In our SuperFreakonomics chapter about global warming, a central argument was that greenhouse-gas emissions (and pollution in general) are an externality, and it is inherently difficult to control and/or price externalities. So, while it might seem sensible to encourage fewer emissions by taxation or price controls — or international agreements — the reality is complicated:
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Besides the obvious obstacles — like determining the right size of the tax and getting someone to collect it — there’s the fact that greenhouse gases do not adhere to national boundaries. The earth’s atmosphere is in constant, complex motion, which means that your emissions become mine and mine yours. Thus, global warming.
If, say, Australia decided overnight to eliminate its carbon emissions, that fine nation wouldn’t enjoy the benefits of its costly and painful behavior unless everyone else joined in. Nor does one nation have the right to tell another what to do. The United States has in recent years sporadically attempted to lower its emissions. But when it leans on China or India to do the same, those countries can hardly be blamed for saying, Hey, you got to free-ride your way to industrial superpowerdom, so why shouldn’t we?
As someone who has written about geoengineering (and been hit with the requisite slime for doing so), I was more than a little surprised to see the results of a survey about the public’s view of geongineering (abstract here; PDF here) by researchers at the University of Calgary, Harvard, and Simon Fraser University, and published in Environmental Research Letters. From the press release:
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Research on geoengineering appears to have broad public support, as a new, internationally-representative survey revealed that 72 per cent of respondents approved research into the climate-manipulating technique…. Public awareness of geoengineering is remarkably broad. Eight per cent of the sample were able to provide a correct definition of geoengineering, an increase on previous estimates; however, 45 per cent of the sample correctly defined the alternative term “climate engineering”, adding weight to the argument that “geoengineering” may be misleading and difficult to understand.
We blogged recently about the challenges of communicating scientific uncertainty to the public, especially when it comes to climate science. The October 2011 issue of Physics Today contains yet another article addressing the very same concept. From the article:
Scientists typically fail to craft simple, clear messages and repeat them often. They commonly overdo the level of detail, and people can have difficulty sorting out what is important. In short, the more you say, the less they hear. And scientists tend to speak in code. We encourage them to speak in plain language and choose their words with care. Many words that seem perfectly normal to scientists are incomprehensible jargon to the wider world. And there are usually simpler substitutes.
We particularly like the table provided at the end of the article, titled “Terms that have different meanings for scientists and the public.” For example, the scientific term “uncertainty” translates to “ignorance” for the general public; the article suggests scientists use the word “range” instead. Error, which the general public reads as “mistake, wrong, incorrect,” might be better replaced by “difference from exact true number.”
Contrary to popular perception, most research yields very few conclusions with 100 percent certainty. That’s why you’ll often hear economists state their conclusions with “95 percent certainty.” It means they’re pretty sure, but there’s still a small margin for error. The science of climate change is no different, and, according to a Washington Post blog post, scientists are currently struggling with how to explain that uncertainty to the public. “What do you do when there’s a small but real chance that global warming could lead to a catastrophe?” asks Brad Plumer. “How do you talk about that in a way that’s useful to policymakers?” Read More »
A new study called “Apocalypse Soon?” by the psychologists Matthew Feinberg and Robb Willer (summarized by the BPS Research Digest) finds that, for people who implicitly believe the world is fair, dire warnings about climate change may make them more skeptical about the concept. Read More »
Last week, we solicited your questions for Matthew Kahn, the author of Climatopolis: How Our Cities Will Thrive in the Hotter Future. His answers, covering everything from water scarcity to Moscow’s recent heat wave, are below. A big thanks to Matt – and to everyone who participated. Read More »
There are plenty of dire predictions about what will happen to our cities if the worst predictions about global warming were to come true: flooding, droughts, famine, chaos and massive death. But Matthew Kahn, an economist at UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, sees a different future. He tells that story in his new book Climatopolis: How Our Cities Will Thrive in the Hotter Future. Read More »
In Washington, D.C., this morning, the New America Foundation (in partnership with Arizona State University and Slate) is holding a “Future Tense Event” called “Geoengineering: The Horrifying Idea Whose Time Has Come?” Read More »