October 11, 2012
The childishly simplistic maxim, ‘Thou shalt not intitate force or fraud against the property or person of another’ lies at the heart of libertarianism, and by proxy much of ideological climate scepticism. It is a credo that appeals to those who believe that the moral consequences of the exercise of power can be coherently divided between politics and economics; typically because they have rather more of one sort of power than another. Holding that only the use of force in a physical sense is morally problematic ignores a whole category of other kinds of harm that economic power permits one to perpetrate. Regardless, this principle is useful inasmuch as it provides a clue as to the ultimate downfall of climate scepticism: the fact that, by this principle, contributing towards climate change is a crime.
If you steal from me – if you procure through force what is mine – I must have recourse to justice under. Assuming that some kind of government exists and my access to justice is not limited to beating you up, some kind of ruling is required in order to ascertain the facts of the matter. My own testimony that you initiated force against my property is insufficient for conviction if you deny it; justice is not conditional on my evidence alone. It requires a body to whom we have both given exclusive rights to the use of force to adjudicate.
The reason this is a problem for climate scepticism is that ultimately the debate is about a crime, albeit a crime we are committing against ourselves on a civilisation-wide scale. By your emissions of greenhouse gases, you are harming the biosphere I from which I acquire air, water and the sustenance of the industrial civilisation I have come to rely for the amenities of modern life. My side of the debate claims that this crime has happened and is happening, while climate sceptics, here playing the role of the defendent, insist that it is not.
We do not normally conceptualise climate change as a crime because it has unpleasant implications: namely, that we are all criminals. I am currently writing this on a computer with a 300watt power supply. Assuming it is running at full tilt, by the time I have used this computer for an hour I will have committed offences against myself and my fellow citizens totalling about 150g of CO2 and its equivalents. This is not illegal, and yet – given the above principle – it is clearly immoral. I have initiated force against you and your property, and there is nothing you can legally do about it. I am a criminal in the broadest sense of the word, and yet I walk free, because to incarcerate me would require that everyone else be imprisoned too.
Instead, we subject policies designed to counter climate change to the court of public opinion. Our efforts to rehabilitate ourselves through low-carbon measures only make sense if we have genuinely committed a crime, and so message boards and blogs throng to the sound of people furiously protesting their innocence. Discourse will never solve this issue by itself, because – much like the claim and counterclaim of stealing given above – it is merely one set of persons’ word against another. As a result, the debate has begun to shift into the courts, where resolution can be reached. The case in March this year in which a climate sceptic state attourney general attempted to prosecute a university under US legislation designed to prevent fraud against taxpayers is an illustration of things to come. It is interesting that it has been climate sceptics in the main who have started the legal bandwagon rolling; this makes more sense if one considers these court cases as less about discrete matters of science and more as appeals against an Establishment view that has already found itself guilty of this crime and is beginning to institute punishment.
So far, the sceptics are losing, and I would expect them to keep doing so. There is only so many times that a court can rule against a position before it loses all credence, and I expect that the climate sceptics will attempt to reach this limit before finding another reason to be resentful of a world rapidly changing around them. It is possible, if the rule of law is sufficiently subverted, that they may win a few rounds, but the end outcome is not in doubt. They will seek to appeal our own innocence on behalf of us all, but ultimately this will be their downfall. We have initiated force against ourselves, and justice must be served.
July 3, 2012
George Monbiot has today announced his discovery of economics. Well, that’s perhaps not precisely what he meant, but it’s certainly what this means:
“The constraints on oil supply over the past 10 years appear to have had more to do with money than geology. The low prices before 2003 had discouraged investors from developing difficult fields. The high prices of the past few years have changed that.”
You see, there’s no such thing as supply-and-demand as discrete quantities. What there is is ‘demand-at-a-price’ and ‘supply-at-a-price’. Until oil passed the $70/barrel price – and looked to remain there for the long term – there was no additional supply, because there was no demand for oil at $70/barrel. Now the market price is reaching over $100/barrel, there certainly is.
Monbiot is interpreting this to mean that peak oil, which he seems to conceive of as actually running out of the stuff, is not going to happen. However, this isn’t what peak oil actually is. Rather, ‘peak oil’ is a price of oil so high that other commodities fulfilling a similar role become cheaper by comparison. This includes, for example, renewable sources of electricity, hydrogen or electric cars, and non-oil based plastics and lubricants. In economics, these are known as ‘substitute goods’.
The increasing supply of oil from non-traditional sources spurred on by the high oil price is beginning to foster a market in substitute goods. For example, the US firm Metabolix has been in the business of producing plant-based plastics for several years now, and is the brainchild of ex-oil and pharmaceutical types. This stands outwith any Government subsidy programme, although I’m sure significant amounts of subsidy for corn in the US helped. We can expect this to continue as the price of oil rises.
As a result of this, there will not be one ‘peak’ for oil – there will be multiple plateaus and transitions in the price, as one substitute good replaces demand for oil from a particular sector. Eventually, our economy will no longer be dependent on it, as the price rises so high that we substitute it entirely. This will be long before it actually runs out; as has been said, the stone age did not end because we ran out of stones.
The above is not an argument against environmental activism, or leaving everything to the market – far from it. ‘Peak Oil’ will not come soon enough to prevent dangerous climate change, and so activism, both for subsidies for cleantech which bring forward the date at which they’re cheap enough to be a substitute good and against oil production fromthe likes of the tar sands, which increases the cost of gaining permits and so on, makes a difference. This fundamentally economic difference made by environmental activists may yet be the difference between dangerous climate change and climate change we can just about adapt to.
March 13, 2012
Today the conservative philosopher Roger Scruton is giving a talk at Policy exchange about his new book, “Green Philosophy: How to Think Seriously About the Planet”. The title itself is an interesting challenge to environmental philosophers – thinking about the planet is, in itself, impossible; forming a judgement about the billions of separate inputs, parameters and indeed lives that comprise our world cannot be done in same way as we decide whether to kill the fat man. We cannot accommodate planet-wide problems within the rather limited confines of our thought processes, outwith analyses of serried ranks of numbers that are not amenable to our normal moral intuitions.
Yet, the very nature of climate change means that we are forced to consider the moral issues around planet-wide problems and to make judgements about them. Such judgements may, if we are not careful, degrade into mere social signifiers – e.g. “I do my recycling to demonstrate that I am morally good”, without any broader consideration of the issue to hand. The macro scale of the decisions to be made around preventing climate change – decisions iterated across billions of people and across decades of time – means that the judgement of ‘We should do something about climate change’ will not be made by any one person at any one point, but rather through the aggregate of the choices made by everyone in the years past and the years to come.
Therefore, in considering environmental philosophy, one does not consider any particular decision but rather one’s character, which gives rise to the decisions one makes. We should consider what virtues we can cultivate that make us more likely to undertake the ecologically correct action in any given situation. In this context, Scruton advocates that we should cultivate a virtue he calls ‘oikophilia’. This is not, as one might assume, a reiteration of Cameron’s call to ‘hug a hoodie’, but rather refers to a love of home and community, and comes from the greek word ‘oiko’, meaning house. This is contrasted with a lack of this virtue – ‘oikophobia’, which as Jonathan Ree points out, it is difficult to imagine anyone actually possessing.
Scruton’s argument for this virtue is that it motivates; people do genuinely care about their environment inasmuch as it constitutes the framework that enables their community and home to exist. Oikophilia, when cultivated, motivates one to act in stewardship of one’s community, with the environmental protections that entails. Of course, this limits judgements made in the pursuit of environmental protection to those that do not disturb one’s understanding of one’s own community, as evidenced by Scruton’s statement: “Why care for the environment, if the price of doing so is the loss of an environment that you could care for?” The virtue cannot be self-defeating; one cannot destroy one’s motivation for following it through decisions arising from it.
Scruton calls this virtue conservative. However, it has a surprising level of similarity to, if one were being kind, one could describe as the ‘neo-peasantry’ advocated by the likes of the New Economics Foundation, and with the kind of embedded social networks discussed by Karl Polanyi. Indeed, it makes for odd bedfellows with Scruton’s commitment to free markets; if I am committed to my community, why should I buy goods from people who live beyond it? Why should I accept ownership of anything in my community by someone who lives outwith it? Even more broadly, why should I accept incomers into my community from outside?
This confusion has arisen because Scruton has failed to realise that the partner ‘vice’ to his virtue is not ‘oikophobia’ – as mentioned above, it is difficult to think of anyone who hates their own homes – but rather ‘biophilia’, the love of all life regardless of its connection to your community or, indeed, yourself. Scruton has recognised a rather basic psychological truth, which is that our intuitive moral concern does diminish with distance from the self, and attempted to harness this effect to motivate pro-environmental judgements. Oikophilia is not a virtue so much as a base state of mankind; one hardly needs to go round the world to identify that mankind is adept at organising itself into communities. Even in our great cities, communities exist: they merely overlap and coexist in the same space as each other; witness this description of a community forming around the use of Twitter during Question Time. While oikohilia can motivate environmental protection, it will necessarily do so in a way in which puts the protection of the aspects and parts of the environment of most meaning to that community over and above that of other communities. Scruton clearly recognises this tendency:
“Environmental degradation has one cause above all others: the propensity of human beings to take the benefit and leave the costs to someone else, preferably someone far away in space or time, whose protests can be safely ignored.”
However, he fails to realise that it is the partner of the virtue he advocates. Oikophilia can, and has been, harnessed in the cause of local environmental protection, but only incidentally in the cause of global action. Scruton rejects any imposition on communities from outside of, for example, a penalty on the use of fossil fuels, but simultaneously claims that those communities will accept that cost if it is imposed by themselves, even when the actual ‘cost’ of fossil fuels will, in all likelihood, not fall on that community for many years. There is no rational reason for a community of oikophiles to accept a cost that will fall on other people, and Scruton does not seem to provide one.
A true Green philosophy is to cultivate the virtue of biophilia, to possess a love of all life powerful enough to impose costs upon oneself in proportion to the costs of climate change across the planet, not simply their likely impact upon one’s community. Scruton’s rather narrow variant of this will do nothing beyond hand his fellow conservatives the justification to reject any remedy they dislike. Which may, perhaps, be the point.
September 26, 2011
Economic blogger Tim Worstall has been getting very excited about shale gas. Cuadrilla Energy, a company set up to explore for unconventional gas in the UK, are reporting the discovery of 200 trillion cubic feet of the stuff under Lancashire. Tim is positively cock-a-hoop at the prospect of sufficient reserves of fossil fuels to allow us to without ‘damn windmills’ entirely.
I read Tim’s blog on a regular basis, for its amusing deconstruction of left-wing economic tropes, and I am disappointed that Tim hasn’t applied his usual economic rigour here. Shale gas appears to have become something of a magic bullet for certain sections of the Right, but as Tim would normally be the first to say, if your magic bullet is made of platinum and a thousand regular bullets do the same job, it’s probably not worth bothering with.
Tim appears to be putting himself in a box with some rather mad fellow travellers, like James Delingpole and Christopher Booker, perhaps to get a similar Telegraph gig. Let me try to summarise this shared position:
- Renewables are bad, because they require space in a countryside that must be locked into a sepia-tinted version of the 1950s for the rest of time, are very clearly associated with hippies and filthy left-wingers, and above all are expensive. Tim is currently only espousing the last of these points.
- A far better way of securing our energy sources is to rely on unsubsidised fossil fuels, which human ingenuity will guarantee cheap and plentiful supplies of for the foreseeable future.
It’s this question of cost that’s at the heart of the current debate, and rightly so – we need to decarbonise our economy, but we need to do it in the most cost-effective way possible. The key question, therefore, is how much shale gas actually costs, rather than how much Tim, James and Christopher think it costs.
To do so we’ll look at some research carried out by the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies. The OIES is partly funded by those well-known opponents of the oil and gas industry, the oil and gas industry. The paper we’ll look at is called ‘Can Unconventional Gas be a Game Changer in European Gas Markets?’ by Florence Gény.
The paper can be summarised as ‘No, Europe is different, and it’s not clear that shale gas is as profitable and productive in the US as its advocates claim’. The section relevant to our question here is from Chapter 4:
“Although gas production has continued to increase in 2009 and 2010 despite lower prices than in the previous years, there is a big question mark about current well economics. Many public sources estimate that the average price required for shale gas wells to be economic is around $6/mcf. Averages are a very poor measure to use in the case of shale plays, as every play is different, and within plays, core areas and non-core areas yield very different results, but the fact that by late 2010, gas prices had not reached $6/mcf for two years suggests that the commercial viability of many wells drilled, and so the financial solidity of many independents, could be very weak. We believe it is only a question of time before costs drive up prices, or drilling slows downs significantly and production falls. However many independents get financial protection against low gas prices through hedging strategies, so the cash impact of non commercial drilling is mitigated.”
The reduction in the price of gas in the US appears to have been caused by a broader range of drivers, not least the economic downturn and a significant increase in the number of gas processing plants, which convert unprocessed gas into dry natural gas suitable for injection into the gas grid. It’s not clear that shale is the primary cause of lower gas prices – or indeed whether shale gas suppliers can make money out of it when gas prices are low. Certainly, one of the strongest advocates of shale gas production in the US, Chesapeake Energy, made a significant loss in 2009, although they appear to have since climbed out of the hole, primarily by selling off shale gas assets. Cuadrilla doesn’t appear to have ever made a profit, although as a start-up that’s not really a consideration.
What does this mean for ‘damn windmills’? We can plug the $6/mcf figure into the costings report produced by Mott Macdonald for DECC last year. It models a range of gas prices. $6/mcf translates to about 37p per therm. The lower boundary of prices in the Mott Macdonald report is 34p per therm. Looks good for shale, right?
Well, no. The prices in the Mott Macdonald report are ‘burner tip’ prices – i.e. the cost to generators per therm at combustion. The $6/mcf price is the wellhead price, which is typically around $1-2 below the wholesale price. Factoring in the need for shale gas suppliers to make a profit, the burner-tip price of shale gas is going to look a lot more like DECC’s medium case. Under this case, onshore wind turbines will be the cheapest source of electricity by the end of this decade, when the carbon cost of gas is factored in. The latter won’t be a consideration for those who find the very concept of science an affront to their all-knowing egos like Delingpole and Booker, but for Tim, who acknowledges science as a worthwhile field, it will be.
If Tim had written ‘damn tidal mills’ he would’ve been correct. Different types of renewable energy generators will become economically viable at different times. A combination of onshore wind and combined-cycle gas turbines will be the cheapest way of replacing the quarter of our electricity generators that are being shut down over the course of this decade. I don’t mind admitting that, as a fervent supporter of capitalism, I’ve put my money into this solution. I too believe in the power of human ingenuity to provide solutions to our energy problems; I just don’t think it only applies to fossil fuels.
I would also point out that because of the long lead-time on making new sources of energy economically viable, subsidies can be a sensible policy option. For example, in 1980, the US Government brought in ‘The Alternative Fuel Production Credit’ to provide incentives to invest in non-traditional sources of energy. One of those was shale gas.
February 21, 2011
I am a great believer in spending decisions revealing what people actually think. For example, as a proportion of my income, I spend significantly more on alcohol than I do on giving to charities. This allows one to draw the conclusion that I care more about getting drunk than I do about charitable endeavours. Whatever my protestations to the contrary, that would be a fair summary, if I did not devote any time to actually working for said charities. Similarly, one can judge how much you care about people in the developing world in relation to your relatives by comparing the proportion of your income that goes to charities focused at that aim compared to the amount you spend on gifts for said relatives. It turns out that I care more about my sisters than the entire continent of Africa, for example.
The best-known example of this ‘actual thinking revelation’ or ‘revealed preferences’ in action is the market, wherein people spend their money in such a way as to reveal what they really think about the product on offer – or, in the case of the futures, equities, and other financial wizardries markets, what they think about the future of a given commodity or company.
I can see a way of harnessing this phenomenon to produce a win-win outcome for myself. I’m pretty sure climate change is a real thing, mostly because carbon dioxide causes radiative forcing, and any reduction in the ice caps will lower the planet’s albedo and thus increase heat absorption. The extent to which it’s happening is something about which I am uncertain but entirely content to leave in the hands of climate scientists, who seem like a relatively good bunch of chaps, albeit testy in the manner of academics. If someone put out some kind of global warming investment product, which would produce returns as the planet got hotter, I would buy it.
The inverse holds true for climate sceptics. If they really don’t believe the planet is hotting up, then they’ll be willing to buy a product which cashes this claim out. Therefore, I have an Idea for a Business.
What happens if the planet gets hotter? The ice caps melt, and sea levels rise. As a consequence of the latter, land values of low-lying coastal regions decrease, because now they’re underwater. If it doesn’t get hotter, the value of the land under consideration will remain the same, or perhaps go up.
Therefore, I would like to create a business that sells what I call the ‘Climategate Bond’. I will purchase significant tracts of land in areas of the developing world under threat from global warming, and rent them out to local farmers or other land users. I will package up the debt I used to buy the land up with a coupon comprising a portion of the rents extracted from the users of the land, with the remainder going to myself as an operating expense. I will market these bonds in the pages of the Telegraph and the Mail, with perhaps some space on libertarian blogs and Watts up with that.
Assuming I structure the bond in such a way as to ensure the liability lies with its purchaser rather than myself, I will have no worries if my investors’ money ends up, shall we say, underwater. They will make a tidy return on the backs of impoverished farmers in a world of rising food prices, and I will make a lot of money. Of course, if global warming is actually happening, they’ll lose their investment. I’ll make less money, but be proven right.
So, who wants to give me the initial capital I’ll require to get this idea (copyrighted to me forever) off the ground?
February 17, 2011
I’m surprised that I even need to say this, but global warming is a bad thing that we don’t want to happen. This simple message appears to have been lost as a consequence of the rise of climate scepticism. And so, when we get further confirmation that a bad thing looks almost certain to happen, our response shouldn’t be to be ever so slightly smug that it looks like we were right about the bad thing happening. It certainly shouldn’t be:
“…we can say, with an even higher degree of confidence than before, that climate change makes extreme events more likely to happen.”
It should be:
“…we can say, with an even higher degree of despair than before, that climate change makes extreme events more likely to happen.”
January 26, 2011
Hot on the heels of Telegraph ‘blogger’ James Delingpole’s meltdown on Horizon, the Telegraph has taken aim at another bugbear of the pro-science folk: the potential for an asteroid to smash into the Earth and extinguish almost all life. Apparently, we’re all getting our knickers in a twist over nothing, because such an asteroid would ‘create opportunities for life’. This is an argument right up there with ‘Carbon Dioxide is plant food’ in the MISSING THE FUCKING POINT scales.
I look forward to the future division of the debate into the pro-meteor defence and anti-meteor defence camps. You see, Government spending to prevent the extinction of all life remains Government spending, and libertarians just can’t have that. I wonder if the Koch Brothers will sponsor an anti-Nasa thinktank in the near future; heaven knows they’re already opposed to little things like satellite data.
September 30, 2010
“You’re a mentalist!”
- Alan Partridge
An article on the Guardian’s ‘Cif Green’ section today actually makes the claim that:
“Of course we could solve the problems of today if we reverted to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle.”
I would like to dispute this, if I may, and in doing so discuss further the rise of the group I would like to call the Environ-Mentalists; those who believe that our current industrial civilisation has doomed itself and all that’s left is to sing sad songs in the dark, like a race of angst-ridden teenagers.
Let’s first look at the land area hunter-gather tribes require to provide nutrition. This study of a tribe living the tropical rainforest of the Democratic Republic of Congo appears to indicate that the maximum this lush & bountiful environment can sustain is a population density of one person per square kilometre – and this is factoring in a certain amount of agriculture. Making the very charitable assumption that every part of Earth is equally able to support hunter-gatherer humans, a land area of 148,300,000 square kilometres implies that 97.5% of the current human population of 6 billion would have to die to make this ‘dream’ a reality. It’s good to know that Caroline Wickham-Jones appears to view slaughter beyond nightmares with such casual disregard.
To be fair, I didn’t supply the entire quote:
“Of course we could solve the problems of today if we reverted to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, but global populations and changed circumstances make that impossible.”
Which does make clear that she doesn’t believe we should necessarily slaughter almost everyone on the planet, merely that the ‘changed circumstances’ that allowed that population to come about are an irritation in this sense.
But what are those changed circumstances?
“Over time, we have seen that economies of scale can be false economies; increasing specialisation can be loss of wisdom; industry can reduce ability.”
This woman is an archaeologist who believes that specialisation causes ‘wisdom’ to be lost. Just gape in astonishment at that statement; and ponder what ‘wisdom’ was lost when we stopped living in caves.
The Dark Mountain Project
Wickham-Jones isn’t the only one who believes that our pesky industrial civilisation is holding us back from running through the trees dancing and singing; we also have the astonishing chaps at the Dark Mountain Project who – honestly – believe that a civilisation isn’t defined by the machines they use or the goods they produce, but rather by the myths and stories associated with them. They’re trying to start what they term an Uncivilisation, which aims to be a collective of writers, artists & thinkers who will preserve these myths through the disruption and collapse of climate change. It’s all wonderfully romantic, but it contains a danger that the movement’s ostensible leader demonstrates in this article. His call for a return to the deep green of the older ecology movement is very enticing, but ultimately leads to the same conclusions as Wickham-Jones: billions must die to make it a reality.
On the other side, you have the anti-environmental ludicrousnessesses like James Delingpole, who are so wedded to such an individualistic epistemology that they’re willing to sacrifice science on its altar. Caught between the extremes of misanthropy and misology are the rest of us, whom I’m going to call the Industrial Environmentalists. This includes the likes of George Monbiot (despite his recent paen of despair). We believe that humans do impact on the planet, on its atmosphere and on ecosystems – but that this can be overcome, not by giving up civilisation but by using the ingenuity that gave rise to it in the first place. We believe that ecological damage and global warming are major concerns – but concerns we can overcome through the application of reason and industry. And, if possible, we’d like both extremes of the debate to start talking to each other rather than us, so we can get on with saving the planet and our civilisation while they cancel each other out.
August 9, 2010
Lib Dem Voice have put a poll asking Lib Dems to vote on Huhne’s new nuclear stance. The party’s official line is that new nuclear power is not necessary to combat climate change, and is a danger in itself. Since starting work in the energy industry, I’ve realised that’s almost certainly daft. However, a lot of older activists are passionately opposed to nuclear power, and Huhne’s sop to them has been to say that new nuclear plants can be built – but that the state won’t subsidise them.
This is a good policy, although Huhne’s been lambasted from the right for it. We’re shutting down a lot of old plant – both nuclear and fossil fuelled – over the next ten years, and we have an energy deficit coming up. DECC’s Pathways document, released at the same time as Huhne’s Energy Statement, attempts to map out our options to overcome this, while ensuring that we reach our 2020 carbon reduction targets.
Politics: the Right on Energy
The right tends to love nuclear as a solution to carbon targets and the power gap – read the rantings of Roger Helmer MEP for a surprising instance of a Conservative praising the French way of doing things. The reasons given are typically economic – they believe nuclear is cheaper than any of the alternatives. The problem is that this nonsense – as I discuss on the Embrace blog. The cost of installing new nuclear capacity is above onshore wind, and comparable to offshore once the financing costs for nuclear are factored in. It’s therefore not clear that nuclear is cheaper – especially as the taxpayer is liable under treaty for the costs of a nuclear accident.
Sorry, let me say that again: the taxpayer is liable under treaty for the costs of a nuclear accident.
That’s quite a subsidy you’ve got going on there. I’m fairly sure the taxpayer wouldn’t have to pay the costs for a wind turbine falling over.
On that subject, the right loath wind turbines in particular, largely because they’re a totemic symbol of the green movement intruding on their rural idylls where they’ve been consuming resources happily for decades without reality intruding at all. Nuclear allows them to shove all that dirty ‘production’ somewhere out of site, so they can continue pretending that an economy based on ever-expanding consumption has no impact on the world. James Delingpole in particular has a weird pathological obsession with them, viewing them as some sort of Martian intruder into the Arcadian landscapes of his youth. In the north, we’ve been digging up our landscapes for centuries to power our industry. To me, views like Delingpole’s are several centuries out of date.
Mechanics of Energy
If we’re looking for the most economic solution to cross the power gap and reach our emissions targets, you can’t just say ‘Wind Turbines!’ or ‘Nukes!’. This is because powering the UK is an incredibly complicated business presided over by the unsung heroes of our day-to-day life, the National Grid. They have to deal with daily fluctuations in power demand of between 20-25GW (to put that in perspective, the biggest generator in the UK, Sizewell B, produces about 1.2GW). To do this, they need two broad types of power stations: baseload plants and ‘peaker’ plants. The baseload supply the electricity that’s constantly demanded – around 40GW. The ‘peaker’ plants supply electricity to meet peak demand – around 20-25GW, as mentioned. Different types of plant are easier to ramp up and down than others – for example, gas can be switched on and off very fast, while it’s unsurprisingly difficult to tone down a nuclear reactor. The French model Roger Helmer advocates uses 80% nuclear, requiring some of their nuclear plants to run in ‘load-following’ mode, which is difficult and expensive to achieve. They have to do this because putting too much power into the grid at once would produce an effect analogous to a power surge in your house, except across the entire country. It has to be carefully balanced – which is why I said National Grid really were unsung heroes.
Even with load-following nuclear plant, the French regularly dump a lot of their excess electricity onto international markets to avoid overloading the grid – there’s a 1.2GW pipe under the Channel they use to give us electricity. They can do this because they’re heavily interconnected with their neighbours, reducing the risk of overload. We’re not. No-one serious is taking Roger Helmers’ position.
Wind turbines are good for peak power – their seasonal & daily output broadly follows demand trends, with a significant amount of variability. However, because they’re variable, they’re less good at satisfying peak demand. Typically they’re balanced with fast reserve plant, like gas.
You should be able to see the outline of a future energy mix from the above, and this is what I suspect Huhne’s policy is aiming at. Nuclear will receive a subsidy in the form of a carbon tax that will make all low carbon sources of electricity competitive. It will receive the mammoth public liability subsidy that no-one likes to talk about. It probably won’t get an additional subsidy along the lines of renewable energy. If it’s economic after all this, it will be built – but those building it will probably be required to set up a special bond for decommissioning, to pay the eventual clear-up costs. Something similar is required of mining projects, and constitutes a good model for dealing with economically useful but environmentally damaging projects.
How then should I vote?
Go for the top option on the poll – nuclear has enough subsidy to be built with the carbon tax and liabilities factored in. Reserve the right to change your mind if a privately-funded decommissioning bond isn’t required. In that event, a massive expansion of renewables is the most cost-effective option.
Isn’t telling people how to vote on a poll illiberal?
Yes. But so are blackouts. They constrain your ability to choose to have the lights on.
August 3, 2010
Section 1: The Argument
While much of the left continues to fight amongst itself over how it should react to the fact that its political wing doesn’t even have a whisker of power any more, the centre-right coalition that currently governs the country is busy reshaping it in its own image. This is no surprise; all parties do this when they’re in office. The problem is that arguing entirely within a left-wing context means that your arguments have little purchase beyond your immediate ideological buddies, inevitably weakening the left’s eventual response to the new age of austerity. As an avowed centrist who fundamentally dislikes any one side of the debate getting too much power, I’d like to sketch out an argument that the left can use to demonstrate the moral necessity of progressive taxation using the language and principles of right-wing libertarianism.
It revolves around the peculiar interplay between the notion of a strong moral right to property and inheritance tax – or, as it’s been relabelled by the right-wing campaigners on the rather patronising assumption that Daily Mail readers won’t understand that ‘inheritance’ involves people dying, the Death Tax. I think this new nomenclature should be embraced; indeed, it should be extended. I propose instead of an inheritance tax, we work towards a Death & Destruction Tax.
The argument is this. To the right, your moral right to property is derived from your work to achieve it (“I worked hard for my money, and I deserve to be able to spend it any way I like”). This isn’t anything to do with a labour theory of value, of course – the quantity of money you are due in accordance with your work is set by the market. Your moral right to property is partly determined by the purchasing choices of other people, to illustrate one of the bizarre contradictions inherent in this way of thinking.
Within this framework, inheritance tax can be construed as an evil (“I worked to give my children a better life, and the state shouldn’t take that away by force.”). The state does not have a right to the products of your work, as moral rights to property are determined by that work – assuming, as seems reasonable, that right-wing viewpoints tend towards a night watchman state.
However, the notion of moral rights to property (as opposed to legal rights) begins to break down at death. You’ve transferred your assets to your offspring, but the original moral right that says it would be wrong to take away those assets is still derived from your work, not your offspring’s. The notion of a transferable moral right in this context is peculiar in itself – you can transfer the moral right to property through voluntary exchange or donation, but the source of that right remains yourself. Therefore, when disposing of your assets at death, the wealth you are rightfully able to pass on is determined by the work you’ve done to create it. These assets come in two forms: wealth-generating assets (land, industrial plant, stocks & shares) and liquidity (i.e. cash or some other bearer of value). Since the moral right determining the ownership of these assets is derived from your work, that moral right is limited by any destruction of assets your work has entailed.
This is because the balance between the liquidity derived from overexploiting wealth-producing assets and the liquidity derived from sustainably exploiting those assets is not necessarily equivalent. Say a forest contains 100 trees, and expands at a rate of 10 trees per year. The price of lumber equivalent to a tree is £10. You can earn £100 per year exploiting the forest in a sustainable fashion. However, if the price of lumber rises to £20 per tree, you could chop down the entire forest in a single year for a return of £2,000 – a figure it would’ve otherwise taken you 20 years to achieve.
Once that 20 years is up, however, you’re making a loss on the asset. However, you don’t care, as you’re now dead, and we’re considering whether you should be liable for destroying assets that could’ve otherwise generated wealth.
It’s pretty clear under this notion of moral right that you are, certainly morally culpable for destroying wealth-producing assets: you’re free to do what you wish with your property when you’re alive, but on death any future owner of those assets has had their ability to generate wealth harmed by your action, and since under this notion of moral rights you can only pass on the wealth you’ve worked to generate, you can’t pass on wealth you’ve destroyed.
The basis of an inheritance tax – or, as I prefer, a Death & Destruction Tax – should be the value of sustainable wealth-producing assets you’ve destroyed over the course of your life. A night watchman state should seek reparations for the destruction of assets belonging to other people – and necessarily, on your death, those assets will belong to other people. However, those reparations can’t go to those you’ve specified will receive your wealth – this is a reparative measure, and therefore reparations must go to all potential future holders of your assets, as eventually your heirs will die too. This means the broader population, in some way to be determined by some form of collective expression of their will. We could call it the state.
Section 2: Implications & Objections
Destruction of sustainable assets is a broad term – it clearly doesn’t cover digging up ores or even oil, but it does cover environmental damage as a consequence of those activities, as well as over-farming, over-fishing, watershed destruction and – of course – emitting gases that will adversely affect the environment. You’d clearly be liable for any of those – but you’d also be liable for any destruction engendered by your action, such as companies you’ve invested in performing any similar activities.
There is, therefore, a risk of double payment: if this measure or a similar one were implemented, green taxes on emissions of industry in which you’ve invested would reduce your rate of return while simultaneously making you liable for D&D. It’s possible that any implementation of this tax would need to consider the role of other taxes in this system when considering which assets were liable.
This leads on to another obvious objection: this tax would be overly complicated and bureaucratic to collect. However, setting it in a contemporary context, this isn’t so clear – much of the work around the sustainability of assets like fisheries is already being done, and environmental audits for major companies are relatively commonplace. It may be the case that it’s more difficult to identify ownership of assets reaching significantly far back into the past, and therefore any implementation may need to consider a cut-off period for asset checks – perhaps ten years before death, or when actuarial tables indicate that the probability of surviving beyond a particular age begins to look dicey.
Implementation would certainly entail a switch in pension funds away from enterprises involving overexploitation of assets and into sustainably-managed businesses, like renewable energy (disclaimer: I work in the renewables industry). It would most likely lead to a sudden dumping of overexploited assets on the market – which, in the case ruined farmland, may make them cheap enough to permit restoration work.
Overall, the tax would force a reconsideration of one’s long-term impact on the world, by forcing you to work out what you really would leave when you’re gone. It also demonstrates that taxation at death can be a moral imperative for any state – regardless the role one attributes to it.