The Role of Government

I think I’m somewhat libertarian. At least that’s what the Political Compass tells me, and it seems to make sense. I tend to believe that people are generally good and will make good decisions when they’re properly informed. I care more for the needs of the individual citizen than I do for the power of the whole state.

I’d certainly rather have socialism, which aims to spend money to help as many people as possible, than conservatism, which aims to save money and maximize personal wealth. Money is imaginary; suffering is not. I’ve known for ages that I’m left-wing, but far more along the lines of Gandhi and Mandela (libertarian) than Stalin (authoritarian).

My ultimate belief is that the actions of the government should adequately reflect the needs and interests of the people. I believe that it’s difficult to achieve this when too much power is given to one person. My ideal system of government, should it become feasible (it certainly would cost a lot), would be a direct democracy – where citizens have the option to vote on every bill, instead of just on their representatives. The government would still exist, but as the group that dished out funding for projects the citizens had voted on, rather than the group that made all the decisions.

It’s not too hard to find examples of how the government’s actions don’t always represent the needs and wants of their citizens. Look, for example, at the American cap-and-trade bill. A Zogby poll found that 71% of Americans favour cap-and-trade, that 67% thought the government was doing either the right amount or not enough about climate change, and that a staggering 45% wanted the government to do more. Here in Canada, where we have more than two parties, 45% support would almost certainly create a minority government. Add in the 22% that thought the American government was doing enough, and you could easily pass all kinds of emissions legislation.

And what is the American Senate doing? Waiting until next year to look at cap-and-trade because they need to spend time on health care. The government is both too large (making all the decisions themselves, whether or not they accurately reflect those who voted for them) and not large enough (unable to focus on more than one major issue at a time).

When we decide what to do about climate change, I strongly believe that our decisions should be based on how the costs and benefits of action vs inaction will affect individual, average people of the world. I am far more concerned about the water security of those who depend on glacial meltwater to drink than I am about the income of an American oil executive.

Everyone is a citizen of the world, even those who can’t vote. Rich people aren’t worth more than poor people. Everyone is equal. And if we held a worldwide referendum on climate change, I have no doubt that we’d find an overwhelming demand for action. Humans are a species like any other, and like all species, we are first and foremost interested in survival.

That’s my take on it. What’s yours?

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32 thoughts on “The Role of Government

  1. Wow Kate, you’ve touched on many different topics in one post.

    Your definitions of socialism and conservatism (capitalism?) are a bit too simplistic. A conservative would say they believe in the free-market and that personal wealth is simply a consequence. Conservatives would also say that they aim to help as many people as possible by creating wealth and independence. The only difference between modern socialism and conservatism is the degree to which the government should control the means of production and allocation of resources, since they both believe in some control but not total.

    I don’t share your view that money is imaginary. It represents some sort of commodity and it increases with productivity and efficiency. And money in of itself represents higher efficiency than that of a barter system. I don’t think personal wealth necessitates the suffering of others to create it, which is what you seem to imply.

    I’m not crazy about the socialist/conservatist labels anyhow. A North American socialist would seem like a rabid capitalist in other countries.

    As far as direct democracy, I think my views fall in line with the framers of the United States Constitution:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Direct_democracy#United_States

    Referendums certainly have their place.
    [Regarding personal wealth and the suffering of others – this is certainly not a given. However, should it become a choice between the two, you know which I would pick. Regarding socialist/conservative labels in North America versus the rest of the world – I totally agree. Even within North America: Obama may seem to have socialist tendencies in the States, but in Canada he’d probably fit right in with the Conservative party. My assertion that I agree with socialism and libertarian was in comparison to historical leaders, like Gandhi vs Stalin. I’m taking a course on ideologies and world issues right now (my very first class inspired me to write this!) so I’ll definitely be far more informed over the next few months. -Kate]

  2. I don’t understand your description. I would consider the 71% number ‘staggering,’ and the 45% not very surprising as it is less than half. As it is, the 71% drops to 54% in the poll when people hear about the higher taxes
    [In government terms, 71% is a huge majority. And when there are more than two options, 45% is also huge. Come spend some time in Canada, with a four-party system, and you’ll understand. -Kate]

  3. As Joel said, you’ve raised a lot of topics at once. And this time you won’t have peer-reviewed results to fall back on, in order to decide who’s right.

    I take it that your main interest is the proper role of government in dealing with climate change, but having started out with a statement about the proper role of government in general, and even a hypothesis about human nature, well, you’re just inviting us, your commenters, to counter-theorize in equal measure.

    Let’s start with socialism. The money that will be spent to help people has to come from somewhere. If there was no government, there would still be just as much money, and so just as much opportunity to spend it on good causes; it’s just that the money would be in the hands of the people, rather than in the hands of the government.

    Socialism also has a ruling class; it’s just that they are bureaucrats rather than business moguls. And under a supposedly benevolent socialism you have much less defense against ruling-class interference in your life than you do under capitalism. In capitalism, if you do manage to own something, it’s yours and you can hide away inside it, those are the rules of the game. In socialism, because there is no intrinsic respect for property, anything you have may potentially be taken from you, for the greater good or even for your own good.

    Human beings like to make their own decisions, but they also like to get things for free. Anyone who gets their money from the government is in a compromised position when it comes to judging the desirability of socialism; it’s in their economic interest, no matter how much they sympathize with other people who may be handing over a large fraction of their income to the tax collector, to endorse the idea of government taking from some people in order to do good to others.

    All of that ought to be obvious, but you probably won’t hear it said in school.

    Human nature: “people are generally good and will make good decisions when they’re properly informed”. I find it very hard to generalize here. People are radically unequal in their capabilities (and hence unequal in their ability to make good decisions, even when all else is equal). Being fully informed may simply convey a sense of overwhelming complexity or heartbreaking dilemma, rather than an obvious sense of what ought to be done. There really do seem to be people who are assholes, whether out of bitterness or out of self-satisfaction, but I can’t say how common they are in the population. And even the consensus of a whole civilization can be wrong, in which case being properly informed will just mean following the elite dogma of the time.

    Proper role for government in stopping climate change? Hard to say. I started my own climate blog in order to argue that it will be stopped, one way or another, because we do have the time and the means to act. But I haven’t yet figured out what I think is the ideal policy. And the fact is that, whatever opinions we may have about what governments should do, what governments will do is act as they think they ought to act, not us.

  4. We’re far more than a 4-party system, by the way. There’s 4 mainstream, long-standing parties (Liberal, Conservative, New Democratic, and Bloc Quebecois), plus the Greens (they were big enough to get into the last leaders’ debate, but due to first-past-the-post, no one got elected – there’s serious need for Canadian electoral reform, and I say this as a person who DIDN’T support the Greens!), and then a smack of smaller parties running for personal causes (most notably the Communist Party and the Marijuana Party), and finally joke parties thrown together to put a voice on none-of-the-above (traditionally this is the Rhinoceros Party, but they haven’t been organized for a while – with electoral reform to have a none-of-the-above option, this wouldn’t happen).

    Obama, additionally, is mainstream conservative by the world’s standard, and progressive conservative by Canadian standards. When I looked at his voting record during the campaign, I laughed when I heard people smear him as the most liberal senator – he’s far from it.

    Joel: Money itself ceased representing physical commodities when it was removed from a physical standard and placed in a fractional reserve banking system. Ask yourself where money is actually created, and when you find the answer (decent, if ideologically-motivated, summary of the mechanism here; I have better sources on this but they aren’t online), see how well that matches up with the “money as wealth” theory. (Just because something makes narrative sense doesn’t mean that’s how it actually operates.)

    MikeN: How many of those polls have pointed out that these taxes are usually revenue neutral (i.e. completely refunded to the consumer)?

    Kate: While in general I agree with you (unsurprising; we’re both social democrats), I have a problem with direct democracy as a primary form of government, though I certainly support referenda on occasional issues. The big problem is that until expertise and intelligence are valued more in society, under a direct democracy, Gomer McCrankpot has as much say on economic policy as Paul Krugman. That doesn’t rest well with me, as I highly value competence in the people who set our long-term policies. I really dislike how democracy often devolves into contests on popularity rather than contests of who would be the best representative to lead, meaning a used-car salesman is more likely to pass an election than a scientist or economist.

    My ideal form of government can be described as a democratic oligarchy based on intelligence – simplest to implement by earning the right to vote not by age, but by competency tests (note that this applies to *voters*, not to candidates, although a modification might also be in order). You retain democratic representation (likely through proportional representation, the only system that makes sense). This is an extreme pipe-dream, sadly, but under such a system, idiots wouldn’t waste everyone’s time, and those who would seek power would have a barrier of competence between them and politics (similar to how we have basic driver’s education – we keep the keys out of their hands until they’ve shown they know how to drive safely).

    That said, you have a class on ideologies? Hot damn, that might have made social studies actually interesting in high school!

  5. “Life without state is nasty, short and brutish” Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan

    Leviathan is definitely worth a read, along with The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli and The Art of War by Sun Tzu (different translations are very different)

    According to the Political compass I am a slightly left wing libertarian. Fair call; I see free markets as a generally efficient way of distribution not a religion and also think that governments stick their noses far to much into peoples private business. How a government takes care of all it’s citizens is important.

    But, I also see the worst of all possible governments as better than no government. And, I would rather be in a place with good people running a bad system than in a place where bad people run a good system.

  6. I totally agree with you, Kate.

    About a year ago in a small German town the residents were mandated to switch to renewable energy sources. The elderly and some others faced lots of problems with the proposed law. I believe the government should educate people more about renewable energy, introduce better and sustainable clean energy programs, engage people, discuss with them the best possible ways to implement the programs.

    Issues like emission reduction and renewable energy expansion should be considered with a smaller and more concentrated perspective since for different places and people different solutions could be suitable.

    Great article.
    [This solution definitely has to be a multi-faceted one. We probably couldn’t replace all our fossil fuels just with solar, or just with wind, or just with any other clean energy. But if you add them all together, it looks a heck of a lot more feasible. -Kate]

  7. Brian D, I’m well aware that money doesn’t represent a physical commodity, which is why I didn’t say the word physical =) Nonetheless, it does have value and does represent wealth. Sure, this wealth can be eroded by various mechanisms, but so what? Its the system we have. [But if you were stuck on a desert island, and all you had was cash, what good would it do you? -Kate]

  8. Democratic oligarchy based on intelligence…

    Seriously? I’m assuming the “idiots” wouldn’t have to pay taxes? After all, you know the saying…

  9. Joel: I said “pipe dream”, didn’t I? The second-biggest obstacle would be the issue you identified (the biggest lies in the evaluation), and I have no answer to the problem. That said, there are landed immigrants in the US that pay taxes and lack the right to vote (i.e. exactly the same drawback you ascribe to my system), and I’m not hearing a lot from the US on immigration reform dealing with this group (usually it’s on illegal immigrants).

    By the way, Kate’s on the right track, but look at the problem from a different angle: The cash is used as a medium of exchange because it represents something. Money as we know it is a physical token of the commodity of trust. Trust itself is ephemeral, and meaningless as long as it is arbitrarily defined (i.e. the value of the Dollar). For me, the ideal monetary system involves physical limits to growth from the get-go, and discourages hoarding beyond reasonable limits – one example (though far from perfect) would be food-based currencies (i.e. this, as an example).

    Given the raw materials needed to track money, you can literally set up the modern financial system on a desert island before you have anything to exchange – your financial system ceases to represent/serve an economy and becomes an economy unto itself, albeit one that doesn’t actually produce anything of real value. It seriously looks like this (although the last three panels are a separate joke unrelated to my point).

    To me, money isn’t necessary until after your society produces and exchanges physical goods and services AND direct barter becomes difficult and/or inconvenient, OR a standardization is required for trans-society exchanges (i.e. international trade). After this point, it reflects physical goods or services, or to be more precise, the time/effort/energy/resources that went into performing those services or producing those goods. This is the “money as wealth/credit” view of money that most of us subscribe to.

    However, with the creation of fractional reserve banking, you could suddenly create money without creating the wealth it supposedly represented – sure, you could then use the money to acquire wealth and pay the costs back at interest (the money-as-debt model I mentioned earlier), but compounded over multiple transactions, what essentially happens is money is created from nothing. When Nixon removed the gold standard, the last pretenses of money representing anything real went out the window – because now, currencies are measured with respect to another currency, which itself references other imaginary entities… at no point does it actually return to physical work, and this is, at its heart, the main reason why it cannot and does not represent wealth. At this point, trading in money is essentially the economic equivalent of masturbation – it makes the participants feel good but doesn’t produce anything anyone would practically want.

    Seeing money as wealth is essentially the same as diving into an illusion – and I liken it to taking Scripture literally, even when common sense, science, and history show particular elements can’t (and didn’t) happen. Look at any young-earth creationist with scientific training, for instance, and you’ll know how your perspective appears to me.

  10. Kate

    I think the biggest problems associated with dealing with Climate Change are people problems. How Governments (& the public service) work, The disengagement of most people from the running of society. The real problem of people seeing their sense of identity as being derived from the smaller allegiances in life – family, friends, church etc. The idea of an allegiance to all of humanity, that all of civilisation is your country etc are very rare ideas. So people too often approach life us Us vs Them with Us being virtuous, and Them being at least distrusted – look at the language used by AGW deniers (and anti-Science groups generally), talking about ‘these Scientists’. Immediately painting scientists as part of that dangerous tribe, The Others.

    I agree with many of Brian D’s sentiments about direct democracy. It could work in principle if the bulk of the populace are educated, engaged, dispassionate and look at the larger picture before the smaller one. But to most people this is an alien concept.

    I sometimes think about the schisophrenic nature of American society as a great indicator of humanities problem. On the one hand you have the idea of Liberty and Freedom – great Ideas. And ‘Of the People, By the People, For the People’, one of histories great sentiments. But then you have Government is the Problem, Its all a conspiracy, I want to be left alone to live my life, I don;t even think I should vote! – In my country, Australia, voting is compulsory and this is almost universally seen as the right thing to do.

    My vision of a society that will be able to really address the problems of AGW, and many other things is one where government is seen as the great Clearing House of Society, the Worlds great Town Meeting. Government is always completely open because we are all always involved with it. But that vision requires a maturity from most people that I feel is sadly lacking. The maturity to say that the personal perspective is rather petty. I am defined by what I am a part of, not how I stand out separate from it.

    Think about what we could do to tackle AGW. Really tackle it. Cherry pick the key benefits of our society such as modern medicine and health care, clean water etc. Then wind the rest of our society back to the lives our Grandparents lived. Institute 1 child per family for the next 10 generations world wide. Scrap the worlds military forces and spend all the savings on fighting AGW. Scrap the United Nations and establish the United Peoples. Confiscate the wealth of all the worlds affluent and spend it on ensuring the poor can survive so they don’t need lots of children. Abandon some aspects of cultures, some countries, some diets as in appropriate. And many more radical ideas.

    Then after you (and everyone else reading this) have calmed down and drawn a deep breath. Ask the most basic question. What are the reasons why we wouldn’t do these things? Technical problems, the physics doesn’t work, we dont have enough of raw material X, the Second Law of Thermodynamics doesn’t permit is?. No. All the reasons why we wouldn’t do any thing like this is because of what we think. Of what happens between the ears of 6.8 Billion people.

    Human ideas, thought patterns, emotional makeup, fears, status seeking, just about everything in every psychology textbook in the world are what stop us acting.

    So the answer to AGW and the other threats we face is people things. Talking the language of how we think to masses of people. The technical challenges, Geoengineering or whatever are a doddle compared tackling the real source of AGW – grey matter and how it behaves.

    The real positive though is that much of human behaviour is about defending the status quo, the conventional ideas. If we can achieve the changes needed in thinking, make that the new Status Quo, then the very human hunger for maintaining the familiar, for maintaining the new status quo then becomes a major force on our side.

  11. But if you were stuck on a desert island, and all you had was cash, what good would it do you?

    Now we’re getting philosophical….

    The whole money only came up because it was called imaginary. Alright, let’s revert to the gold standard. What good would 100 grams of gold do you on a desert island?

    The real problem with calling money imaginary is the idea that it can be easily “redistributed” to alleviate suffering. But the more this is done, the less incentive the money-makers have to create it in the first place, so there is less to go around. Something truly imaginary wouldn’t have this property.

  12. Brian D, how long has fractional-reserve banking existed? According to mainstream (or “consensus”) economic theory, is it a good thing or bad thing? Unless you think the whole system is going to collapse within your lifetime, what real problem is their with this “illusion”? Mind you, the fact that you linked to The Oil Drum (AKA peak oil doomer HQ) makes me think you consider collapse a possibilty.

    In one way, GDP growth actually negates the debt in a “debt-based monetary system”. If you’re arguing for a zero growth model, then I could see where we’ll have a problem.

    So for all intents and purposes, money is wealth right now at this moment in time. You can argue that at sometime in the future it won’t be, but saying that it’s current value is an illusion is just playing semantics.
    [There is only a problem with this “illusion” – which is very real in the societal sense, it just has no physical meaning – when it becomes a choice between money/economics and physical entities, such as human health or the environment. -Kate]

  13. Glenn Tamblyn:

    In my country, Australia, voting is compulsory and this is almost universally seen as the right thing to do.

    You have got to be joking. There are many objections to compulsory voting, some of them summarised here:

    http://www.aph.gov.au/library/Pubs/RB/2005-06/06rb06.pdf

    And seriously, look at the other countries that share the honour of enforced compulsory voting…not a very flattering list.

    There are good reasons why both Labor and Liberal parties want to maintain the status quo.

    You argue that the populace should be politically educated in order to make the best decisions. However, compulsory voting guarantees that a significant part of the vote will be decided based on popularity due to voters’ disinterest in political matters. Case in point, I tell my girlfriend who to vote for because she has no opinion (I think she previously asked her friends).
    [Personally, I believe that if people were more in control of policy, as opposed to representatives, that more people would be interested, form opinions, get involved, and vote. A lot of people I know don’t vote because they feel they won’t have any effect, eg they want to support the NDP but the NDP has no chance of winning seat for their riding. Getting rid of the first-past-the-post system could also resolve this problem. -Kate]

  14. Glenn Tamblyn:

    What are the reasons why we wouldn’t do these things?

    The reason why we wouldn’t do those things is because mostly they’re crazy. Almost all of those ideas are either impractical, ill-conceived, or the stuff of nightmares.

    “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.” -Sir Winston Churchill

    A lot of your ideas fit in with “the others that have been tried.” I’m definitely in the libertarian camp so you can understand my aversion to this state-imposed utopia you describe.
    [I’ve actually heard that Churchill quote as “constitutional monarchy” instead of “democracy” – perhaps there are several different versions out there. -Kate]

  15. how long has fractional-reserve banking existed?

    Quite some time, but it didn’t appear in the US until Woodrow Wilson.

    According to mainstream (or “consensus”) economic theory, is it a good thing or bad thing?

    When you can define mainstream economic theory, get back to me. (This sets aside how economists pretend their work is a science but forget the whole empiricism thing. Greenspan admitted it rather bluntly when the financial sector collapsed, but my preferred example is the Solow Residual – apparently accounting for next to none of the data is worth a Nobel Prize in economics, while refinements that account for nearly all of the data (i.e. Ayres) aren’t even considered mainstream.)

    Unless you think the whole system is going to collapse within your lifetime, what real problem is their with this “illusion”?

    Anyone concerned with the future at all can instantly see the problem with this statement.

    Although I don’t always live up to its standard, I’ve found the seven-generation rule of the Iroquois Confederacy profound. When combined with my understanding of sustainability (which can be summed up in two sentences: “Let’s live on this planet like we intend to stay here” and “There is no such thing as ‘more’ or ‘less’ sustainable”), it’s abundantly clear why clinging to fantasies that promote poor behaviour in the short term because I won’t live to see reality catch up to them is something I would find horribly immoral.

    Mind you, the fact that you linked to The Oil Drum (AKA peak oil doomer HQ) makes me think you consider collapse a possibilty.

    Did you notice how I wasn’t referencing a peak-oil doom post at all? I needed an example of a physical-work-backed currency, and since the most established of these is the food-backed currency, I googled “food-backed currency” to look for a well-written example to demonstrate my point.

    Go ahead and do that now. Look at the first hit. Oooh, so doomy.

    There have been other attempts at physically-backed currencies based on other standards (such as time – i.e. the base unit of currency is valued proportionally to the wage for an hour’s unskilled labour), but to my knowledge none have been as established or successful as food-backed currencies.

    That said, in the interests of intellectual honesty, I cannot rule out collapse. Peak oil is a certainty, and is either here or nearly here. Where I break with The Oil Drum is that I don’t believe the results will be as bad as they suggest – and that I believe climate change is a much bigger issue.

    In one way, GDP growth actually negates the debt in a “debt-based monetary system”. If you’re arguing for a zero growth model, then I could see where we’ll have a problem.

    If you’re arguing for perpetual exponential growth as currently defined, I can see where we do have a problem.

    Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist.

    There are, however, viewpoints on economics that do not reject growth and are still sustainable (and indeed, capitalist!). The most accessible that I’ve read is The Economics of Happiness by Mark Anielski, which rejects GDP as a universal measure of economic progress and takes a broader view of what constitutes “capital”. I don’t agree with him on everything (for instance, I do not feel what he would consider a universal need for spiritual fulfillment), but it is far and away the best economic theory I’ve seen from a sustainability perspective, provided one expects to have it implemented. (There are better ones, but given the degree of shift each implies from the dominant capitalism, they are less likely to see use.)

    So for all intents and purposes, money is wealth right now at this moment in time.You can argue that at sometime in the future it won’t be, but saying that it’s current value is an illusion is just playing semantics.

    No, for all intents and purposes, at this moment, money is debt perceived as wealth. Critical difference. Really, really believing something isn’t the same as knowing something, nor does it make something true. Consider communion – a blessed host is just a stale cracker that a man in a dress waved over, no matter how much you perceive it as cannibalism, but if you so much as point this out to a Catholic, they go medieval on your ass.

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    Kate, the original quote can be looked up in Churchill’s November 11, 1947 speech to the House of Commons, and it references democracy (not a constitutional monarchy). It’s one of those beautiful passages of rhetoric that lend themselves well to quote-mining, misattribution, and memetic mutation. The full passage is as follows:

    We accept in the fullest sense of the word the settled and persistent will of the people. All this idea of a group of supermen and super-planners, such as we see before us, “playing the angel,” as the French call it, and making the masses of the people do what they think is good for them, without any check or correction, is a violation of democracy. Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time; but there is the broad feeling in our country that the people should rule, continuously rule, and that public opinion, expressed by all constitutional means, should shape, guide, and control the actions of Ministers who are their servants and not their masters.

    (By the way, a more eerie quote from Churchill that helps put the former in perspective is “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” It wasn’t until I read that line that I began questioning our current system at a level more fundamental than reform from first-past-the-post.)

  16. Brian D, in the interests of not capitalising anymore space on this post (and the fact that no one will convince anyone of anything) I’ll keep it short:

    You may like to define sustainable as set in stone, but just in the past 50 years the “sustainable” population of the Earth has been redefined several times. Where the heck would we be if we followed Ehrlich’s advice? If humanity only ever used sustainable resources, we wouldn’t be typing on these computers right now.

    I am aware that peak oil catastrophe and climate change catastrophe are mutually exclusive, I was just curious. Peak oil will occur but not in the classical Hubbert sense. Unconventional oil will flatten that peak for ages and the high price signal will allow for a transition rather than a collapse.

    Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist.

    Agreed. However, its important to not make the mistake of thinking our economic policies will stay static. China raised the reserve requirement 9 times in 2007 as growth got out of hand. In any event, the money as debt theme is much too simplified. A couple of Canadian economists run a good blog that address some of these debt issues:

    http://worthwhile.typepad.com/worthwhile_canadian_initi/2009/08/banks-money-and-debt.html

    http://worthwhile.typepad.com/worthwhile_canadian_initi/2008/12/hair-of-the-dog.html

  17. You may like to define sustainable as set in stone, but just in the past 50 years the “sustainable” population of the Earth has been redefined several times. Where the heck would we be if we followed Ehrlich’s advice? If humanity only ever used sustainable resources, we wouldn’t be typing on these computers right now.

    Without a hint of irony or cognitive dissonance, you don’t notice that your first sentence suggests we are sustainable while your third shows we exist using resources unsustainably. Intriguing.

    For the record, even though I disagree with the Oil Drum here, I’m curious as to how you suggest peak oil and climate change are mutually exclusive. The former leads to an energy crisis, but only in liquid fuels and similar oil-derived substances. There are many other sources of greenhouse gases that are not dependent on oil (example), and we’re a long way from seeing those decrease, even among some other fossil fuels (coal comes to mind – there’s a reason that Hansen’s chief cause is an immediate moratorium on new coal plants), to say nothing of “peak deforestation”.

  18. Brian D:

    Without a hint of irony or cognitive dissonance, you don’t notice that your first sentence suggests we are sustainable while your third shows we exist using resources unsustainably. Intriguing.

    Come on. Think it through. I’m saying we can sustain 6 billion people. That’s statement number 1. The second statement is that we wouldn’t be using computers or be nearly as advanced a civilisation if we hadn’t exploited certain non-renewable resources such as oil. This is statement number 2. No cognitive dissonance. We now have the option of transitioning to more renewable sources of energy. If you think statement number 1 is false and we need some sort of massive die-off then just say so.

    I am making a big generalisation here, but many peak-oilers say the peak will cause civilisation to crash and that nothing (including coal) will save that from happening:

    http://www.lifeaftertheoilcrash.net/

    AGW ceases to be a problem in this scenario. For anyone that gets freaked out by that first link, this one is much more rational:

    http://peakoildebunked.blogspot.com/
    [I agree that we can probably sustain 6 billion people. But only if we adopt drastically more efficient and sustainable forms of energy and agriculture. -Kate]

  19. Kate…

    I don’t believe the US s delaying climate legislation to focus on health care… I think they don’t want a deal in Copenhagen, and want to restart the negotiations. The Guardian had a piece this week about a simple truth… Any whiff of Kyoto, and the US won’t be able to get an international treaty through the Senate.

    I summarized the story, but The Guardian overview is terrific.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2009/sep/15/europe-us-copenhagen

  20. Yes, MikeN couldn’t be more wrong.

    China is doing the ying yang thing… Impressive investment in renewable energy and energy efficiency ($440 billion), and reforestation.

    China is expected to have 100 GW of wind and 10 GW of solar by 2020… They’ve also closed thousands of inefficient coal boilers.

    True, China is building coal-fired power plants at an alarming rate but, on balance, they’re doing better than Canada or the US.

    [If everything was fair, and carbon credits were issued on basis of population, China would be allowed 4 times as many emissions as the US (1.3 billion people vs 300 million). We have to look at per capita emissions, as well as cumulative, to see who is most responsible for this mess. -Kate]

  21. Even more important, Kate, are historical emissions.
    [That’s what I meant by “cumulative”. Is the UK still ahead in historical emissions? Or has the US surpassed it by now? -Kate]

  22. You can allow China all the emissions you want, the problem is that people are saying an 80% cut is required. China already has ~25% of the emissions and growing. To cut 80% you would need to cut 20% of China’s emissions and 100% of everyone else’s. Or cut more of China’s emissions and less of everyone else.
    If China grows it’s emissions by another 20%, which might take just two years, then they have to cut even more to meet the target.

    Those countries are going to choose cheaper energy, which means coal. The solution is to make clean energy even cheaper.

  23. Taking into account historical emissions are a problem. It might work if your target was 500 ppm or 450 ppm or maybe even 400 ppm. But if you are looking at lower levels, then the historical per capita emissions, when applied to China will yield too much CO2 emitted.
    China, India, and the rest of the world feel entitled to as much wealth as the developed countries.
    For example, China has a historical per capita emissions about 1/5 of the US, and about equal to the global average. Yet she is not going to want to say, OK we’ve used up our quota, we’ll stop now. To be fair, the developing world will want to be moved up to the average for the top countries, with the developed countries stopping. Unless you can produce this additional development in a cleaner way, this will add to the total carbon emitted, and you will not achieve a target of 350ppm.

  24. Richard:

    True, China is building coal-fired power plants at an alarming rate but, on balance, they’re doing better than Canada or the US.

    Is this a fair comparison? If Canada or the US were building energy infrastructure at such a voracious rate as China, don’t you think renewable energy would be a significant part of the mix? I’d like to see the actual projected percentage of renewable energy for 2020 rather than just absolute numbers (100 GW wind, 10 GW solar.)

    China seems to think its going to decarbonize under a business-as-usual scenario:

    http://rogerpielkejr.blogspot.com/2009/08/autonomous-deacrbonization-in-chinas.html

    Is this wishful thinking or just posturing for climate deal talks? Hard to say.
    [I think Richard means per capita when he says “on balance”. -Kate]

  25. The problem with using “per capita” in a country like China is the massive wealth gap between the 900+ million peasants and the rest of the population. Rich Chinese are just as responsible for global warming as first-world citizens.

    Unless the wealth gap is seriously addressed, these 900 million peasants can justify any excesses of the Chinese elite for decades to come.
    [Very true. Sort of weird for a communist country to have two distinct classes…..-Kate]

  26. MikeN,

    I’m assuming that when you say the US decarbonized, you’re talking about the CO2 intensity of economic output reducing. Yes, this is the case as the following graph illustrates:

    Gap Minder – CO2 Intensity vs. CO2 Emissions

    Unfortunately it only runs from 1980 to 2004, but you can see the US intensity (kg CO2 emitted per dollar GDP) drop from 0.800 to 0.503. However, China’s intensity also dropped from a whopping 2.865 to 1.036.

    China actually had a low of 0.909 in 2002, but this started to reverse due to such rapid development.

    If you hit the play button you can see why I doubt China can decarbonize as quickly as they claim. Especially when you compare the relative size of the GDP bubbles for the US and China. Even though the US decarbonized over this period, emissions still grew by 24.5% while GDP grew by 60.9%.

    Can China really double its GDP several times over (to get close to first-world countries) and still expect emissions to peak in 2050 and then reverse under a business-as-usual scenario? Even when aiming for the CO2 intensity of France I’m not sure this is possible.

  27. I don’t think it is impossible. They are still looking at a 10% increase in emissions from 2040 to 2050. From 1997 to 2007, the US increased by about 6%, according to CDIAC. Is it unreasonable to think that in 30 years China might get the same types of growth rates? And this is with the US basically on a business-as-usual path.

    I’m not saying the Chinese numbers are accurate, given that in the same time span, her emissions grew by about 100%, with 80% in the last 5 years.
    However, I don’t think the scenarios are as ‘impossible’ as Pielke says. France has been at zero percent growth over the last 40 years.
    And as has been said, China is implementing some wind and solar.
    If the goal is to just not grow as fast as before, this little bit will help to reduce the CO2 intensity. Throw in using more efficient coal plants, and you can certainly lower the intensity while increasing emissions substantially.

  28. Right on queue, Pielke digs up the Chinese energy intensity data for 2005 – 2008:

    http://rogerpielkejr.blogspot.com/2009/09/is-chinas-energy-intensity-story-myth.html

    So it looks like they have reversed the rising trend.

    The rhetoric is still over the top though:

    http://www.reuters.com/article/environmentNews/idUSTRE58K3KE20090921

    Yesterday, Chief UN climate diplomat Yvo de Boer said of China’s policies: “This suite of policies will take China to be the world leader on addressing climate change,”

    If China can have 2 years where emissions don’t grow by over 20%, then we can talk about being “world leaders”. Its just ridiculous that they can grow emissions by an average of 12% per year for the last 7 years and then be hailed as climate saviours after presenting a few policies. Sorry, that just doesn’t fly. We can talk about emissions per capita till the cows come home, but at the end of the day CO2 concentrations are still rising and this hasn’t slowed down one bit.

  29. Markets simply do not work, not on their own. Consider the deficiencies long noted by Mandelbrot. I don’t really buy that Americans are wedded to markets. I believe “markets” are the mantra (currently) used by them to argue “Leave me alone”.

    I don’t know how or whether China and India should cut back with respect to the United States and developed world. They do have a point that we were extremely wasteful of our natural resources in the 19th century (and Europe benefited from a lot of that), and ask why oughtn’t they get a similar chance.

    I do not think anyone will take this seriously until there are large scale tragedies well connected to the climate change phenomenon. I know that is pessimistic. I think that discussion of mitigation is where we are, even if that is many times more expensive than prevention would have been. And, by the time people see the connection, it’s possible it will be too late.

    The greatest uncertainty in climate modeling is human response. The second greatest is our ignorance of features of the Earth climate as a dynamical system, features which could make our collective global experiment catastrophic in outcome. People don’t understand things at this level of complexity. They never have, and perhaps they never will.

    This is a challenge not only to economics and policy, but I think is a challenge of whether representative democracy is capable of solving problems on this scale. It seems to me there are some things for which taking a plebiscite is a poor substitute for rational policy. I am appalled that organizations like the Sierra Club and Greenpeace are not actively pushing a $2/gallon federal tax on gasoline. That’s hugely unpopular, no doubt. But if the markets are the ones which dictate behavior, that’s the logical thing to do.

    No, change won’t come until 100,000 Americans die from wildfire or drought in the West, or until the consequences of poor coastal management bring enormous price tags.

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