Our latest Freakonomics Radio on Marketplace podcast is called “A Rose By Any Other Distance.” (You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, listen via the media player above, or read the transcript below.)
With Mother’s Day coming up, we thought it’d be interesting to look at the cut-flower industry. Americans spend about $12 billion a year on them. Mario Valle, a wholesaler at the L.A. Flower District, tells us that Mother’s Day is easily his biggest day of the year: “It’s 30 percent of my year. Everyone has a mother!”
In our SuperFreakonomicschapter 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:
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?
Recent news delivered two different verdicts on two different climate policy experiments, both of which carry lessons for California and its delayed carbon reduction plan. The first, a revenue-neutral carbon tax in British Columbia is “a winner.” So says The Economist. But the second, the Massachusetts front of President Obama’s green jobs initiative, is a failure. What else to conclude from this week’s bankruptcy filing by Evergreen Solar, a recipient of millions in federal stimulus dollars and state subsidies?
There are lessons in both stories for lawmakers in the U.S., especially our environmental policy frontiersmen in California, who in 2013 will impose the only carbon policy outside Europe to rival that of our northern neighbor in its seriousness and aggressiveness.
A few years ago, we wrote a column (related material here) about the unintended consequences of Jane Fonda — that is, how anti-nuclear-power activism as epitomized by Fonda’s character in the nuclear thriller The China Syndrome helped halt the growth of nuclear power in the U.S. The timing of the film couldn’t have been better: 12 days after its release, an accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania spooked the nation into Fonda’s arms — even though, in retrospect, that accident was far less serious than initially thought.
Many other countries, in the meantime, embraced nuclear power. But if you thought the China Syndrome/Three Mile Island combo was devastating to a nuclear future, consider the aftermath of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan. On May 11, Japan announced that it was shelving plans to scale up its nuclear energy capacity. Two weeks later, Germany announced plans to end all nuclear power generation by 2022. The Swiss have vowed to end nuclear power by 2034; and the Italians voted down plans to restart the country’s nuclear power program.
In 2004, Princeton professors Robert Socolow and Stephen Pacala introduced a strategy that made the large-scale reduction of carbon emissions actually seem feasible. Rather than looking for one big fix, their process, called stabilization wedges, broke the solution down into incremental pieces (increasing alternative energy, reducing energy use, improving efficiencies) that together could prevent billions of tons of new emissions over the next 50 years.
But in a new National Geographicarticle, Socolow is quoted saying that the wedges approach oversimplified the problem in the minds of many: