Swine Flu vs. Climate Change: Where are the Skeptics?

The US is developing a $9 billion campaign to vaccinate Americans against the H1N1 virus, also known as swine flu. There's a lot of uncertainty about how extensively swine flu will manifest among the population, it's likely severity and how well the vaccination might work. However, none of those uncertainties has stopped us from working hard to develop the vaccination and the program to deliver it to millions of people. Why? Basic risk management. The possibility that the pandemic could be severe and affect millions of people are sound reasons to make significant investments to try to reduce that risk.

I haven't heard about a single Congressman or Senator railing against making this investment to ward off a potential future threat. But aren't some of these the same politicians who tell us that we shouldn't be taking action against climate change, because of uncertainties about how it will manifest, it's likely severity and how well solutions might work? The reason we need to take immediate action on climate change is exactly the same as the reason we are taking immediate action against H1N1: it's because risk management to reduce the risks of potential catastrophe tells us to do so. I searched several of the web sites of the most outspoken Senators against climate change to see if they had similar stands against addressing swine flu and found nothing. Am I the only one who sees this hypocrisy?

To see more on looking at climate change through a risk management lens, watch this video:

Pocket Bus Schedules

The Arlington neighborhood called Westover is a neighborhood about a mile east of the East Falls Church Metro and about 1.8 miles west of the Ballston Metro. It is centered on a group of neighborhood shops: Lost Dog Pizza, Lebanese Taverna and Ayers Variety Store among others. The #2 Metrobus runs directly through the center to both Metro stops, although the majority of riders I've seen take the bus to Ballston and then transfer to Metrorail there (or Ballston is their destination). I think this is a good example of two nodes that would benefit from a simple, easily accessible and usable schedule.

Arlington Transportation Partners, which provides transportation information throughout the county, stocks schedules and maps in one of the local establishments. I have noted that whenever the #2 Metrobus schedule is stocked they immediately get snatched up, while the other schedules and maps tend to languish longer. However, almost all of the information in that schedule is extraneous to most of these users. All they really need to know is when the bus is going to Ballston and when it's returning. I suggest that a very simple, easy to use pocket schedule would be a powerful tool for riders between these two nodes. It could look something like this:

If designed to be the size of a business card folded once, it would easily fit in a wallet. There's no need for a map or a lot of other destinations or really anything else. It would serve most of the people who might ride the bus to or from the Westover area. It's so easy, it might lure people who pick up one of these schedules at the ice cream shop to consider taking the bus.

There are certainly dozens of these nodes that directly connect two locations together and are highly used. A couple obvious ones to me are Shirlington-Pentagon and Shirlington-Ballston. Especially now that Arlington has built their nice, new transportation center in Shirlington, providing riders with really easy pocket schedules would be a great boon for users. There are several different routes that serve these points, so having a concise, combined schedule would simplify information and make it more accessible.

One of the big barriers to people riding the bus is they don't know when it comes. NextBus is one tool to help with that, but it doesn't tell me when I can get back. It also doesn't help me with, say, tomorrow. The WMATA web site can, but a pocket schedule like this requires no computer, no smart phone, no Internet connection and is probably way faster than any of those. It can sit on the counter of a coffee shop and be tucked in a wallet and used immediately.

I imagine there are scores, if not hundreds, of these highly used node connections. Would it make sense to print all these individual pocket schedules? Maybe not a bad idea. By being enterprising, this might be a good way to get more people on the buses while partnering with local businesses. Why not get a local business to sponsor the schedules to offset the costs? They could pay for the printing, which would be a relatively low-cost advertising vehicle, and they would get a little space on the pocket schedule for their marketing message. It's highly geographically targeted marketing, since the only people who would be interested in that particular pocket schedule are those who travel to or from that one location.

While Metro is spending millions on rail cars and infrastructure maintenance and upgrades, and billions on a new rail line, there are truly low-cost/no-cost measures that can make the system run better. I've proposed a couple in the past (the Farragut Virtual Tunnel and A/B rush-hour service). This is another of those. Intelligently done, these simple little pocket schedules could be provided for free (both to passengers and for Metro) to thousands of riders and make riding the bus way easier.

(cross posted on Greater Greater Washington)

A Little Irony and Humor in the Washington Post

I had a letter to the editor published in today's Post in which I responded to this article:

Man Challenges Ban On Fortunetelling: Self-Described Gypsy Who Wants To Open Shop Says Law Is Biased

Here's the text of my letter (link here):

Crystal-Ball Economics
Thursday, August 20, 2009

I read with interest the Aug. 17 story that Montgomery County outlaws fortunetellers ["Man Challenges Ban on Fortunetelling," Metro]. Then I did a quick Internet search and found dozens of economists with offices in Montgomery County. What gives?


Carbon Tax vs. Cap and Trade - in the Washington Post

Today's Washington Post included an op-ed entitled
Cap and Rage:
the fight over health-care reform could hobble climate-change legislation.

I recently heard John Kerry speak at the National Press Club (for those of you who follow me on Twitter, I tweeted a few times from this event). He made a statement that caught me and some of my fellow climate change battlers off guard. He said he thought climate legislation might get pushed to 2010 due to the fight over health care. This Post op-ed supports that possibility.

The US
must, must, must show leadership in advance of Copenhagen. Time is running out. I am not confident, but hope that I am proved wrong. As the op-ed points out, the Waxman-Markey bill became bloated and overgrown. Personally I support it, because we must take action, and I maintain the hope that it would be improved over time. Having it fail would have been much worse than having it pass. However, the Senate may not find the time and wherewithal to take on the task, and that would be a catastrophe for international negotiations.

The Washington Post suggests dropping the cap and trade provision and instead instituting a simpler carbon tax. A carbon tax would be much simpler (although left to Congress, I'm sure it could be made wicked complex) in practice, but likely much more difficult politically.

Although I have been a long time supporter of market mechanisms as intelligent strategies to encourage innovation in private markets, I would also support a carbon tax (in fact, I'd support both--why not?). In fact, I'll support just about anything that shows the US wants to move forward on seriously addressing climate change.
It's also the sensible thing to do purely from a responsibility standpoint, as pointed out by Jim DiPeso here.

Let's do something--anything--to show that the US understands the serious implications of inaction.

Demographics, Declining Populations and Our Environment

Occasionally I encounter an article that discusses the demographic catastrophe that is befalling one or more of the developed nations that has a declining population, such as Japan or Italy. These articles rightly point out the problems that a population with a growing number of elderly and a smaller number of young people encounter. The economic systems that have been developed in most developed countries were created in the context of a small elderly population and a large young population. As this changes, these economic systems cease to function properly.
Yesterday's Washington Post had a similar article. The New York Times ran a long article last year on this topic.

This Post one had an interesting twist, however. It reported on research that seems to indicate that some highly developed nations are reversing the trend that as a country becomes more developed the lower its birthrate. The journalist and those quoted in the article universally praise this as a positive: "Now, however, new research has produced the first glimmer of hope that economic prosperity may not be linked to an inexorable decline in fertility."

Never once have I read one of these articles that also looks at the big picture of how the long-term demographics affect our environment. They tend to focus entirely on economics. Yet this is absurd. Even if you do not believe that the 6.7 billion people on the planet are already straining our planet's sustainability, adding more and more indefinitely into the future just to support an unsustainable economic system is impossible. Even if we were to achieve the replacement rate of 2.1 children per woman that sociologists and economists tout, our population would still grow from demographic inertia for a while. Then we'd end up with a permanent population of 7-9 billion people. That's just too many.

What we need to be doing instead of trying to reverse these demographic trends is to learn from them. The experience of Japan and Italy is the experience that the whole world is going to have sometime later in this century. The UN predicts that population as a whole will peak in about 2050 and then start declining. This is good for our planet, but doesn't work well with our economic systems. So, hello! Let's start figuring out how to transform our economic systems to work with a shrinking population rather than pushing on the population to match our economic systems.

Listen, the population we already have has reduced fish catch by 90% over the last 50 years. Fisheries worldwide are collapsing. We've destroyed our ozone layer for about 100 years (thankfully it's healing). We're reorganizing our climate to the detriment of hundreds of millions. We've created the 6th great extinction. We've acidified our oceans. Etc. All of these problems are either created by or exacerbated by more people.

So, we need to embrace the idea of shrinking population, not wring our hands over it. We can either be deliberate about planning our future here on earth or we can let crisis after crisis dictate what happens to us. I for one prefer the more deliberate and thoughtful approach.

The Big Cap and Trade Flip Flop

Back when I was in grad school getting my MBA, I took an Environmental Law class. At the time, the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 were just getting passed in congress. Much of our discussion in class centered around the innovative policies that were being put in place to curb acid rain: cap and trade.

Most of the other students were those interested primarily in environmental issues--pursuing degrees in environmental law or energy or such. I believe I was the only student from the business school in the class.

I clearly recall being virtually the only vocal supporter of the emissions trading concept proposed for the Acid Rain Program and that had been proposed by, yes, the Republican George Bush (senior) administration. This idea of using markets to reduce the costs of curtailing pollution was a conservative idea, and liberals were strongly against it. The other students would claim that it just created a "license to pollute" and that it created some sort of sham system. Those, like myself, that like to see intelligently designed market systems do the work, supported the idea.

Fast forward to now. Virtually every right-wing think tank and pundit is decrying cap and trade for greenhouse gases as a disaster while the environmentalists are strongly supporting it. What happened? I'm no political scientist, so I'm just speculatin'.

First, we environmentalists have noted the enormous success of the acid rain program at even lower compliance costs than the most optimistic predictions at the time. I, for one, believe that creative market forces will make reducing greenhouse gases cheaper than many predictions. I also can forecast with confidence that not one of the predictions that claims even an order of magnitude of accuracy for events 10+ years in the future will be remotely close to the actual costs:
CBO - $175 per household in 2020
Boehner - $3128 per household in 2015. Not $3127.50, by the way. $3128. Gotta love that final 8 bucks!
EPA - $1100 per household in 2050.

I predict that all of these numbers will be wrong. In fact, I suspect we won't even be able to measure what the costs (or benefits) really are, because so many other variables will have made it impossible to figure out.

Second, partisan politics have overtaken good sense. Many Republicans, I believe, oppose cap and trade simply because it's the Democrats proposing it. (In fairness, partisanship in congress these days seems to run equally both ways.)

I know that if we can create a market-based system that rewards success at reducing greenhouse gas emissions, that we will succeed at reducing them. Is Waxman-Markey the answer? Not entirely, it's got a lot of problems, but the concept of cap and trade embedded within the bill is not one of them. The concept of emissions trading (cap and trade) is an idea that should be embraceable by both political parties. After all, it has been.