Bjorn Lomborg

Bjørn Lomborg has a great commentary up at Project Syndicate (great name) on the Waxman-Markey bill.  I’ve been a fan of Lomborg‘s for some time (and had the pleasure to see him speak some time back), but it’s his last sentence that really resonates, “Wanting to shut down the discussion is simply treason against reason.”

You can get his books here. They’re worth reading. Lomborg is a left-liberal Danish scientist who set out to debunk the claims made by Julian Simon. When he found he couldn’t, he had the courage to admit as much and then took the time to re-examine environmental issues from a rational perspective. The result was The Skeptical Environmentalist, a book that incited enormous outrage. Lomborg was villified and even formally accused of scientific dishonesty. (Cleared of all charges.)

Lomborg’s arguments (heresy!) are relatively simple. In essenece, he’s argued that since we have limited funds and limited means, we should focus our energies where they could do the most good. Not surprisingly, his recommendations (clean drinking water) aren’t sexy or politically fashionable (apostate!). But if you’re interested in a scientific approach to environmental problems, check him out. (For the record, Lomborg is a staunch believer in anthropocentric climate change.)

For more, visit lomborg.com.

From the commentary,

Gore and Hansen want a moratorium on coal-fired power plants, but neglect the fact that the hundreds of new power plants that will be opened in China and India in the coming years could lift a billion people out of poverty. Negating this outcome through a moratorium is clearly no unmitigated good.

Likewise, reasonable people can differ on their interpretation of the Waxman-Markey bill. Even if we set aside its masses of pork-barrel spending, and analyses that show it may allow more emissions in the US for the first decades, there are more fundamental problems with this legislation.

At a cost of hundreds of billions of dollars annually, it will have virtually no impact on climate change. If all of the bill’s many provisions were entirely fulfilled, economic models show that it would reduce the temperature by the end of the century by 0.11°C (0.2°F) – reducing warming by less than 4%.

Even if every Kyoto-obligated country passed its own, duplicate Waxman-Markey bills – which is implausible and would incur significantly higher costs – the global reduction would amount to just 0.22°C (0.35°F) by the end of this century. The reduction in global temperature would not be measurable in a hundred years, yet the cost would be significant and payable now.

Is it really treason against the planet to express some skepticism about whether this is the right way forward? Is it treason to question throwing huge sums of money at a policy that will do virtually no good in a hundred years? Is it unreasonable to point out that the inevitable creation of trade barriers that will ensue from Waxman-Markey could eventually cost the world ten times more than the damage climate change could ever have wrought?

Today’s focus on ineffective and costly climate policies shows poor judgment. But I would never want to shut down discussion about these issues – whether it is with Gore, Hansen, or Krugman. Everybody involved in this discussion should spend more time building and acknowledging good arguments, and less time telling others what they cannot say. Wanting to shut down the discussion is simply treason against reason.

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My kid is great. Your kids suck.

Yeah, I know. It’s an obnoxious title. I don’t really mean it, but I think it’s an honest description of much of the sentiment behind modern population whining.

There’s a thread over at Whatever that John Scalzi started on population growth, resource use, how many human babies the planet “needs ” and how many are simply open, sucking mouths mindlessly consuming vital (vital!) resources.

OK, to be fair, most of my ire is directed not at Scalzi (although he shares in the general confusion over resource consumption) but at the Zero Population Growth idiots who are just oh so concerned about how there are just way too many babies in the world. Some gems from the comments:

“Most women DON’T want to have tons of kids, but do so only because of cultural pressure or lack of comprehensive family planning education and resources.”

This commenter rails against the Vatican’s senseless opposition to birth control, which he rightly characterizes as sexist and demeaning to women. But you know, it’s also demeaning to imply that the only reason a woman might want a large family is because she’s pressured and ignorant. The same person goes on:

“I notice that birthrates are declining in educated, liberal areas, while they’re skyrocketing in areas that are heavy with cultural conservatives. All those Quiverfulls in Oklahoma are certainly making up for all the adamantly child-free intellectuals in Seattle.”

Jay-sus, is that offensive or what?

try this on for size — in my opinion the planet can reasonably sustain roughly one tenth the human population that exists today. that’s right, 600 MILLION, not 6 BILLION. there are no easy answers to getting there. i made the choice out of conscience to have only one child, then got a vasectomy. that’s a start. but given the multiple interacting global degradations that we’ve set in motion, it will take war or famine or plague to reduce our numbers quickly enough.

War or famine or plague! Yay! This is all because people suck. Oh, but not his kid.

“the wildlife and wilderness that existed in my childhood, half a century ago, have been decimated beyond recognition. that, my friends, is as important a loss as any you can name.”

“Beyond recognition?” Really? Beyond recognition? Whatever, that’s a pointless argument; definitions shift as the sand…. But let’s try–just to see–if we can come up with a loss that might–just maybe–be as evil as the extinction of the Puerto Rican Shrew. 2,800 African children die every day from Malaria.

My kid is great. Your kids suck.

The fun goes on and on,

People who choose to have large families should be taxed or otherwise penalized for the extra children. Seems fair to me. (I’m childfree, incidentally.)

Purely incidental to her opinions on taxation, I’m sure. This commenter has her own blog. She has more opinions,

A radical solution might be to cull (as in kill) the surplus young males (wars already tend to do this, in a somewhat uncontrolled manner). In fact, that is something that could be done in any society with a surplus of single, young, unemployed males between 12-25 years (who tend to be the most troublesome elements – just consult any statistics for violent crime). As a female, I would feel a lot safer if there were fewer aggressive young males around.

Unh hunh.

But let’s get back on point. At the heart of Scalzi’s original post is a concern about overpopulation and resources use. The leaping off point was a question,

If we procreate, we doom civilization through overpopulation and depletion of resources. If we don’t procreate, we doom civilization through exacerbating an aging population. What’s a potentially procreative person to do?

The question assumes that children are either unproductive resource drains or mere instruments whose existence is justified only by their ability to support aging dependents. Bleak, bleak, bleak.

And wrong.

In the first case, more people generally means more opportunity for innovation, advancement and wealth creation. Only if we imagine that the creation of wealth is a zero-sum game (or if we force it to be) can we imagine that additional children are a drain on resources. This is, at heart, a kind of political thinking that prioritizes the distribution of wealth over the creation of wealth. If we ignore the source of wealth then it’s easy to see people as nothing more than appetites feeding at a trough. If, however, we recognize that wealth is created, then we can see people as innovators who make life better for everyone around them. That’s the miracle of trade; everyone benefits.

The second case is a matter of morality. Our children are not means to our parents’ ends.

But let’s look at the resource question, because that’s where most of the discussion is centered. Scalzi gets part of the answer right,

…the issue isn’t how many people the planet has; the issue is how the people who are on it (however many there are at any given point) handle their resource management and way of living.

This is unquestionably true, if we want to support radically more people than we currently do, we need to change something. We can either reduce resource consumption, we discover entirely new resources, and we can use existing resources more efficiently. I pick all three. And, luckily for us, that’s the course we’ve taken throughout human history. In a modern economy, consumption drives the price of resources up, which creates incentives for innovation and efficiency, which drives prices down. This cycle ends up driving inflation-adjusted prices down over the long term.

The cycle works so well, in fact, that we can effectively imagine our supply of resources to be infinite. Yes, infinite.

The earth’s natural resources are finite, which means that if we use them continuously, we will eventually exhaust them. This basic observation is undeniable. But another way of looking at the issue is far more relevant to assessing people’s well-being. Our exhaustible and unreproducible natural resources, if measured in terms of their prospective contribution to human welfare, can actually increase year after year, perhaps never coming anywhere near exhaustion. How can this be? The answer lies in the fact that the effective stocks of natural resources are continually expanded by the same technological developments that have fueled the extraordinary growth in living standards since the industrial revolution. — The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics (I have more on this, here.)

So, yes, to support billions more people we’ll need to do things differently. But that does not mean that we need to curtail energy consumption or somehow put a governor on wealth creation. and it certainly doesn’t mean that we should puts limits on population growth: more people mean more brains and more brains means more better. (See The Ultimate Resource by Julian Simon.)

As I mentioned before, the central problem isn’t the distribution of wealth, it’s the creation of wealth. Scalzi misses that,

And in point of fact we do a really crappy job of [resource distribution] overall. For one thing, resources are highly unevenly distributed (said the guy living in the country that consumes 25% of the world’s energy while having only 5% of the world’s population); for another thing, the lifestyles, desires and goals of the people of the whole world are too heterogeneous to make coordinated and evenly distributed resource management possible

Damn those pesky people with their desires, dreams, and hopes that conflict with the will of the political over-mind! OK, that’s uncharitable. But the fact that the desires and dreams of the billions of men and women on the planet are wildly diverse is a good thing. Diversity is good for all the reasons that we usually credit it: new ideas, different ways of approaching problems, different techniques, competing solutions, etc., etc….. More brains means more better!

The world’s wealth isn’t a giant fixed piece of pie that we carve up and distribute out. It’s a giant multi-layered marble cake with cream cheese frosting that we bake every day and just keeps getting bigger and bigger… at least, it does and it will so long as we allow people to innovate and trade.

It’s certainly true that standards of living vary wildly around the world–and it’s also certainly true that the wild disparity in living standards seems, at some basic level, unjust. None of us chose what country we’d be born into, and for the vast majority of those unlucky enough to be born in Sierra Leone, Burma, or the Sudan… that sucks. For the vast majority of those born in the industrial West, that rocks.

It’s natural to ask what we can do to even things out. What can we do to make life better in the horrid parts of the world? How can we increase their wealth? Sending them our money is an option, but it’s a short-term fix that doesn’t usually have long-term benefits.

Wealth is a product of human innovation. Free trade, property protection, stable government, and a society that discourages corruption all radically increase the speed of wealth creation. The poorest countries in the world are those that fail these basic tests: they’re universally strnagled by command and control economies run by self-serving autocrats and corrupt tyrants who bend the law to subjucate their citizens.

The best thing we can do to spread wealth is to spread the foundations of a free society. The best thing we can do to level the distribution of wealth in the world is to help the world create more wealth for itself.

As for population… more babies means more brains and more brains means more better.

Peak Oil

Basically, Peak Oil is the idea that someday (soon!) we’ll run out of oil. To quote from Wikipedia,

Peak oil is the point in time when the maximum rate of global petroleum extraction is reached, after which the rate of production enters terminal decline.” (soon!)

There are a lot of people tossing numbers and projections and figures and expectations (soon!, really soon!) about when we’ll hit Peak Oil. (the end is nigh!) In the current economic climate, we’ll undoubtedly hear a lot about Peak Oil and our dependence on fossil fuels. It’s important to remember that it’s all wrong.

Oil reserves are infinite. Yep, that’s right. They’re infinite.

The earth’s natural resources are finite, which means that if we use them continuously, we will eventually exhaust them. This basic observation is undeniable. But another way of looking at the issue is far more relevant to assessing people’s well-being. Our exhaustible and unreproducible natural resources, if measured in terms of their prospective contribution to human welfare, can actually increase year after year, perhaps never coming anywhere near exhaustion. How can this be? The answer lies in the fact that the effective stocks of natural resources are continually expanded by the same technological developments that have fueled the extraordinary growth in living standards since the industrial revolution. — The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics

That doesn’t mean that the price of oil won’t rise. Prices rise as a resource is consumed–that’s what stimulates innovation and competition, which is what increases the effective reserves. (It’s also important to note that oil is affected by a lot of political externalities that affect its current price. The war in Iraq and the artificial supply constraints practiced by OPEC are the most important.)

One camp (primarily geologists) argues that few, if any, major new oil fields remain to be found and that mathematical calculation demonstrates that production will peak at some point in the not-too-distant future and then begin a slow but steady decline. Another camp (primarily economists) contends that reserves are as much an economic as a geologic phenomenon. That is, reserves are discovered and counted when it makes economic sense to find them. Thus, we do not know how much economically profitable oil has yet to be “discovered.” Technological advances are adding reserves at a far greater rate than they are being depleted. For example, in 1970, non-OPEC countries had about 200 billion barrels in reserves. Through 2003, they had produced 460 billion barrels and still had 209 billion barrels remaining. Although the debate is inconclusive, the weight of the evidence suggests that economists have the better argument. — The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics

Resources aren’t just things, they’re things that get used and that’s important. If we’re trying to figure out how much of a resource we have, it’s important to look at how we use that resource. In that respect, it’s important to look at all the ways that use a resource and pay attention to whatever policy choices we make. Oil reserves may be effectively infinite, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t pursue other forms of energy. Neither does it mean that we shouldn’t necessarily conserve our use of a resource, although it does mean that conservation efforts should be tailored to achieve some actual good other than mere conservation. Take CAFE, for example,

An example of the economic case against direct regulation is the fuel economy standards for cars and trucks. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that increasing the Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency (CAFE) standards to achieve a 10 percent reduction in gasoline consumption would cost producers and consumers about $3.6 billion a year more than the value of fuel savings, or about a net cost of $228 per new vehicle sold. Achieving the same reduction through a gasoline tax increase of 46 cents per gallon would cost producers and consumers about $2.9 billion a year, or $184 per new vehicle sold. While few dispute such observations, CAFE standards are more politically palatable than gasoline taxes because the costs of the former are hidden from consumers, while the costs of the latter are not.

CAFE standards not only cost more than gasoline taxes to achieve a specific consumption reduction, they also reduce the marginal cost of driving a mile—and thus, ironically, increase vehicle miles traveled. The economics literature suggests that for every 10 percent increase in fuel efficiency through standards, people increase their miles driven by 2 percent. In fact, any efficiency standard that reduces the marginal cost of consuming energy will have an analogous effect, known to economists as the “rebound effect.”

One of the consequences of the rebound effect in relation to CAFE standards is a net increase in air pollution. According to one recent study, a 50 percent increase in fuel efficiency standards would reduce gasoline consumption by about 21 percent, but would increase net emissions of volatile organic compounds by 1.9 percent, nitrogen oxides by 3.4 percent, and carbon monoxide by 4.6 percent. — The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics

Conservation efforts are fine, as long as the cost of the conservation doesn’t exceed the cost of the commodity conserved. It just doesn’t make sense for me to spend $100 to conserve $75 worth of oil. That kind of reasoning only makes sense if we care more about oil than we do about people.

Whenever we talk about a resource, we’re really talking about a thing that’s used by people. Resources are used to make our lives better. We quite literally cannot improve our lives by conserving resources, we can only improve our lives by consuming resources. Which is not to say that we cannot over-consume; we certainly can. Buy a bag of Doritos and you’ll find that out. But it is important to keep in mind that the consumption and use of resources is what makes our lives better. And that’s what matters.