Given the scale and frequency of recent coastal disasters—Typhoon Haiyun, Hurricanes Sandy, Katrina, and Rita, the Fukushima and Indian Ocean Tsunamis—it is time to develop a global strategy for protecting coastal populations. There should be two elements to this strategy: a short-run emergency response and investments in long-term global adaptation.
Was Thomas Malthus right after all? In 1798, Malthus postulated that exponential population growth would outstrip our ability to feed ourselves, dooming civilization. This early attempt at global economic modeling has since been widely discredited. But if you’ve been listening to policy-makers and pundits since food prices spiked in 2008, you’ve likely heard the eerie echoes of Malthusian thinking.
“With almost 80 million more people to feed each year, agriculture can’t keep up with the escalating food demand,” warned Frank Rijsberman, head of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). “FAO estimates that we have to double food production by 2050 to feed the expected 9 billion people, knowing that one billion people are already going to bed hungry every day.”
Well, not so fast. Yes, resource constraints, exacerbated by uncertainties over climate change and the unsustainable consumption of non-renewable resources have introduced new threats to our ability to feed a growing population. The issues are indeed serious, but the specter of looming food shortages is a bit overblown. Read the rest of this entry »
For U.S. climate activists to succeed, they must demand serious government spending on energy efficiency and renewables—spending comparable to the current war budget. Calling for hundreds of billions in annual green public investment has potential for the popular appeal needed to build a powerful grassroots climate movement. That investment would be the best policy as well. Massive clean energy spending would not only provide jobs and economic growth on a grand scale. It is the most effective way to reduce greenhouse gas pollution.
It is widely, though not universally, acknowledged that solving the climate crisis will require public investment and subsidies, efficiency regulations and clean energy requirements, plus a price on greenhouse gas emissions. (The idea behind a carbon price: polluters pay per unit of greenhouse gas pollution released.) But, in practice, policy advocates tend to fetishize the carbon price and drop other requirements. For example, James Hansen, perhaps the world’s leading climate scientists says “If we would put this price on carbon it would favor renewables, and it would favor energy efficiency, and it would favor nuclear power—it would favor anything that is carbon-free… ”[i] Charles Komanoff and James Handley of the Carbon Tax center describe a carbon tax as the “sine qua non of effective climate policy”.[ii] Mainstream environmentalism tends to favor cap-and-trade over carbon fees, which indirectly results in a price on carbon. Between carbon tax and cap-and-trade advocates, most climate change opponents prioritize carbon pricing. Few join Komanoff in referring to such pricing as the “sine qua non” of carbon policy. In policy discussions, however, most environmental economists start with cap-and-trade or a carbon fee, and many never discuss anything else.
James K. Boyce is professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and director of the environment program at the Political Economy Research Institute. His latest book is Economics, the Environment, and Our Common Wealth (Edward Elgar, 2013).
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Three years later, it was time for a new episode. Back in 2010, Congress listened to some climate-denial rants, counted votes, and decided to do absolutely nothing about climate change; this year on Capitol Hill, the magic continues.
Also in 2010, the Obama administration released an estimate of “the social cost of carbon”` (SCC) – that is, the value of the damages done by emission of one more ton of carbon dioxide. Calculated by an anonymous task force that held no public hearings and had no office, website, or named participants, the SCC was released without fanfare as, literally, Appendix 15A to a Department of Energy regulation on energy efficiency standards for small motors.
This year, the Obama administration updated the SCC calculation. The update was done by an anonymous task force that held no public hearings, and had no office, website, or named participants. It first appeared as – yes! – Appendix 16A to a Department of Energy regulation on energy efficiency standards for microwave ovens.
A key threshold measuring the march of global warming was crossed recently, when the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere topped 400 parts per million.
On 10 May scientists announced that 400.03ppm had been measured at a climate-observing station in Hawaii that is often used as a benchmark. The global average is expected to cross the 400ppm mark in the next year.
This means that there in for every one million molecules in the Earth’s atmosphere, there are 400 molecules of carbon dioxide.
A secondary objective of the Copenhagen deal – aside from avoiding emissions cuts the world so desperately requires – was to maintain a modicum of confidence in carbon markets. Especially after the 2008 financial meltdown and rapid decline of European Union Emissions Trading Scheme, BASIC leaders felt renewed desperation to prop up the ‘Clean Development Mechanism’ (CDM), the Third World’s version of carbon trading. Questioning the West’s banker-centric climate strategy – which critics term ‘the privatisation of the air’ – was not an option for BRICS elites, given their likeminded neoliberal orientation.
By the end of 2012, the BRICS no longer qualified to receive direct CDM funds, so efforts shifted towards subsidies for new internal carbon markets, especially in Brazil and China. In February 2013, South African finance minister Pravin Gordhan also announced that as part of a carbon tax, Pretoria would also allow corporations to offset 40 percent of their emissions cuts via carbon markets.
As they meet in Durban on March 26-27, leaders of the BRICS countries – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – must own up: they have been emitting prolific levels of greenhouse gases, far higher than the US or the EU in absolute terms and as a ratio of GDP (though less per person). How they address this crisis could make the difference between life and death for hundreds of millions of people this century.
South Africa’s example is not encouraging. First, the Pretoria national government and its Eskom parastatal electricity generator have recently increased South Africa’s already extremely high emissions levels, on behalf of the country’s ‘Minerals-Energy Complex’. This problem is well known in part because of the failed civil society campaigns against the world’s third and fourth largest coal-fired power plants (Eskom’s Medupi and Kusile), whose financing in 2010 included the largest-ever World Bank project loan and whose subcontractor includes the ruling party’s investment arm in a blatant multi-billion rand conflict of interest.
In my book, Scarcity and Frontiers: How Economies Have Developed Through Natural Resource Exploitation, I chronicle how, since the Agricultural Transition 10,000 years ago, a critical driving force behind global economic development has been the discovery and exploitation of “new frontiers” of natural resources. Natural resource scarcity both drives this process – as costs rise with scarcity we develop the technologies to exploit new resource frontiers – and it is a consequence – once frontiers are settled, developed and exploited, scarcity ensues again.
Today, we are embarking on rapid exploitation of a vast new frontier, the Deep Sea of the world’s oceans.
The Deep Sea begins at around 200 meters (m) depth, which is the limit at which sufficient sunlight penetrates the sea for photosynthesis to occur, and extends to nearly 11,000 m. The area comprising the Deep Sea is vast, covering around 90% of the ocean floor. This region consists of many diverse and interconnecting ecosystems, including abyssal plains, continental slopes, deep-sea canyons, manganese nodule fields, seamounts, cold water coral reefs and gardens, cold seeps and hydrothermal vents. The structure, functioning and dynamics of Deep Sea ecosystems are complex and shaped by many factors, including the depth of the water column above them. In addition, it is still poorly understood how these Deep Sea ecosystems interact with the rest of the ocean on which humankind depends for food, climate and ocean regulation, recreation and other ecosystem goods and services.