April 19, 2014

Saturday Morning Essay: Mr. Krugman's Other Science

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Lately, Paul Krugman, Ace Economic Columnist for a Great Metropolitan Newspaper, has been weighing in on global warming.  I sense that he has become aware that his "economics in a vacuum" approach to reality was beginning to strike the more educated members of his reading audience as a trifle bizarre.  As I think I've mentioned any number of times, I admire Mr. Krugman, first and foremost, as a tireless self-promoter.  He is living proof that the American Dream can still be achieved with diligence, fierce ambition and a willingness to blog fourteen or fifteen times a day, with your main subject being how right you have been over the last five years about low inflation, money printing and the Liquidity Trap.  Mr. Krugman has taken what appears to be a fairly mundane intellect (although, admittedly, he seems like Einstein considered in the context of the Council of Morons at the New York Times Op-Ed department), and a wooden, cliche-ridden writing style, and made himself into the go-to public intellectual on the American scene.  Which suggests just how deep our problems run these days. And to prove that Mort Sahl was right, satire is dead in America because reality is funnier than anything you can dream up: Mr. Krugman is moving to City University of New York as a "Distinguished Professor," at the princely sum of $225,000 per year (twice the going rate for tenured professors at this Harlem-based campus) without taking on, actually, any teaching duties.  He's going to "build up" the university's leadership in....income inequality in America

But back to global warming, which Mr. Krugman has figured out how to fold into his "growth forever" paradigm, a solution which has the incidental and beneficial effect of making his own brand of economics marginally relevant, at least for a little while longer
Why are some powerful individuals and organizations so opposed to action on such a clear and present danger? Part of the answer is naked self-interest. Facing up to global warming would involve virtually eliminating our use of coal except to the extent that CO2 can be recaptured after consumption; it would involve somewhat reducing our use of other fossil fuels; and it would involve substantially higher electricity prices. That would mean billions of dollars in losses for some businesses, and for the owners of these businesses subsidizing climate denial has so far been a highly profitable investment.

I've taken a couple of on-line university courses in global warming, including David Archer's University of Chicago course (Prof. Archer is apparently still required to teach, but then again he has an actual scientific subject at his command).  I've attended seminars and conferences, just out of general interest.  I've read many books by the leading lights in the field.  I don't know of any informed climate scientist who would describe the solution to climate change in the terms Mr. Krugman employs here.

In a recent blog post, Mr. Krugman reiterates:
In fact, it’s possible that solar will displace coal even without special incentives. But we can’t count on that. What we do know is that it’s no longer remotely true that we need to keep burning coal to satisfy electricity demand. The way is open to a drastic reduction in emissions, at not very high cost.
There it is again.  Coal.  What stands between us and a climate catastrophe is the substitution of solar electrical generation in place of burning coal.  A pie graph on carbon dioxide emissions from the EPA website:

Coal burning by itself accounts for about 24.9% of total emissions, and it is included primarily in the electricity and industry sectors.  Since the Wreck of the Old 97, we have not used coal much in transportation, even for locomotives.  Thus, cars, trucks, planes, trains and ships, by themselves, all of which depend on petroleum fuels, are a bigger problem in this country than coal.  In fairness to Mr. Krugman, he does say that we need to reduce fossil fuels other than coal "somewhat."  As usual, he's not very precise, but in further fairness, that's only because he has no idea what he's talking about.

Granted, burning coal is a filthy process, and beyond the emission of carbon dioxide it causes all kinds of other pollution problems, such as acid rain and mercury contamination.  Replacing coal-burning with solar electricity is a very good idea.  Still, it's important to remember that once carbon dioxide is in the atmosphere, it has a tendency to hang around for about one thousand years.  During that millenium, it has a tendency to forget where it originally came from; nevertheless, it goes on about its business of capturing infrared radiation from Earth and re-radiating the heat into the air, land and oceans.

While I'm not quite sure what's going on in Mr. Krugman's devious little mind, I have a sneaking suspicion it has something to do with the Keystone XL pipeline.  Mr. K has been silent on this issue, which numerous climate scientists, including James Hansen, and activists such as Bill McKibben at 350.org, regard as a make-or-break decision.  President Obama, in his usual decisive, forthright way, has apparently "deferred" a decision on Keystone until "after November."  I guess he doesn't want to "politicize" the issue, meaning: he doesn't want Democratic incumbents saddled with the burden of a rare principled decision by Mr. O.

As we know from Mr. Krugman's endless cheerleading for Obamacare, the Harlem-based millionaire is fully in the tank for the President.  We must admit that there are no plans to send coal down the XL pipeline.  If all we have to do is eliminate coal, then what's the fuss about Keystone, hmm?

It's something like that.  Plus, China uses lots of coal.  As Mr. Krugman points out, China has become the world's #1 carbon dioxide emitter.  True, it has four times the population of the United States, and we emit almost as much, meaning our economy uses four times as much energy per capita (and twice that of Europe per capita), but still - coal, that's the thing to eliminate, then we won't be like China.  Then, 2 or 3% shaved off oil and natural gas and we're there.  Right?