Five Percent: Conserve Energy

Climate Change Is Important: Energy Conservation is the First Step

January 27, 2010

Cap and Trade Explained, Simply (Really)

Category: Climate Change,Economics – Tom Harrison – 7:46 pm

The Facts of Cap-and-Trade from Clean Energy Works on Vimeo.

Yep. It’s that simple.


  1. I came across your web site while researching the TED 5000; good writeup on your experiences about that product. But I have to disagree about cap & trade. Is global warming happening? Yes. Is it due to man-made CO2 emissions? Scientist’s don’t have a clue whether man-made emissions are a 10% contributor to climate change, a 1% contributor, a 0.1% contributor, or even a 0.01% contributor or less. Yet the cap and trade video starts out with the presumption that man-made CO2 emissions are the sole cause of global warming. And if that premise is flawed, then everything that follows is also flawed.

    Only about 12,000 years ago most of North America, and almost all of Europe, were in an ice age and covered by glaciers. But not now. So, what caused the global warming that ended the ice age? Were the mastedons driving too many SUVs, or was this a naturally occurring climate change? Obviously, the latter. Meteorologists can’t even accurately predict the path of a hurricane three days in the future, and we’re supposed to believe iterative climate change models claiming accurancy for 50 to 100 years in the future? I don’t think so.

    Insulate your house; that makes sense. Use a TED device to monitor your electricity usage; that also makes sense. Use energy as efficiently as possible, and reduce pollution where it’s economically feasible to do so, even if it hurts a bit financially and degrades your lifestyle somewhat. But cap and trade is a flawed concept based on an unproven premise, and so the draconian harm it would do to the economy should be rejected.

    Comment by Dane Ericksen — April 11, 2010 @ 2:08 pm

  2. Dane —

    Climate change is indeed a complex problem, and as with all science there is a degree (no pun intended) of uncertainty. However, without discouraging you from using your TED, insulating, and making the other changes you are, I will respectfully disagree with both points you make.

    And that’s OK, because good, rational folks can disagree and still have a great deal of respect for each other. I disagree with some of the viewpoints of my family members, for example, but also realize they are both incredibly wonderful and smart people.

    To the first point, that climate change (this instance of it) is naturally occurring, as opposed to a result of human activity, I would ask that you provide some evidence of your assertion that the current warming trend could be explained by anything other than human causes (“anthropogenic”). Your conclusion, if I correctly understand it, is most definitely not shared by scientists in general. Whether past instances of climate change were caused by things other than people, which seems likely as people were barely in existence at the time, has little or no bearing on whether this instance is.

    Yes, climate change is something that occurs in cycles, and perhaps as a result of a significant or dramatic change from one cause or other. Volcanoes? Meteors? SUV-driving dino’s? It doesn’t matter.

    But we do have some rather lengthy historical data of our earth’s history — ice core samples, for example, as well as sedimentation in rock formations which go back far beyond any of the history of man, yet have been correlated repeatedly with the progress (or regression) of plant and animal life. These are just several of the data used by scientists that are used, amongst many others, to support climate change models.

    A model is a tool of science whose goal is to predict what will occur. It’s more than a guess: it’s an hypothesis based on past data: the model is considered good if it has any predictive ability.

    When scientists presented models in the 1970s and 1980s predicting outcomes 30 and 40 years into the future, they were (of course) dismissed by some as absurd. Perhaps they would have been more widely and easily accepted had they predicted something positive and wonderful, like world peace, or the eradication of hunger and disease. But they didn’t predict happy things (and sadly the few models that predicted the happy things were quickly shown to be flawed). They predicted that the climate would change in certain ways that would not be good for our society.

    As those models were developed, more scientists who read their predictions and assessed their methodologies found them compelling and persuasive, or in the alternative, absurd and ridiculous. So more and more scientists started doing studies to disprove, verify, or extend the conjectures, hypotheses and predictions of the models that arose.

    So here, a brief digression. Despite various recent “exposes” in popular media of how scientists alter their results or such things, the cool thing about science is that other scientists (naturally skeptical, I think) tend to be the first to call out the bogus science. I recall a time in the early 1980’s where the idea of “cold fusion” was suddenly promoted as the next great solution to our energy woes. Within a matter of months, it was roundly dismissed by actual scientists, after the flaws of the methodology were revealed.

    Scientists are remarkably different (as a class of people) than almost all of the rest of us. Yes, they are human, and thus fully susceptible to the allure of convenient results, and of course there have been many cases of people posing as scientists aiming to promote a cause for profit, fame, or some other purpose. The thing is, few of these survive more than a short time, and in modern times, few falsehoods survive more than a matter of months. If only this were true in other human endeavors.

    And so, as it happens, hundreds of scientists have attempted to re-prove, dis-prove, or find flaws in the models originally presented by several scientists in the 1970’s. Over the subsequent decades, some models have been shown to have flaws. What’s remarkable is that some have shown those flaws to overstate the result, and others have shown them to understate the result. Over and over, original models have been refined, and found to be overly conservative — they made assumptions that predict a lesser effect than is likely.

    Every day, more evidence accumulates supporting the idea that humans have caused this current and unprecedented change in our climate. We caused it, and it’s simply a result of our unquenchable thirst for energy, which we have been trying to sate with the most convenient form: things that burn, notably fossil fuels, for the last hundred or so years, at an ever-increasing rate.

    OK, so I have gone on for a while supporting the idea that scientific method is the best and most reliable way we have, as a species, of explaining past events and predicting future outcomes. Throughout my blog posts, you’ll find many articles with links supporting my assertions. You may choose to believe them, or not.

    (And one point I think worthy of consideration is the difference between climate science and meteorology. The ability to predict short-term events is entirely unrelated to prediction of long-term events. Think about any relevant example — what’s the chance that you’ll say the word “the” in the next minute, compared to the chance that you’ll say it 10 times in the next 10 days? The precision of the prediction is strongly correlated to the number of possible opportunities to have a measurable outcome: the more time you have, and the less precision required, the easier it is to accurately predict an outcome. Think about it, and you’ll realize quickly, I hope that of all arguments about climate change, this one is amongst the least compelling.)

    As to your second point, which is that cap-and-trade is a flawed concept based on an unproven premise, let me first say that this is far, far more likely to be true than your earlier assertion about the flaws of climate science. Whereas climate science has millions of data points, has been repeatedly corroborated by numerous studies, and the like, cap and trade has only several relevant recent examples.

    That said, all examples that I know of rather strongly support the efficacy of the approach.

    Trust me, I hate economics (which I studied in college, and came to think that it’s closer to a “belief” than it is to “science” :-), but I generally think some aspects of economics are more demonstrably predictable than others. For example, economics has been at best moderately successful at predicting the behavior of global economics (and less at controlling it, to be sure!). However, the ability to influence the behaviors of corporations and individuals is far more plausible and demonstrable. Cap-and-trade is a little of both, to be sure, but mostly aimed at corporations, and we have a pretty good record with this kind of economics.

    Cap-and-trade is an inelegant, complicated, odd and counter-intuitive method of accomplishing a given goal. But it worked rather better than anyone would have predicted as a tool to fight acid rain. And (despite what you may have heard) it has worked rather better than anyone would have predicted by those countries who, unlike the US, adopted the Kyoto protocol — this example only shows that the concept works — the failure of the US, China and India and others to join in necessarily created a rather watered down version. As another example, consider the first several years of the RGGI protocol adopted by a number of US states. All show that cap-and-trade can be an effective method of causing change to occur, and that it has a certain political “smarmyness” that gives it the ability to adapt and withstand the pressure of resistance effectively over time.

    So, in case this particular response is a little light on actual facts, consider an article on this topic by Paul Krugman, a Nobel prize winning economist which appeared in a respected newspaper this weekend. I have read his arguments and found them balanced, reasonable, and solid. He certainly says what I have attempted to say here better and more elegantly, convincingly and completely than I.

    I will say, however, that until you come to believe the first point: that our current climate change models have and will continue to correctly predict outcomes, there’s little point in thinking about cap and trade, as it is purely intended to help alleviate the devastating outcomes predicted by the climate change models.

    But whatever your motivation, whatever your convictions, and whether you think I am a complete nut-case (which, unlike climate change is indeed entirely arguable, if not proven), I hope you’ll continue to do what you think is right by conserving energy!

    I appreciate your time in writing and thinking carefully and critically about this important issue.


    Comment by Tom Harrison — April 11, 2010 @ 8:10 pm

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