Toward a Low-Carbon Economy, Or Not, an Electoral Time Bomb?
Updated: Aug 3, 2019
As Pinker (2018) argues, we face the potential for the most dramatic Tragedy of the Commons (really, a Tragedy of the Open Access; see Lynne et al., 2016) ever faced by Travelers on this Spaceship Earth. The Tragedy is arising out of the excessive loading of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, especially coming out of burning the carbon... coal, petroleum, natural gas... energy sources. So, what is in to be done? The Green New Deal has been proposed on the Progressive Isle. Conservative Isle strategy might also be changing.
In the News: "Climate Could be an Electoral Time Bomb, Republican Strategists Fear" (Friedman, 2019)
From Friedman (2019):
“Americans believe climate change is real, and that number goes up every single month,” Frank Luntz, a veteran Republican strategist, told a Congressional panel recently. He also circulated a memo to congressional Republicans in June warning that climate change was “a G.O.P. vulnerability and a G.O.P. opportunity.” ... . A new Harvard University survey of voters under the age of 30 found that 73 percent of respondents disapproved of Mr. Trump’s approach to climate change (about the same proportion as those who object to his handling of race relations). Half the respondents identified as Republican or independent.
So, it appears in time the tendency to Climate Change Denial, or, if not denial, an unwillingness to take action, presuming this Spaceship Earth is resilient enough to withstand anything we Humans do to it (in this case, over-loading the atmosphere with greenhouse gases), may be coming to an end. With 73 percent of young, future voters seeing the overloading of the Capacity as neither a Conservative-only nor Progressive-only issue, perhaps a Metaeconomics solution represented in Conservative&Progressive, Market&Government is on the near horizon? As is often said, progress occurs "one funeral at a time," as old ideas die-off?
In the News: "What is the Green New Deal? A Climate Proposal Explained" (Friedman, 2019)
One thing is for sure: The proposed Green New Deal, the current version coming out of the Left Isle, has stirred those on the Right Isle to make all manner of claims about the Deal that are not part of it; the inaction from the Right Isle has stirred the Left Isle to offer some rather drastic actions. To talk about some of these proposals and reactions, we have this from Friedman (2019):
President Trump has claimed the Green New Deal will take away your “airplane rights.” Senator Tom Cotton, Republican of Arkansas, told Hugh Hewitt, the conservative radio host, that the proposal would confiscate cars and require Americans to “ride around on high-speed light rail, supposedly powered by unicorn tears.” And Senator John Barrasso, Republican of Wyoming and chairman of the Committee on Environment and Public Works, warned that ice cream, cheeseburgers and milkshakes would be a thing of the past because under the Green New Deal, “livestock will be banned.”
Political rhetoric as it is these days, we perhaps have become almost numb to things being said that do not have much in the way of empirical and scientific base in fact. These types of conjectures are more along the line of feeding the narrow, often misinformed yet shared Other-interests of a few. Apparently, those having this kind of shared Other-interest must really believe there is an essentially infinite amount of petroleum, coal and natural gas still on this Spaceship Earth, so why be concerned about moving to renewable energy? Also, these kinds of statements seem to reflect an implicit belief that the atmospheric load of greenhouse gases makes no difference, not realizing (or, not caring) that excessive gas is driving severe cold and hot events; extremely high wind in tornadoes, hurricanes and typhoons; extreme drought and flood events; loss of coral reefs and other ecosystem function; and, rising sea levels causing total loss of some smaller islands and coastal flooding in many cities on this Spaceship Earth cities.
So, what is going on? We need some scientific grounding. What are the scientific facts?
There are thermodynamic limits to an economy... we cannot go around, over, or under those limits! As Einstein said it, there is essentially no possibility that 1st and 2nd Law will ever be overturned. This Spaceship Earth has a limited amount of waste processing and holding capacity (1st Law). There is a finite amount of energy (2nd Law). The faster we move the Arrow the quicker we reach the Limits.
These Laws are especially relevant to our use of the carbon fuels. Two issues.
First, regarding 1st Law considerations, burning them releases Carbon and Hydrogen to the atmosphere, with especially large amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) being formed. The pace of release of this greenhouse gas... and other greenhouse gases like methane... is contributing in dramatic ways to warming, a supercharged (with energy) atmosphere contributing to dramatic swings in weather (as noted, severe drought, rainfall and snow events, severe hot and cold events, severe winds in more intense tornadoes, hurricanes and typhoons), as well as rising sea levels and dramatic changes in ecosystem function.
Second, regarding 2nd Law considerations, carbon fuels, especially the petroleum, are very low entropy, very high quality, in form. This is to say, per barrel, per ton, they are the highest quality energy source on the Spaceship. As a result, it behooves us Travelers on the Spaceship to see the Instrumental Value which is seemingly much greater that the current Price in the Market, and find ways to preserve, conserve and otherwise use these sources of energy carefully through time. Also, these low entropy energy resources are extremely limited, relatively speaking, especially relative to the renewables. In fact, it has been estimated the entire supply of this low entropy carbon fuel stored in the surface of the Spaceship, since this Spaceship Earth was formed, is less that the flow of Solar energy that reaches the Spaceship every year, not even counting the wind energy also produced by the Sun. So, why not use the abundant resource represented in Solar (and the Wind it powers) Energy?
So, what does this imply for achieving sustainability? For pollution/waste and energy policy? It is instrumentally pretty clear, even though the markets still do not see it: We likely need to build a low(er)-carbon economy. As a case in point, it likely makes little instrumental sense to be driving petroleum powered cars, or even electric cars powered by coal burning plants, to move short distances in and around a large city. These cars seemingly need to be running on electricity produced by solar energy, and the wind energy solar produces, at least this empirical possibility needs to be examined. Running on renewables deals with both the 1st Law air pollution problem as well as the greenhouse gas problem, while also addressing the longer run 2nd Law entropy problem. This one change alone would greatly lengthen the time over which we can still have petroleum to power the heavy industrial and farming machinery (albeit some of these, too, can run with electric motors), perhaps power shipping vessels, maybe even help power cars in more rural areas where it is difficult find recharge stations, and fly airplanes hauling heavy cargo.
Unfortunately, energy markets will not slow or point the Arrow in this direction unless market participants are aware and then choose to operate within the Thermodynamic laws. This is apparently not the case at the present time, especially on the carbon supply side represented in the petroleum and coal industries who appear to operate as though the thermodynamic reality does not count? We the people, through our Government perhaps could nudge the industries to consider moving faster toward a lower carbon economy. If nudging does not work, we would then need to move to Government mandates and controls, unless those in the market start to base decisions on what we know about the atmospheric capacity to process carbon. Those in the carbon markets need to consider acting on the advise from scientists who have deep and wide understanding of thermodynamics, and actual stocks of carbon in the Spaceship Earth surface, in order to bring about this instrumental need.
As noted, hopefully this will take only Government nudging, and not mandates or control: markets have the tremendous advantage of providing for freedom and liberty in choice, and great flexibility that comes with it. Instrumentally, the carbon fuels industries could reel itself in... it likely needs to be so reeled... and put on a path of thermodynamic reality, rather than operating as if there is no tomorrow. Having climate deniers and others in political positions that do not see the essential role that science can play, does not help. At least a rudimentary understanding of physics and engineering, and climate science, is needed in order to understand what 1st and 2nd Law points to for both markets and the government.
Back to the Green New Deal
Friedman (2019) clarifies:
The goal of the Green New Deal is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in order to avoid the worst consequences of climate change while also trying to fix societal problems like economic inequality and racial injustice.
It says the entire world needs to get to net-zero emissions by 2050 — meaning as much carbon would have to be absorbed as released into the atmosphere — and the United States must take a “leading role” in achieving that.
The Green New Deal calls on the federal government to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions, create high-paying jobs, ensure that clean air, clean water and healthy food are basic human rights, and end all forms of oppression.
To achieve those goals, the plan calls for the launch of a “10-year mobilization” to reduce carbon emissions in the United States. It envisions sourcing 100 percent of the country’s electricity from renewable and zero-emissions power, digitizing the nation’s power grid, upgrading every building in the country to be more energy-efficient, and overhauling the nation’s transportation system by investing in electric vehicles and high-speed rail.
So, what is this really saying, in the context of the Arrow, and the Background of science based facts about the carbon problem? Most fundamentally, the Green New Deal implicitly recognizes that we cannot continue, forever, on almost exclusive reliance on carbon based fuels. The Green New Deal also sees both the Market Forum and the Other Forums (see Figure) involved in bringing about the move to build a low(er)-carbon economy. There are some fundamental, empirically based scientific realities at work here.
First, as highlighted earlier, there is only so much carbon in the surface of the Spaceship Earth on which we travel around the Sun. Second, again, the Sun sends more energy to the surface of the Spaceship each year than is has ever existed in the stores of the Spaceship. Third, architects of the Green New Deal fully realize we will always need to use some carbon fuels; this is just scientific reality, in that even the food we eat is mainly carbon, our bodies are carbon, and we can't eat Solar energy, directly!
In fact, there were science based studies in the early 1950s that were working on converting the old carbon stored in crude oil into edible food products. It actually was accomplished, it could be done, but why even consider "nibbling" on a finite stock of carbon? Yet, we continue to burn it as though it is infinite, not taking into account that it took over 3B years to place it there, by the workings of systems on this Spaceship in connection with the larger Universe (actually, multi-universes) in which we Travel. Also, we have used well over 1/2 of the carbon fuels in just a mere 400 years or so, such that at the current pace of use we will not make 400 more years. Even if we are optimist, we still are talking of only a few more hundred years. So, isn't it time, instrumentally speaking, to start thinking about switching to renewable energy of all types, with all said sources coming from the Sun?
Now, ironically, even solar energy (and all of its derivatives, like wind and hydro) is not a renewable energy source, as eventually the Sun burns out. The Sun is a fusion reactor which is burning its own fuel, which runs out in about 2.5B years. So, the real point is, we can just be around a few more 100 million years if we start the shift from the carbon fuels that will run out in less than 1000 years to the renewable energy sources that will be around for 2.5B years!
Back to the Right Isle Conjectures, and Left Isle Plans
So, what do we make of the Right Isle conjectures, at the front of this commentary? There are at least three kinds of responses one can make, represented in 1) the ideological, 2) narrow shared Other-interest, and 3) uninformed, or purposefully misinformed by someone, about the empirical reality at work here. Looking at each possibility, and speculating on what each might have meant, but, Metaeconomics would ask you to empirically go deeper, find our for sure.
First, the ideological:
take away your “airplane rights" Ok, so there are rights to over-load the atmosphere with carbon? There is an ideology at work here, that we have the right to do as we please, without bounds from the larger community.
“ride around on high-speed light rail, supposedly powered by unicorn tears” Well, the right to drive a high carbon using vehicle is implicitly claimed, here: Again, ideology points to "do as you please", whatever turns your crank (carbon turns the crankshaft of high powered, individual cars very fast).
ice cream, cheeseburgers and milkshakes would be a thing of the past Again, ideology says do whatever turns your crank, maximizes your self-interest, even if it is not good for you (like high fat ice cream, cheeseburgers and milkshakes). One is to be free to choose to destroy the Spaceship Earth, as well as your Ownself.
Second, the narrow shared Other-interest:
take away your “airplane rights” So, if one maximizes Self-interest only from airplane rides, do it: The shared Other-interest in a transportation system that works for everyone has no value, there is no shared Other-interest overall. There is a focus on the Ego, little to no Empathy.
“ride around on high-speed light rail, supposedly powered by unicorn tears” Again, if one can drive a 700 HP car to get around fast, do it. It maximizes the Ego based Self-interest, so, it is the thing to do.
ice cream, cheeseburgers and milkshakes would be a thing of the past Ego based Self-interest arises most fundamentally out of hedonism: unlimited ice cream (highest fat possible), cheeseburgers (highest fat possible) and milkshakes (hmmm... thought maybe malts would work even better to serve the self-interest) are all about satisfying hedonistic drive, the core of less than tempered Self-interest.
Third, uninformed or misinformed:
take away your “airplane rights” Well, it turns out that if we saved carbon fuels for the low entropy needs like powering airplanes and running heavy industrial equipment, we could likely all be better off. As noted, it likely makes little instrumental sense to drive across town in a carbon fuel vehicle which can be done more effectively with an electric car running on solar energy. Instrumental value theory suggests using the extremely limited supply of high carbon fuels to use in the low entropy demand uses like airplanes and earth moving equipment. Airplane travel could actually be expedited by moving to a low carbon economy, with now being able to use the carbon to haul the heavy loads.
“ride around on high-speed light rail, supposedly powered by unicorn tears” Some truth here, as solar energy is like a light mist over the surface of this Spaceship Earth; the challenge is to collect and concentrate enough of it to operate a high-speed light rail. Intriguingly, think how much carbon based fuel we could have set aside for future use if the interstate system of roads also included high-speed light rail running on renewables operating on the same corridors?
ice cream, cheeseburgers and milkshakes would be a thing of the past Well, these high fat foods need to be reduced in our diets, which would also reduce the costs of medical care on orders of magnitude. The Right Isle does not want to have universal medical care, but yet they point to the essential need to eat high fat ice cream, cheeseburgers, ... what goes here?
Metaeconomics stays away from ideology and self-interest only framing, unless it is supported by facts. Rather, it points to empirical, scientific reality, which also suggests that ideologies that actually work could be considered, and, there are good, empirically based ideas on both the Right&Left-isle. Yet, if we are to act on the ideology buried in statements like this, we need empirical evidence they actually would work, practically speaking. Just making statements like this does not give them empirical credibility.
Metaeconomics also is built on the scientific reality that we, as humans, have Dual Interests...and achieve happiness when we balance the Self&Other-interest. These three comments do not support that kind of choice.
As an aside: Why is the US exporting petroleum fuel right now? It seems more instrumental to keep it in a stock to power airplanes and heavy equipment, and to fill in gaps when the solar panels are covered with clouds or the wind is not blowing? The Green New Deal points to acting on Instrumental Value involving Government in nudging attention to reality, at least until the Price in the Market for carbon also starts to deal with that reality. What think?
Friedman, Lisa. What is the Green New Deal? A Climate Proposal Explained. New York Times (February 21, 2019).
Friedman, L. Climate Could be an Electoral Time Bomb, Republican Strategists Fear. New York Times, Digital Edition, August 2, 2019.
Lynne, G.D., Czap, N.V., Czap, H.J., and Burback, M.E. "Theoretical Foundation for Empathy Conservation: Toward Avoiding the Tragedy of the Commons." Review of Behavioral Economics 3 ( 2016):245-279.
Pinker, Steven. Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. New York: Penguin Random House LLC, 2018.