Paul Tullis's Grim Tidings

Bitter musings on politics and policy

Archive for June 2009

Global warming and the free rider problem: does individual conservation matter?

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Last weekend I went to the new home of some friends of mine, in Beverly Hills. The couple has found tremendous financial success–he’s in the film industry, she is a doctor–and their recently-renovated house is a thing to behold. I’ve been in the homes of rock stars and movie stars (OK, one rock star and maybe a couple movie stars) and this place made those places look like split-level ranch houses on a cul-de-sac (no offense intended to those living in split-level ranch houses on cul-de-sacs; it’s just a comparison).

The place has at least four bedrooms, an enormous study, a separate playroom for the kids, a formal dining room, a kitchen the size of a couple of apartments I’ve lived in, his and her walk-in closets, something called a “gallery” the purpose of which was not at all clear to me–all on half an acre (a really big lot for this part of Beverly Hills) with a grassy lawn and a pool. Fabulously decorated, I might add.

I’d visited them at home before and we’d discussed the politics and economics of global warming before, so it was no surprise to me to find the air conditioning running in all 7,600 square feet on a pleasantly cool evening, two giant refrigerators plus two more hotel-size ones, lights on in empty rooms, at least six (six!) enormous flat-screen TV’s, and other uses of energy that I would regard as wasteful–in addition to an Escalade in the driveway. (And not the hybrid model, either.)

Although kidding each other about our political proclivities is part of the relationship the husband and I mutually enjoy, I resisted making any comment about all this (at least, as far as I recall–I did have a couple of drinks), but it did get me thinking:

Here I am, trying my best to reduce my carbon footprint and encouraging and trying to help others to act similarly. Yet my effort to conserve is almost certainly counterbalanced by my friends’ way-above-average use of energy and corresponding emissions.

This introduces what is known in the world of economics as the “free rider problem.” The term comes from the frequently-cited example of someone who uses the subway without paying, and it refers to the use of a public resource over and above the user’s fair share, leading to market failure or inefficiency.

Now, my friend, generally a conservative on economic matters and liberal-libertarian on social issues, would probably say that as long as his family earns enough to pay for it, they should be able to use this resource as much as they like. I hate to think what his power bill is, and given the size of the lawn and swimming pool I’d bet they’re paying way more per-gallon than most people, under Los Angeles’ current water restrictions, for much of their water use. But certainly they can afford to use enough energy each month to light and cool LAX. My friend would also point out that what he does for a living creates wealth for others–employing people and giving them health insurance etc. etc., both directly and indirectly–as well as helps give people a nice evening out at the movies, which has its own value. All of that is true.

But the free rider problem can also work the other way, as it does in this case: Excessive use of a public resource–in this case the fossil fuels which produce the greenhouse gasses which erodes the stable climate necessary for the sustainability of agriculture, public health, and other benefits of the global climate remaining close to what it’s been since the birth of civilization–is a burden borne by all the public, even though only a portion of the public is paying for it or even party to the decision to use it excessively. (This is also why I think drivers of gas-guzzlers should pay double or triple the sales tax and annual registration fees of average cars or low-emissions vehicles.)

The free rider problem is a “problem” because there isn’t jack-shit any of us can do about it. We can charge my friends up the wazoo for their energy use, and maybe they’ll be encouraged to use less of it (or maybe not). We can exhort them to change in light of the dangers of climate change (hasn’t worked so far). The argument could be made that society would be justified in allowing the utility company to just cut them off past a certain threshhold each month, but this is unlikely to survive a court challenge (to say nothing of the court of public opinion).

What’s more, the free rider problem encourages similar abuse of public resources: If people see some members of society using more than their fare share, and sometimes they, too, like to run the A/C all the time and drive luxury vehicles the size of small planets, people are going to think, Why the hell shouldn’t I, if other people are doing it? What’s the point of conserving if nobody else is? Thus ramping up the use of the public resource further, and leading to a positive feedback loop.

Now, I’m not going to change because I couldn’t handle the guilt of contributing a great deal to what I regard as a problem of this magnitude. This is why I conserve where I can, pay extra for renewable power, and purchase offsets for nearly all my emissions as best as I can calculate them.

But not everybody thinks the way I do, so this gets me feeling rather fatalistic. As long as there are people out there like my friends, god bless them, and as long as there is such a thing as human nature, and–hell, free rider problem aside–as long as 25-to-30 percent of greenhouse gas emissions is caused by deforestation, most of it in far-off, impossible-to-police areas, does it matter what kind of shampoo I use?

What do you think?

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Written by ptullis

June 30, 2009 at 10:28 pm

Natural hurricane protection for New Orleans could be doomed

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When I visited New Orleans for a wedding in April, 2005–four months before Hurricane Katrina–I took my daughter to the local aquarium. Yes, there are better things to do in New Orleans but it was hot out, it was there, and she’d never been to one before, so in we went.

If memory serves, the aquarium was located, interestingly, right next to, and beneath the water level of, the Mississippi River. This should have raised some alarm in my mind about what would happen if the area were to be hit by a major hurricane, but didn’t.

What did stimulate my mind was an exhibit at the aquarium about the deterioration of wetlands south of the city and how this reduced the city’s protection from a hurricane: the wetlands, which used to be called swamps, absorb much of a storm surge in these conditions, diminishing the brunt of the storm’s force and preventing the ocean from, as my friend Jonah Lehrer has memorably phrased it, swallowing the city. The aquarium was urging visitors to support the restoration of these wetlands, which had been damaged by decades of dredging, pollution, dams and other offenses to the ecosystem.

Well, it looks like the good people at the aquarium in New Orleans are going to be disappointed:

…in a new analysis, scientists at Louisiana State University say inland dams trap so much sediment that the river no longer carries enough to halt marsh loss, especially now that global warming is speeding a rise in sea levels. As a result, the loss of thousands of additional square miles of marshland is “inevitable”…

So restoration efforts notwithstanding, reviving the natural hurricane protection for the once-great city–to say nothing of the great and beautiful cypress forests and their wildlife that make up much of Louisiana’s marshes–is not in the cards.

Read the full story here:

Dams Are Thwarting Louisiana Marsh Restoration, Study Says

Written by ptullis

June 30, 2009 at 7:07 pm

Monsanto's version of environmental stewardship

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The company whose public radio spots claim it helps the environment has been illegally dumping heavy metals in Idaho:

Federal regulators said Thursday an Idaho mine that Monsanto Co. depends on to make its Roundup weed killer has violated federal and state water quality laws almost since it opened, sending selenium and other heavy metals into the region’s waterways.

Apparently the Bureau of Land Management, which with the EPA is part of the Dept. of Interior, has been somewhat complicit in this:

…the mine has been unable to stop discharges of heavy metal-laden water from a waste dump, despite BLM conclusions nearly a decade ago that precautions wouldn’t “allow selenium or other contaminants to migrate…”

This has real implications for the lives of animals and the welfare of ranchers in the area:

In the 1990s, sheep and horses died from selenium poisoning related to mining elsewhere in southeastern Idaho’s rich phosphate belt.

Read more about Monsanto’s ugly history here.

EPA says Monsanto mine violates law.

Written by ptullis

June 29, 2009 at 4:38 pm

Cheap compared to the cost of doing nothing

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What do you pay for home insurance? Is it more than $175 a year? Probably. And you probably don’t think about it much—not to pay it would be foolish.

Well, $175 is what the Congressional Budget Office estimates the energy bill now working its way through Congress will cost the average household. And the likelihood of drastic climate change in your lifetime, which could cost you a lot more than $175 a year, is much greater than the chance your house will burn down in 2009.

The price tag would be even larger for wealthier Americans while the poorest can expect to get a small dividend.

I don’t get the use of the modifier “even” here; $175 seems like not very much money to me— it’s about what my wife and I spend on dinner, a babysitter, and movie or music tickets when we go out once a month. It’s even less than Clinton-Gore’s proposed BTU tax in 1993 (which would have averted billions in cost and saved millions of lives).

House Climate Bills’s Annual Average Household Cost Is $175, CBO Says

Written by ptullis

June 24, 2009 at 1:18 pm

Energy Dept downgrades oil production estimates

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Heard of “peak oil”? This is the idea that once the amount of oil extracted passes the amount remaining in the ground, prices will ramp drastically upward. US oil production hit peak in the ’70s, as predicted, and over the last few years experts have been saying global peak oil is nigh, if not already upon us.

Well, now the US Department of Energy’s Energy Information Agency, a non-partisan data-collecting and -crunching source that industries and experts rely on for the best available information on energy, has dramatically downgraded its forecast of the global oil production.

As recently as 2007, the [EIA’s] International Energy Outlook (IEO) projected that the global production of conventional oil (the stuff that comes gushing out of the ground in liquid form) would reach 107.2 million barrels per day in 2030, a substantial increase from the 81.5 million barrels produced in 2006. Now, in 2009, the latest edition of the report has grimly dropped that projected 2030 figure to just 93.1 million barrels per day — in future-output terms, an eye-popping decline of 14.1 million expected barrels per day.

What the agency appears to be saying is that the era of peak oil is upon us. There is non-conventional oil such as that derived from tar sands and shale, but it’s much more expensive and polluting to extract. So either way, prices go up.

Suddenly renewable energy isn’t looking so expensive.

Tomgram: Michael Klare, Goodbye to Cheap Oil.

Written by ptullis

June 24, 2009 at 1:03 pm

Politician's ignorance could derail Aussie carbon-trading plan

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Because a single Australian senator doesn’t understand how science is conducted, the country’s ambitious plan to cut industrial emissions is in jeopardy:

A senator crucial to Australia’s plans for carbon trading said on Wednesday he did not believe climate change was real, delivering what could be a fatal blow to government plans to slash industrial gas emissions.…Senator Steve Fielding said he had yet to see conclusive evidence of climate shift during days of closed-door government briefings.…

The wonderful thing about science, which is apparently beyond the grasp of Sen. Fielding, is that it doesn’t deal in conclusive evidence. It deals in the best available evidence, and continues looking for more evidence and contrary evidence, continually testing its conclusions.

I wonder what the senator thinks about evolution; does he need conclusive evidence for that too? Or is he, like thinking people everywhere, satisfied with a strong theory, overwhelming evidence in favor of it, and the lack of any logical alternative explanation?

Fielding probably has his home and car insured against a far less likely occurrence than a climactic shift in his lifetime with drastic results. I wonder what exactly is “pro-family,” as he is described in the article, about starvation, disease, war and refugees.

Australian senator rejects climate change evidence

Written by ptullis

June 24, 2009 at 12:41 pm

Why the "Lazy Environmentalist" isn't one

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The latest media offering from eco-entrepreneur Josh Dorfman bills itself as “seek[ing] out environmental skeptics … to persuade them that a green approach can easily meet the demands of their professional and private lives.” I don’t doubt that this is true, but Dorfman’s version of a green approach and an actual green approach differ somewhat.

I’m not one of those easily mocked, self-flagellating, wracked-with-guilt environmentalists who believes we are all morally compelled to walk everywhere, eat like a Jainist, and generally be miserable in order to ameliorate the effects of global warming. In fact I’m increasingly of the opinion that what a few concerned individuals do or do not purchase doesn’t matter a whit—that this obsession with consumerism changing the world isn’t really going to get us anywhere as long as the US, India and China get as much of their power from coal as they do and as long as deforestation continues at its current perilous rate. But the notion Dorfman espouses—that you can do something by changing nothing— is absurd. And, as I’ve written elsewhere, the sacrifices that must be made are quite minor. But whatever the means, some sacrifices must be made. Everybody was perfectly happy to use less flour, sugar, meat and even gasoline when fighting fascism in the 1940’s; the current crisis is going to cost a lot of lives too.

Dorfman has made a career of his self-styled method of supposedly going green, by which a person can (he claims) help save the planet for mammalian habitation while continuing our ways of constantly buying more shit. “Consuming products is intrinsically tied to the very fabric of our lifestyles,” reads Dorfman’s website. “Reducing the impact of our consumption on the planet while still maintaining the quality of our lives is where The Lazy Environmenalist comes in.” His allegedly eco furniture company, blog, and call-in radio program have all promoted this line of thinking.

But there are significant and in some cases insurmountable problems with Dorfman’s philosophy, and the choices he makes that stem from it.

With aphorisms like, “We all need to find simple ways to reduce our trash without impacting our lifestyles” and “Helping the planet doesn’t have to be hard,” Dorfman’s new show is a consistent extension of his brand.

This refusal to alter any element of an unsustainable way of living isn’t going to get us anywhere; the most significant thing a person can do to reduce the impact of his or her consumption is to consume less. I mean—duh! This is not an acceptable approach for Dorfman. He would have us go on doing what we are doing, just buying different shit.

On the “Family” segment of the program, for instance, Dorfman and a zero-waste consultant go into the home of a family that uses only paper plates and plastic knives and forks to help them reduce the amount of trash they produce; Dorfman gets them all set up with recycling bins and worm composting and then helps the Martinezes host a barbeque.

Dorfman’s version of showing these people how reduce their impact on the planet is to tell them to buy ribs at a butcher instead of the grocery store, because it will generate less packaging. A much more meaningful change would be for the family not to buy so many ribs; a 2006 UN report called the environmental damage created by the meat industry “one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global.” But this, as well as the fact that one pound of meat produces as much greenhouse gas as driving an SUV 40 miles, goes unmentioned. Oh, never mind any of those inconvenient truths, Dormfan is saying—just get your poison in a different wrapper! The family could have been enlightened as to the many things that are not dead animals which can be tastily barbequed, which would have fit in with Dorfman’s god-forbid-I-have-to-do-anything-differently M.O., and while the environmental merits of reducing meat consumption was outside the purview of this particular segment I don’t think pig bones compost very well.

Speaking of SUVs, we never see what kind of car(s) the Martinezes drive; since “making a difference” without having it cost anyone anything is like a religious sacrament to Dorfman we can safely assume he didn’t, during some moment away from the prying cameras, introduce the family to the wonders of offsetting. But given the expense of driving a 12mpg car with gas at $3/gallon, as well as the cash-for-clunkers program and the tax incentives of buying a hybrid, one would think this topic would have dovetailed nicely with reducing the amount of waste the family produces. Of course, what do I know, maybe they drive a Honda Insight or a biodiesel Ford pickup.

There is some helpful information in segments of “The Lazy Environmentalist,” like the fact (well, it’s presented as fact—I didn’t check) that the amount of lead that goes into a tennis ball is 45 times the acceptable amount as is allowed in children’s toys. But this is grossly outweighed by all the fake non-help Dorfman purveys; if people think they’re doing something when they’re doing nothing, or believe they’re doing a lot when they’re doing a little, is that really helping matters?

Finally, what do we think is going to happen with the Martinez family’s compost bin? If they think, as Dorfman suggests, that the wiggly aschelminths are going to eat the 12 paper plates the family produces every day, these people are going to be in for a big surprise. Then the worm composter will go in the garbage, and the family will be soured on the whole experience.

But that’s what laziness gets you.

The program airs Wednesdays at 9 (east & west coasts) on the Sundance Channel.

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