Earth Day Versus Earth Race

In “Off to the Races,” New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman contrasts “two basic strategies for dealing with climate change.”

The Earth Day strategy is epitomized by a series of eponymous events as well as other summits, such as Copenhagen. “The Earth Day strategy said that the biggest threat to mankind is climate change, and we as a global community have to hold hands and attack this problem with a collective global mechanism for codifying and verifying everyone’s carbon-dioxide emissions and reductions…”

However, Friedman questions the viability of the Earth Day strategy. “[A]nyone who watched the chaotic way [the Copenhagen] conference was ‘organized,’ and the bickering by delegates with which it finished, has to ask whether this 17-year U.N. process to build a global framework to roll back global warming is broken.” Thus, while agreeing that the Earth Day process has not been “a waste,” Friedman dubs himself “an Earth Race guy.”

The Earth Race strategy considers “averting catastrophic climate change [to be] a huge scale issue. The only engine big enough to impact Mother Nature is Father Greed: the Market. Only a market, shaped by regulations and incentives to stimulate massive innovation in clean, emission-free power sources can make a dent in global warming.”

This Earth Day versus Earth Race logic leads Friedman to conclude that priority one is “getting the U.S. Senate to pass an energy bill, with a long-term price on carbon that will really stimulate America to become the world leader in clean-tech.”

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If you believe that CO2 is an externality (and most people now do), then removing uncertainty through regulation seems to be important step. Until CO2 emissions (and its “equivalents”) have a price, there is little incentive for internalizing such costs. But I fail to see how such a policy is the exclusive domain of an Earth Race strategy. It seems that regulating carbon is also a logical conclusion of an Earth Day strategy.

Moreover, despite potentially agreeing with his conclusion, I am not sure about Friedman’s logic. For one, the either/or dichotomy implicit in Friedman’s article ignores the potential interdependencies between an Earth Day strategy and an Earth Race strategy. If anything, I suspect the Earth Race strategy is best understood as an emergent response to the growing prominence (political and otherwise) of the Earth Day strategy. Having said that, I would not go so far as to suggest that an Earth Race was either an inevitable response or even the only possible response to the Earth Day strategy. Further, it is difficult to imagine the Earth Race strategy having any traction were it not for the forty years of effort put into the Earth Day strategy. In fact, it is not entirely clear that the Earth Race strategy has sufficient traction to sustain itself.

Additionally, it is ironic that Friedman’s proposed solution — “the Market” — is only viable when “shaped by regulations and incentives.” I am not troubled by these conditions. If anything, I see them as acknowledgment(whether intended or not) that markets are social constructions. As a result, markets are not inherently capable of solving social problems. “Greed is good” (or bad) only if and when human institutions make it so. “Successful” markets require every bit as much explanation as market failures. However, if Friedman’s conditions are also intended to signal the possibility of intentionally designing a “perfect” (i.e., rational) carbon market, then we should be concerned. As social constructions markets are not inherently rational.

Finally, my biggest concern involves Friedman’s comparison between the Earth Race strategy and the Space Race, in which “two countries competed” to “be the first to put a man on the moon.” While a potentially interesting analogy, apart from sharing the word “race” it is unclear to me what the two scenarios have in common. In particular, it is not clear how (if at all) market dynamics played a role in the space race — either in the United States or (especially) in the Soviet Union.  Instead, if there is a parallel between the space race and climate change, it seems to me the lesson is that creating public goods may require massive government investments in technologies, and protection from market dynamics.

In short, I find Friedman’s latest article thought provoking. His contrast between Earth Day and Earth Race strategies provides a compact way of thinking about alternative approaches to a complex problem. And yet, while inclined to support his conclusion that we need a carbon market, if anything, such a policy seems entirely inconsistent with the lessons of the space race. It would not be inaccurate to describe the space race as dependent on a singular enemy, driven by an appeal to nationalistic fervor, and indebted to massive governmental investments in the industrial-military complex.

In other words, if Friedman is right, if what we need is an Earth Race strategy, and if the Earth Race is like the Space Race, then it seems the last thing we need is a carbon market. Instead, what we need is an enemy, more nationalism and massive spending. However, in the case of climate change, the problem is that we have seen the enemy. The enemy is us. “Them” in this case is “Us.” Pushed in this direction, an Earth Race strategy suggests annihilation is victory. If that is the case, there can be no winner in the Earth Race. Thus, I am inclined to think that solving climate change is probably not at all like putting a man on the moon. And considering the moon walk remains an enigma, perhaps that’s not such a bad thing.

But then, to what shall we liken climate change?

Clean Air = Dirty Water?

The New York Times has just released another fantastic story in its “Toxic Waters” series. The article highlights some of the complexities involved when attempting to address externalities and the tragedy of the commons. The article also vividly illustrates how solutions to such externalities and commons problems often create new (presumably unintended) spillovers (on externalities and commons see Coase 1960; Hardin 1968; Dietz, Ostrom, Stern 2003, etc). In other words, we see how new framings rather than solving problems can actually set in motion a cascade of overflows (see Callon 1998, 2007, etc).  In this case cleaner air comes at the expense of dirtier water, at least in part because the institutional arrangements (such as the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act) have been designed in ways that do not account for the interrelatedness of these dynamic processes.

Source: New York Times

Source: New York Times

At a more practical level the story is again accompanied by an interactive database of water polluters searchable by location.  For this story the database has been updated with the ability to look specifically at the violation records of coal fired power plants. Of note, Pennsylvania coal plants represent 4 out of the 15 violators of clean water regulations in the United States.  These plants include:

For more on the issue of water pollution, see my earlier post here.

Electric Utilities and Wastewater Regulations

Something must be in the, err, water…

On the heels of my recent post about Toxic Waters, tomorrow’s Wall Street Journal features a story about plans by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to tighten regulations on the quality of the wastewater discharged from coal-fired power plants.  At issue are the toxins left behind from the scrubbing process used to remove the toxins from the air.

“Power plants pump out dirty water in part because of technology installed to stop the spread of soot and ash from smokestacks. The systems that clean smokestack emissions scrub the exhaust with water-based compounds. If left untreated, that mixture of water and metals can contaminate waterways and drinking water, the EPA said.”

For the full story, visit “Utilities Face Stiffer Wastewater Rules.”

Toxic Waters

On Friday night I watched Frontline’s “Poisoned Waters” (from Netflix via Roku), a two hour investigation by Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Hedrick Smith into “the growing hazards of water pollution to human health and the ecosystem.” The program was divided roughly into two segments: First, a look at Chesapeake Bay, and second, an investigation of Puget Sound.  In addition to detailing issues specific to each location, both Chesapeake and Puget were “read” as microcosms of the much larger problem facing America’s waterways.

Broadly speaking, the show highlighted two major issues: agricultural runoff and storm sewers.  Technically speaking, both are considered “nonpoint source pollution” and susceptible to increased ambiguities in terms of measurement and accountability (as compared with “point source pollution”). On the issue of agricultural runoff specifically, The Washington Post described Frontline’s interviews with Jim Perdue, chairman of Perdue Farms, and Bill Satterfield, spokesperson for the Delmarva Poultry Industry, as “the kind of verbal evasions that would twinkle a tobacco industry scientist’s eye.” I’m pretty sure that having yourself compared with tobacco “scientists” is never good. Frontline also noted the Clean Water Act’s “citizen suit provision,” which allows citizens to sue polluters and the government for enforcement failures.

Another point raised by the Frontline “Poisoned Waters” episode is the growing gap between the contaminants in use and those covered by regulations. In particular, Frontline discussed a study by the U.S. Geological Survey that tested the Potomac River for some 277 new contaminants NOT covered by the Clean Water Act. Overall, they found 85 contaminants. Of these, only about half of the compounds had safety guidelines. But Frontline also noted a second gap — this one between the contaminants in use and the contaminants capable of being detected. Not even the expanded list tested for by the USGS covers the range of contaminants potentially in use.  In other words, here we see the possibility of externalities which are not yet capable of being externalized, let alone interalized.

Then last night The New York Times home page featured a lengthy story on “Toxic Waters,” along with a companion interactive database of more than 200,000 facilities that have permits to discharge water pollutants. The reporting behind the story is massive, drawing on data from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), along with “hundreds of thousands of water pollution records [obtained] through Freedom of Information Act requests to every state,” and interviews with “more than 250 state and federal regulators, water-system managers, environmental advocates and scientists.”

A few key points:

  • “Nationwide, polluters have violated the Clean Water Act more than 500,000 times.”
  • “[T]he E.P.A. regulate[s] more than 100 pollutants through the Clean Water Act and strictly limit[s] 91 chemicals or contaminants in tap water through the Safe Drinking Water Act.”
  • According to Lisa Jackson, the EPA’s administrator, “[D]espite many successes since the Clean Water Act was passed in 1972, today the nation’s water does not meet public health goals, and enforcement of water pollution laws is unacceptably low.”
  • “[R]esearch shows that an estimated one in 10 Americans have been exposed to drinking water that contains dangerous chemicals or fails to meet a federal health benchmark in other ways.”
  • “Because most of today’s water pollution has no scent or taste, many people who consume dangerous chemicals do not realize it, even after they become sick.”

According to the database, Pennsylvania is home to 8,654 regulated facilities. Here in the Centre County region where I live, most of the facilities have no reported violations.  However, there were 6 facilities in the area with violations, which I have listed below, first, based on length of compliance failures (e.g., Cerro Metal has been out of compliance 11 of the past 12 quarters), and second, for those facilities not out of compliance, by the number of reported violations (e.g., Mid Centre County PDF has 37 violations, but is not out of compliance). As with Pennsylvania more broadly, NONE of these facilities has been fined for these violations. Again, these data are all from the New York Times website and based on EPA data for 2004-2007 inclusive.

  • Cerro Metal — 61 violations. This facility has been out of regulatory compliance 11 of the past 12 quarters.
  • University Area Joint Authority — 18 violations. This facility has been out of regulatory compliance 5 of the past 12 quarters.
  • Hanover Foods Corp WWTF — 57 violations.  This facility has been out of regulatory compliance 3 of the past 12 quarters.
  • Mid Centre County PCF — 37 violations.  This facility has not been out of compliance in the past 12 quarters.
  • Moshannon Valley Regional — 34 violations.  This facility has been out of regulatory compliance 4 of the past 12 quarters.
  • Port Matilda Boro WWTF — 2 violations.  This facility has not been out of compliance in the past 12 quarters.