‘Stand-up economist': How to be optimistic about climate

Yoram Bauman, Ph.D.: Making economics and climate change understandable. Credit: Robin Lindley

Seattle’s Dr. Yoram Bauman is probably best known for clarifying the intricacies of economics with doses of humor as what he calls “the world’s first and only stand-up economist.” He has a national following and has shared the stage with luminaries from the late Robin Williams to Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman.

Bauman now focuses his wit and economics expertise on the daunting issue of climate change with acclaimed illustrator Grady Klein in an educational and entertaining new book, The The Cartoon Introduction to Climate Change (Island Press). In the book, Dr. Bauman offers — with jokes — a primer on climate history, the science of climate change, the consequences of human use of fossil fuels, predictions, and policy ideas on how to address the major culprits, carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases — before it’s too late.

Bauman is a Ph.D. environmental economist and active in CarbonWA.org, an effort to bring a revenue-neutral carbon tax to Washington state. He taught for several years with the UW Program on the Environment. He also co-authored with Klein of the two-volume Cartoon Introduction to Economics. His website is www.standupeconomist.com.

Bauman recently talked about our climate at a coffee house in Seattle’s University District on his return from a round of talks for audiences ranging from the American Enterprise Institute and Research for the Future in Washington D.C. to a conference of New England public utilities commissioners in Vermont.

How did you decide to create a cartoon book to explain this complex subject?

You take something that’s daunting that people want to know more about and you put it in a format that’s more accessible and inviting for people. The challenge for cartoon books in this country is that they have the reputation of being just for kids. Kids can read them too, but there’s a lot of good information in the books and folks who are not experts on climate change can pick up a lot from this book.

How do you see climate change and why are most scientists convinced it’s occurring?

Climate change is occurring because of the burning of fossil fuels, deforestation and putting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, mostly CO2 [carbon dioxide]. There’s a theory that goes back 150 years or so that says that this will warm the planet and will have other implications.

Lately, we’ve been learning about ocean acidification so that some carbon that goes into the atmosphere gets dissolved in the ocean and affects ocean chemistry and that can change things like the ability of ocean creatures to build shells. We also see changes in weather patterns and precipitation. A warmer atmosphere tends to hold more moisture so you get heavier and heavier rainstorms.

You also write about the history of climate. What are scientists learning from this history?

There are scientific efforts to figure out what the planet looked like 20,000 years ago at the peak of the Ice Age and then during earlier ice ages, going back millions of years. In Antarctica, we can drill down through the ice and pull up ice core samples that go back about 800,000 years. You can analyze air bubbles that are trapped inside the ice to find the percentage of CO2 and other gases in the air bubbles and to determine what the temperature of the environment over the 800,000-year period.

What are core samples telling us about the situation now?

There have been comings and goings of ice ages on a semi-regular time scale. It’s now known that those are basically related to changes in the earth’s orbit around the sun that leads to glaciation or deglaciation — the build up or melt down of glaciers — and that’s where the ice ages come from.

You can also measure the relative percentage of liquid water to ice on the planet. And you can look at CO2 levels over the past eight hundred thousand years and we’re certainly out of balance now when compared to that period. Basically, during the ice ages, CO2 concentration varied from 180 to 280 parts per million. We're now at 400 parts per million, and we’re headed up at 2 or 3 parts per million a year, and definitely headed to 560, a doubling of preindustrial levels.

We’re heading into an area that’s not known. If you go back millions of years, there were times when the planet was a lot hotter than now and there was no ice on the planet. But we don’t have a good sense of what the planet was like those millions of years ago. The continents were in different positions and all sorts of other things were different.

We’re headed toward a terra incognita and it’s blasé to think the planet will be as good to us in the future as it has been in the past.

As you write, in 1896 the Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius predicted the temperature rise from CO2.

Yes. At the time, he and other scientists were obsessed with the cause of the ice ages. That led Arrhenius to study CO2, and he argued that changes in CO2 could drive the ice ages. He noted that, even back in the late 1800s, we were burning a lot of fossil fuels. He did preliminary calculations on what would happen if CO2 doubled in the atmosphere from 280 then to 560, which was on track to hit by the middle of this century. He was the first to estimate what the global average temperature increase would be, and he wasn’t far off. He said five degrees Celsius for the average temperature increase. And scientists now say two to four degrees Celsius.

And in the world of 1896, the economy was more dependent on agriculture, so Arrhenius thought climate change would be a good thing because he was thinking about Sweden having warmer seasons.

We try to be careful about what we say about climate change in the book because there is a lot of uncertainty. There are places where you’ll get better crop yield and places where you won’t get better yield. There’s a lot of questions about adaptation, irrigation, what will happen with water. There’s all kinds of uncertainty.

What environmental damage are we seeing?

Right now, we’re seeing the tip of the iceberg. Maybe that’s not the correct analogy.

There are some places where you see the results already. The amount of precipitation in heavy rainstorm events has increased by 12 percent in the Northwestern United States. The latest National Climate Assessment shows the impacts already, which makes sense because with warmer temperature the atmosphere holds more moisture and you’ll get more rain.

You also see some effects already in terms of acres burned by fires. It’s difficult to tease out how much is caused by forest management practices and how much is caused by hot, dry weather in the summer.

On a lot of issues, you have to be careful what you attribute to climate change. Scientists use the analogy about a baseball player who is on steroids. He hit home runs last year and, with steroids, he hits twice as many home runs this year. You can’t say that any particular home run was caused by steroids because he hit home runs last year when he wasn’t on steroids. So you can point to individual weather events like Europe in 2003 and storms and droughts and say they’re consistent with climate models, but it’s hard to establish causality.

Who are the major culprits now in terms of emitting the most greenhouse gases into the atmosphere?

Until the last century, climate change and carbon emissions were, for the most part, a rich world phenomenon. That’s no longer true in the new century. We can’t think of it that way any more and, as we proceed into the century, it’s going to be more and more of a developing country issue. The rich world can show leadership, but we’re no longer at a point where we can solve the problem by ourselves.

In the book, we talk about my theory, which I’m very proud of, called the five Chinas theory of the world. You take the world population of 7 billion people and divide it by five and you get 1.4 billion, which is about the population of China. So you can divide the world into five chunks about the size of China and get: China; India; everybody else in developing Asia is a third China — Indonesia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Philippines, Vietnam; the rich world — North America, Europe, Japan, South Korea, Mexico; and the fifth China is everybody else — Africa and South America.

At the beginning of this century, the rich world was responsible for about half of world CO2 emissions. There will be two big stories of this century. One will be about growth and development, especially in poor parts of the world. In many ways it’s a happy story because people will get electricity and access to transportation and health care and education, the things we take for granted.

The other big story of this century will be the environmental impact of having 10 or 11 billion people on the planet who are trying to live the lifestyle we have now. If you think of the rich world being responsible for half of emissions CO2, imagine two cakes, and the rich world gets a cake and the rest of the world shares the second cake. As they catch up over the course of the century, we go from two cakes to five cakes and we’ll add two or three Chinas to the planet over the course of the century as we go from 7 billion to 10 or 11 billion people. That gives you a sense of the scale of the challenge of reducing carbon emissions of even keeping carbon emissions steady.

The most amazing story I can tell you about this is that China in 2006 passed the United States for the first time as the No. 1 emitter of CO2 in the world. Some time in the next year or two, they will be at double U.S. levels. Even at double U.S. levels, China has four times more people as the U.S., so they are still at half of our levels per capita.

You also mention that the gap between the rich and the poor will widen because of climate change.

Again, the first story is that poor countries will start catching up with rich countries. We’ve seen this in China. They’ve had very rapid economic growth over the past few decades. It’s unfortunate that they’re destroying their environment, but they certainly have higher living standards now that they did 30 or 40 years ago. And I hope we’ll see waves of development in India and Africa and other places around the world that are very poor right now.

As people get richer, they’re better able to deal with the impacts of climate change. They can afford to buy safer houses and equipment. If they’re not so dependent on agriculture, they don’t have to worry so much about the effect of climate change on agriculture in terms of their own productivity.

Getting richer will help, but for folks who are still on the poor end of the spectrum, they will be a lot more vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Look at Bangladesh. It will have a lot more concern about sea level than the United States because we have the money to deal with it and they don’t. If you think about subsistence farmers and people in Bangladesh who live near sea level, food is a major part of their yearly expenditures. Those people will be vulnerable in ways we’re not.

You suggest things that citizens can do and laws that may help us address climate change, including a carbon tax.

What I do as an environmental economist is use the tools of economics and the power of capitalism to protect the environment.

With climate change, that means putting a price on carbon and using market forces to get companies and individuals to use less carbon. You could do that with a carbon tax or with a cap and trade system, which is a complicated but somewhat similar policy.

Basically, the way both of those systems work is by raising the price of fossil fuels.

The policy I talk about is raising the price of fossil fuels with a carbon tax and then use the revenue to reduce existing taxes on income, on savings, on investment. So you have higher taxes on bad things and lower taxes on good things. That will encourage economic actors such as individual businesses to use less carbon and hopefully it will encourage them to create more jobs and do more good things.

And then a carbon tax would encourage developing cleaner sources of energy?

Sure. British Columbia has what some economists consider the best climate policy in the world that’s from a right-of-center government. They wanted to do something about climate change and be market-friendly, so they ended up with this carbon tax law. With their carbon tax, they reduce personal and corporate income taxes in the province. The carbon tax is $30 per ton of CO2 and that’s roughly 30 cents per gallon of gasoline and about 3 cents a kilowatt hour of coal-fired power. You have one and a half cents of kilowatt hour of natural gas fired power. And zero for wind, solar, geothermal and other renewables. So it provides this nice financial incentive to move toward lower-carbon energy sources. That’s a cool thing about carbon tax.

And you are active in an organization that’s proposing a carbon tax for Washington state.

Yes. It’s called Carbon Washington and our website is carbonwa.org. We’re working toward a November 2016 British Columbia-style revenue neutral carbon tax for Washington state. The basic idea is to have a $30 per ton of CO2 carbon tax and use the revenue to reduce the state sales tax by a full percentage point. The state sales tax right now, before local rates, is 6.5  percent so it would get lowered to 5.5 percent. That’s our proposal. We’d save the average household hundreds of dollars a year. You’d pay more for fossil fuel but you’d pay a couple hundred dollars a year less for everything else, and that will encourage people to economize on fossil fuel usage and carbon emissions. That’s what we have to do.

The future in terms of climate change seems bleak. Can you talk about that pessimism as well as hopeful developments you see?

Some people talk about tipping points, or being past the point of no return. There’s some argument that the ice sheets in Antarctica are past the point of no return. It will take them a couple centuries to melt, but we’ve committed ourselves to that because there is no going back. And there are other potential tipping points that people mention. But there’s a lot of uncertainty around that.

I mostly think about it from a risk perspective. For the most part, we like the planet that we have now and, if it doesn’t cost much to buy some insurance to keep the planet that we have now, then we should think seriously about doing that. That’s what I like about environmental tax reform like the carbon tax idea. It’s not that hard on the economy and it will benefit the economy over all by moving toward a more reasonable tax system.

On the hopeful things, I think there are some good policies, like the carbon tax in British Columbia. There are some states like California and states in the East that are experimenting with cap and trade. I think that the marketplace is starting to move in the right direction. Solar panels are coming down in price. Lots of people are working on innovation. And if we could set up a good strong signal on the price of carbon, we could push that a lot further.

The Holy Grail of climate issues is getting the price of renewables below the price of fossil fuels. Then people don’t need to be green to adopt these new technologies. They just need to care about the bottom line — and everybody cares about the bottom line. So if we can develop renewable energy that is cheaper than coal and gasoline, then we will have solved a major part of the problem. It’s not guaranteed we can do that, but we’re slowly moving in that direction and, if we put a price on carbon, then we’ll move a lot more quickly in that direction. That’s what I’m optimistic about.

A longer version of this article appeared earlier on History News Network

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