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August 24, 2008
David Warsh, Proprietor


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A Guide for the Perplexed

No issue throws off more apprehension and confusion among a certain set than does global warming. Since the Norwegians last year propelled Al Gore’s film documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth,” into the stratosphere by awarding half a Nobel Peace Prize to the former presidential candidate (Gore shared it with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, an international interdisciplinary scientific committee studying global warming for the United Nations), the proposition that continuing industrialization is going to require some extensive mitigation of its effects on the atmosphere has become much more widely accepted.

 

But what?  How much?  Where? And when?

 

A new book, A Question of Balance, by William Nordhaus, casts more intense light on these matters than any other. Nordhaus, of Yale University, is a master economist, a gifted expositor, a canny rhetoretician. Most important, he is a scientific diplomat.  He has been in constant touch for many years with a wide range of experts in other fields, not just natural scientists (physicists and chemists who study the atmosphere and the oceans, geologists, astronomers, biologists, paleontologists, ecologists) and social scientists (sociologists, anthropologists, psychologists and so on), but designers of the human-built world as well (engineers, corporate executives, research funders, venture capitalists, financiers, land-use specialists). It is unlikely that we will see a better framework for discussion of these issues for many years.

 

Nordhaus takes pains to sort out two crucial issues. The first of these is the discount rate, meaning the way we translate future costs into present values. (Because these processes take a very long time, every question of what to do about global warming of necessity involves an argument about the nature of historical change.) Second is the sovereignty of the “carbon price,” meaning the price attached to the use of carbon-based fuels and the emission of carbon dioxide.

Today the price of emitting/polluting is all over the map, low for some, high for others, lower for everyone than it needs to be if the rate at which greenhouse gases are added to the atmosphere is to be reduced. The goal is to harmonize the “climate damage charge” portion of this carbon price and slowly raise it by some sensible amount, either through a tax on the carbon content of purchases, or through a system of auctioned cap-and-trade emission permits. These are fascinating topics, far less than fully translated than they should be from their technical discussion into everyday language, but each is too much to read or write in the last days of summer. I’ll devote separate columns to them in the early autumn.

 

But there are limits to Nordhaus’ willingness to remove from his customary standpoint high upstream to acquire downstream readers. Thus while the first chapter of the book is “A Summary for the Concerned Citizen,” the rest of its nine chapters are organized around a mathematical model of economic and environmental dynamics on which Nordhaus has been working with various collaborators on and off since 1974 with which to weigh alternative policies for dealing with global warming (including not dealing with it), the Dynamic, Integrated Model of Climate and the Economy, or DICE. Integration is its novel feature: a few basic geophysical relationships are included that clearly have become connected to the economy: there are equations for the carbon cycle, radiative forcing, climate change and climate-damage. One chapter explains the model, another describes the derivations of its equations, a third describes five broad alternative policies that have been advanced.  Then Nordhaus runs all five through the model and explains the results. (The Kyoto Protocol falls well short of an economically efficient strategy, while the Gore and Stern proposals are far too expensive.) On almost every other page are tables, graphs or equations. A Question of Balance is not for the ilnumerate or unmathematical.

 

Which raises an interesting question.  What’s it going to take to persuade a majority of people and their leaders around the world to undertake some sensible action?  My guess is that the most appropriate medium for galvanizing entire populations to action will turn out to be broadcast television – not another work of propaganda, however well-meaning, but a visually stimulating, dispassionate and ultimately persuasive work in the tradition of A Question of Balance. Bringing that project to fruition will be the work of many years.

 

                                   xxxxx

 

The Wall Street Journal reported last week that US and Iraq negotiators have agreed on a timetable for American withdrawal from Iraq.

US forces are to withdraw from Iraqi cities by June, 2009, and from the country altogether in 2011 according to the plan. Unnamed US officials familiar with the talks told WSJ reporters Gina Chon and Yochi J. Dreazen that President George W. Bush was “almost certain to accept the agreement,” but that the pact probably would not be formally signed for at least a few more weeks.”

 

The usual interpretation of events is that a desperate last-ditch attempt by the American army to bring Iraq under control succeeded. Dexter Filkins, the veteran Iraq correspondent of The New York Times, expressed this consensus view last week:

The arrival of the 30,000 extra soldiers, deployed to Baghdad’s neighborhoods around the clock, allowed the American to exploit a series of momentous developments that had begun to unfold at roughly the same time:  the splintering of  Moktada al-Sadr’s militia, the Mahdi Army;  the growing competence of the Iraqi Army; and, most important, the about-face by leaders of the country’s Sunni minority, who suddenly stopped opposing the Americans and joined with them against Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia and other local extremist groups. The surge, clearly, has worked for now. 

It is, however, equally possible that the decisive events took place in Washington in the first months of 2007, when newly-elected Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi (D-Cal.) won a series of hard-fought legislative battles which made clear that the new Democratic majority in the House of Representatives would not continue to fund the American presence in Iraqi indefinitely – or even much longer.  The Bush administration countered with its plan for a short-lived surge.

 

The leadership of various Iraqi factions read the newspapers. Those “momentous developments” there thus may have stemmed as much from the recognition that the US Congressional majority that came to power following the mid-term election of 2006 would soon end, no matter what,  the remarkable American misadventure in Iraq, as from those “extra boots on the ground” and the more generals leading them.

 

Political expectations are as rational as economic ones.

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