Climate scientists: it’s time for ‘Plan B’?

So says the Independent.

The substance seems to be Just over half – 54 per cent – of the 80 international specialists in climate science who took part in our survey agreed that the situation is now so dire that we need a backup plan that involves the artificial manipulation of the global climate to counter the effects of man-made emissions of greenhouse gases. About 35 per cent of respondents disagreed with the need for a “plan B”, arguing that it would distract from the main objective of cutting CO2 emissions, with the remaining 11 per cent saying that they did not know whether a geoengineering strategy is needed or not.

I’m ever so slightly dubious about their selection, since they asked me :-). I’m also unsure about their interpretation: Q4 (below) is somewhat ambiguous: you can answer yes to it if you only want more research. I answered no, because I thought they would probably interpret yes as clear-action-now, as indeed they have done, and I think thats wrong.

As far as I can see, they don’t say what the actual survey was, so here are the questions, with my responses:

1. Are you more, or less optimistic about the prospects of curbing CO2 levels to avoid dangerous climate change now compared to ten years ago when Kyoto was signed?

More optimistic………[ ]
Less optimistic ……….[X]
About the same………[ ]

2. Are you more, or less optimistic about the ability of the Earth’s climate system to cope with expected increases in atmospheric carbon levels now compared with 10 years ago given recent research on potential climate feedbacks and carbon sinks?

More optimistic………[X]
Less optimistic……….[ ]
About the same………[ ]

3. Do you believe that talk of geoengineering is a dangerous distraction and that on no account should it ever be considered as a viable option even if carbon dioxide levels continue to rise?

Agree…………………[ ]
Don’t know……………[ ]

4. Do you agree that we now need a “Plan B” whereby a geoengineering strategy – research, development and possible implementation – is drawn up in parallel to a treaty to reduce carbon emissions (subject to international agreements and a scientific assessment of risk)?

Agree…………………[ ]
Don’t know……………[ ]

Oh, and because they asked me, here is a link to Climate Ark. Which is perhaps an excuse to chatter to a snarky bunny: yes I know I haven’t updated my blogroll in ages; this is mostly because I never use anyone elses, and assume others don’t use mine. I do use “share” in google reader, though. And I may twitter a bit.

More detail here.

19 thoughts on “Climate scientists: it’s time for ‘Plan B’?”

  1. It is interesting reading the comments of the various scientists. As usual there is a definitional problem. Many seem to not include CO2 removal in their definition of geo-engineering. I think it would be difficult to argue against CO2 removal even if done unilaterally.

    On the other hand injecting aerosols into the atmosphere, or increasing albedo in other ways would be very dangerous to do unilaterally. I also think the likelihood of gaining global agreement on such measures is about as low as gaining agreement on reducing emissions in the first place.

    As I have stated before on this blog it is imperative that we investigate means to remove CO2. It is certainly more important than spending a bunch of money researching temperature trends from 1,000 years ago for example.

    [The amount of money going into palaeoclimatology is trivial compared to the sums needed for this kind of research (or bank bailouts, or…) and its also useful, so I think you are wrong to criticise it -W]

    So that ER/JH doesn’t jump down my throat I am also in favor of researching energy sources that would be cheap enough to substitute for the cheapest fossil fuel sources, and would be practical for third world countries.

    This topic should be the central point of international scientific and political discussion. Not proposed 20/30/50 percent cutbacks in 20/30/50 years.

    [My suspicion is that we would be best off reducing CO2 use, investing in renewable energy, and forgetting about geoengineering, but I don’t have a coherent plan -W]


  2. I don’t see the ambiguity in Q4 that you do. It specifically says “strategy”, and defines that as all three of research, development, and possible implementation.



  3. Strangely enough you only need to tax fossil fuels at a high enough level that people can invest with confidence in other energy sources. That is why alternate energy programs started in the 1970s failed, because everyone knew that if they ever became competitive the Saudi’s could turn the tap on. NN should know that.

    The problem with the “research” option, is that CO2 accumulates so every ton you save today is important.


  4. 3 is actually two different questions, bearing in mind that geo-engineering is already being put forward as a substitute for mitigation.


  5. ER/JH,

    Yes we all took economics 101 and we also all understand that taxing fossil fuels at the appropriate levels would do what we all want. Give it a rest. Ironically the first publication that I am aware of that covers this topic is “Changing Climate.”

    The issue isn’t whether it would work to tax fossil fuels,it would, the issue is gaining international agreement to do it. And since you keep repeating yourself, I will repeat myself and point out that import taxes won’t do the same thing. (I’m going to put up a blog post on this and just put the URL in my responses from now on.)

    Since we can’t even get developed countries to agree on limits to CO2 output that are sufficient, and we can’t currently get developing countries to agree to any limit, I feel there is essentially no possibility of getting a global tax imposed.

    Calculate the level of carbon tax needed to achieve an 80-90% reduction in Co2 output (pretty big), and then imagine the probability of it passing in even one democratic country. Now imagine trying to coordinate that across all countries.


  6. NN Given the taxes on fossil fuels (gasoline and in some cases other fuels) in Europe and Japan your premise is incorrect (basically piffle). Comparing the emissions of the US, Canada and Australia, with say France, shows that such taxes a. HAVE BEEN IMPOSED IN DEMOCRATIC COUNTRIES and b. WORK. c. Need to be imposed on coal and fossil fuels across the board d. Can be imposed on imports on the basis of carbon emitted in their manufacture (OK that is my hobby horse)

    You and William are simply erecting straw people. You insist that a tax able to reduce CO2 emissions immediately to levels below 80% of current be imposed immediately. As Eli said, what we need right now is to build a floor under the price of fossil fuels, so that other, carbon neutral things like efficiency, solar, wind, etc. can compete and develop. We need to displace, not completely replace, fossil fuels right now, and phase them out later. It is extremely unlikely (truer:it is bull) to claim that research will find a magic wand to solve this problem in the next thirty years, which is the real time horizon given the induction time for climate change. It is likely that development (including efficiency) will go a long ways to solving the problem if we start now and tax policy is a way to drive that by changing consumption habits and investment.

    Finally, allow me to point out that even the DREAD Hanson is not saying that coal generating plants should be immediately shuttered, but that no new ones should be built without carbon capture.

    [You and William are simply erecting straw people. You insist that a tax able to reduce CO2 emissions immediately to levels below 80% of current be imposed immediately. . I don’t think I’ve said this. What are you referring to? -W]


  7. Hi William, you’ve probably answered this before, but what has changed in the last 10 years to warrant your answer to #2? Personally (I am a layperson) the acidification of the ocean, potential positive feedback via releases of methane, etc, were things I wasn’t aware of until about 7 or 8 years ago, so I think things would seem worse now to me.

    [I think I’m talking more about my own personal viewpoint, rather than any change in evidence. I used to treat it as “obvious” that change was bad, crop yields would fall, etc. This is now less clear. Methane…maybe, but for the last 10 years methane has been flat-lined. Ocean acidification? That has the potential to kill all the coral reefs, if sensitivity is at the high end and adaptivity at the low end. Clearly lots of divers would be sad, and we’d get to find out how much they contribute to the ocean ecosystem, but… well, I’m not really qualified to comment -W]


  8. Eli –

    Although it is correct that higher fuel taxes have resulted in lower oil use in western Europe – you are looking at what would be a 200% tax reducing use by about 30-40%, pick your own error bars, this does illustrate the extreme nature of taxation required to produce the desired goals. As far as France goes, the fact that France has very low relative GHG emissions is a lot to do with a central government strategic decision to go down the Nuclear route several decades ago, and little to do with direct energy taxes.

    It is worth pointing out that even at their highest, fuel costs were well under half of the total ownership costs for average cars in the UK; taxes would have to reach much higher (politically unacceptable) levels before mpg would dominate purchase decisions.

    Taxes do work a bit, but not to the extent needed. Bigger cuts are available at source – whereby source means replacing fossil fuelled power plant with Nuclear power, and making synthetic carbon neutral fuels.


  9. Andrew, from my experience, the cost of operating a car (petrol wise) in Europe is about the same as in the US, because the higher petrol price is compensated by the higher fleet mileage, and with improved diesel and various hybrid choices and improved public transport there remains room for improvement. There is a big difference tho in the initial cost of cars, which, again, from my experience, is much higher in Europe and the cost (lower in Europe) and availability (higher) of public transport.

    You are exactly right that this is not a problem with a single magic solution, but one with many partial solutions that must be simultaneously applied.


  10. Sorry William, but what is your position on this issue? Eli was referring to NN’s

    Calculate the level of carbon tax needed to achieve an 80-90% reduction in Co2 output (pretty big), and then imagine the probability of it passing in even one democratic country. Now imagine trying to coordinate that across all countries.

    On another issue, question 2 frankly confused me. One can, as you did, talk about how the climate system will respond, e.g. are there tipping points, or how human societies will respond. I am afraid I am much less optimistic on the last.

    [Well thats a lot better than telling me I’m erecting strawpeople. I’m not sure what you mean by “this issue”. I’ve said that punitive CO2 taxes won’t be viable, politically – that might be what you are thinking of. If the question was, should we have CO2 taxes, then I think the answer is yes, slowly ramped up, and with no exceptions.

    On 2, I don’t know how you can understand my answer without knowing what I thought 10 years ago -W]


  11. ER/JH

    Thanks for the piffle remark, I guess I will stick to the high ground.

    I am not aware of any broad based carbon taxes in Europe. Both the US and Europe have gasoline taxes, although they are higher in Europe. Prices in Europe for gasoline are, in my experience, more than twice those in the US. This has not been sufficient to cause a switch to alternative technologies although they certainly have higher average mileage on their cars.

    It seems to me that Europe has a strong aversion to broad based carbon taxes as shown by their choosing cap and trade as the preferred method of limiting Co2 output. It also seems to me that this hasn’t really worked.

    I don’t believe that William has weighed in on taxes at all. Also I am the first one on this blog to bring up the 80% figure which is directly from the IPCC. I never said that the tax needed to be implemented immediately, just eventually as explained below.

    As to your point that some lower level of taxation will set a floor, it is again economics 101 that taxation will only cause substitution to the extent that it makes alternatives cheaper than fossil fuels.

    The issue is short term and long term elasticity. In the short term the substitution, and reduction, will occur if the tax pushes the costs of fossil fuels above the current costs of alternatives. In the long term the higher price will cause alternatives to be improved. It is generally assumed that long term elasticity to changes in energy costs are much larger than short term elasticity.

    So if we look at taxes the question is what is the tax rate at which the long term elasticity would be enough to cause at least an 80% reduction in the output of Co2 from current levels. A second question would be at what rate could that tax be imposed so as not to completely disrupt the economic system while alternatives are being developed.

    I should point out that a reduction in global energy production over the time frames seems extremely unlikely without major conflict. So the only mechanism for long term elasticity at the levels we are talking about is the development of alternatives to fossil fuels.

    You postulate that an alternative won’t be found in the next 30 years. Since this is the sole realistic mechanism for long term elasticity at the levels needed, you are effectively saying that your tax idea won’t work. But you sort of contradict yourself in the end of the paragraph so I will interpret the remark as saying that research without a price signal won’t develop an alternative in that time frame.

    So an emperor of the planet could look at all these factors and perhaps come up with an increasing carbon tax level that would cause the proper level of innovation without killing the economy. But our patchwork of individual governmental entities seem much less likely to do so.

    Finally your import tax idea is completely unworkable except as a mechanism of economic warfare to try to enforce the imposition of a broad based carbon tax. This is a long topic which I am now inspired to write about.


  12. WC, I’m not sure about blog etiquette, and if this is a bad thing to do then I apologize in advance, and feel free to edit or remove this post. I wanted to write out my thoughts on the topics we have been discussing in one place so that I can link to them as needed and so I can evolve them based on comments. So here are links to a a couple of blog entries that I just wrote.

    Eighty percent is the number.

    Carbon taxes won’t solve the problem.


  13. No much question is about the question.

    There are basically two different things:

    1. Will the extent of physical changes in the climate system significantly adversely affect current human societies driven by greenhouse gas mixing ratio increases in ways you were not confident of ten years ago

    2. Will the extent of physical changes in the climate system be limited in ways that you were not confident of ten years ago.

    One can answer yes and yes, no and yes, yes and no and no and no. Actually my answers would be yes and maybe (OK, I’m a Rabett)


  14. Well, NN drags the aggressive cringe strategy out, you know, the one that goes, I’m not going to be as mean as you, and then proceeds.

    NN’s arguments about imposing a carbon tax are similar to those about any tax, but we do have taxes. Yes, it will be more difficult to negotiate this, but we don;t need the world, we need the EU, US, Japan, China and India. Maybe Russia. ERSPSW seeks to get the ball rolling and combat free riders.

    As to the workability of Eli Rabett’s simple plan to save the world, pray tell how it differs from VAT, where the tax is due on the entire value of any import. To follow your logic VAT is an instrument of economic warfare. Come to think of it I heard that silliness in the 1960s when it spread through Europe.

    An example of how ERSPSW could work is the “voluntary” dual system in Germany where importers have to pay for the cost of disposal of their packaging (Gruen Punkt)

    “The organization involved is called the “Duales System Deutschland” and it administers the use of the “Green Dot,” a recycling symbol that is found on the packaging material of virtually all products sold in Germany. While packaging materials for products sold in Germany are not legally required to carry the Green Dot, it is almost impossible to market a product in Germany without it. Typically, the importer pays a license fee to the user of the Green Dot, depending on the type and amount of packaging, and provides the exporter with the information necessary. In 2003, German retailers began requesting a deposit for disposable or “one-way” drink packages, i.e., soft drink or beer cans. Since the requested deposit is about three times as high as that requested for returnable beer bottles, it could disadvantage imported drinks.”


  15. ER,

    I don’t think I said anything mean in the whole post. Let me know what offended you and I will try to avoid it next time.

    Could you explain how the VAT is like a carbon tax? The only similarity I see is that they are both taxes. The VAT is applied to the increased value of the good being sold at each step (As I understand it). There is no issue with applying this to both domestic and imported goods. I guess I’m missing the point?

    I have spelled out my views on the imported goods issue here. Maybe you could propose the solution to those issues? I’m not saying there isn’t one, I just haven’t thought of it. I don’t think that bottles are a good analogy either since the packaging content is obvious in the product.

    Finally to make my position clear, I think carbon taxes are a fine idea. You could clearly set them high enough to achieve any objective of carbon reduction in a given country/region, and it would be the best way to achieve that objective.

    As a practical/political matter I don’t think they can be set high enough, and I think coordinating them across the countries that you mention at the high rates needed is unlikely. Without coordination you just push most of the carbon output around.


  16. The VAT is due on the entire value of an item on import. The emissions levy wold be due on the entire amount of emissions used in the fabrication of an item on import.

    In the dual system, the packaging is ALL the packaging around an item, such as bubble wrap, cartons, etc. In other words on import the cost of getting rid of the wrapping is due to get accepted by the Grun Punkt system. You would have to know how garbage pick up works in German to realize that no one is going to buy anything that is not part of that system because their pick up fees would increase, and they are pretty high to start with. This is especially true of stores that have to deal with large volumes.

    This gets rid of the free rider problem given that there are only a few economies that drive the world economy.

    Finally, as I said, you only need a carbon tax high enough and sure enough that there is capital investment in efficiency and carbon free generation. It is nonsense to repeat the failed lessons of the 70s and pour money into research when the markets will not adopt the results because it is cheaper to burn coal.


  17. ER, I don’t understand why you don’t see the difference between trying to figure out the entire value of an item, and trying to figure out the amount of emissions used in the fabrication of an item. The first is trivial as it is the amount paid, and the second is impossible. As I point out in my post it would take an army of bureaucrats calculating each individual item, and then trying to allow for which ones were made with, say hydroelectric, and which ones from coal plants…

    Anyway where we really differ is that you feel that a relatively small tax would spur investment in alternatives to a degree that would go beyond the long term elasticity of energy. I don’t know any basis for this in economics, perhaps you can find a citation? Conventional economic thinking would say that the investment and conservation would be just enough to reduce emissions by the amount of the elasticity computation. In other words if elasticity is .2 then a 50 percent tax would cause through new technology and conservation a ten percent drop in emissions. This is an estimate of long term elasticity. I guess you feel the elasticity is much higher? Again I would ask for a citation. 50 percent on all energy including electricity would be very difficult to get through.

    Perversely a tax that raises the price on carbon emissions lowers the incentive to lower the price on alternatives. This would actually reduce investment in the alternatives that are the least expensive. The effect of this is that in countries which refuse to tax their carbon emissions the alternatives would remain above the price of carbon based energy.

    If we can’t figure out a solution on the import tax then a significant portion of the ten percent would be taken up by others. But even if we can’t it is still just ten percent.

    Much like climate science there is actual theory and research in economics. It isn’t perfect or absolute which again makes it similar to climate science. But it doesn’t make sense to just ignore it in either case. In my posts I have cited these theories, and studies.


  18. Really, I heard the same nonsense in the 60s and 70s about the immense burden of figuring out the added value and computers were primitive then. As far as electricity, you have a few large plants that burn coal, oil and gas. You know the input to the plant in terms of fossil fuel, you know the output in energy. Since deregulation the electric companies track the source of energy to your house or plant. Divide. Concrete is about the same. Oil refineries are again, a few large plants. That takes care of a large part of the issue. You know how much fossil fuel a plant uses (chemicals are a bit harder, but again, solvent emissions are tracked today)

    You know the amount of natural gas or oil supplied for heating to houses. Assign a value for emissions from each by weight or volume. Better insulated smaller houses use less so their tax will be less. Same for gasoline.

    As far as incentives, again, you are throwing spaghetti against the wall. You appear not to heard of the word profit. If the floor price for fossil fuel is high enough that a non-fossil source can compete, the profit is even higher if the supplier cost for the non-fossil source is made lower.

    Another thing you are missing is that what Eli is proposing is a STARTING point. Where the tax goes after that depends on what happens and what is needed. What we despairately
    need today is to START by making current non-fossil sources competitive with fossil sources by charging for the climate costs of fossil fuels in the future (and not a few ruined mountain tops and valleys). Because greenhouse gases are accumulative it is critical to START reducing first, the rates of growth of emissions and soon after the actual amounts of emissions.


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