The good news

Discussions about reducing CO2 emissions often have a dismal tone, saying that we can’t reduce emissions without a drastic reduction in living standards. Sometimes the inference is that we should do nothing, other times that we should embrace drastically lower living standards (but probably won’t). Most people share this intuition to some extent, particularly as regards activities like driving, that seem central to a modern lifestyle. So, it’s striking to see what’s been happening to per capita gasoline consumption in the US


There’s a lot going on here: prices, fuel economy regulations, ethanol and general cultural shifts which have reduced distances driven. But the big point is that this drastic decline has happened with only modest policy measures, and without any obvious impact on living standards (US living standards haven’t done well in the 2000s, but for entirely different reasons). Looking ahead, Obama’s fuel economy regulations and sustained high prices should drive US gasoline consumption much lower.

Starting as I mean to go on (updated)

As I said in my last post, I’m giving as good as I get from now on, and today I seem to be getting plenty

Over at Catallaxy (Google it if you want), Sinclair Davidson is complaining about my Australian Laureate Fellowship (total budget, including lots of postdocs, PhD students etc, $2 million over 5 years) as an imposition on the taxpayer. Sinclair also receives a taxpayer funded salary of at least $150K. The standard assumption is that 30 per cent of a professorial salary is for research, the rest for teaching, administration, community service and so on. By contrast, I’m funded 100 per cent for research, my own and that of my students and collaborators. So, let’s see who is goofing off on the taxpayer dollar.

Here’s Sinclair: two journal articles, and zero working papers in the last five years. On my arithmetic, allowing 30 per cent of salary for research, that’s a rate of over $100k per publication.
Here’s me 29 journal articles and 36 working papers in the same period. That’s about $30k per publication, without allowing for material produced by the postdocs and PhD students funded by my grant.

Those aren’t exhaustive lists of publications by any means, but I doubt that the relativities would change if we had a more complete list, including books, reports and so on. Adjusting for journal quality, as perceived by the profession, would make the difference even sharper.

Updated With their usual affinity for conspiracy theories, commenters here at and Catallaxy are suggesting that my current Fellowship is a favor from my Labor mates (readers here will be aware of my slavish devotion to our PM, which has, it seems, finally paid off). Of course, the great thing with conspiracy theories is that, the longer you look, the more conspirators you find. I’m sure the Catallaxians will be unsurprised to discover that this is, in fact, my fifth fellowship of this kind (the publication count above refers to my previous one), and that the previous four were all awarded by the Howard government.

Further update Sinclair Davidson has responded with a more complete list of his publications, including quite a few that appear neither on the IDEAS database (because it doesn’t include low-grade journals like Agenda and Policy nor on his personal webpage at RMIT. As I said above, it doesn’t change the relativities.

Yet further update Davidson has managed to convince the ever-gullible Andrew Bolt that pieces in Policy (not even ranked as a peer-reviewed journal by the ARC ranked C by the ARC), Agenda (ranked B) and a bunch of CIS/IPA publications constitute a stellar publication record. There’s nothing wrong with publishing in magazines like these (I do plenty of it), but it’s supposed to be a by-product of academic research, not a substitute for it. Bolt (innumerate, and out by two orders of magnitude on the impact of emissions policy), also repeats his claim that I’m the math-challenged one.

Motes and beams

The Oz and Andrew Bolt have a tag team attack on me today (Google it if you want). Most of it consists of quotations, with lots of ellipses, that are meant to show me as a dangerous radical. I can’t say I’m too upset by that – from their perspective, it’s a fair assessment. But Bolt also repeats his claim that I made a factor-of-5 error in my estimate of the impact of Australia’s current 2020 target on global temperatures.

This is a striking piece of chutzpah, given that this estimate was made in the process of correcting a calculation by Bolt, which was out by two orders of magnitude. But it has finally provoked me to clear up some of the confusion on this. The starting point was this post by Bolt who used a calculation by Damon Matthews that each tonne of CO2 emitted into the atmosphere changes the equilibrium temperature by 0.000 000 000 0015 degrees, that is 1.5*10^-12 in scientific notation. Noting that the carbon price is expected to reduce emissions by 160 million tonnes per year by 2020, Bolt made the calculation that the emissions avoided in the year 2020 will reduce equilibrium temperature by 2.4*10^-4 or 0.00024 degrees, and treats this as an estimate of the impact of the policy.

This is an amazing howler on Bolt’s part. He’s only counted one year of emissions reductions for a policy that is supposed to permanently reduce emissions. I made the very quick calculation that, if the policy stays in place until 2100 and that the 2020 reduction in emissions was maintained over this period, the number used by Bolt would imply a reduction of 0.02 degrees. I did another rough calculation that came out the same way.

Bolt came back with a lower estimate by Roger Jones, who suggest that the policy would reduce temperature by only 0.004 degrees, lower by a factor of 5 than my estimate, but higher by a factor of 20 than Bolt’s silly calculation.

At this point I slipped up. As a result of a misunderstood conversation with Roger, I gave an incorrect explanation for the discrepancy. Roger subsequently advised that he had made his calculation using a standard modelling tool called MAGICC. I finally got around to downloading MAGICC, and trying it out, so I can now give an explanation for why our estimates differ. There are three main points

(1) The most important factor is that we are estimating two different things. MAGICC produces estimates of the temperature change by 2100, but the atmosphere takes a long time to reach equilibrium. For reductions in CO2 emissions spread out over the rest of this century, the change by 2100 is only about half the long run equilibrium change.

(2) Estimates of the sensitivity of the global climate to changes in CO2 concentrations vary. The most common measure is the equilibrium temperature change for a doubling in atmospheric CO2. Until recently MAGICC used 2.6 degrees as the default, on the low side of most estimates. I used 3.5, which gives a value around 30 per cent higher

(3) Finally, while it’s obviously silly to assume, like Bolt, that the policy is in effect for only one year, it’s not entirely clear how we should project its impact into the future. That depends on baseline projections of emissions from which to calculate percentage reductions. My simple estimate takes a constant reduction over 80 years, which is probably a bit on the high side. If you assumed that emissions were going to decline anyway over the second half of this century, the effect of the policy would be reduced, perhaps by half.

Those three factors, taken together, would account for the discrepancy in the two estimates. I don’t claim that I’ve got them exactly right and there may be points I’ve missed. But for someone like Bolt to pontificate on a subject like this, when he is incapable of avoiding or correcting even the most absurd errors, brings to mind Matthew 7:3-5.

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I may be some little time …

Paul Norton has a post at LP, summed up by the teaser

current poll support for the election of an Abbott-led Coalition government is soft and brittle. Yet it exists, and persists. And voter opinion of what the Federal Labor government has actually done is not all that unfavourable. Yet people don’t think the government deserves to be reelected. What are we to make of this?

I don’t think it takes a genius to work out that a sufficient explanation for this paradox is the personal unpopularity (among a large group of voters, detestation) of Julia Gillard. Other factors may be relevant, but most of them are exacerbated by the leadership problem. In particular, the Obeid scandal is made worse for Federal Labor by the perception that Gillard is beholden to the same machine operators (Arbib, Bitar, Conroy and ultimately Graeme Richardson) who put Obeid in a position to corrupt the entire NSW Party.

For the sake of argument, let’s grant that this is all the result of misperceptions and bad press and that Gillard is both likeable at a personal level and someone with a “steely determination” to get the job done for Labor. It’s obvious, by now (and regardless of marginal fluctuations in polls) that this perception is not going away within six months. In these circumstances, wouldn’t a leader who cared about her colleagues, or one who was determined to do the best thing for the country, decide that this was the time to talk a walk into the snow, and give the rest of the party a shot at survival?

LP is back

Ozblogistan has been up and down lately[1], which has distracted me from mentioning the return, for this election only, of the deservedly popular Larvatus Prodeo group blog.

fn1. Blogs are doing the same things now they did ten years ago, and have lost a fair bit of their traffic to FB and Twitter but despite spectacular reductions in storage and communications costs they seem less reliable now than then. How can this be?

Art and life

I’ve been a big fan of Frank Moorhouse’s Edith trilogy since I first encountered it nearly a decade ago. The first two volumes, Grand Days and Dark Palace dealt with the heroine’s adventures (political and sexual) as a young and optimistic staff member with the doomed League of Nations. That was a fascinating glimpse of a world that had vanished well before I was born, and showed up Moorhouse’s capacity for imaginative recreation of that world, as well as the marvellous character of Edith Campbell Berry.

In the third volume, Cold Light, Edith turns up in early postwar Canberra, and there’s a sudden shift of view for me (and I guess, also for Moorhouse). The story runs into the early 1970s, when I was growing up and going to uni in Canberra. Edith is an observer and occasional participant in events ranging from the creation of Lake Burley Griffin to Menzies’ attempt to ban the Communist Party. Not only that, but most of the characters, with the exception of Edith and those in her immediate circle, are real people. Notable examples include Latham, Menzies and Whitlam, but also some academics from the early days of the ANU. I knew quite a few of them, and some of them even knew me: Heinz Arndt, for example, paid me the backhanded compliment of describing me as “a very dangerous young man” [1].

Reading and visualising a book so close to your own life is an odd experience – I was starting to wonder if I would appear in a crowd scene, perhaps outside Parliament House after Whitlam’s dismissal. For younger readers, of course, the early days of Canberra belong to the same dim past as the Kellogg-Briand Pact. They will, I think, find the book just as rewarding as I did, though in a very different way.

fn1. Arndt had been a leftwing social democrat in his early years in Australia, but moved sharply to the right later. In mischievous moods, I sometimes cited, with approval and without mention of his subsequent evolution, his early work advocating bank nationalization.

GBS pwns IPA

Anyone who has been around the left of Australian (or UK) politics long enough will be aware of the Fabian Society. It’s a group that’s earnest in the way only an organization founded in the late 19th century can be. It produces carefully researched papers on topics like education funding and housing policy, invariably worthwhile, but rarely fiery.

The Society takes its name from a Roman general who achieved victory over the seemingly invincible Hannibal, by avoiding pitched battle and wearing his opponent down: the idea was that socialism should be achieved by gradual reform through democratic processes, rather than through the revolutionary approach advocated by Marxism. This gradual approach was symbolised by the adoption, as a logo, of a tortoise (or maybe turtle), drawn by Walter Crane, the leading illustrator of children’s books in the late 19th century, and a society member. And, after 100+ years, even the most optimistic Fabians would concede that, if anything, the tortoise exaggerates the pace of movement towards socialism.

In spite of, or perhaps because of, this resolutely gradualist approach, the Fabian Society has always loomed large in the demonology of the nuttier sections of the political right, appearing as some sort of cross between the Illuminati and the United Nations. Here for example is Rose Martin of the Mises Society, warning that the tortoise is now going at the pace of a freeway.

The Institute of Public Affairs is the leading Australian representative of this kind of wingnuttery[1] (although it manages to get taken seriously by surprisingly many) so it’s unsurprising to see the IPA’s Julie Novak muttering darkly at Catallaxy[2] about this “shadowy group” (she’s a bit puzzled that Julia Gillard openly declares her membership). What’s interesting is her claim, with illustration that “The logo of the Society, of a wolf dressed up in sheep’s clothing, is all you need to know about how these people seek to achieve their objectives”

Huh? What happened to the tortoise? The answer it turns out, goes back to a joke played by George Bernard Shaw early in the 20th century

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Electricity privatisation in Queensland

I’ve just released a report I prepared on electricity privatisation in Queensland[1] This was a bit difficult given that the Costello Commission’s proposals have been announced with great fanfare, but the supporting analysis is so secret that even Campbell Newman claims not to have seen a copy. This Courier-Mail story by Paul Syvret gives the basic points

The report is online here.

fn1. It’s partly a followup from my previous response to Costello’s Interim Report. As in that case, I’m not getting paid for this, and it’s entirely my own work. So, it’s not as polished as the Costello report will doubtless be when it comes out, but I can confidently say it’s better value for money for the Queensland public.