Monday, December 21, 2009

$20 per Gallon: How the Inevitable Rise in the Price of Gasloline will Change Our Lives for the Better / Christopher Steiner - NY: Grand Central, 2009

Many oil industry analysts have concluded the world has reached its maximum annual production of conventional oil. Henceforth, our energy requirements will need to be increasingly fulfilled by other energy sources: coal, nuclear, renewables, poorer quality oil, tar sands, etc. All of these are inferior sources of energy and are much more expensive to produce. Consequently, the world will see a steady increase in the price of energy which will change our society and our way of life. Christopher Steiner's $20 Per Gallon is an attempt to understand what these chnges will be. Surprisingly, Steiner believes that on balance we will be better off by losing our addiction to cheap oil.

Steiner is a journalist and an undergraduate engineering major. He is not an economist, and this shows in his work. Nonetheless, $20 Per Gallon is a welcome attempt to begin thinking seriously about the consequences of rising oil prices. The work proceeds through ten chapters, titled with a rising price of a gallon of gas (Chapter $4, Chapter $6, Chapter $8, etc.). In these chapters Stiener describes how the incremental increas in gas will wean Americans from SUVs, drastically downsize the airline industry, stimulate the production of electric cars, rebuild our cities and destroy suburbia, restore the character of small towns, rebuild U.S. manufacturing, "deconstruct" our global food system, and stimulate the construction of high speed trains all across America.

While the broad outlines of Steiner's vision of the future are probably correct, he fails to provide the details necessary for a clear picture of the future. The optimistic tone of the work often relies on technological solutions to the problems raised by expensive energy. Hydrocarbon fertilizers will be replaced with electrolosis created amonia, the burden that electric cars will place on our electric grid will be solved by smart grid technologies, and petro-plastics will be replaced by bio-plastics. Between the lack of detailed economic analyses and the faith in technological solutions, the hopeful picture of the futre seems more hopeful than justified.

Perhaps the strongest chapters in the book outline the development of urban neighborhoods, public transportation, and high speed interstate rail lines. These developments rely mainly on proven technologies and a will to implemented cost effective plans. It is very easy to see how the rise in energy prices will stimulate retrofitting our housing and building stock to avoid heating and cooling waste and how our transportation needs will require the development of cost effective ways of moving our workforce to and from their houses and workplaces.

It is less clear that we will be able to feed our huge population without the cheap energy that made such a population possible. Steiner would have done better to investigate the carrying capacity of land in and around our major cities to see just what land and water resources would be needed to feed them and how much it would cost to bring enough food to the market. If our current conurbations are not viable, our future will be different in ways that Steiner does not explore.

Nonetheless, one is left with less anxiety about the future having read $20 Per Gallon. For anyone contemplating the most dire scenarios spun out by "peak oil" theorists, that may be a good thing. One should not underestimate the resourcefulness of people and our ability to create meaningful and enjoyable lives without the goods and services of our hydrocarbon economy. Still, Steiner's vision is certainly too rosy. He consistently glosses over the real sacrifices that people will need to make with the loss of cheap energy or during the transition to a new energy economy.

Many of these sacrifices are likely unanticipate today, but it precisely because they are unanticipated that Steiner's book is so valuable. It is the first attempt I have seen to seriously imagine the consequences of rising energy prices. If only a good economist would bring her or his attention to the issue as Steiner has.

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Science and Politics of Global Climate Change: A Guide to the Debate / Andrew E. Dessler & Edward A. Parson -- Cambridge: Cambridge U. Press, 2006

The Science and Politics of Global Climate Change is just what its subtitle asserts: a guide to the debate -- or perhaps the debates. The combined expertise of Dessler (a climate scientist) and Parson (a professor of law) allow them to summarize several debates regarding the scientific facts about climate change, its causes, its likely consequences, and the wisdom of various mitigation and adaptation strategies.

Global Climate Change's first chapter briefly sets the stage for the work, laying out the fundamentals in the scientific and policy debates. The second chapter gives a brief description of the scientific method and attempts to distinguish and clarify empirical and normative claims made in the wider public debate on climate change. The best of the work begins in Chapter Three, which provides an admirably clear account of what is known about climate change and its likely consequences as of the time of publication. The conclusions are based largely on the Third Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and other special reports published by the Panel. Some subsequent material is included to bring the findings up to date.

The conclusions of these reports show significant global warming and argue that it is caused mostly by our production of various greenhouse gasses. Consequently, the fourth chapter outlines adaptation and mitigation strategies and discusses their costs and benefits. Finally, the fifth chapter describes the political debates related to responding to climate change. In each chapter, Dessler and Parson give an even-tempered presentation of the main arguments of the parties to the debates, but without withholding their own views. Usually, these views assume the middle ground of various ranges of uncertainty described by the IPCC.

Among the more interesting elements in Global Climate Change is Dessler and Parson's the treatment of "the climate skeptics," i.e., those who believe some number of the following claims, (1) the Earth is not warming, (2) the Earth may be warming, but human activities are not responsible, and (3) future climate warming will almost certainly be very small. The authors address these claims directly in the last chapter, but much of what is in the third chapter is sufficient to rebut the claims. There, Dessler and Parson examine five natural factors that might cause the climate to change: orbital variations, tectonic activity, volcanoes, solar variability, and internal variability. The authors conclude that none of these factors are significant enough to account for the rise in the global temperature during the past century. At most, they are able to explain small fluctuations or minor deviations from the general warming trend. Indeed, the best climate models include all these factors and human activity in the explanation of the data.

In brief, Dessler and Parson definitively reject the skeptics first claim, believe that human activity has likely caused most of the recent temperature increase, and caution us not to believe that climate change won't be a significant problem in the future. They write, "If climate change lies near the low end of the projected range, impacts over the twentyfirst century are likely to be manageable for rich, mid-latitude countries, but may pose serious difficulties for poorer countries. If climate change lies near the high end of the projected range, impacts over the twenty first century are likely to be severe and potentially unmanageable for everyone." Unfortunately, they dedicate only six pages to describing these impacts. For a readable and well organized treatment of the impacts, see The Rough Guide to Climate Change by Robert Henson -- London: Penguin Books, 2008.

Global Climate Change is an excellent treatment of the debates, but since its publication, the gravity and certainty of the conclusions in the climate change debates have increased. For the most current information on the scientific aspects of the debates, one must read the Fourth Assessment Report of the IPCC (2007). It is available at The report is presented by three working groups covering "The Physical Science Basis," "Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability," and "Mitigation of Climate Change." Each group provides a detailed survey of the scientific literature and its main conclusions, along with a kind of executive summary for policy makers. It would be a great contribution to public understanding if Dessler and Parson published a second edition of Global Climate Change based on the IPCC's Fourth Assessment Report.