Watt about our priorities?

I’ve tried to stick mainly to discussing science, rather than opinion, but thought I would comment on a recent Watts Up With That (WUWT) post called Lomborg: Let’s get our priorities right. The author of the post is Bjorn Lomborg and it came from his facebook page.

The basic argument seems to be that about 10 million people die a year from easily curable infectious diseases, 5.2 million from air pollution, but only between 140000 and 30000 die from climate change related events. Therefore, we should get our priorities right and focus on the really big issues rather than on those that are clearly not that significant (or something like that).

The first issue I have is that the argument is simplistic. Noone is suggesting that we shouldn’t address curable infrectious diseases or air pollution, simply that we should be providing evidence to policy makers so that they can decide on the priorities. It’s clear that many people die from cancer and heart disease, but that doesn’t mean that the only medical research we do should be related to cancer or heart disease. Also, addressing climate change isn’t just about reducing deaths, it’s about addressing all possible impacts of climate change : our ability to grow food, increased flooding, more heat waves, increased wildfires, ….. Furthermore, it’s about preventing these problems getting worse. Does Bjorn Lomborg want deaths from climate change related events to match deaths from air pollution or infectious diseases before we do anything about it? I would have also thought that a big factor in air pollution would be increased car use and pollution from coal-fired power stations. Addressing climate change may therefore also act to reduce air pollution. These things aren’t necessarily unrelated.

The main issue I have, however, is that this type of argument typically seems to come from one particular economic ideology. Bjorn Lomborg goes on to say

And no, the number of deaths from global warming won’t increase, but more likely decrease over time, as many infectious deaths will disappear because of increasing wealth, and because fewer cold deaths will increasingly outweigh increasing heat deaths.

Firstly, I don’t know why he thinks deaths from global warming won’t increase. I think many would disagree. It’s the latter part of this comment, however, that makes me think that what’s driving this is the standard free-market, neo-liberal ideology.

Bjorn Lomborg hasn’t spelt this out explicitly, so maybe I’m wrong, but it seems that he’s not actually arguing that rather than spending money acting against climate change, we should spent it addressing issues related to infectious diseases and air pollution; he’s simply arguing that spending money acting against climate change will make it less likely that people will be able to lift themselves out of poverty. My understanding of this argument is as follows. Acting against climate change will require government involvement and regulation. This will make our economies less efficient and hence will make it harder for people in poverty to take advantage of the market and hence they are less likely to increase their wealth and therefore they will be unable to solve the problems that they face. The only way forward, according to people who make such arguments, is to rely on market forces.

The one obvious argument against this is that there are so many things that would not have happened had we relied on market forces. We wouldn’t have gone to the moon. We wouldn’t have found the Higgs Boson. We wouldn’t have built and launched the Hubble Space Telescope. I could carry on. The more fundamental problem I have, however, is that the last 30 years has seen a substantial increase in income and wealth inequality in the developed world. I would argue that this is because of reduced regulation and a decrease in the power of collective bargaining. It seems to me at least, that a true free-market is more likely to lead to wealth accumulation than to increased wealth distribution. You need some form of feedback in the system that acts against such accumulation – governments who act in the best interests of the many, rather than the few.

It therefore seems to me that the main motivation behind posts like that of Bjorn Lomborg is essentially a rather selfish recognition that acting against climate change is going to require investment in new technologies and the creation of new jobs and that this can only happen if it is accompanied by a transfer of wealth from those who currently have it (the rich) to those who don’t (the poor). In my view two of the main problems we face in the coming years are climate change and income/wealth inequality. It seems to me that acting against climate change could help to alleviate both problems and so is something that would be beneficial for both the environment (and our ability to survive in it) and for the general economy. It will require that the very wealthy contribute more than the poor, but that’s what’s required if you want to be part of a stable, long-lived society. Of course I’m not an economic or policy expert so, as usual, happy to be educated by those who are.

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23 Responses to Watt about our priorities?

  1. Lars Karlsson says:

    “The one obvious argument against this is that there are so many things that would not have happened had we relied on market forces.”

    We wouldn’t have the Internet…

  2. Indeed, that was Al Gore 🙂

  3. Skeptikal says:

    It will require that the very wealthy contribute more than the poor, but that’s what’s required if you want to be part of a stable, long-live society.

    The move towards renewable energy has seen wealthy people who can afford solar panels being subsidized by the poor who cannot afford those panels. We see the poor, as well as the wealthy, subsidizing those who can afford wind farms. I can’t think of a single example of any climate mitigation scheme in any country where the wealthy contribute more than the poor. Maybe you could explain to me how the wealthy contributing more than the poor is supposed to happen?

  4. I tend to disagree. It’s subsidized via taxation. The wealthy contribute more in tax (absolute) than the poor so the wealthy are subsidizing a bigger fraction of this than the poor. Personally, however, I do think the tax system in the UK is largely regressive (the wealthy pay about the same fraction of their income in tax as the poor – although maybe not the very poor who fall below the tax threshold) so in some sense you do have a point. The issue though, in my view, is that there is a problem with our tax system rather than a problem with how we subsidise renewables, although I don’t discount the possibility that we could do it differently. You also seem to be ignoring subsidies to the fossil fuel industry. It appears that the UK government has just given an extremely large subsidy to the fracking industry, so as to encourage investment in fracking. If in the future, as I think it will, we have to invest more in combating climate change than we do today we will presumably need to collect more revenue than we do today and that will have to fall on the rich rather than the poor.

  5. Skeptikal says:

    It’s subsidized via taxation. The wealthy contribute more in tax (absolute) than the poor so the wealthy are subsidizing a bigger fraction of this than the poor.

    No, I’m talking about the high feed-in tariffs given to solar panel owners which inflates the price of electricity for the poor.

    It appears that the UK government has just given an extremely large subsidy to the fracking industry, so as to encourage investment in fracking.

    How much subsidy?… and do you have a link to the source of that information?

  6. Skeptikal says:

    Sorry… forgot to end the quote before my last question.

    How much subsidy?… and do you have a link to the source of that information?

    is actually my question.

  7. Anonymous says:

    I would be intrigued to see his calculation of 10 milllion “easily curable” infectious diseases. Here is the global burden of disease cause patterns tool. If you select year down the bottom you can see how many people die of which diseases globally. There are basically four identifiable groups of infectious diseases in that chart for 2010.
    HIV/AIDS & TB: 2,661,000
    Diorrhea&c: 5,277,000
    Malaria & NTDs: 1,321,000
    chronic respiratory: 3,660,000
    but the last cateogry includes COPD & asthma, which aren’t infectious. So the only way I can see that he can get 10,000,000 infectious diseases is to lump together the big three (HIV, TB & malaria) and diorrhea. But none of hte big three are “easily curable” or even “easily preventable” (which is why they are the Big Three), and actually most diorrhea is incurable but treatable. See e.g. norovirus. So what is he talking about? Also putting risks (air pollution) in the same chart as causes is bad practice, because risks cause death across multiple causes – which is why the GBD people don’t do it.

    Also I’m not sure where he gets his air pollution figures from. The GBD heatmap gives us a total of 3.5 million deaths for household air pollution and 3.2 for ambient air pollution – mostly in China and India. The former can be prevented by electrification of households (in some world where the free-marketeers at WUWT accept socialist aid programs) but electrification in China and India means coal, which increases deaths due to ambient air pollution. How Lomborg gets his numbers, and how he thinks they tell the story he wants to tell, is a mystery to me.

  8. To be honest, I’m not a particular expert on feed-in tariffs and the impact they have on energy. It may well be that it is having a negative impact on energy costs for the poor.

    The fracking subsidy is new and here is a Guardian article claiming it is the most generous in the world. I guess if one wants to be pedantic, it’s a tax break not a subsidy but, I would argue, it has the same net effect. Or maybe, more correctly, if fossil fuels are so efficient and cheap and better than renewables, why does fracking need such a generous tax deal.

  9. Interesting, thanks for the comment. Indeed, I wouldn’t be that surprised if the numbers were suspect. It did come across as a rather simplistic narrative without any real attempt to justify the numbers or why they were relevant.

  10. Skeptikal says:

    I guess if one wants to be pedantic, it’s a tax break not a subsidy but, I would argue, it has the same net effect.

    I would argue that they are two completely different things. A subsidy is the government handing them money to operate, whereas a tax break is them having to pay less tax on their earnings. The government isn’t handing them any money at all.

    Or maybe, more correctly, if fossil fuels are so efficient and cheap and better than renewables, why does fracking need such a generous tax deal.

    Fracking is fairly new to the UK. The start-up costs are high and there needs to be an incentive to get production happening quickly. They’re finally waking up to the fact that renewables need back-up generation systems… and with their old coal power plants closing, they need a quick fix.

  11. Technically yes, when giving a tax break the government doesn’t actually had over any money but one needs to be sure that there is some benefit to the tax break. The tax break will encourage one activity over another and one needs to ensure that there is some benefit to encouraging that other activity. It is quite possible that the tax break could lead to lower revenues.

    Your argument in favour of subsidies/tax breaks for fracking is precisely the argument one could make for renewables. Why is it okay to make that argument for fracking, but not for renewables?

  12. Skeptikal says:

    You’re putting subsidies and tax breaks in the same basket which is wrong… subsidies are handouts, tax breaks are not.

    Renewables get subsidies… nobody would build or operate them without the subsidies. If an industry needs to be handed money to operate, they shouldn’t be operating.

    Fracking is being offered tax breaks because the government wants them to start up quickly… they are profitable in their own right but the tax break gives companies a greater incentive to get it happening quickly.

    Why is it okay to make that argument for fracking, but not for renewables?

    I would be happy for renewables to be treated the same as fossil fuels… give the operators a tax break, but not a free handout.

  13. Well, as far as I can tell many disagree with your view. However it is provided there is much written about the effective subsidies to the fossil fuel industry. Whether it’s through tax breaks or direct subsidies is, in my view, not really relevant. It influences the public revenue.

  14. Tom Curtis says:

    Skeptikal indulges in magical thinking – the idea that the name of a thing makes a difference in kind.

    Consider to government schemes to encourage investment. In scheme A, the government taxes the corporation at the normal rate, but provides a subsidy for the investment, with a set value, but capped at the maximum tax paid by the corporation. In scheme B, the government allows a tax concession capped at the set value for scheme A. In economic terms, there is no difference between these two schemes, other than that the second saves slightly on bureaucratic costs. It follows that if a program like scheme A is acceptable, then so also is one like scheme B, ie, that the distinction between a tax break and a subsidy is nominal.

    Skeptikal will be inclined to argue that most subsidies are not capped at the level of maximum tax payable. That is true, but most tax breaks are not restricted to profits from the investment only. That means the tax break on the investment can be used to defray taxes accruing on other, older investments by the corporation. In all but the most unusual circumstances, that means the tax payable by the corporation will exceed the maximum value of the tax break, so that no difference between subsidy and tax break then arises.

    Of course, there is still one crucial difference between subsidy and tax break. The equivalence argued above does depend on the receiver of the tax break having sufficient independent income to gain the full benefit of the tax break regardless of the success of otherwise of the subsidized investment. That is a condition only met by the wealthy. So, perhaps the crucial distinction that Skeptikal relies on is that tax breaks can only benefit the wealthy, whereas subsidies can benefit wealthy and poor alike. If his objection is that the use of subsidies can benefit the poor as well as the rich, then indeed he as a serious, and objectionable point.

    If he is not, however, of the opinion that government policy should only be permitted to the extent that it makes the rich richer; then he is insisting on a distinction that exists in name only.

  15. Rusty Parker says:

    actually I believe that malaria is easily preventable if there was more support for the indoor use of DDT in the third world

  16. What do you mean by indoor use?

  17. Thanks. A quick reading suggests that the main problem is resistance from the residents themselves. A difficult problem to solve I imagine.

  18. Anonymous says:

    Rusty, malaria is not “easily preventable” under any circumstances. It is partially preventable through a well-run campaign of indoor residual spraying, insecticide treated bednets, breeding site control, and treatment. The word “well-run” does a lot of work in that strategy, because “well-run” is extremely hard to achieve in rural sub-Saharan Africa and Asia. Also, DDT is not banned for use in malaria control, but it is not recommended because pyrethrins are more effective and have less vector resistance. Some countries still use DDT, where it is cost-effective and resistance is not too high.

    An easy mistake for people not in the health field to make is the belief that every disease has a magic bullet. None of The Big Three do, and neither does malaria. Instead we have a complex web of imperfect strategies, implemented according to local conditions. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have a good summary of the challenges in malaria control. You should read it and try to get a more sophisticated understanding of the challenges, rather than recycling Heritage Foundation talking points about DDT.

  19. Anonymous says:

    In addition to getting his numbers wrong, I’m not sure that Lomborg’s central complaint about AGW mitigation is very sensible anyway. He seems to think we should focus on development instead of AGW mitigation, and that we are worrying about the wrong thing, but he’s wrong about the challenges in health and setting up a false dichotomy in putting AGW mitigation in opposition to health development.

    Looking at the GBD charts I linked to above, it’s clear that just using current resources we have made huge gains in health in developing nations over the past 20 years. There’s no reason to think we can’t continue to make huge gains under the current funding structure, which really isn’t that much money: total international transfers in health development aid in 2008 were something like 30 billion US$. This is peanuts by international standards and it should be pretty obvious that continued investment at that level is going to be easy to maintain regardless of how much we spend on AGW mitigation.

    If Lomborg is serious abotu improving health in developing nations, perhaps he could propose that the occupation of Afghanistan end 3 months early. That would furnish the money for one year. Or he could propose a carbon tax in the USA, and the diversion of a small amount of it to health development – I think the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation spend about $3bilion a year, surely the US could double that commitment with a tiny proportion of a carbon tax? Or better still, how about the US rationalizes its health system, which would reduce the total amount it spends on health, extend healthcare to all its citizens, and leave change equal to a few % of GDP that it could spend on health development. Lomborg knows that such a consolidation is possible (he lives in Sweden, after all!) Has he ever proposed it?

    It’s telling the false dichotomy that Lomborg has chosen to set up. He’s chosen to juxtapose health and development aid – a small part of the world’s budget – against mitigation efforts – which haven’t really even yet started – rather than inefficient health spending in the US, military aid, or fossil fuel subsidies, and he refuses to countenance hte use of a carbon tax to finance this thing he claims he cares about.

    He’s a fraud.

  20. Rusty Parker says:

    “rather than recycling Heritage Foundation talking points about DDT.” wow.

    thanks for educating me.

  21. Rachel says:

    The ethicist Peter Singer wrote a piece for The Wall Street Journal a couple of years ago “Does Helping the Planet Hurt the Poor?” http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703779704576074333552233782.html

    Lomborg responded and Singer responded to his response with this:
    “I wish that Mr. Lomborg were right that $100 billion a year could provide the world’s poor with clean drinking water, sanitation, food, health and education, but that figure is wildly optimistic. By using this very low figure, and by ignoring the very real risk that climate change will turn out to be a disaster on an unprecedented scale, Mr. Lomborg can misleadingly claim that trying to slow climate change is a bad investment.”

    I’m not very familiar with Lomborg’s position but he doesn’t seem to give enough weight to climate-related costs down the track. Malaria is a good example here. Climate change is expected to change the geographic distribution of the disease and areas that were previously devoid of the disease might become epidemic. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3261943/

    Something Singer also points out in his article in The Wall Street Journal is that “we should help today’s global poor, but not at the expense of tomorrow’s global poor”. The interests of people of the future, whether rich or poor, have just as much weight as our own.

    One more thing. If we follow an “equal per capita cumulative emission approach” to the allocation of future greenhouse gases – which allocates an equal share of allowable emissions to each person but takes into account past emissions – then poor people will be able to increase their use of fossil fuels quite substantially, while the rest of us will have to drastically cut our own. It’s hard to see how anyone who purports to have concern for the world’s poor would object to this.

  22. Rachel says:

    To bypass moderation, here’s the link to Fairness and Climate Change – http://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/fair-distribution-of-rights-to-carbon-emissions-by-peter-singer-and-teng-fei – which offers a few different methods for divvying up allowable emissions.

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