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01.02.2016 Feature Article

Wise Words From A Dying Astronaut On Climate Change

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In the January 16, 2016 issue of the New York Times’s Sunday Review climate scientist and retired astronaut Piers J. Sellers wrote a painfully beautiful article commencing with a revelation of his diagnosis with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer. His peroration:

As an astronaut I spacewalked 220 miles above the Earth. Floating alongside the International Space Station, I watched hurricanes cartwheel across oceans, the Amazon snake its way to the sea through a brilliant green carpet of forest, and gigantic nighttime thunderstorms flash and flare for hundreds of miles along the Equator. From this God’s-eye-view, I saw how fragile and infinitely precious the Earth is. I’m hopeful for its future.

On what does Dr. Sellers’s hope rest?
First, we should brace for change. It is inevitable. It will appear in changes to the climate and to the way we generate and use energy. Second, we should be prepared to absorb these with appropriate sang-froid. Some will be difficult to deal with, like rising seas, but many others could be positive. New technologies have a way of bettering our lives in ways we cannot anticipate. There is no convincing, demonstrated reason to believe that our evolving future will be worse than our present, assuming careful management of the challenges and risks. History is replete with examples of us humans getting out of tight spots. The winners tended to be realistic, pragmatic and flexible; the losers were often in denial of the threat.

The public argument about climate change is a confounded one. The left has politicized it intensely. It is vilifying skeptics (such as by framing them as “Deniers” — intentionally and insidiously invoking “Holocaust Deniers”). Its tactics make it hard to be confident of their good faith. To cut them some slack, anti-climate-change zealots — many anyway — honestly believe that it is an existential threat to humanity and conclude that desperate times call for desperate measures.

That said, the argument between the climate change “hysterics” and the climate change “deniers” — and all points in between — just might be a case of missing a much larger point, one pointed at in the magnificent pragmatism of Dr. Sellers. As the late Peter Drucker, inventor of the modern practice of management (and proto-Supply-Sider), wrote The Effective Executive:

In every area of effectiveness within an organization, one feeds the opportunities and starves the problem. (p. 98. Emphasis original.)

As Dr. Sellers states: “New technologies have a way of bettering our lives in ways we cannot anticipate.”

Jonathan Chait, in an extraordinarily perceptive column in New York Magazine, The Sunniest Climate-Change Story You’ve Ever Read , wrote:

In a March 2011 post for Scientific American’s website, Ramez Naam, a computer scientist and technological enthusiast, compared the rapid progress of solar power to Moore’s Law, the famous dictum that described the process by which microchips grew steadily more useful over time, doubling in efficiency every two years. The price of solar power had fallen in two decades from nearly $10 a watt to about $3. By 2030, he predicted, the price could drop to just 50 cents a watt.

Four years later, in the spring of this year, Naam revisited his post and admitted his prediction had been wrong. It was far too conservative. The price of solar power had already hit the 50-cent threshold. In the sunniest locations in the world, building a new solar-power plant now costs less than coal or natural gas, even without subsidies, and within six years, this will be true of places with average sunlight, too. Taller turbines, with longer and more powerful blades, have made wind power competitive in a growing swath of the country (the windy parts). By 2023, new wind power is expected to cost less than new power plants burning natural gas.

Later Chait wrote about an attack on capitalism by a climate change militant Naomi Klein:

In the actual world outside this jointly inhabited ideological bubble, capitalism and climate science are discovering ways to co-exist. … In reality, American greenhouse-gas emissions peaked several years ago. European Union emissions peaked several decades ago. Chinese coal use has peaked, and its energy intensity has fallen. The world may not be decarbonizing as rapidly as it should, but it is moving rapidly.

As then Saudi Oil Minister Sheik Yamani once said , “The Stone Age did not end for lack of stone, and the Oil Age will end long before the world runs out of oil.” Conservatives, even those agnostic about climate change, no less than Progressives would embrace technological progress that drives down the cost of energy. As Chait notes this is going great guns.

Could the federal government have a constructive role in accelerating the process of the development of technologies for the generation, storage, and distribution of lower cost energy? This is a complicated matter. The government is subject to chronic moral hazards and strange incentives that often cause it to succumb to inertia or special interests.

If the government succumbed to the temptation to overregulate fossil fuels it surely would cause electricity prices to skyrocket (to which Obama stipulated). That would be a bad thing both for working families and industry. That said, if policy instead is made according to supply-side principles there’s an opportunity for even Uncle Sam to play a constructive role.This is possible.

There are a lot of ways the government can go wrong. I got my start in Washington working in the civil service as a lawyer (not policy maker) on a “synthetic fuels” project during the Reagan Administration. It had many of the same kind of problems as Solyndra, that notorious poster child of the Obama administration for government fecklessness.

Back in the 1980s the hysteria — hysteria seems a constant — was about “the energy crisis” (an artifact of feckless monetary policy, not of OPEC or of any shortage of oil) rather than “climate change.” There was no shortage of energy. The great R. Buckminster Fuller, in his book Critical Path, crisply noted that our energy consumption amounted to only one four-millionth of one percent of the rate of our incoming energy. Fuller:

Humanity’s cosmic-energy income account consists entirely of our gravity-and star (99 percent Sun)-distributed cosmic dividends of water power, tidal power, wave power, wind power, vegetation-produced alcohols, methane gas, vulcanism, and so on. Humanity’s present rate of total energy consumption amounts to only one four-millionth of one percent of the rate of its energy income.

Tax-hungry government and profit-hungry business, for the moment, find it insurmountably difficult to arrange to put meters between humanity and its cosmic energy income, and thus they do nothing realistic to help humanity enjoy its fabulous energy-income wealth.

These observations (minus, of course, methane and, hopefully, vegetation-produced alcohols) constructively can be repurposed for our current crisis du jour. Meanwhile, the federal government’s synthetic fuels project ended badly. Uncle Sam promiscuously had extended off-budget loan guarantees to projects the markets considered not creditworthy. When the loans defaulted and were called these guarantees cost the taxpayers hundreds of millions, perhaps billions, of dollars.

Uncle Sam apparently learned no good lessons as to how bad are sexy pork barrels. Public agitation for solar and wind energy gave the federal government continuing cover to dole out money and privileges to political favorites. Meanwhile, lobbyists fattened while brokering “R&D tax credits” and other forms of corporate welfare to entire sectors. No good can come of either.

It benefits neither the economy nor the environment to encourage that kind of spending orgy. Supply-siders are unique in demanding across-the-board tax rate cuts, rather than credits, special-interest deductions, or rebates as beneficial for economic growth. Supply-siders wish neutrally to heighten the rewards of success.

Recently Rod Richardson, head of the Grace Richardson Foundation (I have a professional relationship with one or two of its grantees) has brought to the fore a proposal to use supply-side economics to accelerate the development of less expensive post-carbon technology.

In what may be a first the American Spectator and the Huffington Post — typically at odds — contemporaneously published an essay by Joan Blades, co-founder of (with which I professionally am associated) exploring this. Blades:

As a co-founder of I’ve seen too much partisan dysfunction. I don’t believe we are going to be able to find the best solutions to climate change — or any complex problem — by adversarial means, or by talking only to people who agree with us. …

This realization has caused me to intentionally cultivate diverse friendships. Recently my conservative colleague Ralph Benko introduced me to Rod Richardson, the director of the Grace Richardson Fund, one of a family of conservative policy foundations. The Grace Richardson Fund is developing a new supply-side approach to climate change described as “Clean Tax Cuts.”

The idea, as Rod explains it: “If you want more of something, tax it less. So if you want more low CO2 energy and clean tech, simply cut all taxes for such investments. Low tax rates on rising profits will boost returns, inducing investors to pour billions into the sector. That accelerates innovation, driving down the cost while boosting the supply of clean energy. Think of Clean Tax Cuts as a demonstration project for simple, clean, supply-side tax reform, reducing investment tax rates for the one industrial sector that can do the most to stop climate change, while phasing out other uneconomical subsidies and tax deductions. It offers an all-carrot, no-stick alternative that sidesteps the economic pain many people fear other anti-carbon climate policies will bring. If investors could keep 90% of all profits from solar farms, instead of the usual 65% or less, how many solar farms would be built? Think about it. Clean Tax Cuts empowers entrepreneurs and investors to solve climate change.”

By the conclusion of our [living room] conversation, everyone favored investigating the clean tax cuts concept further and Rod had an answer to the question, “Could this idea have appeal across partisan lines?”

Whether or not one believes in the reality or severity of climate change, or of its human causes, Drucker’s dictum enlightens: “In every area of effectiveness within an organization, one feeds the opportunities and starves the problem.” Let’s go feed the opportunities rather than obsessing, Ahab-like, on the problem.

And… thank you, Dr. Sellers, for this further insight: “These engineers and industrialists are fully up to the job, given the right incentives and investments. You have only to look at what they achieved during World War II: American technology and production catapulted over what would have taken decades to do under ordinary conditions and presented us with a world in 1945 that was completely different from the late 1930s.” May you enjoy the coming God’s-eye view that surely awaits a scientist-poet-philosopher of your great dignity.

Ralph Benko
Ralph Benko, © 2016

The author has 296 publications published on Modern Ghana.Column: RalphBenko

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