Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The two limits debates: ‘‘Limits to Growth’’ and climate change

I have an article in press which I co-authored with Josh Eastin and Aseem Prakash. It will soon appear in Futures and you can read it here.

This is the abstract:
In this article we compare the current debate about global warming with the earlier discourse of Limits to Growth (LtG) of the 1970's. We are especially interested in the similarities of and differences between the two cases and therefore compare the policy challenges and lessons to be drawn. While the two debates differ on important issues, they share a technocratic orientation to public policy, and susceptibility to similar pitfalls. In both debates alarming scenarios about future catastrophes play an important role. We suggest that climate change policy discourse needs to focus more closely on the social, economic, and political dimensions of climate change, as opposed to its excessive emphasis on emission reduction targets. We also argue that an excessive faith in the market mechanisms to supply global warming mitigation technologies is problematic. In this respect, we provide a reality check regarding the political implications of emission targets and timetables and suggest how policy issues can be moved forward.


_Flin_ said...

Thank you for this interesting article.

When reading about the CoR's assumption that "unregulated citizens and nations are too selfish or short-sighted to realize that they are slowly but surely undermining their own prosperity" I couldn't help to think about atlantic tuna, which didn't make it on the endangered species list. Because this endagers jobs.

Apart from that just one question remains: How exactly do you change values?

Zajko said...

I'd have to say nice work. I can't comment on the appropriateness of the Limits to Growth comparison, since I know so little about it (before my time) - but I found the comparison insightful. The article radiates caution and finishes with a stack of questions, which I would say are quite relevant. We need alternatives to alarmism, as well as alternatives to cap n trade. I'm not always the biggest fan of Lomborg, but the technology option is a good one. The question for me is - which technologies? Carbon capture is big here in the Canadian prairies, but I think the idea is more of a technological distraction than the game-changer we need.
And I also like the reference to peak oil. I haven't noticed much of that in this debate - but ultimately, you could argue it stands to make more of a difference than anything else. Just look at what the recession did for emissions (more than Kyoto could hope to). I think peak oil could multiply that effect, in a worst-case scenario.

Ryan Meyer said...

Thanks so much for this post. In a complete coincidence, I was just looking back over a 1983 paper by Richard Ashley, reviewing various aspects of "world modeling" efforts. There are many fascinating parallels with climate modeling. Here's one provocative quotation:

"On the other hand, despite its evidently political nature, the so-called world-modeling community is strikingly superficial in its attempts to grasp its own historical place, political content, and practical implications. Its practice too often ranges between smug indifference and total naivete as to such matters as the social conditions that make the enterprise possible, the historical contingency of the epistemology upon which it rests, or, to use the term in the Gramscian sense, the mode of 'hegemony' world modeling might challenge or perpetuate."

I think a similar lack of self reflection is rampant in the climate science community. But, perhaps more importantly, it is also rampant in the climate science policy community. There is an assumption that modeling and prediction are essential components of dealing with climate change. This shapes how the science proceeds, and the extent to which it is likely to ever support real decision making.

Full citation:
Ashley, R.K., 1983. The Eye of Power: The Politics of World Modeling. International Organization 37 (3), pp. 495.

eduardo said...

Whereas as a lay person in this matter I would welcome a 'technological solution', I am a bit skeptical about how it can work in practical terms. My partial view of technological process is that it is quite random and not really enforceable by a targeted strategy. Research on cancer or nuclear fusion are both well funded ( I guess) with very desirable goals and yet the solution is always several decades ahead. On the other hand, other technological quantum jumps like Internet were dormant for a certain time and suddenly they spring to life apparently without no one prodding them. Perhaps there are now developments under the visible surface that may change this discussion in a decade, who knows. I would mention here the new technologies to extract gas from gas shales that apparently could considerably cut the US CO2 emissions by switching from petrol to natural gas in transportation or from coal to natural gas for electricity production

isaacschumann said...

An excellent article Riener, very interesting.

I would like to expand on eduardo's comment, though. I work for a small technology company ( that specializes in yeast fermentations (we like beer) and the conversion of cellulosic waste streams to valuable fuels and chemicals.

10 years ago the government invested 40 billion dollars so that cellulase producers could bring down costs, which is a major impediment to cellulosic biofuels production. $200 billion was given to hydrogen fuel cell research. None of this to any great effect.

Furthermore, massive government intervention directly contributed to the corn ethanol boom and subsequent bust as well as to Spain's disastrous solar policy. I liked some of Friedman's idea's in the article of his that you sited, but giving taxpayer money to be invested by venture capital firms is hardly an argument against market based policies.

I'm not saying that the market is far superior, simply that government interventions have had a mixed record to say the least. Eduardo is also correct IMO that it is very difficult to speed technological innovation.

I'm not proposing an easy solution, but I think the best answers will seek to combine the strengths of both markets and government intervention, to which your article is a valuable and constructive contribution, kudos.

and to eduardo, we are currently working with a bacteria that converts CO2 gas to chemicals that can be converted to hydrocarbons, we may fail to commercialize this process, but there are many other half sane people working on these problems, too;) Give it a few years and I think we will all be surprised.

Reiner Grundmann said...

@2 Zajko
The problem with peak oil is of course a double sword. Like economic downturn, it reduces emissions but to the detriment of the poor. If taken to the extreme, (cheap) energy shortage will exclude many parts of the world population from participation in social activities.

@3 Ryan
Thanks for pointing me to this article which I will read with interest

@4, 5 (and 1)
After the failure of the project of a globally binding, massive GHG reduction policy, it dawn on many that we need alternatives. This process has just started. To us, it seems obvious to focus on social and technical innovations which need to be devleoped in civil society (including business). The problem is that we have inherited a top down approach with focussing world events (Kyoto, Cophengagen, etc) which in effect prevented people from doing their own thing. The problem was supposed to be solved 'elsewhere' (i.e. through international agreement). But 'elsewhere' does not exist.

Reiner Grundmann said...

can you give the sources for the fnding figures you quote? Are you sure the 20bn /400bn is correct? Do they refer to the US only?

Zajko said...


Well, I never suggested that peak oil would be a positive development - I think in many ways it will be positively disastrous, though ultimately it may force some of the changes needed to reduce emissions more effectively than any of the treaty ideas being tossed around.
I'm curious how well various models & future scenarios take the price of oil into account. It's all speculative I know, but I think there's some strong evidence for record oil prices once the world economy finds its footing again (at which point it might promptly end up back in the gutter).

isaacschumann said...

Reiner, apologies, I meant millions instead of billions in both cases, the numbers are indeed incorrect and look a bit ridiculous. Billion just had more pizazz, how embarrasing:/

With the 40 million for enzyme research and scale up I was specifically referring to:

"In 1999, DOE signed three-year contracts with Genencor and Novozymes (USD 17 million and USD 15 million, respectively)"

'The Application of Biotechnology to Industrial Sustainability' OECD, 2001 pg. 19

30 million would have been a more accurate estimation; we were supposed to be on the receiving end of those enzymes, so please forgive the bias.

I have to admit that the 200 million number for hydrogen was just what I had in my head and I cannot recall a specific source, but, for hydrogen:

"Current government spending has equaled some $879 million since 2004."

Thanks for noticing, I will take more care when commenting in the future.