The market imbalance between cleaner (less polluting, and less atmospheric altering), and less clean agricultural and energy practices, has greatly skewed us toward habituation of and reliance upon increasingly counterproductive practices.
This is the basic challenge of production (or market) externalities – increasing as our population, technology, energy use, and potential for impact upon our world, increases.
These externalities don’t come with a price tag, or often even a marker alerting us to their existence (or full existence). So economists, by trying to put a tangible present day cost on intangible, long term value as well as often heavily commingled, hidden, or immeasurable (not to mention imprecise), harms, try to come up with figures or “values” for this cost; but trying to do so is often more misleading than not.
Such absolute cost value assessments also make the erroneous presumption that dollar value is absolute over time. But this can’t be the case. If it were, as total societal dollar value doubled and quadrupled and quadrupled again over time, people’s overall utility and happiness would rise accordingly. Which it does not do, and seemingly can not, do. So dollars are a way of comparing apples to apples, and putting something concrete on our exchange of perceived value. (*And they work a lot better than clamshells.)
Trying to assess the long term commingled harm to the basic quality of our world, opportunity, and health – all things which may not break down quite so much in value over time, as the present day absolute worth of a “dollar” – are like oranges, to the proverbial apples.
So in trying to compare the gain of mitigating pollution, in comparison to the “costs” (which if those costs simply represent a substitution of goods and production choices aren’t even real costs in the long run), sometimes we’re comparing apples to oranges. Even more so when it comes to the more complex, longer term, higher risk range, and unpredictability and completely uncharted territory aspect, of climate change.
That said, the basic problem of production (or market) externalities is real. And to avoid so much unnecessary counter productive long term harm, we have to find a way to sensibly and fairly address those externalities. (Typically done in the form of environmental and health regulations or policies.)
Climate change is a tricky issue. It is so inextricably global, so encompassing, so risk range oriented (a concept, on an issue which also simultaneously presents an almost assured certainty of some relevant impact as well regardless, which a lot of people struggle with). And there is so much ingrained resistance to the idea that mankind could be so fundamentally altering our very world against our own interests, and rampant economic presumption and alarmism over basic energy changes or change possibilities.
At the same time, as positive bonuses, climate change redress, or at least mitigation, would also invariably lower a lot of attendant pollution (and secondary to that, improve overall health, not to mention avoid the worst if indirect health consequences – particularly to the world’s poor – from dramatic climate change over time), as well as improve long term energy security and independence – on national, local, and personal levels.
Also at the same time, there are already many alternatives to our more traditional if more (long term) detrimental agricultural and energy practices, many of which are becoming increasingly cost effective, even without consideration of the fact that almost all of the tremendous, if immeasurable, “real” cost of more harmful practices is not presently – or even remotely, for that matter – integrated into their pricing structure. (And thus, into our decision making – and hence the huge inherent, if perhaps not so obvious, inefficiency.)
So simply capturing at least part of that real long term cost in some sort of market oriented way, along with promotion (but not imposition) of beneficial practices, would likely be enough to cause an even playing field between harmful and non harmful or less harmful practices. And as a result, sufficiently reward personal, business and even power and agricultural company transitions, to radically transform increasingly outdated, but habitually (and presumptively) clung to practices; and not only shortly stabilize total long term atmospheric greenhouse gases, but likely lead to a relevant reduction over a few more decades and thus mitigate what is right now a rather profound risk range of major to radical, if unpredictable, long term climate shifting.
The best way to do this is through some sort of user fee or tax upon long term atmospheric altering practices, most easily achievable through some sort of carbon “tax.” (A simple revenue neutral plan, which would give plenty of motive, business planning certainty and structure, and assistance with transition, is very briefly laid out here.)
On the other hand, the complexities, minor inefficiences, and seeming lack of political appeal of carbon taxation aside, setting emissions targets is a bad idea relative to a carbon tax, for three reasons:
It creates a bit more direct government control. It creates an arbitrary target with little broader market based flexibility to belp achieve the same or potentially far more successful ends, and with lower short term cost substitutions. And it fails to directly capitalize on consumer and business choice and financial motivation as additional means to evolve successful and growth oriented amelioration strategy responses and, ultimately, problem solving or ameliorating patterns, habits and practices.
In other words, and most importantly, it will likely also accomplish far less than a carbon tax, and do so with more potential imposition, real cost, and inefficiencies.
The only things it does do is avoid the seeming lack of political “appeal” for a carbon tax, and set some sort of concrete “target” – albeit, as opposed to doing nothing, a helpful target, one that is also fairly arbitrary, and likely highly insufficient. (And one that’s unduly pessimistic, as we can easily achieve far more by at least correcting some of the present day imbalances and putting the market to work to not only far more efficiently use what we have, but develop more and better ways to do so as well.)
Essentially, we know we need to “do something” (although many “skeptics” argue even with that, though when we don’t blame this human changed cause on humans, many become more accomodating to the idea of some redress).
And overall poor public assessment of and understanding on the issue – the same that has caused us to drag our feet on an amplifying problem for a few decades now – combined with, however, general support for doing “something” regardless of climate change’s supposed “cause,” lead to government decreed mitigation strategies that won’t do much to sufficiently ameloriate the situation, but nevertheless may cause a disproportionate amount of apparent short term cost and burden relative to what’s actually required.
In other words, less overall effect, and more “cost,” at least to the extent the cost is real.
But since some of the cost is being directly dictated rather than market driven, more of it, at least in the short term, likely is real. (With a revenue neutral carbon tax the idea of a cost becomes more illusionary – even if many incorrectly see such spending transitions as the gospel of real harm – since it’s merely a transference of resources and jobs and (human) energy into more benefical practices, and with all of the growth created therein, as real as the alarmist worry over growth “losses” from switching over to better practices.)
This seeming cost burden will of course be lessened by the reality that clean energy sources and better agricultural practices already available, in effect, already make transition over to longer term set targets far more trivial than they seem. And do so without even accomodating for the enormous long term hidden costs and harms of polluting sources and practices that already greatly imbalance our markets and production choices.
For instance, simply switching over a large portion of energy production to solar, all of which adds to GDP and creates jobs and income as much as any other investment and spending, and is no less real, will help make up much if not more of the set targets.
And it would do so in less time than even alloted for such targets to be met. And over such time, or even significantly less time, the transition costs will whittle down to next to nothing, as solar energy, for instance, is already fairly, if not perfectly, inexpensive at this point.
In other words, to simplify, we act as if we have a huge imponderable problem – E.g: “We need energy, too bad the only way to get it is from this black stuff (or gas) from the ground, and there wasn’t this incredible ball of energy up in the sky (for instance) – and if there is, too bad there isn’t a way to harness it.”
Yet that’s not the case. There is a huge ball of energy in the sky, as well as multiple other opportunities, already being ingeniously developed. And that’s without the mother of all performance and innovation – real, rather than abstractly perceived, need. (Need which a carbon tax both creates, and rewards.)
And again there is a way to harness that ball of energy in the sky, for instance – solar power. And, it’s economically feasible, and will over time not only continue to drop in relative price, but whatever costs there are versus different decision possibilities will will simply be integrated into our overall GDP, and facilitate the efficient allocation that is the market based pricing decision structure in the first. (Building codes, for instance, are a pain in the neck, no doubt. But within reason, are necessary. And any power utilizing dwelling roof without solar is simply a poor use of resources. So an appropriately priced building “fee” that’s waived for solar inclusion – motivation is far better than imposition – will make it even nonsensical short term not to take advantage of any such surface just sitting there, pointing to the sky, when installing roofs.)
So it’s not like it’s that big of a deal to simply decrease total net emissions, let alone over many years. Yet we’re addressing this as if it is.
Put simply, the targets are just a way of formalizing a sentiment to “emit less,” which simply moving toward better practices accomplishes on its own. And they make smaller reductions over a long time period, based upon an arbitrary and very static model or expectation of what our markets, and us, are capable of, appear as a somewhat more meaningful goal than they really are.
And they do also nevertheless still set arbitrary constraints to achieve otherwise positive ends that, with proper motivation, and the same or lower cost, and even less restriction on choice opportunity, could be exceeded up to several times over by simultaneously using the market, rather than simply dictating to the market what to do. Which, mild and very “reasonable” long term targets though such new emissions targets may be, is exactly what they do. And it’s exactly what a carbon tax – unappealing as it is to recalcitrant, business anarchy, “there are no such things as ‘hidden’ production cost” organizations such as the Heritage Foundation – does not do.
But more importantly, as most leading climate scientists aptly point out, current expressed emission reduction targets are also completely inadequate for making the kind of impact to our long term atmospheric greenhouse gas levels that sensible and non political, objective, assessment of the issue requires. Namely, stabilizing current levels and then bringing them down to something still far higher than at the start of the industrial period, but substantially below current levels.
In short, use the markets when we can. Setting long term and arbitrary emissions targets that our best scientists on the issue tell us are wholly insufficient to significantly transform the issue, doesn’t do that.
Our short term attachment to “cost,” what’s been part of the huge economic presumption impediment to sensible redress for nearly thirty years now, can also work in our favor rather than against us: by assisting both markets and consumers in their efforts, and rewarding behavior that’s more consistent with movement toward less externally damaging or counterproductive practices and patterns, while simultaneously allowing individual (business and consumer) choice, rather than arbitrary dictate to pave the way.
Moreover, the difference in real hard costs between harmful and non harmful energy and agricultural practices is now relatively moderate. And in some instances it’s slight, if even that. And, if only some of the intangible and often hidden but very real long term negative impacts of our current more broadly counterproductive energy and agricultural practices were somehow integrated into their actual pricing, our markets would shift over, based on the simple motivation of demand and reward.
Right now the balance cuts the other way – as none of the real costs of long term counterproductive practices are integrated. (And thus by comparison none of the “benefits” of cleaner, non or lesser atmospheric altering practices are integrated into their price either.) And so, resistant to change for the noble (and often refuted), idea of broader improvement alone, we think of it as a larger roadblock than it is.
A carbon tax removes that roadblock. And it rewards choice, allows for business planning, and allows us to see how much we can do. Or more precisely, allows us to do what we are capable of.
Doing what we are capable of, consistent with growth and jobs, is paramount on this issue. This is because there are no arbitrary threshold targets we “have to reach” (and scientists who suggest otherwise are speculating).
And by the basic nature of the problem – or challenge – the more we ameliorate, the less the overall long term impact and lower the worse downside risks and their amounts, and the better for us, all.
A carbon tax helps us achieve this without much government dictate, no extra government spending, and with business planning and the reward of choice. And will likely even reduce the need (and clamor for) future draconian measures if and when climate change starts to get out of hand after ice melt rates,”glacial” at first, really start to accelerate, and methane, a gas we’re underestimating, starts to self sustain and more.
In short, it’s the lowest imposition, with the highest return, for a problem which causes many to worry about imposition; and one for which we need, the highest return.