Our new hydroverlords

The image below is one of four precipitation models published by the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) that together forecast extreme global drought less than 50 years from now as a consequence of climate change. What follows illustrates predicted global precipitation levels in 2060-2069 assuming a moderate greenhouse gas emissions scenario as defined by the International Panel on Climate Change. Moderate.

Climate prediction map 2060-2069

Precipitation Model with Climate Change: 2060-2069

Take a moment to let all the purple, red, and yellow sink in. These are Dust Bowl conditions and worse. Take another moment.

It is difficult to emphasize enough the gravity of this predicted drought. We should all keep the above image in mind when we consider the value of water. Water is fundamental to the existence of life as we know it. Not just human beings. All life on Earth. For obvious utilitarian and deontological reasons, by the land ethic and the difference principle, by the precautionary and proactionary principles, and by our natural moral sense, water is of the highest non-arbitrary value and it is our responsibility as constituents of the human world and of the Earth itself—if we even entertain such a distinction—to do everything in our power to prevent and prepare for this possibility.

Pause to consider what it would mean for governance, for geopolitics, for the world if we fail to curb climate change beyond this moderate GHG emissions path and simultaneously 1) fail to implement and enforce the universal human right to water as recognized by 122 countries of the UN in 2010, and/or 2) consent to the privatization of water resources by multi-national corporations. I, for one, would not welcome our new hydroverlords.

What’s worse, the map shown above is only the third of four models. The fourth model extends from 2090-2099. Brace yourself for the purple: Precipitation Model with Climate Change: 2090-2099

Water resource management, conservation, and preservation will likely fall into their own compartmentalized regime complexes—as discussed by Keohane and Victor—fragmented from other initiatives focused on mitigating and adapting to the various impacts of climate change. According to Keohane and Victor, there’s reason to be optimistic about the capacities of this regime structure. But simply adapting to new conditions of water scarcity equates to treating the symptom rather than the disease. While adaptation is absolutely necessary, we must simultaneously confront climate change at its source: human greenhouse gas emissions (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, etc.) and the several positive feedback cycles that global warming entails.

Atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations alone are currently around 397 parts per million (ppm), which essentially guarantees an increase in average global temperatures of ~4 degrees Fahrenheit (~2 degrees Celsius). What’s more, unless we reduce GHG emissions by ~80%, we can expect the increase in average global temperature to be even more dramatic.

Confronting climate change means one of two things (and maybe both, but probably not—the former would render the latter largely unnecessary and the latter would likely preclude the former). We must reduce greenhouse gas emissions through 1) an immediate significant reduction in energy consumption or 2) a techno-scientific revolution in renewable energy, energy storage, energy transmission, transportation, agriculture, infrastructure, manufacturing, and architecture.

Coupling either approach with reforestation and afforestation projects would be a good idea too, especially considering the Brazilian government’s recent report that deforestation in the Amazon has actually gotten worse since May of 2012.

In all likelihood, the future holds an increase in energy consumption, not a decrease, so we must—at some level—prepare ourselves to rely on faith in Julian Simon’s infinite resource of the human mind to spark the large-scale techno-scientific advances that the climatic consequences of our industrial behavior demand. We must have faith in progress, despite the paradox therein. A daunting task, to be sure, but we have little choice as we have collectively agreed, both implicitly and explicitly, that the Good Life is an energy intensive one. The climate challenge is upon us. If we are to progress, we must progress toward sustainability—and hopefully to a future with more water than NCAR has predicted. Let’s get it together, humans.



We need a knowledgeable nudge

Here Michael Levi of the Council on Foreign Relations argues that the SCOTUS ruling on the Affordable Care Act bodes well for the constitutionality of environmental policies that use taxes to influence our behavior. Of particular interest to me here is the idea that policies, like taxes, can nudge us to act ethically. Pigouvian taxes, for instance, aim to internalize the negative externalities of economic activity. A pollution tax, e.g., influences behavior by giving emitters a choice: “pay or don’t emit.” If regulators set the tax at the right level, where it’s cheaper for businesses to reduce their emissions rather than pay the tax, then we get economically efficient pollution reductions.

But setting a tax at the “right” level can be difficult. Policymakers must be sure not to over or under shoot the mark. If the tax is too low then there’s no incentive for polluters to reduce their emissions. If it’s too high then we end up using our already limited resources in an inefficient way. Neither is desirable. Why, then, don’t they just get it right?

The challenge policymakers face is informational. Making good pollution reduction policy takes “on the ground” knowledge, but this information is frequently wrong, unavailable, or non-existent. Estimations of the societal costs from pollution are often uncertain and the corporate costs of polluting tend to fall under the scope of “proprietary knowledge.” The result is that policymakers don’t know what the real damages to society from pollution are, nor do they know how much pollution abatement would cost businesses. So how can policymakers hit a target that they can’t see?

Some argue that the invisible hand should guide the shot using a market-based cap and trade system to reduce pollution. But, again, this assumes that policymakers know more than they often do. Cap and trade policies only work if policymakers know the marginal costs of pollution abatement for businesses and the marginal benefits of abatement for society. The former, however, is proprietary knowledge and the latter varies in estimation. Without that knowledge they risk setting an inefficient target, so we run into the same informational problem that we do with a tax policy.

Policymakers are in a tough spot here – they face a moral imperative to do something, but every option is risky (even and especially non-action). Hybrid policies that combine free market principles with taxation, like the one McKibbin and Wilcoxen suggest, help to hedge the risks of uncertainty by drawing from the virtues of both kinds of pollution abatement systems. But ultimately there is no substitute for knowing.

Moreover, policies like a pollution tax or a cap and trade system are fundamentally utilitarian. Perhaps a pragmatic tendency, policymakers like to look at the costs and benefits (today’s “utles”) of pollution abatement so to maximize efficiency in our use of resources. But it’s not clear that what is counted is everything that counts. Often cost-benefit analyses will altogether exclude any measure of nature’s intrinsic value rather than risk using an over or under estimation.

Even valuations of ecosystem services are inherently instrumental in their thinking. Despite sometimes including recreational enjoyment or aesthetics in ecosystem services accounting, each aspect is merely quantified and then considered only in terms of its utility. Regulatory decision-making processes tend to omit the entire dimension of intrinsicity in moral reasoning, and so, again, we encounter another informational deficiency that policymakers must confront.

In turn, there are several moral questions at work. How far should policymakers nudge our behavior when they themselves don’t have the information needed to understand the reality on the ground? What role should intrinsic value play in policymaking? How should we weigh the risks of acting without knowing against the risks of doing nothing? And how much information should businesses be allowed to withhold from policymakers in the name of proprietary knowledge?

Without complete information (or as complete as possible) to guide the policymaking process, moral nudges such as pollution taxes are like regulatory swings in the dark – we may miss the target entirely, and we may do more damage than good. But that’s not to say we should resign ourselves to inaction. On the contrary, doing nothing might prove more harmful than landing off the mark. We must simply keep in mind that we live in a world of imperfect information and knowledge, and that these are the conditions we must make decisions within. In the meantime we can take solace in Levi’s assessment that a carbon tax, should we go that route, will have constitutional precedent.

JM Kincaid

See this post also on the CSID blog.