Monday, March 03, 2014

When Freeman Dyson Suggested a Carbon Tax

This 1977 paper by Freeman Dyson is interesting. It's titled "Can We Control the Carbon Dioxide in the Atmosphere?" and appeared in the journal Energy.

From the first section, "Statement of the Problem":
There exists a huge literature attempting to assess or to prognosticate the effects of the increasing atmospheric CO2 on the climate of the earth. Such attempts are useful and necessary, but they run into formidable technical difficulties. Even the mean global temperature rise caused by a given quantity of CO2 is subject to great uncertainty: and the effects of CO2 on local and  time-variable phenomena (which may be crucially important to agriculture and other human activities) are more uncertain still. It is possible that the rise in CO2 will be on balance beneficial to mankind, especially in reducing climatic extremes in very cold and very dry regions. The prevailing opinion is that the dangers greatly outweigh the benefits. But in spite of various dire warnings, it seems inevitable that we shall continue for many decades to burn fossil fuels and to increase the level of atmospheric CO2, without knowing with any degree of certainty the consequences of our actions.
and from the "Conclusions" section:
There seems to be no law of physics or of ecology that would prevent us from taking action to halt or reverse the growth of atmospheric CO2 within a few years if this should become necessary. Two methods of withdrawing carbon from the atmosphere have been described, among many possible alternatives. One is to plant fast-growing trees on a massive scale on marginal land; the other is to grow and harvest swamp-plants and convert them into humus or peat. The possible scale and speed of these operations appear to be limited by the availability of fertilizer rather than by land or financial costs. The establishment of such a “carbon bank” in the form of trees or peat is not to be regarded as a permanent solution of the CO2 problem. It is a stop-gap measure to hold the atmospheric CO, level down for a few decades and buy time in  which a permanent shift from reliance on fossil fuels to renewable photosynthetic (or nuclear) fuels can be completed.
On the last page Dyson proposes a tax on carbon sufficient to accomplish all this tree-planting and peat-converting. He imagines eliminating 5 gigatonnes of carbon a year at a cost of $25 billion, presumably in 1977 dollars. Today that would be almost $20 per tonne of carbon in current dollars.

He calls the cost estimates "exceedingly crude," and they do seem a little low compared to what's tossed around today, but just slightly below Australian's rate when they had one. But at least then he seemed open to the possibility that action to control carbon might be necessary. Not so much today.

But Dyson did write in his book Disturbing the Universe:
“We are scientists second and human beings first. We become politically involved because knowledge implies responsibility.” 

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