December 31, 2009

Goodbye to All That

I'm not the only one, no doubt, who's glad to be done with this awful, soul-sucking decade. For Americans, at any rate, watching our country lurch from the horror of 9/11, to the sadistic imperialism that followed, to the economic miasma we currently inhabit, has been one ordeal after another. (Let me associate myself with the sentiments in Spencer Ackerman's Guantánamo retrospective.) The emergence of a new progressive movement, as well as Barack Obama's presidency, have been heartening, but the recent fight over health care reform shows how difficult it still is to move the country in a more equitable and just direction.

For myself, I am grateful to be ending the year employed and putting my education and talents to their intended use. Spending much of the last 18 months either underemployed or unemployed was one of the hardest experiences of my life, in part because of the disparity between the effort and expense of amassing degrees and the mostly paltry reward I got from actually working. Not that I'm owed a living based on my education, or that being unemployed would any less bad if I only had a high school diploma; but there were certainly multiple times when I wondered if I should have done something other than go to grad school. Indeed, thinking back over the last decade has been an exercise in thinking, "Should I have done this? Should I have not done that?" Your 20s, after all, are supposed to be the time when you can do anything and everything. But of course, life's not a video game, and you don't need to rack up a certain amount of points to go to the next level.

I suppose I should fill this space with some sort of list or Best Of for the decade, so I'll oblige. My song of the decade, which has helped me cope with a lot of bad shit, both political and personal, is "Me and Mia" by Ted Leo and the Pharmacists:

Ted Leo put out some great stuff this decade -- Hearts of Oak belongs in the pantheon of anti-war, anti-Bush music -- and this song, released just after the 2004 election, is one of his better ones.

Speaking of music, I'm playing around with Tumblr, which seems to be 90% music blogging. My mood is more off-the-cuff nowadays, anyway; perhaps I'll do my blogging there from now on. Happy new year, everyone!

December 22, 2009

After Copenhagen

On the recently concluded Copenhagen climate change agreement -- such as it is -- you can look at it three ways:

1. It's kicking the can down the road. The agreement, with all its placeholders and blank spaces -- most egregiously, the appendix meant to list individual country commitments -- will only have meaning once further negotiations try to breath life into it. It's good that we now have some hard numbers for mitigation/adaptation aid for poor countries ($30 billion by 2012 and $100 billion by 2020), but there's still the niggling questions of who exactly is raising the money, how the money will be distributed, and how to assure that the money is spent properly. Then there's the whole question of verifying emissions goals, especially in China; as John Lee argues, it's an extremely sensitive issue for the Chinese government, which has little interest in reporting accurate statistics for anything, much less carbon emissions.1

2. It's a game changer. The folks at the Center for American Progress have been eternal optimists when it comes to climate negotiations, and they've been quick to point out the upside to the Copenhagen agreement. Andrew Light, for example, points out that with the agreement, President Obama has begun to chart a new path for climate negotiations away from the UN process, which has become something of a farce -- seeing noted human rights champion Sudan, for example, withhold its support for the Copenhagen agreement while comparing it to the Holocaust was especially galling. And indeed, a lot of smart people (e.g., Michael Levi) have been pronouncing the UN process dead; from now on, the action on climate change will be at the G-20 or other small venues. It won't be as conceptually neat at the UN process, but it could get things going much quicker.

3. It's a disaster. This is, essentially, the Bill McKibben response. Not only has Obama signed off on a patently inadequate agreement, but it has jettisoned the UN process to boot (see above). Most of the countries at most risk of climate-induced disaster aren't major emitters, and now they are being excluded from negotiations that could, in some cases, determine their future survival. What China and the US work out may be acceptable for them, in terms of limiting climate change; but it may not be acceptable for, say, the Marshall Islands. Moreover, given that global temperature increases could become irreversible unless we begin to reduce emissions soon, does it really make sense to dick around with half measures?

I've listed these outlooks in the order in which I adhere to them: That is, I see the Copenhagen agreement as a potential way to make real progress in climate change negotiations, but it needs to be elaborated on substantially, and it needs to be done soon. Other people, of course, may order these outlooks differently, or add new ones.

1 Case in point: The last time China did a greenhouse gas inventory -- its only inventory, in fact -- was in 1994.

December 3, 2009

Conservatives for Industrial Policy

John Quiggin has a good commentary on Australia's embattled Liberal Party. They have gone all out in opposition to Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's proposed cap-and-trade system -- even to the point of ousting their leader, Malcolm Turnbull, for his accommodationist stance -- but also seem to recognize that denialism on climate change will make them even more unpopular than they are already. Thus, they seem to be embracing policies that, whatever their merits, have little to do with free market ideology:
Rather, [Liberal MP Wilson Tuckey] suggests 'To respond to these problems the Government should take an up front role investing in and developing Australia's only significant and predictable renewable energy resource which is to be found in the tides of the Kimberley.'

Tuckey also proposes extensive public investment in High Voltage Direct Current transmission lines, noting that 'China will not have an ETS. It will invest in Hydro, Nuclear and other renewable energy. Its Government is already building an extensive HVDC network.'


Having denounced the government's emissions trading scheme as a massive new tax, [Tony Abbott, the new Liberal leader] can scarcely embrace the main alternative, a carbon tax. On the other hand, he has committed himself to achieving the emissions reductions promised by Labor.

In these circumstances, the Chinese approach endorsed by Wilson Tuckey is probably the only feasible option. It is, perhaps, surprising that, having elected its most conservative leader ever, the Liberal Party may have to turn to the Communist Party of China for policy guidance. But politics makes strange bedfellows.
The dynamic reminds me of American conservatives who denounce cap-and-trade as being overly intrusive, but think nothing of calling for massive government investment in clean energy, with the money coming from... well, it's never specified, but it's presumably not as awful as taxing pollution, which any economist will tell you is the most cost-effective and least intrusive (in terms of regulations) way to reduce emissions. Some Democrats, too, seem to have adopted this attitude.

In any case, I think a green industrial policy isn't such a bad idea -- not my first choice, but acceptable -- but it's odd to see right-leaning folks embrace this type of government intervention as the more market-friendly alternative.

UPDATE: TPM has a good primer for Americans on the Australian climate change debate.

Cutting Through the Climate Fog

Chris Hayes makes the case for focusing the climate change debate on -- wait for it -- climate change:
But overall, the public opinion data on climate point to a deeper problem with the way the capping of carbon has been sold, both by Democratic lawmakers and progressive activists--that is, as a bill that seems to have nothing to do with catastrophic climate change. "Make no mistake: this is a jobs bill," President Obama said about the House-passed version of cap and trade (the name of which--American Clean Energy and Security Act--manages to avoid mentioning climate).


This is all true, of course, so far as it goes: cap and trade will create strong incentives for innovation in an economy that badly needs them and will begin re-engineering the fossil fuel economy in a way that will surely create net job benefits. Over time, if we stick to it, it will also delink our foreign and military policies from the pursuit of oil. But those aren't the main reasons to pass the bill. Stopping the planet from melting is.
Fundamentally, keeping climate change from getting out of control is a moral imperative, not only for our sake, but for the sake of our descendants and those who live in poorer and more vulnerable parts of the world. But making moral appeals for public policy, especially where the benefits are diffuse and the costs are often direct, isn't done much by our elites anymore, even those on the left. Tony Judt's recent lecture on social democracy touches on this:
For the last thirty years, in much of the English-speaking world (though less so in continental Europe and elsewhere), when asking ourselves whether we support a proposal or initiative, we have not asked, is it good or bad? Instead we inquire: Is it efficient? Is it productive? Would it benefit gross domestic product? Will it contribute to growth? This propensity to avoid moral considerations, to restrict ourselves to issues of profit and loss—economic questions in the narrowest sense—is not an instinctive human condition. It is an acquired taste.
I'd also add that emphasizing the moral dimensions of climate change could help focus public opinion on the matter. It's well known, for example, that while Americans are generally supportive of doing something about climate change, their views are heavily influenced by all manner of factors, including partisanship, the economy, and even the weather. And it's not just America, either: this graph (via Kate MacKenzie) shows that people in England have a muddled view of the problem too:From a policymaker's perspective, both the things that people think the government is not doing enough of and the things they're doing too much of are necessary -- as is carbon trading, which barely registers with most people. But of course most people aren't thinking of these things as parts of an overall policy, and we shouldn't expect them to. We can, however, make the case that we have a responsibility to do something about climate change; and that, while some shared sacrifice may be involved (though not as much as the doomsayer right believes), it would be wrong for us to shirk this responsibility. That, I think, most people can understand intuitively.