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The World’s Only Stand-Up Economist Explains Climate Change (Interview)

Seattle’s Dr. Yoram Bauman is probably best known for clarifying the intricacies of economics with doses of humor as “the world’s first and only stand-up economist.” He has a national following and has shared the stage with luminaries from the late Robin Williams to Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman.

Dr. Bauman now focuses his wit and economics expertise on the daunting issue of climate change with acclaimed illustrator Grady Klein in an educational and entertaining new book, The Cartoon Introduction to Climate Change (Island Press). In the book, Dr. Bauman offers—with jokes--a primer on climate history, the science of climate change, the consequences of human use of fossil fuels, predictions, and policy ideas on how to address the major culprits, carbon dioxide [CO2] and other greenhouse gases—before it’s too late.

The Cartoon Introduction to Climate Change has won praise for its accessibility, skillful combination of text and drawings, serious science, and nonjudgmental approach to complex policy questions. John Michael Wallace, Professor Emeritus of Atmospheric Science at the University of Washington, commented that the book is “A clear, concise rendition of the story of human-induced climate change, candid and yet brimming with warm-hearted humor and well-founded optimism. Gently persuasive, beautifully illustrated. . . an innovative springboard for discussion of what we can do as individuals and as a society to turn down the heat in our planetary 'compost pile.'"

Dr. Bauman is a PhD environmental economist and active in the CarbonWA.org, an effort to bring a revenue-neutral carbon tax to Washington State. He taught for several years with the UW Program on the Environment. He also co-authored with Mr. Klein the two-volume Cartoon Introduction to Economics. His website is www.standupeconomist.com.

Dr. Bauman recently talked about our climate at a coffee house in Seattle’s University District on his return from a round of talks for diverse audiences ranging from the American Enterprise Institute and Research for the Future in Washington D.C. to a conference of New England public utilities commissioners in Vermont.

Robin Lindley: How did you decide to create a cartoon book to explain this complex subject?

Dr. Yoram Bauman: You take something that’s daunting that people want to know more about and you put it in a format that’s more accessible and inviting for people. The challenge for cartoon books in this country is that they have the reputation of being just for kids. Kids can read them too, but there’s a lot of good information in the books and folks who are not experts on climate change can pick up a lot from this book.

Robin Lindley: How do you see climate change and why are most scientists convinced it’s occurring?

Dr. Yoram Bauman: Climate change is occurring because of the burning of fossil fuels, deforestation, and putting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, mostly CO2 [carbon dioxide]. There’s a theory that goes back one hundred and fifty years or so that says that this will warm the planet and will have other implications.

Lately, we’ve been learning about ocean acidification so that some carbon that goes into the atmosphere gets dissolved in the ocean and affects ocean chemistry and that can change things like the ability of ocean creatures to build shells. We also see changes in weather patterns and precipitation. A warmer atmosphere tends to hold more moisture so you get heavier and heavier rainstorms.

So a whole host of issues come from putting CO2 and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

Robin Lindley: Can we see the earth as a breathing organism that must inhale and exhale in a way?

Dr. Yoram Bauman: There is a natural carbon cycle that through the natural processes of photosynthesis and decomposition. This is a northern hemisphere phenomenon because there’s more land area in the northern than the southern hemisphere. When it’s spring in the northern hemisphere, all these plants are growing and sucking CO2 out of the atmosphere. Then in the fall and winter in the northern hemisphere, all of those plants are dropping leaves and decomposing and that carbon goes back up into the atmosphere, so there is a natural variation in carbon cycle that’s quite regular.

If you look at the graphs, there a trend line that shows that humans are slowly contributing more to the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. One hundred years ago we were at about 300 parts per million and now were at about 400 parts per million.

Robin Lindley: So we have a warmer earth because of the greenhouse effect?

Dr. Yoram Bauman: Basically greenhouse gases trap energy that goes out of the earth’s system. There’s energy that comes into the earth’s system and energy that goes out of the earth’s system, and if the energy in and energy out are in balance, the earth stays at the same temperature. But greenhouse gases reduce the amount of energy that goes out. Like a blanket, they trap the energy out, so energy out is lower than the amount of energy in, so the planet warms up.

Robin Lindley: You also write about the history of climate. What are scientists learning from this history?

Dr. Yoram Bauman: There are scientific efforts to figure out what the planet looked like twenty thousand years ago at the peak of the ice age and then during earlier ice ages, going back millions of years.

In Antarctica, we can drill down through the ice and pull up ice core samples that go back about eight hundred thousand years. You can analyze air bubbles that are trapped inside the ice to find the percentage of CO2 and other gases in the air bubbles and to determine what the temperature of the environment over the eight hundred thousand year period.

Robin Lindley: What are core samples telling us about the situation now?

Dr. Yoram Bauman: They certainly show the record of the ice ages. There have been comings and goings of ice ages on a semi-regular time scale. It’s now known that those are basically related to changes in the earth’s orbit around the sun that leads to glaciation or deglaciation—the build up or melt down of glaciers—and that’s where the ice ages come from.

You can also measure the relative percentage of liquid water to ice on the planet.

And you can look at CO2 levels over the past eight hundred thousand years and we’re certainly out of balance now when compared to that period. Basically, during the ice ages, CO2 concentration varied from 180 to 280 parts per million. Were now at 400 parts per million, and we’re headed up at 2 or 3 parts per million a year, and definitely headed to 560, a doubling of preindustrial levels.

We’re heading into an area that’s not known. If you go back millions of years, there were times when the planet was a lot hotter than now and there was no ice on the planet. But we don’t have a good sense of what the planet was like those millions of years ago. The continents were in different positions and all sorts of other things were different.

We’re headed toward a terra incognita and it’s blasé to think the planet will be as good to us in the future as it has been in the past.

Robin Lindley: You write about Charles David Keeling, a chemist, and how his work confirms the increase of atmospheric CO2 since the 1950s.

Dr. Yoram Bauman: Yes. So, you can go back to the ice cores and estimate what CO2 levels were like historically. But Keeling started modern measurements of CO2 concentrations directly from the air in the late 1950s. Basically, they’ve been active since 1958 at a measuring station atop Mount Mauna Loa in Hawaii. He didn’t want to measure in an urban area with factories and other activities.

So we’re at 400 parts per million of CO2 now, which is .04 percent. That doesn’t sound like much, but it turns out to be significant, and the work he did over his life turns out to be very important.

Robin Lindley: He also designed the Keeling curve, which shows a dramatic steady increase in CO2 levels over the past 55 years or so.

Dr. Yoram Bauman: Yes. First his measurement showed an annual variation in CO2 concentrations because of the natural carbon cycle and he also showed this trend that’s going upward over time.

Robin Lindley: As you write, in 1896 the Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius predicted the temperature rise from CO2.

Dr. Yoram Bauman: Yes. At the time, he and other scientists were obsessed with the cause of the ice ages. That led Arrhenius to study CO2, and he argued that changes in CO2 could drive the ice ages. He noted that, even back in the late 1800s, we were burning a lot of fossil fuels. He did preliminary calculations on what would happen if CO2 doubled in the atmosphere from 280 then to 560, which was on track to hit by the middle of this century. He was the first to estimate what the global average temperature increase would be, and he wasn’t far off. He said five degrees Celsius for the average temperature increase. And scientists now say two to four degrees Celsius.

And in the world of 1896 the economy was more dependent on agriculture, so Arrhenius thought climate change would be a good thing because he was thinking about Sweden having warmer seasons.

We try to be careful about what we say about climate change in the book because there is a lot of uncertainty. There are places where you’ll get better crop yield and places where you won’t get better yield. There’s a lot of questions about adaptation, irrigation, what will happen with water. There’s all kinds of uncertainty.

Robin Lindley: Another figure you mention is that temperature has been increasing at about .15 degrees Celsius per decade. That sounds tiny to a layperson, but that increase worries scientists.

Dr. Yoram Bauman: That’s true. I think the difference between the ice age and the temperature now is about five degrees Celsius, or nine degrees Fahrenheit. That doesn’t sound like much yet it meant a big change. It’s probably best to think about the changes as a book: What will happen if there’s a two degree Celsius or four degree Celsius temperature increase in this century? Don’t think of them as temperatures but as the title of a book, and also in the book is what happens with weather patterns, with precipitation, with ocean acidification, and with all of these other factors. It’s not just take the world now and add a couple of degrees. That doesn’t seem like such a big deal. But look at things like what will happen to snow pack? With warmer temperatures you’ll get more rain and less snow and the snow will melt earlier, and that can have a major impact with just a couple of degrees.

Robin Lindley: What other environmental damage are we seeing?

Dr. Yoram Bauman: Right now, we’re seeing the tip of the iceberg. Maybe that’s not the correct analogy.

There are some places where you see the results already. The amount of precipitation in heavy rainstorm events has increased by 12 percent in the Northwestern United States. The latest National Climate Assessment shows the impacts already, which makes sense because with warmer temperature the atmosphere holds more moisture and you’ll get more rain.

You also see some effects already in terms of acres burned by fires. It’s difficult to tease out how much is caused by forest management practices and how much is caused by hot, dry weather in the summer.

On a lot of issues, you have to be careful what you attribute to climate change. Scientists use the analogy about a baseball player who is on steroids. He hit home runs last year and, with steroids, he hits twice as many home runs this year. You can’t say that any particular home run was caused by steroids because he hit home runs last year when he wasn’t on steroids.

So you can point to individual weather events like Europe in 2003 and storms and droughts and say they’re consistent with climate models, but it’s hard to establish causality.

Robin Lindley: And we’re also seeing global loss of ice.

Dr. Yoram Bauman: Certainly glaciers are melting around the world, and there’s good documentation of that. There’s excellent documentation of the arctic sea ice decreasing dramatically. There’s lots of evidence out there that the climate is changing and the planet is warming, and you can see that in the ice, the glaciers and the temperature records.

Robin Lindley: And isn’t ocean acidification and the threat to sea life a result of climate change?

Dr. Yoram Bauman: It’s possible. Again, you have to be careful. There are other things happening with coral reefs in terms of local pollution, human impact, and other factors. The Seattle Times has reported on a local company that was having trouble getting oyster larvae to hatch because of ocean acidification and they moved their operation to Hawaii because the water here has effects that add onto ocean acidification.

Robin Lindley: Are we seeing public health effects that can be attributed to climate change?

Dr. Yoram Bauman: That gets out of my area of expertise, so I need to be careful. I hear people talk about potential risks such as extended allergy seasons, and effects from mosquito-borne diseases and heat waves.

Robin Lindley: Who are the major culprits now in terms of emitting the most greenhouse gases into the atmosphere?

Dr. Yoram Bauman: Until the last century, climate change and carbon emissions were, for the most part, a rich world phenomenon. That’s no longer true in the new century. We can’t think of it that way any more and, as we proceed into the century, it’s going to be more and more of a developing country issue. The rich world can show leadership, but we’re no longer at a point where we can solve the problem by ourselves.

In the book, we talk about my theory, which I’m very proud of, called the five Chinas theory of the world. You take the world population of seven billion people and divide it by five and you get 1.4 billion, which is about the population of China. So you can divide the world into five chunks about the size of China and get: China; India; everybody else in developing Asia is a third China—Indonesia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Philippines, Vietnam; the rich world—North America, Europe, Japan, South Korea, Mexico; and the fifth China is everybody else—Africa and South America.

At the beginning of this century, the rich world was responsible for about half of world CO2 emissions. There will be two big stories of this century. One will be about growth and development, especially in poor parts of the world. In many ways it’s a happy story because people will get electricity and access to transportation and health care and education, the things we take for granted.

The other big story of this century will be the environmental impact of having ten or eleven billion people on the planet who are trying to live the lifestyle we have now. If you think of the rich world being responsible for half of emissions CO2, imagine two cakes, and the rich world gets a cake and the rest of the world shares the second cake. As they catch up over the course of the century, we go from two cakes to five cakes and we’ll add two or three Chinas to the planet over the course of the century as we go from seven billion to ten or eleven billion people. That gives you a sense of the scale of the challenge of reducing carbon emissions of even keeping carbon emissions steady.

The most amazing story I can tell you about this is that China in 2006 passed the United States for the first time as the number one emitter of CO2 in the world. Some time in the next year or two, they will be at double US levels. Even at double US levels, China has four times more people as the US, so they are still at half of our levels per capita.

Robin Lindley: That’s sobering. You also mention that the gap between the rich and the poor will widen because of climate change.

Dr. Yoram Bauman: Again, the first story is that poor countries will start catching up with rich countries. We’ve seen this in China. They’ve had very rapid economic growth over the past few decades. It’s unfortunate that they’re destroying their environment, but they certainly have higher living standards now that they did 30 or 40 years ago. And I hope we’ll see waves of development in India and Africa and other places around the world that are very poor right now.

As people get richer, they’re better able to deal with the impacts of climate change. They can afford to buy safer houses and equipment. If they’re not so dependent on agriculture, they don’t have to worry so much about the effect of climate change on agriculture in terms of their own productivity.

Getting richer will help, but for folks who are still on the poor end of the spectrum, they will be a lot more vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Look at Bangladesh. It will have a lot more concern about sea level than the United States because we have the money to deal with it and they don’t. If you think about subsistence farmers and people in Bangladesh who live near sea level, food is a major part of their yearly expenditures. Those people will be vulnerable in ways we’re not.

Robin Lindley: Has the sea level change yet affected Bangladesh and other low-lying areas?

Dr. Yoram Bauman: It certainly has contributed a little bit. Again, there are other factors such as tectonic change. There are many other issues that affect sea level. But it’s an extra risk factor. You look at Hurricane Sandy, and climate change may have added a couple inches to the maximum water level for Hurricane Sandy. It that a big deal? It depends on whether a couple of inches make a difference between your house flooding or not flooding.

Robin Lindley: You suggest things that citizens can do and laws that may help us address climate change, including a carbon tax.

Dr. Yoram Bauman: What I do as an environmental economist is use the tools of economics and the power of capitalism to protect the environment.

With climate change, that means putting a price on carbon and using market forces to get companies and individuals to use less carbon. You could do that with a carbon tax or with a cap and trade system, which is a complicated but somewhat similar policy.

Basically, the way both of those systems work is by raising the price of fossil fuels.

The policy I talk about is raising the price of fossil fuels with a carbon tax and then use the revenue to reduce existing taxes on income, on savings, on investment. So you have higher taxes on bad things and lower taxes on good things. That will encourage economic actors such as individual businesses to use less carbon and hopefully it will encourage them to create more jobs and do more good things.

Robin Lindley: And then a carbon tax would encourage developing cleaner sources of energy?

Dr. Yoram Bauman: Sure. British Columbia has what some economists consider the best climate policy in the world that’s from a right of center government. They wanted to do something about climate change and be market friendly, so they ended up with this carbon tax law. With their carbon tax, they reduce personal and corporate income taxes in the province. The carbon tax is $30 per ton of CO2 and that’s roughly 30 cents per gallon of gasoline and about three cents a kilowatt hour of coal-fired power. You have one and a half cents of kilowatt hour of natural gas fired power. And zero for wind, solar, geothermal and other renewables. So it provides this nice financial incentive to move toward lower-carbon energy sources. That’s a cool thing about carbon tax.

Robin Lindley: And you are active in an organization that’s proposing a carbon tax for Washington State?

Dr. Yoram Bauman: Yes. It’s called Carbon Washington and our website is carbonwa.org. We’re working toward a November 2016 British Columbia-style revenue neutral carbon tax for Washington State. The basic idea is to have a $30 per ton of CO2 carbon tax and use the revenue to reduce the state sales tax by a full percentage point. The state sales tax right now, before local rates, is six and a half percent so it would get lowered to five and a half percent. That’s our proposal. We’d save the average household hundreds of dollars a year. You’d pay more for fossil fuel but you’d pay a couple hundred dollars a year less for everything else, and that will encourage people to economize on fossil fuel usage and carbon emissions. That’s what we have to do.

Robin Lindley: What are things average citizens can do about climate change?

Dr. Yoram Bauman: They can get involved in our carbon tax campaign. And there are things you can do in your own household. Solar panels have come in price and there are incentives for putting them on your house, so think about solar. Also, think about your water heater, insulation, the car you drive, how far you drive to work. Think about your own carbon footprint—about how much you fly.

Robin Lindley: The future in terms of climate change seems bleak. Can you talk about that pessimism as well as hopeful developments you see?

Dr. Yoram Bauman: Some people talk about tipping points, or being past the point of no return. There’s some argument that the ice sheets in Antarctica are past the point of no return. It will take them a couple centuries to melt, but we’ve committed ourselves to that because there is no going back. And there are other potential tipping points that people mention. But there’s a lot of uncertainty around that.

I mostly think about it from a risk perspective. For the most part, we like the planet that we have now and, if it doesn’t cost much to buy some insurance to keep the planet that we have now, then we should think seriously about doing that. That’s what I like about environmental tax reform like the carbon tax idea. It’s not that hard on the economy and it will benefit the economy over all by moving toward a more reasonable tax system.

On the hopeful things, I think there are some good policies, like the carbon tax in British Columbia. There are some states like California and states in the east that are experimenting with cap and trade. I think that the marketplace is starting to move in the right direction. Solar panels are coming down in price. Lots of people are working on innovation. And if we could set up a good strong signal on the price of carbon, we could push that a lot further.

The Holy Grail of climate issues is getting the price of renewables below the price of fossil fuels. Then people don’t need to be green to adopt these new technologies. They just need to care about the bottom line—and everybody cares about the bottom line. So if we can develop renewable energy that is cheaper than coal and gasoline, then we will have solved a major part of the problem. It’s not guaranteed we can do that, but we’re slowly moving in that direction and, if we put a price on carbon, then we’ll move a lot more quickly in that direction. That’s what I’m optimistic about.

Robin Lindley: Is there anything you’d like to add for readers?

Dr. Yoram Bauman: I think of the book as one that folks who care about climate change can share with their friends and neighbors who don’t care much about climate. I think they’ll learn something from the book. So whether you know something about climate change or not, you’ll learn something, and have a good time at the same time.