Krugman seems to believe that by sprinkling the fairy dust of incentives over society the emission busting new technologies will emerge.The "fairy dust" analogy actually comes from the Disney film The Pirate Fairy (released as Tinkerbell and the Pirates in the UK) which I saw as I am blessed with a 3 year old daughter. After seeing it I tweeted
The plot is an inquisitive fairy, Zarina, causes havoc when an experiment goes wrong and leaves the fairy kingdom and her friends. She returns and steals the fairy dust having fallen in with a bunch of pirates. When the pirates have harnessed the power of the stolen dust they lock her up. Zarina is rescued by her friends, the pirates are defeated (it is a prequel to Peter Pan, and there is a baby crocodile) and the fairies "live happily ever after". Not expecting much I found an allegory for how science goes wrong when disconnected from society. This is, no doubt, further evidence that I am an idiot. Alternatively it might be evidence that I am committed to the idea of science in the service of society, not its sovereign.Tinkerbell and the pirates: how science can lead to irresponsible innovation if scientists are alienated from society— Tim Johnson (@TCJUK) May 5, 2014
Because he thinks I am a bit ignorant, Krugman assumes I believe new technologies need to emerge to resolve the problem of carbon emissions. He argues
I was talking about the fact that at any given time we have a choice of already existing technologies. You can drive a conventional SUV, but you could also drive a hybrid, or for that matter a smaller vehicle that, say, emits half as much carbon as the SUV while providing services that are a lot more than half of what the SUV would provide. You can generate electricity using a coal-fired plant, but you can also use a gas-fired plant, a wind turbine, or solar panels.In a sense, so was I.
I have been involved in published research on modelling incentive structures to trigger investment in the UK's generation capacity to maintain an acceptable level of security of supply. The UK energy market was de-regulated in the 1990s in the expectation that the privatised industry would deliver lower retail prices. This it did, but at two costs. Firstly UK energy prices are volatile, which is a problem for retail consumers who have a preference for "fixed costs". More important for the UK's energy supply is that the privatised business has taken rents but is not regenerating generation capacity and there is a real concern that the industry will fail to meet future demand, from whatever sources. My intuition based on my research is that the liberalised market in the UK has not been a success, and the industry would have been better managed as a state monopoly. This is the consensus in the EU where ambitious plans to liberalise Europe's energy industry have been quietly dropped. At the moment the public opinion of the UK energy industry is on a par with their opinion of investment banking, and this morning the news was full of concerns over the industry.
I am currently working on a research project to develop a methodology that can evaluate the effect that different power storage technologies will have on the UKs power system. These storage technologies are needed because wind power generation is intermittent and cannot be relied upon to deliver power when and where it is required. Texas is famous for having installed a lot of wind generation capacity, unfortunately this does not produce power on hot, still, still summer days when the Texan people want their air conditioners on. Existing technologies to resolve the problem, such as new transmission lines, are costly, as reported by the New York Times as long ago as 2008, and were still an issue in New England last year. A focus of UK Energy research is to develop storage technologies that enable the integration significant (intermittent) renewables, which is a more robust solution than relying on transmission (the UK has less of an issue with power transmission that the US, a result of the system having been developed by a single state body). Without these technologies it is unclear how wind-power can significantly replace carbon intensive generation. Suggesting it is a "done deal" and simply a matter of incentives that renewables can replace conventional generation is a dangerously mis-leading since it creates false expectations; dreams deferred. I recall hearing of research that identified a link between the proliferation of reported "cures for cancer" and a decline in trust in medical research, since the public experience is that cancer is not "cured". The public like scientists but they also want honesty from us.
The impression I wish to convey is that the claim that
You can generate electricity using a coal-fired plant, but you can also use a gas-fired plant, a wind turbine, or solar panels.is a bit glib. The technologies exist in theory but do they do so in practice? This is nothing new, those with access to academic journals could have a look at a special edition of Energy Policy (Volume 38, Issue 7,in particular the editorial and Market protocols in ERCOT and their effect on wind generation). I suggest that there is evidence that my original claim is sound.
Krugman makes things somewhat worse for himself when he argues that
You can drive a conventional SUV, but you could also drive a hybrid, or for that matter a smaller vehicle that, say, emits half as much carbon as the SUVJust as the UK preceded the US in liberalising its energy markets, it has developed economic incentives to encourage people to switch from high carbon emitting vehicles to low carbon emitting vehicles, principally through two mechanisms, the fuel price escalator (since 1993, a Conservative initiative) and car tax differentials (since 2005). The fuel price escalator is controversial and anyone who is interested in the details, and why I am sceptical of the "fairy dust", they could read a Parliamentary briefing on the UK debates. To get a gist of the issue, and why there is broad support for the suspension of the escalator even amongst parties with strong "green" credentials such as the SNP and Liberal Democrats, consider the situation of a low-skilled worker living in rural Britain. During the down-turn such people were liable to have to travel 50+ miles to work and earn a living and could only rely on private transport. If they did not have wealth they typically buy second hand, old, "dirty" cars; they do not have the resources to "choose" to buy a clean, low cost, hybrid -UK car prices are clever, the price of "workaday" cars often reflects their present value; if a car has low running costs it is usually more expensive to buy.
In reality the poor do not really have choices. One is reminded of Rousseau's recollection
of a great princess who was told that the peasants had no bread, and who responded: "Let them eat brioche."Academics do themselves no favours by offering unworkable solutions. I am committed to carbon reduction - I spend time researching technical solutions - but I am also committed to helping those in "energy poverty". If intellectuals spend time telling the public what they out to or ought not do without considering how those commandments affect others with less influence, they will lose the public's confidence. If science is to maintain its high status I think it should be wary of ascribing criticism to "a toxic mix of ideology and anti-intellectualism".
There is a story that John Dewey's philosophy was inspired by being forced to spend time talking to "regular people" on a broken down train. Along with the other pragmatists he argued that
The value of any fact or theory as bearing on human activity is, in the long run, determined by practical application - that is by using it for accomplishing some definite purpose. If it works well - if it removes friction, frees activity, economises effort, makes for richer results - it is valuable as contributing to a perfect adjustment of means to end. If it makes no such contribution it is practically useless, no matter what claims may be theoretically urged on its behalf.I remain to be convinced that the important problem of carbon emissions can be resolved by economic incentives, the story is more complex and should be treated with respect.