Carbon taxes and pandemics

PXL_20201224_103929583 Prompted by an exchange on Titter beginning with that nice JA: a pandemic is such a problem for the right, as it's an existential threat to their entire philosophy of individualism. There's a lot of language clutter in there which is probably irremovable (I don't regard myself as part of the "right" but I am very keen on "individualism" re-written as "lack of coercion" or as "as opposed to tribalism") but the exchange continues with my CC can be (largely, in theory) solved by carbon tax; but it is hard to see a pandemic equivalent.

The carbon tax part first, prompted by the-Ken-formerly-known-as-ATTP's not understanding my carbon taxes are ensuring that the costs of emissions are factored into those emissions; a subtle but important difference [from the idea that they are a payment for the damages]. I say "my" but the idea is of course not mine, and was transmitted to me by Timmy (via PeteB in that case, but I'm pretty sure there's a better example I failed to find). Also, disclaimer, IANAE. This is all part of prices-are-information theory. For most things, the price of the thing reflects the cost of making it (and marketing it, and so on) and you-the-consumer get to decide if that price is low enough for you to want to buy it. And so we have economically sane activity: things are bought (and therefore, are made) if there is demand, at price. But there are externalities, the most obvious of which is CO2, whose cost is not in the product. And so we risk economically insane activity: things being made, whose (total, true) cost is less than their sale price. Which is to say, the process destroys rather than creates value.

This version of the theory doesn't require govts to use the carbon tax proceeds for any particular cause... building windmills, paying for storm prevention, insulating homes, whatever. The other version, KR's which I shall unkindly call the "naive theory", is that the carbon tax is paying, in advance, for a cost that will be incurred. This is - I now think - a mistake, but one I've made before1. If it is a mistake, it should have some consequences; ideally I'd be able to say "but then when you apply it to this, it all goes wrong". But I think it is only a theoretical mistake; sort-of like the way using a Hamiltonian helps you to get from classical to QM physics.


The Covid pandemic rolls on, depressingly. There's a new strain, of greater transmissibility but as yet not-known-greater-damage; Cambridge(shire) is in tier 4, thus scuppering my plans to visit the Lakes (I say these things for context so that when I come back in years future I'll know about where we are).

But just as, in theory, a carbon tax is a liberty-preserving solution to GW, is there an equivalent to lockdowns (which greatly resemble, because indeed they are, regulation). JA offers In theory we could pay for people to isolate as required. That itself wouldn’t solve the problem but it would surely help but I think that's problematic (I think he intends this as a liberty-preserving solution, not as a solution; but I don't think it is. The liberty it doesn't preserve, in case it isn't visible at first sight, is of the people you'll have to take the money from). If you want the "std" answer (with the caveat that there isn't a std answer4) then I think the best presentation I've seen is Life-Years Lost: The Quantity and The Quality by Bryan Caplan. This attempts to use cost-benefit analysis3 to show that reaction2 to Covid has cost more than the unchecked pandemic would have cost (and was therefore a bad idea).

I don't know whether I believe it or not; I incline towards belief. The analogy I'd use - and argument from analogy is always valid, recall - to answer the inevitable "but people would die; life degraded through lower quality doesn't matter in the same way; you can't sum up lives" is with the inevitable reactions to protectionism: the benefits (preserving our jobs) are visible and accrue to obvious people; the losses (higher costs for everyone; bureaucracy; more govt) are diffuse and hard to see.


interreg isn't a thing I'm familiar with. My picture is of a poster - found on the kiosk on Jesus Green near the lock - which says there is an initiative to increase tree cover in Cambridge. I can't say I've noticed any such, or even that there are obvious ways to do so. It might draw a hollow laugh from the folks on Milton road who have tied yellow ribbons around their trees to protest plans to cut them down. But don't let me be too negative; there may be some as-yet-unperceived value in the scheme. Indeed this bit is part of Nature Smart Cities across the 2 Seas programme and specifically the Cambridge bit is Cambridge Canopy Project: the average tree canopy cover figure is 16% in England. Cambridge currently has 17% tree canopy cover. We are working to increase this to 19%, which will need more than 800,000m2 of new tree cover


Update: Schadenfreunde

Probably a mistake, but I can't resist. At the time of the initial outbreaks, much was made of the incompetence of the right-wing US and UK govts in contrast to the more successful socialist responses of various countries, most notably Germany. But that success - though you could note various factors that made it plausible - was always a bit mysterious, and has fallen apart recently. Though I've left it long enough that they're back below us now (although possibly the over-Christmas data isn't totally reliable, and the sharp falls from US, Germany and France might be spurious). And yes, if you count cumulative deaths then Germany has done significantly better.

Update: economics and morality

The Twitter conversation continues as, apparently, a sequence of misunderstandings on my part: see the conversation, perhaps ending at KR's All I really mean is that how we assess the costs cannot really be done in a truly value-free way.  So, even if we do decide to estimate the price of carbon emissions and to then use that to set a carbon tax, this is not a value-free assessment. With which I have no disagreement. Some aspects of economic costs of GW are explicitly value judgements: how much do we value lost mountain glaciers? And some are value judgements, but wrapped in economics: if we lose winter skiing, how many jobs are lost? The latter is more measureable, but still value judgements, because the choices of the people that wanted to go skiing are inevitably part of the economics.

You might - if you have a decent memory - object that this contradicts my earlier That it is easier to agree on economics than morality and in some ways it does, or at least pushes against it. And so - given that there are people who would make the mistake of calling economics value-free - it isn't unreasonable for KR to make this point. I'll paraphrase what I said at Morality and economicsI don’t, of course, mean to suggest that it is entirely an economic and not at all an ethical problem. I mean to suggest (see aforementioned post) that thinking about it primarily as ethical [value-judgement] is unhelpful.

Update: FT's sausage pic

Updated, in response to CIP's comment, the FT's "sausage" pic, which to me shows that initially it was all EU and US; in the middle, EU dwindles to nothing and the US is a small proportion of the global total; and now Europe plus US is 60+% ot the total whilst everyone else is sort-of stable. Admittedly, these are reported, so perhaps it is possible that Europe and US are better at the reporting; but I can't see how that explains it all.



* Congratulations to James and Jules for being part of Science breakthrough of the year (runner-up).

* Donald Trump's influence will evaporate once he leaves office. Here's why; Julius Krein, in the Graun. This is close to what I think, but few others seem to be saying; our celeb-obsessed news world, sez I. Trump, out of power, will fade away; and doesn't have the staying power to regroup for 2024.

Not even half-way there - JA

* New Year Wish: Political Wars of Religion? by Pierre Lemieux - the will of the People

Matt Zwolinski Replies

* The Biden Administration Just Failed its First Science Integrity Test; Pricing carbon makes good sense but should not come at the expense of scientific integrity; by Roger Pielke Jr.

Shipping now faces the highest price on carbon for any global industry


1. Also I have a feeling that when I said this before, Richard Tol said no, it was also paying for damages, so if you prefer you may take his viewpoint with some degree of support.

2. An analogy that he doesn't make is the immune system's allergic response.

3. See my failed attempt to propose similar.

4. Another is Lockdowns and the Presumption of Liberty by Don Boudreaux; or Nice vaccine; pity there's no distribution mechanism by Scott Sumner


A warning on climate and the risk of societal collapse?

PXL_20201212_185625846 Just when you were bored with Covid, along comes a little light relief in the form of A warning on climate and the risk of societal collapse. It is full of the usual ill-defined hand-wringing, will be ignored - we can hope - by just about everyone, except for the denialists (who will use it as yet more evidence of alarmism), the nutters (whose belief in collapse will be reinforced) and the commenterati who will entertain themselves writing pointless blogs about it. Like this one :-)

Or so I wrote about a week ago, thought "nah, even I don't care enough", and left it in draft. But now, you lucky people, you get to read these words 'cos ATTP has blogged on it3 - and tastefully quotes me, always nice to see. His justification is I think we should be willing to discuss worst-case scenarios so as to, ideally, avoid them, and while that is an uplifting sentiment, it doesn't justify the letter, because the letter adds absolutely nothing, and we're already discussing GW, under whatever name you please. As usual in these discussions, there's a sop to the whatever-you-call-them by talking about "global north" but this is a pointless distinction best ignored. There are various WYCT countries where society actually is collapsing - Sudan, say; or Yemen, depending on your standards for this ill-defined "collapse" - but this has little to do with GW2 and almost everything to do with crap govt, either in the country concerned or its neighbours.

Having said that, since I bothered to write the words below, I'll publish them:

Let's start with While bold and fair efforts to cut emissions and naturally drawdown carbon are essential. That sounds both noble and bold. One pictures a mighty Climate Leader, helping hand supporting some oppressed peasants, noble chin uplifted and mighty hand pointing boldly forwards into the glorious carbon-neutral future. But actually, restricting yourself strictly to "fair" efforts is a mistake: would you really refuse to save the planet, if it was only possibly to do so unfairly? And notice that they say that fairness is essential, so that is what they are saying. Nor can it be turned around: it is not plausible to claim that only fair efforts have any chance of success. Similarly, I'm doubtful of the bold part of the claim, with it's implication of extraordinary efforts designed to scare off people who are doubtful of the Cause. More likely commonplace efforts and sanity (like the Krauts not shutting down their nukes, the Yankees not slapping tariffs on Chink solar panels) and a carbon tax would do1.

Continuing, researchers in many areas consider societal collapse a credible scenario this century. Do they really? How might we evaluate such a claim? Well, if only the idiots who wrote the letter had provided some details, or even a link to the details elsewhere, it could be evaluated. Failing that, it's just empty words. For my part, I think certain groups of people are rather prone to overestimate the fragility of society; everything from Covid to the so-called Great Recession is taken of evidence of such fragility, rather than what it actually is, i.e. the reverse.

I think you can tell how broken their thinking is from their worry about the way modern societies exploit people. Yes, exploiting people is indeed a concern, but has little or nothing to do with the possibility of collapse. It is a perfectly valid concern about fairness, which they're entirely welcome to worry about, but mixing it all together with GW into a muddy slurry of words helps no-one.

Who is responsible for this guff? If you click on "246 others" you end up at http://iflas.blogspot.com/2020/12/international-scholars-warning-on.html which leads me to https://www.cumbria.ac.uk/research/centres/iflas/our-people/ which leads me to Jem Bendell. Say no more guv.

Update: so, does thinking about "societal collapse" help? Although I've criticised their thinking as broken, what about the underlying idea: does framing the problem in terms of societal collapse help at all? It doesn't seem to have helped them - other than in the matter of that all-important publication count and getting your name in the papers - because they didn't manage to say anything interesting or new. The "bar" of interest is I think 2 oC - or arguably 1.5 oC - because we've already "agreed" so-to-speak to limit ourselves to +2 oC, so anything that kicks in much higher than that isn't very interesting. Would SC happen before +2? If ecosystems collapse, then perhaps, but we're already worrying about EC, so that gets you nothing. Is there some excitingly non-linear effect that we're missing? If so, we're missing it, and this hasn't helped find it. Perhaps the subtext is "ooooooh, modern society is so complex and therefore fragile, we should, like, go back to a simpler era maan and live in harmony with nature". But that's wrong: modern society is complex and therefore resilient.


If it isn’t catastrophic we’ve got nothing to worry about, have we? - my post that ATTP refs, but at the Wordpress address. Those were the days when I could just toss off a quick post. * Welfare in the 21st century: Increasing development, reducing inequality, the impact of climate change, and the cost of climate policies - BjornLomborg4
The impact of climate change, and the cost of climate policies - ATTP.

Recommendations for Improving the Treatment of Risk and Uncertainty in Economic Estimates of Climate Impacts in the Sixth Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Assessment Report?


1. You could argue that such efforts are out of the ordinary, which in this world alas is true. And yes, I know it's too late for the Krauts.

2. And phrasing it as "Not all of this is climate related" is I think deceptive.

3. Which is fine. Re-reading this, I may sound a bit harsh on him, which I don't intend, but rather than rephrase anything I'll just add this little note which will make everything better.

4. Reminder. Inclusion of a reference does not imply that I agree with it.