by Judith Curry
Motivated by an exchange by Chief Hydrologist and Max on the David Montgomery thread, lets a take a look at the Hartwell paper. Almost one year after its publication, has this paper been a game changer?
A quick summary is provided by the Wikipedia:
The Hartwell Paper calls for a reorientation of climate policy after the perceived failure in 2009 of the UNFCCC climate conference in Copenhagen. The paper was published in May 2010 by the London School of Economics in cooperation with the University of Oxford. The authors are 14 natural and social scientists from Asia, Europe and North America, including Mike Hulme, Roger A. Pielke (Jr), Nico Stehr andSteve Rayner.
It emphasizes human dignity as a necessary guiding principle for climate policy: “To reframe the climate issue around matters of human dignity is not just noble or necessary. It is also likely to be more effective than the approach of framing around human sinfulness – which has failed and will continue to fail.”
It has three main objectives:
- 1. Energy access for all
- 2. Clean energy
- 3. Dealing with climate change
The ultimate goal is “to develop non-carbon energy supplies at unsubsidised costs less than those using fossil fuels.”
Max’s take on the Hartwell paper
Let me offer my (unsolicited) thoughts on this paper. This paper reframes the climate issue in a fundamental way.
- Kyoto model crashed in 2009 and is over, presenting opportunity for a new direction.
- Top-down regulatory schemes do not work.
- A climate policy with emissions reductions as the primary goal is not possible.
- Decarbonization of the global economy is desirable as a long-term goal.
- The issue needs to be reframed with pragmatic and politically attractive goals.
- The basis should be the “raising up of human dignity”.
Primary goals should be:
1. ensure basic energy demands are met with low-cost source
2. ensure we do not upset Earth’s ecology system
3. ensure we can respond to climate changes, whatever their cause
Goal #1 is not possible with current ‘mitigation’ proposals for the estimated 1.5 billion people who have no access to energy today. In order for these individuals to obtain access to energy, the costs of energy must be lowered, not increased.
Goal #2 can be achieved by eliminating real pollution; this refers to “black carbon” from indoor burning or particulates, CO, NOx, Hg, As, hydrocarbons, etc. from industrial combustion, rather than chasing after CO2. Protecting the tropical forests should be a second step toward achieving this goal.
Goal #3 (“adaptation” to whatever climate changes come along) was (falsely) framed by the Kyoto approach as “a cost of failed mitigation”. Yet this approach will manage all the risks of climate change much more effectively and efficiently than mitigation attempts.
The report describes the errors made, stating:
Climate change was represented as a conventional environmental ‘problem’ that is capable of being ‘solved’. It is neither of these.
the idea soon became established that climate change represented a global threat that required a coordinated global solution
A ‘wicked problem’ is defined as follows:
What makes a problem ‘wicked’ is the impossibility of giving it a definitive formulation
Anthropogenic climate change (as it has now been re-branded from the earlier ‘anthropogenic greenhouse warming’) is such a problem. As was evidenced from the need to rename it, in the first case!
Policymakers like clear black and white issues, where clear decisions can be made based on the facts before them. This is not the case for ‘climate change’, as it is not a single problem with a simple single solution. The ‘war on climate change’ is, therefore impossible to fight (and impossible to ‘win’).
Yet, the authors continue, some climate scientists used the authority of their expertise to claim that their results dictated specific policy actions, leading some politicians to claim that their policy recommendations were dictated by science:
So, a distinctive characteristic of the climate change debate has been of scientists claiming with the authority of their position that their results dictated particular policies; of policy makers claiming that their preferred choices were dictated by science, and both acting as if ‘science’ and ‘policy’ were simply and rigidly linked as if it were a matter of escaping from the path of an oncoming tornado.
As a field, which is still in its infancy, climate science itself is fraught with insurmountable uncertainties.
And, no matter how well the basic climate science is understood, there are also great uncertainties regarding the drivers of climate change, such as population growth and technological innovation as well as major uncertainties regarding the ‘winners and losers’ from global warming.
In other words, we do not know enough today to arrive at any real conclusions.
So far, so good. But now the authors get into the “what should we do now” mode, starting off with the very logical suggestion:
We believe that we should begin with the actions that can command the broadest assent and achieve the quickest results.
Our goal is broad-based support for radical acceleration in decarbonisation of the global energy economy. We believe that an indirect approach, which pulls on the twin levers of reducing the energy intensity of economies and the carbon intensity of energy, is more likely to win public assent than a frontal assault upon carbon emissions, especially one coming soon after the recent turbulences.
This is because there are many potential constituencies for, and beneficiaries of such efforts, independent of the politics of climate change.
The authors argue for policies leading to efficiency improvements. This is nice, but these have been ongoing and will continue to be so for purely economic reasons, as fossil fuels become increasingly scarce and their prices continue to increase. No ‘policy actions’ are required to make these occur (as David Montgomery pointed out in his testimony to US congress).
The authors then state that
we think that the research, development, demonstration and deployment (RDD&D) phase of radical decarbonisation, funded by a low carbon tax, could and should start at once
Following Montgomery’s logic, I do not believe that this step necessarily requires a ‘carbon tax’. Furthermore, it is well known that tax revenues from whatever sources usually end up being tossed into the overall pot for whatever spending or ‘investments’ are deemed politically worthwhile or expedient at the moment. And, finally, the costs of implementing and administering a carbon tax will reduce the overall efficiency (as Montgomery pointed out).
The authors cite the (now famous) quotation from The Economist:
“Action on climate is justified, not because the science is certain, but precisely because it is not.”
Here I would disagree completely with the authors
Action: Yes, at the individual and corporate level. (Reduce waste, eliminate pollution, improve efficiency, develop lower cost alternates)
Large government intervention: No. (Can work to ‘win a war’ or achieve a single deliverable goal, such as landing a man on the moon or beating the enemy in the race to develop an atomic bomb, but will not work to solve this ‘wicked’ problem)
Carbon taxes (direct or indirect): Absolutely not (Will achieve nothing except making energy more expensive and less affordable for all, especially for the poorest)
The authors write:
it is not just that science does not dictate climate policy; it is that climate policy alone does not dictate environmental or development or energy policies
This all makes sense on paper, but I am reminded of Eisenhower’s parting remarks about the dangers of creating an all-powerful ‘military-industrial complex’.
The rest of the paper defines several alternate policy approaches to addressing the ‘problem’ of decarbonization, pointing to past successful and unsuccessful examples, where governments either subsidized new R+D efforts directly or indirectly as prospective customers for the products being developed.
The authors point out:
the unsubsidised cost of clean energy technologies must be the measure that determines which technologies will fly and which will stall in the long term
I agree. But this speaks directly against government subsidizing of clean energy investments, such as building wind farms or subsidizing domestic solar panels.
In arguing for a ‘hypothecated’ carbon tax, the authors point out that a ‘dedicated’ carbon tax will be ineffective in decarbonizing our economy.
Firstly, this is so because it is not possible to establish the ‘cost of carbon’ as it is equated to the detrimental effect of CO2 on our climate, due to the many uncertainties. (Montgomery concluded the same.)
The second problem is that there will be no consensus among the various nations to accept a carbon tax. (Again, Montgomery made the same point.)
Thirdly, even in the nations whose governments may support a carbon tax, the general voting (and tax-paying) public may not.
The fourth point made was that a carbon tax would not necessarily force industries to develop new ‘clean’ energy solutions.
The authors then state:
As explained above, since much of the energy technology revolution will require just such basic RDD&D investment, public funding on a longterm basis is essential; and that is why an hypothecated tax is so important.
By a ‘hypothecated’ tax the authors refer to a tax that is not imposed in order ‘to alter short-term consumption behaviour as the once popular “Cap & Trade” approach hoped to do’.
Instead, they argue
a slowly rising but initially low carbon tax has the advantages of avoiding negative growth effects.
The authors then rationalize the benefits of this low tax as a source of revenue to develop new technologies, agreeing that ways must be found to ensure the revenue gained is not spent elsewhere:
The proposed hypothecated tax would be used to conceive, develop and demonstrate low-carbon or carbon-free technologies. It would provide a dependable and secure means of financing R&D essential to decarbonisation.
The slowly increasing nature of the tax provides a forward price signal that incites firms to take up the lower-carbon technologies and in turn to develop any particular firm-specific adjustments.
These two characteristics of the slowly rising hypothecated tax allow for the most rapid path to a low-carbon economy.
The success of an hypothecated tax will depend largely on the ability of policy-makers to recognise past mistakes, adopt a low tax that voters can accept, convincingly hypothecate the tax revenues and equally convincingly support and permit innovative institutions to manage that investment effectively.
IMO this is all idealized top-down thinking. Life simply does not work this way.
A ‘small tax’ may be ‘less bad’ than a ‘large tax’, as the authors concede, but even better is NO tax.
New energy sources will be developed with or without a tax. The odds of environmentally viable and cost effective solutions being developed by private industry without government subsidy are IMO (and that of David Montgomery) greater than if these developments are subsidized by the government. (The US corn to ethanol disaster shows why this is so.)
History has shown us that tax revenues will go to plug whatever holes are there, no matter how many pledges are initially made to allocate them specifically to clean energy projects. (The US Social Security Tax demonstrates this.)
So I would say that the first two-thirds of this report are on the mark, but the argument for a low ‘hypothecated’ carbon tax is weak.