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Archive for June 2nd, 2010

Interviewed on NPR, William Galston suggests that compulsory voting may be the answer to softening the deep polarization that currently exists in U.S. politics.

He argues that today, politics in the U.S. is as polarized as ever, and in order to have a healthier political discussion, that needs to be dealt with. The problem is that the people who actually vote are the ones who are most angry or political. Charging a fee to anyone who fails to vote will force politicians to appeal to a broader electorate.

I think it could help. But of course, forcing people who are completely uninterested or unfamiliar with political debates might not help. This highlights, in my opinion, the importance of a liberal arts education that produces active citizens, who refuse to listen to politicians who reduce their opponents to caricatures. This value of the college education is what many economists miss when they argue that it is inefficient for mail carriers to have bachelor degrees [ht:cr].

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According to the Guardian,

A global shift towards a vegan diet is vital to save the world from hunger, fuel poverty and the worst impacts of climate change, a UN report said today.

Recognition of the contribution of livestock to anthropogenic global warming is growing. However, this is by no means low-hanging fruit. In fact, it’s likely that the livestock contribution will only get worse:`

Ernst von Weizsaecker, an environmental scientist who co-chaired the panel, said: “Rising affluence is triggering a shift in diets towards meat and dairy products – livestock now consumes much of the world’s crops and by inference a great deal of freshwater, fertilisers and pesticides.”

Both energy and agriculture need to be “decoupled” from economic growth because environmental impacts rise roughly 80% with a doubling of income, the report found.

Achim Steiner, the UN under-secretary general and executive director of the UNEP, said: “Decoupling growth from environmental degradation is the number one challenge facing governments in a world of rising numbers of people, rising incomes, rising consumption demands and the persistent challenge of poverty alleviation.”

This message needs to get out there more. I’m not a vegetarian, but I’m trying hard to reduce my meat consumption. This is a hard sell in the US, where most of us grew up on “Beef, it’s what’s for dinner.” Beef and dairy products should be taxed just the same so consumers internalize the social costs of what they are eating. If taxing other emissions requires delaying this action on livestock, that’s fine, as long as it’s on the agenda. Again, this one will take years of attitude changing, but we can’t afford to ignore environmental degradation just because it’s inconvenient.

Besides, there are a lot of great substitutes, like TVP, which goes great in a vegetarian chili. Unfortunately, these substitutes force us to eat healthily in other ways, as they require complementary fresh vegetables and herbs, rather than merely salt and butter.

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The Niger Delta receives much less attention than it’s Mississippi counterpart. Here’s some great journalism from Guardian:

We could smell the oil long before we saw it – the stench of garage forecourts and rotting vegetation hanging thickly in the air.The farther we travelled, the more nauseous it became. Soon we were swimming in pools of light Nigerian crude, the best-quality oil in the world. One of the many hundreds of 40-year-old pipelines that crisscross the Niger delta had corroded and spewed oil for several months.

Forest and farmland were now covered in a sheen of greasy oil. Drinking wells were polluted and people were distraught. No one knew how much oil had leaked. “We lost our nets, huts and fishing pots,” said Chief Promise, village leader of Otuegwe and our guide. “This is where we fished and farmed. We have lost our forest. We told Shell of the spill within days, but they did nothing for six months.”

That was the Niger delta a few years ago, where, according to Nigerian academics, writers and environment groups, oil companies have acted with such impunity and recklessness that much of the region has been devastated by leaks.

In fact, more oil is spilled from the delta’s network of terminals, pipes, pumping stations and oil platforms every year than has been lost in the Gulf of Mexico…

Shell, which is often described as a relatively eco-friendly company, pretty much defers blame:

Last month Shell admitted to spilling 14,000 tonnes of oil in 2009. The majority, said the company, was lost through two incidents – one in which the company claims that thieves damaged a wellhead at its Odidi field and another where militants bombed the Trans Escravos pipeline.

Shell, which works in partnership with the Nigerian government in the delta, says that 98% of all its oil spills are caused by vandalism, theft or sabotage by militants and only a minimal amount by deteriorating infrastructure…

These claims are hotly disputed by communities and environmental watchdog groups. They mostly blame the companies’ vast network of rusting pipes and storage tanks, corroding pipelines, semi-derelict pumping stations and old wellheads, as well as tankers and vessels cleaning out tanks…

There is an overwhelming sense that the big oil companies act as if they are beyond the law. Bassey said: “What we conclude from the Gulf of Mexico pollution incident is that the oil companies are out of control.

“It is clear that BP has been blocking progressive legislation, both in the US and here. In Nigeria, they have been living above the law. They are now clearly a danger to the planet. The dangers of this happening again and again are high. They must be taken to the international court of justice.”

These incidents are in no way unique. Limitless extraction of valuable natural resources will continue to claim casualties until it is taxed appropriately. Unfortunately, incidents like these are the black swans of environmental economics, and are left out of the social cost of carbon.

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