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On Reducing Climate Injustice to the Poor Is Within Our Reach

Thanks, Rick. Well said.

Some years ago, I learned that there are over 20,000 different Chistian churches in the US, with varying doctrines and practices.

It also was mentioned yesterday that the Roman Catholic Church has been losing some 3 million followers a year.

The title of Max Weber's classic work, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism tells you that there are many Christians with a rather different view of capitalism and entrepreneurship than Francis has.

Francis is much admired, for understandable reasons. But he clearly does not speak for everyone. No one does.

September 25, 2015    View Comment    

On Reducing Climate Injustice to the Poor Is Within Our Reach

Unfortunately, despite deeply detailed arguments and undoubtedly good intentions, the pope’s missive was flawed in several ways likely to make it not only ineffective but possibly counterproductive:

  • The essay’s collectivist ethos is illogical and unrealistic.
  • By preaching to the converted the pope is unlikely to resolve political conflicts but may aggravate them.
  • Despite continually invoking concern for the poor, Francis’ pervasive disdain for both technology and capitalism rejects the engines most likely to alleviate the scourge of poverty, improve human health, and nurture the environment.

For a more detailed explanation, see:

September 24, 2015    View Comment    

On Nuclear Retirements Would Sabotage Clean Power Plan Carbon Reductions

Bob, nuclear power is not "zero-carbon." Its lifecycle carbon emissions are lower than many other energy sources, but not zero:

Most of a nuclear plant's overall carbon emissions are incurred in the construction of the plant itself, bound up in the creation of its concrete, steel, and other materials. Because those emissions are not zero (and not trivial), that seems to bolster the case in Jesse's conclusion: "Keeping existing reactors running longer is likely to be one of the most cost-effective tools the United States has to help drive down power sector carbon emissions."

There are many advantages in newer generations of nuclear power technology. But for those concerned about carbon emissions -- in line with Jesse's argument here -- it makes more sense to add new nuclear capacity than to just replace old, but still useful plants with newer ones. (What makes even less sense, as this article makes clear, is to replace nuclear planst with fossil-fueled ones.)

September 1, 2015    View Comment    

On Will the Iranian Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty become a Threat to U.S. Energy Security?

Certainly a plausible argument, John. 

You just might want to edit the piece to correct the references to NPT 2015, to make it clear what you are talking about.

August 28, 2015    View Comment    

On Will the Iranian Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty become a Threat to U.S. Energy Security?

John, you may be right about the untoward impacts on US energy security of the Iran agreement. But the predicate of your argument is a bit off the mark:

"Congress is reviewing the 2015 Iranian Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) negotiated by the Obama Administration."

The Non-Proliferation Treaty dates to 1968. There is no 2015 Iranian version. What you probably are referring to is the  Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

The latter is the outcome of the recent agreement negotiated between the so-called P5+1 nations and Iran. While the intent of the JCPOA may be to bolster Iran's compliance with the NPT (of which it is a signatory), the JCPOA is not a treaty. The distinction is significant because a treaty, to bind the United States, would have to be consented to by the US Senate. That requirement does not apply to the Iran 'deal' which is in the nature of an "executive agreement."

The president did agree to legislation passed in May that allows the Congress to review the deal and either approve or disapprove. The politics of the situation are more than a bit byzantine. But the president has the option to veto whatever the Congress passes, and few analysts think there are enough votes to overturn a veto. Technically, the law does not empower the Congress to approve or block the JCPOA per se (the White House would not agree to that) but rather the president's authority to lift sanctions on Iran.

But the sanctions are the crux of the matter. The JCPOA hinges on lifting sanctions in return for Iran complying with specific measures aimed at curtailing its ability to create nuclear weapons. To the extent Congress blocks lifting sanctions, or even creates new ones, that would impair or even void the JCPOA.

Exactly what the consequences would be in either case is, of course, a matter of considerable controversy.

But again, the JCPOA is not a new NPT. Actually, at least one analyst argues that ad hoc agreements like the JCPOA may reflect a weakening or a transformation of the NPT.


August 27, 2015    View Comment    

On A Small, Modular, Efficient Fusion Plant

Nathan, that seems to suggest that fusion reactors could be used to support a weapons program. Is that so?

If that is not so, fusion power could help solve the conundrum of, say, Iran's expressed desire to have nuclear power and the worries about nuclear weapons proliferation.

But if fusion can be used for weapons too, it doesn't help resolve the power/proliferation conflict.

August 13, 2015    View Comment    

On Hillary Clinton Is Right on Climate Change and the New York Times Is Wrong

Consider the possibility that Hilary Clinton and the Times are both wrong.

A carbon tax indeed is politically infeasible. But the public is not so blind not to realize the regulation leads to the same result (and economists would say, less efficiently). Either way, abundant survey research has shown that that the great majority of the public is unwilling to pay higher costs, and penalize economic growth, to combat global warming, even if they think 'something' should be done.

The suggestion that raising the cost of everything in the economy would do no economic harm is disingenuous. Der Spiegel explained that Germany's energiewende program -- the sort of plan Clinton and company seek to emulate -- has indeed created energy poverty, the burden of which has fallen hardest on the less well off.

Handleman is right that nuclear power needs to be in the mix -- not abandoned as Germany has done and many on the Left aim to do -- since it, along with hydroelectric generation, is the only proven source of reliable, dispatchable baseload power that is largely free of carbon emissions. Conventional light water technology does entail liabilities. So more advanced or different nuclear technologies need to be pursued. (Reforming regulatory barriers that discourage innovation also would help.)

In fact, the strategy that is needed and that the public wants is not higher energy costs but research and innovation that can create new technologies that make clean energy truly cheap and competitive without subsidies.

A very modest carbon/fuel tax to add revenue for research and innovation might help and could be politically acceptable. But the existing centralized, elitist, bureaucratic processes of research and innovation also need to be reformed to accelerate the pace and scale of innovation.


August 7, 2015    View Comment    

On Seeking Consensus on the Externalized Costs of Energy: Methodology

Schalk, I just spent a few hours composing a point by point rebuttal to your last comment. Then Chrome crashed and wiped it all out.


I will try to summon the energy to try again another time.

For the moment, I will just note that a central flaw in your argument, and this exercise, was exposed long ago as the "arithmomorphic fallacy" by Nicolas Georgescu-Roegen:

"The second pillar of Georgescu-Roegen’s bioeconomics is the recognition of Georgescu-Roegen’s bioeconomics is the recognition of the fundamental importance to (economic) development of qualitative change, which standard (neoclassical) economics fails to analyze. Qualitative change, a central theme of life sciences and social sciences such as biology and economics, eludes mathematical schematization that Georgescu-Roegen terms arithmomorphism, rooted in the mechanistic epistemology of neoclassical economics. Because of the incessant qualitative changes due to the emergence of novelty in economic processes, Georgescu-Roegen insists that reality can be grasped only when arithmomorphic analysis is combined with a dialectical approach, involving in particular structural and qualitative changes. This dialectrical approach must use words, instead of numbers. The most important part of economic history is a storytelling in words." (

Add to that, Kenneth Arrow's Impossibility Theorem, and the insights of public choice theory (Mancur Olson, James Buchanan) and the emerging field of behavioral economics (Kahnemann and Tversky, et al.).



August 2, 2015    View Comment    

On Seeking Consensus on the Externalized Costs of Energy: Methodology

Schalk, I'm generally a fan of your work. But I think seeking consensus on external costs is a quixotic adventure that can lead to no satisfying conclusion.

One reason was touched on by Elliott: Estimate of external costs, being subjective, are weak proxies for political and economic conflicts that cannot be solved by mathematical exercises.

The value of externatilities, and whether they are perceived as positive or negative, depends greatly on whose ox gets gored. What are costs to some are opportunities to others.

The distribution of costs, benefits, and risks is unequal not only in time, as you suggest, but also in space. For instance: "...those who benefit from energy consumption directly experience the negative impacts of short-term local externalities." Surely you must realize that that is often not so. California may consume electric energy from a coal-fired power plant in Arizona, while the smokestack effluents from that plant are transported eastward on the wind to other states.

These difficulties are compounded by the substantial and irreducible uncertainty in projecting future impacts of any kind of energy into the distant future. Climate models are incapable of actually predicting future climate conditions either globally or locally. So your exercise cannot account for "...those experiencing the worst impacts of long-term global externalities" -- there is no way to know what those impacts might be or who might experience them or how.

The latter could be forecast and estimated by a variety of alternative methods (and have been). But there is no way to prove that one method is better than another. Moreover, there will no more consensus on methodology than on policy -- as noted earlier -- because methods will be preferred and promoted depending on the political/economic interest each best serves. And again, none can provide sufficiently certain results to make immediate opportunity costs of policy measures palatable to most constituencies.

These difficulties are compounded by similar ambiguity about how future impacts are to be valued in the present. Again, there are multiple alternative methods available. Discount rates can be viewed as their numerical proxies: Those that place a higher value on future impacts have a lower implied or explicit discount rate, while a higher discount rate places a lower value on the future. Once more, there is no provably 'correct' answer to what the discount rate should be. On top of that, discount rates vary from time to time, so whatever the preferred discount rate might seem to be today could easily look quite different a month or two from now. The inflation rate similarly affects the present valuation of future consequences.

The inescapable conclusion: Methodology is a tool of controversy, not a solution to it.

For more on the kind of dilemmas I've just mentioned, see the extensive discussion in my 1981 report, Adam Smith vs. Johnny Appleseed.

July 30, 2015    View Comment    

On Putting the IMF Externalized Cost Report in Perspective

Clayton, you seem to misinterpret the learning or experience curve concept, first codified by a Lockheed engineer in the 1920s. The curve shows a consistent, inverse relationship between unit cost of production and cumulative production volume. This was of great importance to aircraft manufacturers and other military contractors in that period because it enabled them to formulate bids on government contracts that were at once affordable for the customer and profitable for the vendor. 

The algorithm only properly applies to increasing production of the same product. It is presumed to reflect that with more experience, a firm's workers and managers incrementally figure out ways to reduce waste and improve efficiency of a particular production process,

That is, the theorem applies to process improvement, not to technology and product innovation. It has only limited relevance at best to apparent price declines of some renewable energy products.

In the case of solar PV panels, much if not most of the price decline in the last several years was driven by 'dumping' of surplus Chinese products below production costs. Grievances filed under WTO rules have led to corrective tariffs in the US and elsewhere which are projected to raise PV panel prices by around 14%.

As for wind power generation, much if not most of the decline in cost per MW has been driven by continual innovations in wind turbine technology:

Rapid technical innovation and resulting short product lifecycles are the antithesis of the experience curve, not examples of it.

The idea had some currency in the immediate post-War mass-production industrial economy. It is far less relevant in the postindustrial economy of this century:

And none of that alters the fact that wind and solar, as intermittent sources, are inherently inferior to fossil fuels and other conventional sources of 'dispatchable' (reliable) power generation. As Schalk indicates, those remain the kind of dense, reliable, and affordable energy sources still needed to "kick start" economies and furthermore to grow them. 

Accelerated innovation and shortened product lifecycles that characterize the postindustrial economy may make Tesla's mega battery factory in Nevada (heavily subsidized by the state, like most of Tesla's business) a white elephant. Better, more cost-effective storage technologies than Lithium batteries, now in the innovation pipeline, may make the Tesla battery factor look more like a Kodak film lab.

Even more progess will be needed though to make energy storage cheap and reliable enough to make intermittent energy sources like wind and solar truly competitive.


July 24, 2015    View Comment    

On Rare Earths Not So Rare?

Everything about asteroid mining seems pretty "far out" Greg. But the energetics of moving around in space are generally less daunting than the big cost of just escaping from earth's gravity well.

Because asteroids have very little gravity, removing commercially useful mass from the asteroid is pretty easy. Depending on where you are in its trajectory, you may be able to just 'nudge' the ore onto a path that can lead to an earth orbit. Or maybe you just steer the whole asteroid into earth orbit, if it's not too big. (The catch in all this is not miscalculating and sending the mass into a potentially disastrous, high-energy collision.) From there, gravity can do most of the work of bringing it to the ground with a suitable reentry vehicle.

The economics of asteroid mining could include a positive externality: The same technical capabilities could be applied to protecting the planet from catastrophic asteroid collisions. It can be rationalized, in effect, as a global security initiative with a profit center.


July 3, 2015    View Comment    

On Rare Earths Not So Rare?

We've seen this movie before, with the anti-dumping duties on Chinese PV:

Note that in that case, the swath of US industry involved in selling and installing PV panels (probably too some environmentalist and renewable energy advocates who wanted to see more PV deployed) viewed it as a setback for them.

So there's the rub. China not paying the costs of environmental protection on its turf is another form of 'dumping'. Some will argue that China thereby gets to sell products at less than their 'real' (internalized) costs of production. But there are many in this country who benefit from cheaper imports from China or other countries. What some view as a benefit is someone else's cost. As I've said many times, there is no "we."

I'm not sure what you mean by being cynical. But the issue of carbon-restriction "leakage" through trade has been batted around for decades. The stalemate between the interests of the Rich and the Poor, between North and South, and such persists. Similar logjams have left the Doha Round of trade talks adrift without resolution for 15 years.

This is a manifestation of Kissinger's axiom: "There are no permanent friends, only permanent interests." In international affairs, self-interests dominate.


July 3, 2015    View Comment