!!

    I suspect you two know each other well Terje. You did try to signal Fran back to the pro nuclear costings more than once I noted, in the midst of the user pays argument on transport infrastructure.

  9. Alice – for what it is worth I don’t generally like or dislike people on the basis of their politics. Any disagreement I have with you isn’t personal.

  10. Ok Terje you really asked for this one.

    Merry Xmas to all the trolls, neo liberals, free marketeers (sounds like three musketeers),
    libertarians, anarchists, Catalyxian troublemakers, sock puppets and and other assorted oddballs and troublemakers.

  11. Fran Barlow :@Ernestine Gross
    And as a secularist I wish you the judgement needed to live well during the coming season.

    Indeed, Fran, I did not know that you wish to “auction space” (Fran Barlow @32, p3). In my ‘judgement’ (IMHO), the real estate business seems to be the industry for you to satisfy your preferences. Talking about things about which you don’t know (eg game theory and mechanism design) is not a very good idea even if you consider yourself an environmentalist. So I return the wishes for the coming (auction) season and wish you success in your endeavours. It has been a pleasure in getting to know you a bit better.

  12. Alice – you forgot the objectivists, classical liberals and the liberal democrats. πŸ˜‰

  13. May Mother Mary MacKillop wish you all the miracles of your choice over the festive season. And remember the original meaning of Christmas as a day set aside by the Romans to celebrate the birth of their principal god, wasn’t it? The same god they worshiped on Sundays, which is why they got the Christians to change their day of worship from Saturday to Sunday.
    Kill two birds with one stone, so to speak…

    Merry Christmas!

  14. @Chris Warren

    Only nuclear seems adverse to such rigor.


    Whether it is or it isn’t, it gets such rigour. This is a red herring. Nuclear is the only power source that is totally responsible for its footprint.

  15. @TerjeP (say tay-a)

    Personally I prefer to run with the liberal position unless and until an argument for a trade off in favour of utility is demonstrated as worthy beyond reasonable doubt.

    You assume that the semantic content of “the liberal position” is the same for you as all the readers, which is dangerous. More generally though, I regard your appeal to the beyond reasonable doubt standard as excessive. One needs a sound basis for believing that one suite of policies will produce more net public utility than any plausible alternative suite of policies, but balance of probability will do, because sins of omission are quite as bad as sins of commission, if one can be held to have foreseen the conseqences of one’s choices.

    Those that lean towards social democracy seem to start from a different starting point, seem to place the burden of proof elsewhere and seem to expect somewhat lesser amounts of proof.

    As above … I think you may be making a category error though. You attach primary value to an ill-defined concept — freedom and because it is ill-defined, it can contain anything you and others would pour into it. Eventually, where the libertarians of your stripe go with this is a quasi-rabinnical hunt for the frontiers of freedom and personal space.

    It is, in my experience, very difficult for people with such strong attachments to masthead ideas such as this to weigh them with the kind of disinterest that sober evaluation of public utility implies. In the case of the American libertarian movement, it appears as nothing so much as a new species of fundamentalism centred around the adduction of the word “freedom” as often as possible to counterpose to dystopian visions of the state and society more generally. It’s here that you and Alice have so much in common, politically. You both argue as if the state embodies a kind of transending (albeit somewhat different) evil.

    While there’s no doubt in my mind that contemporary states seek in their own bumbling way to give effect to the kinds of outcomes Hume would have approved of — certainty of property, transfer by consent and enforcement of promises — and to that extent act on behalf of and in the broad interests of the ruling class the class itself is not unified in apprehending its interest beyond the kinds of generality above or even distinguishing immediate interests from longterm ones.

    The failure to apprehend the subtlety and nuance in the behaviour of states and their officers is something with which those not only on the radical/new left but on the right as well have struggled, so in a sense it’s not surprising to find that you and ALice are in an odd way, on the same page on the question of the state.

    For me — and perhaps it’s the teacher in me speaking here — I tend to look first of all at the functional specifications attaching to public policy. In what ways will this affect the participation in social production/life-in-general of various sectors of the populace? Who will be relatively advantaged/disadvantaged in the struggle to articulate their legitimate interests in the short term, medium term and longterm? To what extent will the policy suite foster/obstruct equitable, efficient and effective collaboration?

    I grant you that it’s not as exciting as swingeing claims about human freedom or neoliberalism, but there you have it.

    In any event, I extend to you the wish that you will, over the coming period, be afforded the insight into developments in your environment you need to achieve happiness in its broadest possible sense.

  16. @Alice
    I know not all North Shore residents are professionals. They do have a disproportionate share, but it’s not everybody. But you miss my point – why should the poor subsidise the rich? I was just using concrete examples to help you realise what I’m saying, given your obvious difficulties in understanding.

    “should be a public good”

    Things are either public goods or not. Or more precisely, goods exhibit some or all or none of the characteristics of public goods. It’s a descriptive term, not a normative one – there’s no ‘should’ about it. Also, public goods don’t necessarily have to be provided publicly.

    “Make it fast, efficient”

    That’s the whole reason for user pays! That it isn’t fast and efficient now is partly because roads are underpriced for some users. Yes, we lack proper public transport, and shame on Labor for neglecting this for so long. Build more railways now, I say, and bring back trams. But that is a separate issue. The suggestion that we can address some of the transport problems with fees does not preclude doing other things that will also help.

    “and we all subsidise each other”

    Sounds very inefficient to me. It’s also very funny to see someone supposedly educated in economics actually say this.

  17. @TerjeP (say tay-a)
    Ok Terje…sins of ommission …I also forgot Keynesians, Monetarists and Marxists. But then I dont think the latter believe in Xmas do they? After all wasnt religion seen as another form of ideological control? May as well add them to the list anyway. This list of Xmas wishes could get horribly long. What a mixed bag!
    Is there anyone who doest get a Xmas greeting? (Minchin the Grinch?)

  18. @Jarrah

    Although I also use the term “public goods” for the sake of simplicity, it would probably be more accurate to describe them as “goods that are most efficiently purchased collectively nothwithstanding that people may benefit from them differentially and which would be costly and difficult to deny to free-riders”.

    Providing those involved in the collective purchase all benefit adequately from the purchase of the resource, the fact that some derive more (or different) advantage than others is moot. Everyone’s a winner. That, I suspect, is what Alice meant when she spoke of everyone subsidising each other.

  19. @Fran Barlow
    If everyone (or most) benefit more than the cost, there is a strong argument for the provision of a public good. You are right that some benefiting more than others is acceptable (well, according to Alice and her arguments about equality, maybe not for her), but only on the proviso that trying to reduce the difference is not worth the cost. If we can strengthen the connection between contribution and benefit easily (ie at low cost), for example through a user-pays system of some description, why would we not consider it?

  20. I might add that “the proviso that trying to reduce the difference is not worth the cost” is one of the reasons why pursuing greater equality (of income, of wealth, and others) can be perverse – the mechanisms for doing so may cost more than the benefits they provide. Looking at the historical record, it appears that smallish efforts are not too costly, but bigger ones definitely are.

  21. Its also interesting to note the once grand tram network that operated in Sydney….its demise is stated in this article as being due to its success so heavily was it patronised…
    its service peaking in 1945 at 405 million journeys. Wow imagine that many journeys off our roads now…imagine a publicly funded underground rail network. Imagine how many cars we could get off the roads…with patronage increasing, it would return as revenue. We wouldnt need user pays on roads Jarrah if it came back as train fares and declogged the roads at the same time. The public can be the investor, builder and owner. We dont need to always be seeking out and waiting for the Macbanks of the world to solve our infrastructure problems and the more we divert to the private sector, perhaps the longer we will wait.

    That is the error in our current political direction. Again, Im not suggesting there is NO place for private investment and market initiatives but I am suggesting private sector involvement should not be relied on to the exclusion of major public investment initiatives at all times and in all situations. I think it is a question of balance and the need to acknowledge and accept once more the concept of public goods which has been cast entirely aside over the past few decades

    (Terje doesnt think so but we have agreed to disagree).

  22. @Jarrah
    Jarrah on the question of pursuing equality objectives…that also is a question of balance. Too much inequality creates social disharmony, too little destroys entrepreneurial initiative.

  23. Fran#21

    Given all the impacts on future generations – it is probably more accurate to say that

    “nuclear is the only power source that cannot identify its footprint”.

  24. @Jarrah

    You are right that some benefiting more than others is acceptable (well, according to Alice and her arguments about equality, maybe not for her)

    I suspect her opinion (and mine certainly) would be somewhat influenced by whether the people benefiting more than others were privileged in relation to the category as a whole. If the lion’s share of the benefits go to people who need it most because they are disadvantaged then we have greater ultimate equity.

    Of course, if the opposite were the case, then your standard (most benefit more than the cost) might not apply because the changes might subvert other claims they might otherwise make.

    I’d agree that before one should contemplate a policy aimed explicitly at a more egalitarian distribution of advantages one should be convinced that the intended beneficiaries actually benefit more greatly than the cost to them of the policy, else the move would be irrational.

    There is of course, intrinsic value in societies with narrower differentials of privilege, since it is likely that a greater proportion of the group will at worst achieve baseline satisfaction and feel themselves less at risk of harm from others who are dissatisfied with arrangements. At the top of the scale, the marginal satisfaction advantage of being 10-20% richer is likely in aggregate, to be of much lesser marginal value than it would be to someone at the opposite end or even in the middle of the privilege distribution.

    Accordingly, in the absence of a persuasive reason not to act, narrowing the scope of relative privilege is itself a worthwhile end.

  25. @Chris Warren

    nuclear is the only power source that cannot identify its footprint.

    Not at all. Every part of the fuel cycle and its secondary impacts is documented. If you do it right every gram of waste is accounted for. You can’t say that for coal or gas. What is the “footprint” of crude oil? You can’t even say that you know what the footprint of run-of-the-river hydro is. Nobody really knows that the costs of decomissioning solar panels or CSP or wind will be and as we know, tidal barrages also have a serious and hard to measure footprint. Geothermal activity in Germany has been associated with localised Earth tremors.

  26. Alice – I’m not opposed to tram ways or railways or even overly opposed to public ownership of them. I do however think they should operate profitably lest we encourage the location of populations and industries in the wrong places.

    I don’t generally agree with government ownership of enterprises but I’m much more concerned about high taxes. Not so much on account of the modest redistribution involved but primarily because of the needless churn and the dead weight costs (not to mention compliance and administration costs).

  27. @TerjeP (say tay-a)

    So if “high” taxes obtained but compliance, administration and dead weight costs were modest you’d have little problem with them?

    Rather than specifying what tax regime you’d prefer, wouldn’t it be better to specify what benefits you think ought to be purchased collectively, and at what cost per member of the beneficiary group?

  28. Fran – in terms of the burden of proof and “balance of probabilities” versus “beyond reasonable doubt”. If somebody is accused of a crime (eg rape or theft) and the state seeks to deprive them of liberty as a result then we use the stronger test. To claim that we should take the liberty of unaccused people on the basis of a weaker test seems in my view to be perverse. Why should those accused of crimes against others have a more sacred claim to liberty?

    For example if we are to criminalise the ownership of certain firearms and hand out extreme sentences for those that own them (potentially far beyond the sentence for theft or rape) then surely we should demand a high burden of proof that such laws are going to deliber a significant amount of net increase in utility. Otherwise we will essentially be sending innocent people to prison on the basis of flimsy evidence. Likewise when we criminalise the buying and selling of drugs.

    The courts are right to regard liberty as sacred. The legislature should do likewise.

  29. Fran – regarding #36. I don’t think this marginal approach works. Dead weight, compliance and administrative costs don’t accrue in a liniar fashion. The full cost of adding a government funded dental service to the policy mix will depend on the existing size of government. And there are also dead weight costs associated with the expenditure side of the government equation.

    One crude way to somewhat deal with this is with a rigourous form of democratic control on the size of government using TABOR. The people explicitly choose the size of the public sector that they want and then their chosen government prioritises within that constraint.

  30. @TerjeP (say tay-a)

    If somebody is accused of a crime …

    Yes but this is not the right standard. What we are disccsing here is public policy, which is rather more like Law of Tort or Contract in that it seeks to codify, restrain and/or provide liquidated damages for certain types of nuisance or negligence. One coul;d perhaps see the resoprt of the fiulth merchants to atmospheric industrial dumping as falling on a line between trespass to goods (in this case those called the commons), and conversion by wrongful user as they convert (monetise) an externality — the right to dump waste for free.

    In such cases and also in the Equity Division of the Supreme Courts in Australia, the balance of probability is the correct evidentiary standard. If you’ve ever entered that court, the caution is salient here.

    He Who Comes Into Equity, Must Come With Clean Hands

  31. @TerjeP (say tay-a)
    Terje – I agree re “operate profitably” but like many private business investments – the initial capital investment and consctruction phase is not, in itself, profitable in the short term. The service needs to be able to be provided first before profit can be expected.

  32. Alice – I’m not expecting a form of profitability higher than the private sector. Simply an expected profitable return over the life of the investment.

    Fran – when it comes to regulating emissions that enter a public space then I’d agree that the lesser burden of proof for public policy might apply. My concern was more with the regulation of private property, private income, private space, private trade and private behaviour. Spheres in which strong presumptions of liberty ought to generally prevail.

  33. @TerjeP (say tay-a)

    My concern was more with the regulation of private property, private income, private space, private trade and private behaviour. Spheres in which strong presumptions of liberty ought to generally prevail.

    I can agree that strong presumptions of liberty ought to attach to certain claims — the right to life and by extension, those resources that underpin it — without varying the burden of proof.

    If four people stranded on an island agree that a fifth should be killed and eaten to serve the majority interest in surviving until help arrives, it is easy to see that burden of proof here cannot be satisfied since ultimately, by degrees, the problem resolution must (after the third iteration lead either to one person killing the one remaining other or both agreeing to foreswear it. In either case, the choice is paradoxic and since this situation was authored by the previous acts, it shows that the previous acts were also irrational. We may deduce that the right to life is a compelling claim which trumps other interests and can be set aside only where the person claiming life denies it to others logically estopping his or her own claim.

    It follows that some claims from the social world cannot be entertained and so “proof of net public utility” is not pertinent.

    Can there be any doubt though that if three or those five stranded people draw up a roster to identify water and food and to keep watch for rescue vessels, impose sanctions on shirking or embezzlement, and so forth, that the minority ought to be bound to comply? On the balance of probability, yes, even though a rescue ship were might plausibly appear on the horizon ten minutes after the decision were taken.

  34. I don’t think the minority have any duty to comply. They should tell the majority group to nick off.

  35. @TerjeP (say tay-a)
    Terje – minority groups serve to moderate the majority thus bringing both closer ro consensus. Important dissent. Minorities can be minorities by a majority or a minority. Their degree of influence depends on which category they are.

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