Keeping the Poor Poor

Against Anti-Growth Environmentalism

It has become fashionable in some circles to come out against economic growth. Bill McKibben, the author and climate change activist, asserts that “growth may be the one big habit we finally must break.” He adds that this is “a dark thing to say, and un-American.” Such calls for an end to growth are typically advanced in environmental debates and those about economic globalization. But what does it actually mean to be against economic growth? I argue that to be anti-growth actually implies keeping poor people poor.

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Emissions Impossible

United Kingdom & Australia Far From Decarbonization Targets

While I was working on The Climate Fix I published several peer-reviewed articles on climate policies in the United Kingdom, Japan, and Australia. In recent months I have updated these analyses and will summarize the updates here. 

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Commanders in Growth?

Charting Economic Growth Under Republican vs. Democratic Presidents

The Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post recently reported on a new paper by Alan Blinder and Mark Watson (here in PDF, hereafter BW13), which tackles what would seem to be a straightforward question: Why is it that since World War II the US economy has grown significantly faster under Democratic presidents than Republican presidents? This post looks at this question from the broader standpoint of policy research methods. I conclude that BW13 have asked the wrong question, one that lends itself to many answers or none at all, and perhaps it tells us more about policy research methods than anything else.

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Behind Japan’s Climate Fail

Nuclear Energy and Global Warming Commitments

Last week the Japanese government announced that it would adopt a new emissions reductions target:

A government panel on measures to tackle climate change approved on Friday a new goal to reduce the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions by 3.8 percent by 2020 from the 2005 level ...

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said he is sure that Japan can substantially contribute to global efforts to tackle climate change. The government will steadily implement necessary measures to achieve the new emissions reduction target, he said.

The new goal means a setback from the target of reducing emissions by 25 percent from 1990 by 2020, which was set in 2009 by the administration led by the Democratic Party of Japan. The DPJ is now an opposition party.

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Australia’s Climate Follies

Abbott Government the Bellwether of Global Carbon Debate

Australia’s longest-running tragedy is starting a new season with a new cast but the same familiar follies. Of course I am talking about Australian climate policy.

Before Julia Gillard was deposed she had announced that Australia’s carbon price, which had been implemented as a tax (following her pre-election promise not to institute a tax), would be linked with Europe's emissions trading scheme by 2015, cutting almost $20 from the per-tonne price of carbon that had been so hard won, leaving it in the low single digits.

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Deepening Democracy

Scientists & Experts Must Guide, Not Usurp, Climate Negotiations

Last Friday, Björn-Ola Linnér and I had an op-ed in the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter that discussed the role of experts in politics. We argue that, "a commitment to democratic governance means accepting that power rests with the people, and not the experts." An English translation appears below, courtesy Björn-Ola Linnér.

On Thursday, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change presented the first of four assessments, this one taking stock of the physical science of the climate system. The report’s reception and promotion highlights challenges that arise when expertise meets politics. 

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Betting Against Apocalyptic Thinking

The Simon-Ehrlich Wager

$576.07. That is how much money Julian Simon won from Paul Ehrlich, John Harte and John Holdren in 1990 in a bet about commodities prices. The wager was actually a proxy for competing ideological views about the role of humans on the Earth. The story of the bet between Simon and Ehrlich is told in a wonderful new book by Yale historian Paul Sabin, titled The Bet: Paul Ehrlich, Julian Simon, and the Gamble over Earth’s Future.

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Electricity for All

What Universal Energy Access Will Take

This article was coauthored with Morgan Bazilian, and originally appeared in Issues in Science and Technology (Summer 2013) under the title "Making Energy Access Meaningful."

In a somewhat inconsequential meeting at the United Nations (UN) in 2009, Kandeh Yumkella, the then Di­rector-General of the UN Industrial Development Or­ganization, and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s informally assigned “energy guy”, noted something obvious and profound, namely that, “the provision of one light to poor people does nothing more than shine a light on poverty”. Yet much of an emerging discussion on the crit­ical importance of global energy access as a pathway out of poverty continues to focus on what are, in effect, “one light” solutions. In this essay, we seek to help clarify the challenge of energy access, expose assumptions that are informing pol­icy design in the development and diplomatic communities, and offer a framework for future discussions rooted in the as­pirations of people around the world to achieve energy access compatible with a decent standard of living.

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Against ‘Anti-science’ Tribalism

Science Is No Substitute for Politics

One of the more useful concepts to emerge from online discussions is Godwin’s Law, which holds that the longer that an online debate takes place the probability that someone invokes Hitler or the Nazis approaches 1.0. When discussions reach such a point of fantastic overstatement, the existence of Godwin’s Law enables its invocation, and often a conversation can be reset to good effect.

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Clean Energy Stagnation

Growth in Renewables Outpaced by Fossil Fuels

The world was moving faster towards reducing its reliance on carbon intensive energy consumption in the 1970s and 1980s than in the past several decades. In fact, over the past 20 years there has been little if any progress in expanding the share of carbon-free energy in the global mix. Despite the rhetoric around the rise of renewable energy, the data tells a far different story.

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Can the British Decarbonize?

Targets Require Complete Coal-to-Gas Switch in a Decade

If the United Kingdom is going to hit its short-term targets for the emissions of carbon dioxide, then it is going to have to accelerate its rates of decarbonization observed since the passage of its 2008 Climate Change Act by a factor of four. Since the passage of that Act the rate of decarbonization in the UK has slowed dramatically from the rate observed during the pervious decade. The enormous magnitude of the task called for in the Act has been overshadowed by a debate of the setting of targets for the decarbonization of energy supply, targets which are already implied by the 2008 legislation and thus unnecessary.

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The Irrelevance of Climate Skeptics

Why the Obsession with Deniers Impedes Climate Progress

Earlier this week, Martin Wolf of the Financial Times announced that the "climate skeptics have won." His comments echo those of former NASA scientist James Hansen who told an audience in Edinburgh last year that the skeptics "have been winning the public debate with the help of tremendous resources." The action needed in response to this situation was spelt out by Lord Stern – the eponymous author of the well-known 2007 report on the economics of climate changewho once called skeptics "forces of darkness" who had to be "driven back."

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Ignoring Innovation

A Review of Michael Levi’s ‘The Power Surge’

The energy and climate challenge of the 21st century is easy enough to describe. For a world of 9 or 10 billion people to live at the per capita wealth and (highly efficient) energy consumption equivalent of present-day Germany, we will need three to four times as much energy as we consume today. If carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere are to stop increasing, then nearly all of that future energy consumption must come from technologies that produce zero emissions.

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Europe’s Climate Fail

Why Cap and Trade Had No Impact on Emissions

After the European Parliament voted down a proposal to prop up its flagship emissions trading scheme (ETS), most observers finally admitted what has been obvious for a while: the program is contributing little to accelerating the decarbonization of the European economy. However, a few eternal but confused optimists see the program as working just fine. Here are a few thoughts in response to that bit of pushback.

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Planetary Boundaries as Power Grab

Giving Political Decisions a Scientific Sheen

Writing at the Huffington Post UK, Melissa Leach, director of the STEPS Centre at Sussex University, asks a provocative question:

When the cover of the Economist famously announced 'Welcome to the anthropocene' a couple of years ago, was it welcoming us to a new geological epoch, or a dangerous new world of undisputed scientific authority and anti-democratic politics?

The occasion for raising this question was Leach's participation last month in a United Nations meeting of experts on the development of new sustainable development goals. Leach describes a meeting in which scientific authority was invoked as the basis for closing down debates over policy and asserting the preeminent roles of experts in charting a course for future global development.

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Climate Pragmatism in the White House

Obama Advisors Reject Climate Wars

In a refreshing break from the polarizing debates of recent years, President Obama’s science and technology advisors have released a new set of recommendations on climate policy that are indicative of a growing consensus around pragmatic, commonsense actions that may offer great prospects for implementing effective policies.

The recommendations mark a sharp departure from many of the divisive and politically toxic proposals that often characterize climate policy discussions and a repudiation of the most divisive approaches, such as found in the misguided campaign against Keystone XL.

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Chinese Nuclear and the Future of Energy Innovation

Between Nuclear and Fracking or Coal and Pollution, the Choice Is Clear

Over the past few years I've given the New York Times’s Justin Gillis a (deserved) hard time for some of his reporting. I'm now happy to given him some well-earned praise on the occasion of his first monthly column at the Times on climate change. Gillis wisely chose to write his first column on energy innovation, with a focus on nuclear power and China:

We have to supply power and transportation to an eventual population of 10 billion people who deserve decent lives, and we have to do it while limiting the emissions that threaten our collective future. 
 

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How Much Energy Does the World Need?

Clarifying the 21st Century Energy and Climate Challenges

In the early 1920s, when my grandparents were just small children, only about 40% of Americans had access to electricity. Over the course of a generation that number reached close to 100%. Today, inexpensive, reliable and plentiful access to electricity is something that most people in OECD countries take for granted. I was reminded about this when I attended the recent annual meeting of the Colorado Rural Electric Association, a group that decidedly does not take electricity for granted. The meeting was opened by appealing to core shared values: “The greatest thing on earth is to have the love of God in your heart, and the next greatest thing is to have electricity in your house."

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On Lance Armstrong

Why Sports Need Stronger Institutions

Last week at my son’s elementary school the teachers gathered the students for an important meeting. It seems that during the moments before the school’s doors open in the morning chaos and bickering were breaking out on the playground. The kids were trying to play the game of foursquare, but no one agreed on the rules of the game so the teachers intervened.

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Should Scientists Rule?

A Review of The Geek Manifesto

In The Geek Manifesto, British journalist Mark Henderson makes a passionate case for why science and scientists deserve a greater role in politics. He argues that political views ought to be measured beyond two axes representing economics and social policies. “Politics,” Henderson explains, “has a third axis, too. It measures rationalism, skepticism and scientific thinking.”

The champions of this third axis are the “geeks” — those “people with a passion for science and the critical thinking on which it is founded.” Science, Henderson explains, “is not a noun but a verb.” He continues, explaining that science “is provisional, always open to revision … comfortable with your changing your mind … anti-authoritarian: anybody can contribute, and anybody can be wrong … [tries] to prove the most elegant ideas wrong … [and] is comfortable with uncertainty.”

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It’s Not About the Machines

How Leading Economists Misunderstand Productivity and Jobs

Writing in the New York Times last week, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee argue that “a wonderful ride” began to unravel in the late 1990s when employment growth became “decoupled” from productivity growth.

Their contention is that something fundamental has changed in the economy over the past decade, illustrated in the following graph by the increasing gap between gains in productivity and employment, described ominously as the “jaws of the snake.”

A closer look at the data shows, however, that the “jaws of the snake” have been open for more than 30 years. More fundamentally, rather than a “great decoupling” between trends in employment and productivity, it is clear that productivity and employment have been diverging for a very long time as the composition of the economy has changed.

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Energy “Access” Is Not Enough

Why We Need to Talk About Energy Poverty

Access to energy is one of the big global issues that has hovered around the fringes of international policy discussions such as the Millennium Development Goals or climate policy, but which has been getting more attention in recent years. In my frequent lectures on climate policy I point out to people that 1.3 billion people worldwide lack any access to electricity and an 2.6 billion more cook with wood, charcoal, tree leaves, crop residues and animal waste (an additional 400 million cook with coal).

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New Technologies Preceded Regulations in Saving Ozone

Accelerating Innovation Paramount in Climate Fight, Too

Twenty five years ago, the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer was introduced for signature by nations around the world. Since that time, the treaty has become arguably the most successful international environmental success story in history. It may also be the one which historians and policy analysts have argued about the most in an effort to draw lessons relevant to the climate debate.

Conventional wisdom holds that action on ozone depletion followed the following sequence: science was made certain, then the public expressed a desire for action, an international protocol was negotiated and this political action led to the invention of technological substitutes for chlorofluorocarbons.

Actually, each chain in this sequence is not well supported by the historical record.

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Does R&D Drive Economic Growth?

The Mythology of Innovation

It is a claim that you hear often in discussions of the role of research and development in the economy: “Federal investments in R&D have fueled half of the nation’s economic growth since World War II.” This particular claim appeared in a recent Washington Post op-ed co-authored by a member of the US Congress and the chief executive of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. It would be remarkable if true. Unfortunately, it is not.

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Is Economic Growth Coming to an End?—Part II

The Decline Narrative and the Data

In my column last week at The Breakthrough Institute on Robert Gordon's analysis of US per capita economic growth, I identified what I believe to be an error in his calculation of post-1950 growth rates. Such an error matters because Gordon's recent discussion paper has been called “the summer’s most talked about working paper in economics” and argues a data-based case for US decline. My view is that such discussions should at least start with a solid empirical basis and re-checking assertions grounded in data claims is fair game (not all agree, however).

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Is Economic Growth Coming to an End?

How Robert Gordon Misreads the Data and What It Tells Us About the Dismal Science

Over that past month there has been much discussion of a new paper by Robert Gordon, a prominent economist at Northwestern University, which carried the provocative title: Is US Economic Growth Over? Faltering Innovation Confronts the Six Headwinds.” (See for instance, Annie Lowrey here, the Economist here and David Keohane here).

In what Tim Harford called “the summer’s most talked about working paper in economics,” Gordon argues that the economic growth of the past century may represent an aberration from the normal state of society, which experiences little economic growth. Look far enough back in time Gordon says and the world had minimal, if any economic growth, and looking ahead, we may be returning to that dismal state. Gordon explains that he is raising “the audacious idea that economic growth was a one-time-only event."

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The Politics of Prediction

A Review of Nate Silver's The Signal and the Noise

Nate Silver is a Wunderkind. Not yet 35, Silver has already developed the leading statistical tool for assessing prospective professional baseball players, been consulted by the 2008 Obama presidential campaign to help assess the implications of opinion polls for the election’s outcome, writes a widely read New York Times blog and in 2009 was named by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world. Along the way, and apparently in his spare time, Silver made more than $400,000 playing professional poker (before losing about a third of it and moving on). Silver’s initial foray into professional poker turned a $100 initial stake into $15,000, which was apparently enough to convince Silver to quit his day job, which has been to the benefit of the rest of us. Silver adds to this impressive list of accomplishments with the publication next week of his first book The Signal and the Noise: Why Most Predictions Fail – But Some Don't (Penguin USA).

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Where Did the Jobs Go?

What Obama and Romney Can Learn from the Recession

US unemployment rates remain high and a major issue in the US presidential campaign. This post seeks to explain with simple math where the jobs went as a first step in understanding how unemployment might be reduced. The math is simple, and it helps to show how most debate over economy and employment miss what actually matters most – and that is innovation policy. 

In December, 2007 the US economy employed about 138 million people. In February, 2012 that number had shrunk to about 133 million (data). Where did those jobs go? Two recent studies provide some important insight to this question.

 Last month, Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce published a study looking at job losses from 12/2007 to 2/2012 (hence my use of those dates) by economic sector and educational attainment (here in PDF).  The Figure below shows their overall results.

 

The graph shows that for those who attended some college, or with more post-secondary education, employment had recovered to December 2007 levels by February 2012. The balance of “lost” jobs was among those with secondary (i.e., high school) education or less.

A longer view, beyond the time frame of the recent recession, shows that all job growth in the US since 1989 has come from those with some post-secondary education, with a 14% drop in those employed with a secondary degree or less. Thus, the recent recession amplified trends that were already in place and part of the ongoing structural change in the composition of the economy.

The Georgetown report also looked at job losses by economic sector by educational attainment. This is shown in the figure below, which shows the dramatic loss of jobs by those with the least education in construction, IT, manufacturing and financial services. Together, these four sectors account for the loss of 5.6 million jobs from December 2007 to February 2012. Within those sectors 3.7 million, about two thirds, of the job losses were among those with the least education, secondary or less.

A big part of the loss of jobs of course is the nature of the recession itself, originating in the finance industry and the housing bubble – hence the large loss of jobs in construction and financial services and the bubble burst.

The loss of low-skill jobs in manufacturing and IT (and other sectors in the economy) is arguably the consequence of industries in these sectors trying to maintain productivity growth to remain competitive by shedding the lowest skilled jobs at a rate faster (slower) than the decline (subsequent rebound) in output. These numbers are borne out by looking at productivity data.

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About Roger Pielke Jr

I am a professor of environmental studies at the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research at the University of Colorado at Boulder. I also have appointments as a Research Fellow, Risk Frontiers, Macquarie University; Visiting Senior Fellow, Mackinder Programme, London School of Economics; and Senior Visiting Fellow at the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes of Arizona State University. I am also a Senior Fellow of The Breakthrough Institute, a progressive think tank.

Click here to view his recent articles.