Thoughts on the Wallace/Inglis/Myers panel

Last night I moderated a panel at SPU with UW climate scientist Mike Wallace, Washington Policy Center environment director Todd Myers, and Bob Inglis, formerly R-SC and now with the Energy & Enterprise Initiative. (More on all these folks at the E&EI website.) The panelists each made a 10-minute opening statement, followed by Q&A with yours truly and the audience.

Some thoughts, with the caveat that these are my recollections and not direct quotes from the participants:

  1. Mike Wallace’s opening statement made three main points: (1) global warming is real; (2) most of the serious impacts are decades in the future; (3) global warming is only one challenge that will face humanity at the end of this century; food production seemed to be a particular concern to Mike given unsustainable groundwater withdrawals, projected growth in human populations to 9-11 billion, etc.
  2. Bob Inglis emphasized his conservative credentials and the idea that a revenue-neutral tax swap has support from other impeccably conservative folks like Art Laffer. It was easy to see that Bob had been in politics, just like it was easy to see that Mike was a scientist, in part because of their presentation styles: Bob was polished and at ease ad-libbing, while Mike read from a prepared statement and the mic had trouble picking up his voice. A somewhat deeper observation is that Bob clearly spent a good deal of time thinking about language, e.g., arguing for “tax swap” instead of “carbon tax” because it has a greater chance of resonating with conservatives who break out in hives at “carbon” and go into shock at “tax”. He also emphasized repeated in his comments the hidden health costs associated with fossil fuel consumption, citing a study claiming 23,600 premature deaths from coal power plants; I believe that at least once he even referred to this as a “health tax”.
  3. Todd Myers argued that markets are better than political systems at dealing with environmental problems and picking winning technologies. He noted that environmentalists often argue for lifestyle changes (e.g., driving less) but that people like to live the way that the like to live and so technological progress (e.g., more fuel-efficient cars) are a more likely path to success in dealing with climate change. Like Bob Inglis he didn’t have kind words for the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill. (Inglis voted against it.) Todd also argued that it was a good thing that climate change didn’t come up in the presidential debate because it would just lead to even more politicization and polarization.
  4. Mike noted that Hurricane Sandy was only modestly connected to climate change, in that (1) it probably had a little more energy because of increased ocean temperatures and (2) the storm surge came on top of something like 8 inches of climate-change-related sea level rise over the past 150 years or so.
  5. Bob noted that conservative principles argued not just for internalizing externalities but also for getting rid of energy subsidies across the board: no more Solyndras, no more accelerated depreciation for oil and gas leasing rigs.
  6. Both Bob and Todd pushed back against a question suggesting that conservatives weren’t worried about regressivity. They both seemed somewhat open to the “dividend” idea of using carbon tax revenues to provide a per-capita check to every American (in the same way that the Alaska Permanent Fund provides oil dividends to Alaskans).
  7. There was I think a general sense that recent talk about carbon taxes at the federal level was premature and that this would be a long hard slog. Bob highlighted the fact that ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson supports carbon taxes, as does the head of mining giant BHP Billiton. (BHP also has investments in uranium that could become more valuable in a carbon constrained world, and Bob argued that BHP sees coal as ultimately unattractive because the Chinese will develop concerns about local air pollutants and perhaps climate change as well.)

5 responses to “Thoughts on the Wallace/Inglis/Myers panel”

  1. Yoram;

    Nice summary with some very interesting communication observations.

    A couple observations / questions.

    Mike Wallace observation that serious climate impacts won’t happen for decades seems at odds with many prominent climate scientists. The stunningly ahead-of-predictions melt of Arctic sea ice is one, as is the impact it’s having on the jet stream. The changes seem to be incredibly rapid once they get started. The shifts are not smoothly linear they’re rapid, exactly the kinds of stresses that modern civilization doesn’t deal with well. And the drought in America’s breadbasket is predicted to continue and to adversely impact winter wheat and create soil moisture deficits for spring planting. We may not have long to wait to experience food shortages.

    My question is this – What does Mr. Wallace mean by “serious”?

    On energy subsidies: It seems to me that this country is transitioning from fossil fuel based energy to renewable environmentally-friendly energy sources. When we transitioned from a primarily agrarian society to an industrial society there were huge subsidies for fossil fuels. Asking “green” energy industries to transform our energy sources without subsidies seems to simply be a way to hold them back. This would likely favor coal which is hoping to build 1,200+ coal fired power plants worldwide. If this investment in capital infrastructure occurs it would make cleaner energy sources at a great disadvantage.

    Comments?

  2. Hi Dan:

    1) I’m not sure what Mike Wallace would categorize as “serious”; you’d have to ask him.

    2) On energy subsidies: The risk of course is that subsidies will go to the wrong players, like corn ethanol. I see your point but given the realities of the political process I think a no-subsidies outcome (one that got rid of subsidies for fossil fuels and for renewables) could well be preferable to having the political process try to pick winners.

  3. Thanks for taking the time to recap this event.

    However, it seems rather disappointing that the event apparently did not capture the sense of urgency that climate action currently seems to demand… especially since it has been over 47 years since LBJ first received his President’s Science Advisory Committee report (and spoke about the dangers of fossil fuels) that has proven to be incredibly reliable and was produced by climate scientists (Keeling, Ravelle, Craig, Broecker and Smagorinsky) whose work has more or less withstood the test of time despite working with extremely basic computer models. Their CO2 projections and climate sensitivity figures have proven to be very good ballpark estimates as is their rough appraisal of sea level rise, atmosphere and ocean warming and ocean acidification. Most amazing of all is that the report’s writers even then thought that global warming could get so bad that geo-engineering would become necessary… thus causing another unnecessary dependence on inappropriate technology.

    Forty seven years and 9 US Presidents ago would have been a much better time for us conservatives (I was one myself through the Reagan years) to act on a carbon tax (like Europe did) to avoid having to face our grandchildren with all that we could have done and still won’t because we cannot see that our own ideology has been coopted by excessive religiosity and hydrocarbon interests.

    LBJ’s report is a very interesting read whether you are red or blue and here is a link if blog readers are interested. The link is: http://dge.stanford.edu/labs/caldeiralab/Caldeira%20downloads/PSAC,%201965,%20Restoring%20the%20Quality%20of%20Our%20Environment.pdf

    I hope this event becomes serialized in order to see if such a continuous sincere dialog evolves to into a “purple” urgency for rapid US climate change action both domestically and internationally.

  4. The “tax swap” idea would be OK if the new tax is more green and more progressive than the old, yet it begs a critical question. Where’s the tax money going to come from to do the trillions of dollars of investment in infrastructure that is needed? Transportation infrastructure is aging and the green economy is just getting going. And it typically takes generations for a new kind of infrastructure to take over, whereas most markets look at most a few years into the future. So why is it a conservative principle that government should ignore such time delays and refuse to subsidize new technologies so that they can become mature enough to compete on their own (especially when some other countries are doing so, leaving us far behind)?

    Of course the US government has been doing this to great effect for a very long time (the computer industry, for example), not with the expectation that it will always “pick the winners” but knowing that the winners typically emerge from a broad R & D process that includes far more failures than successes.

    In addition we are also now facing the “energy trap” – just when we’ll need a very large investment of resources for infrastructure we’ll be short on these because the world is maxing out on critical resources (fossil fuels, some other minerals, fresh water, forests, fisheries, good agricultural land, etc.). Higher prices will bring some more resources to the market, but the real economic value of these additional resources will be far less than the cheap resources of old because the higher prices reflect less energy returned on energy invested (or more input of resources to get the same output).

  5. Hi Dick: You’re right that there are infrastructure needs, but at the federal level I think folks are mostly talking about using carbon tax revenue for (1) revenue-neutral tax swaps or (2) deficit reduction. The good news is that there are state-level efforts, including our our CarbonWA effort here in Washington State, to connect carbon tax revenue with infrastructure needs.

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