Friday, October 26, 2007

Splitting the Sky

Now that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and Al Gore have been awarded the Nobel Peace prize, the debate about global warming can shift from whether or not the human population is primarily responsible, to how we should design a solution. The idea that is currently most popular with politicians involves setting a cap on carbon emissions, distributing free permits to corporate polluters, and then allowing them to trade the permits amongst themselves. Since it establishes a free market for pollution rights, this "cap and trade" system is supposed to lead to the most efficient reduction in carbon emissions -- allowing the companies that learn how to reduce their pollution to profit by selling their permits to companies that have more trouble.

It sounds like a reasonable system, and it has even been used successfully in the past to reduce sulphur-dioxide emissions -- the leading cause of acid rain. But it suffers from a fatal flaw: the polluters do not pay the costs of the efficiency improvements, but instead transfer the burden to consumers. A slight modification of this system, popularized by the book "Who Owns the Sky?", divides the pollution permits equally among the population and forces the polluters to purchase them from us! Again the costs are eventually transferred back to us through products and services -- but the average person comes out about even. This has the advantage that it also establishes an incentive for individuals to reduce their pollution-generating consumption: if you drive an efficient car or reduce your overall energy use, you can can earn more from selling your carbon permits than you pay back to the polluters.

On a national level, this modified system seems pretty workable -- but how do we divide pollution rights between countries? The most obvious answer would be to split the sky evenly among the entire population of the planet -- every person gets an equal share. But the obvious answer may not be the best answer, because it effectively rewards countries with large populations -- and population is a major factor in the growth of global warming emissions. What really matters for each country is the relationship between its biocapacity (the natural resources within its borders, and how they are used) and the product of population and consumption (the total drain on those resources). Some countries have more biocapacity than their population consumes, while others have ecological deficits. If the global distribution of carbon permits were based on biocapacity, it would force countries that are far out of balance (whether due to consumption, population, or both) to purchase permits from countries that manage their resources more responsibly. This establishes the right incentives for both consumption and population.

With the right system, we can transform our societies and bring them back towards a balance with the resources of the planet. If we start reasonably soon, we might even avoid the most unpleasant consequences of pushing the limits of nature.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Science and Politics

During the U.S. election season, which seems to stretch on forever compared to most modern democracies, it's more difficult than usual to find science in the headlines. I'm fairly certain that good science continues to be produced, with press releases diligently prepared, while presidential hopefuls give stump speeches along the campaign trail. But most of the time, science just doesn't seem to make the cut. The exception to this general rule occurs when science and politics collide -- when the candidates begin to address the issue of government interference in research, where policymakers lose access to unbiased information.

This week, on the 50th anniversary of the launch of the Russian sputnik satellite, one high-profile candidate delivered a speech blasting the current administration's "war on science", and outlined strategies to shield government scientists from political pressure. Recent examples of scientific research being either suppressed or distorted by government managers -- many of whom were appointed more for their loyalty to an ideological agenda than for any expertise in the relevant discipline -- are most obvious in the area of climate change research. But other research areas have also been politicized, including the science of food safety, air quality, and forest management, to name just a few.

As with many issues, politicians are following rather than leading public opinion. The campaign to restore "scientific integrity" to decision making has recently been championed by the Union of Concerned Scientists. This grassroots organization has sponsored surveys of government scientists and circulated a petition, now with more than 12000 signers, to keep politics out of science. On the specific issue of embryonic stem cell research, which has had limited federal funding imposed by the current administration since August 2001, several prominent celebrities have also played an active role. One of the current group of candidates promises a return to "evidence-based decision-making" in the next administration, something most scientists would undoubtedly welcome.

Like oil and water, science and politics simply do not mix. The government might shake things up for awhile, but -- honoring the finest traditions -- science will eventually rise to the top.