5 Oct 2017

Review: An Inconvenient Truth

I was in graduate school when this film came out in 2006. I didn't watch it then because I busy with studying local water management failure (at the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, or Met) and because I thought I had a pretty decent idea about how climate change was happening, what we needed to do to slow it down (we studied the theoretical equivalence of cap and trade vs carbon taxes -- more below), and how climate change was going to increase variation in water deliveries and supplies. (I was a guest attendee at Met's August 2006 manager's meeting where they got a presentation from a UC Berkeley climate scientist on how precipitation was going to get "unreliable.")

So, I wasn't too shocked by the content of this film when I watched it a few weeks ago (It's a lot more thoughtful compared to DiCaprio's "do-something-now" version from 2016). In fact, I thought it was pretty reasonable and accessible, with Al Gore talking about his "slide show," how people were reacting, and how he had been working for years to bring policy and public attention to the matter.

Sadly, there seem to have been two opportunities that we've missed since that film came out. The first was the hardening of Republican opposition to acting to reduce GHG emissions. This opposition has now taken the form of religious belief for most Republicans rather than a willingness to consider the costs and benefits of action. (Don't forget that Reagan introduced cost-benefit analysis to Federal regulations!)

The second was a preoccupation with regulations, subsidies and over-complex, unworkable cap and trade over simpler measures to reduce GHG emissions. Most of these policies were the result of Democrats and state politicians trying to act without needing Republican approval. In some cases, you might argue that some improvement is better than no improvement, but the high cost (and occasional mistakes, such as the wasted Solyndra subsidies) made "action" a byword for partisan, bureaucratic waste.

On the other hand, there was also an over-reliance on the "elegance" of cap and trade systems, which promised to target the flow or stock of GHG emissions but did not make any predictions about the cost of limiting emissions. As you may have heard, this price uncertainty was not welcomed by businesses (Exxon supports carbon prices!), but cap and trade had two other flaws. The first was its bureaucratic nature (not just measuring emissions but also tracking trades). The second was its "feature" of allowing trade between regions (or countries) with different emissions profiles and -- very importantly -- different political classes and populations. Those differences promised huge gains from targeting "low hanging fruit" in whatever country could reduce GHG emissions at the lowest possible cost, but it ran into problems with fraud and worries that "we're sending our money to foreigners in return for promises to reduce emissions that may not be kept."

The alternative to cap and trade would be a carbon tax, which I favor (read this and this and watch this) for its clear price signal as well as its potential to "recycle" revenue back to the local population (like the Dutch already do), but carbon taxes have been opposed by Republicans (who won't even allow the gas tax to pay for highway maintenance!) as well as environmentalists ("we want money for our toys!") -- an unholy alliance that might go down in history as the worst bipartisan agreement ever.

Bottom Line: We are entering a period of consequences due to our failure to overcome short-term political games, anti-scientific ignorance, and the all-too-human desire to avoid hard choices today for a better life tomorrow.* Americans may be proud of their exceptionalism, but in this case it's an exceptionalism that is contributing to harm around the planet -- and a more difficult future for many Americans.** I give this film FIVE STARS for making climate science -- and our negative impact on the planet -- easier to understand.

For all my reviews, go here.

* It's no accident that the median US household has only $5,000 in savingsthe US ranks 22nd out of 32 OECD countries in terms of national savings.

** It's not hopeless, as this article tracking Republican parroting of fake news and this badass Florida editorial blaming Republican politicians for their willful inaction attest.

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