Recently Myles Allen wrote a piece for the Guardian suggesting we should use direct action to mandate fossil fuel companies deliver carbon capture technology, and appears to be juxtaposing this with carbon taxes. A few global warming blogs I read took issue with the piece. I’m suspicious about the feasibility of carbon capture technology, so the idea of forcing fossil fuel extractors to implement this technology seems far off to me, but I believe we need to get serious about carbon, so in principle the idea appeals to me, along with a whole bunch of emergency measures. Rational economics suggests that Allan’s policy is at best going to be no different to a carbon tax that applies an equivalent cost to carbon production, and probably less efficient, but I suspect that there is something going on here that lies outside of economic theory, and I think it can be well understood by reference to a couple of public health principles, and some successful public health campaigns. Basically, over the next 30 years we need to go carbon neutral, that is to a society that exhausts no carbon. If we delay, we may have to go negative. Some economists think we can do this simply by taxing carbon. I want to use the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) to show that’s probably impossible without broader measures; and then I will use the example of HIV to show that the debate about mitigation may also be a lost cause, or at least to show that we shouldn’t be too confident that humanity can solve a serious problem through mitigation measures alone.
Comparing Decarbonization with the FCTC
Let’s not beat around the bush: the purpose of the tobacco control movement is to eliminate the consumption of tobacco from the face of the earth. One day there will be no smokers, because smoking is a poison. But the goal of the FCTC is to achieve a non-smoking world through the free choice of individuals – through health promotion and intervention measures aimed at reducing smoking. The FCTC proposes a variety of methods to achieve this goal, but only one of them is taxation. Taxation has been a core tool deployed against tobacco, and with devastating effect, but it has not eliminated tobacco smoking. Taxes on tobacco in Australia, for example, have essentially increased exponentially since 1985, but they haven’t achieved their goal: something around about 20% of Australians smoke, and Australia (as the picture above shows) is one of the most aggressive anti-smoking nations on the planet.
And this is the thing that is relevant to decarbonization: 16% of Australians still smoke, despite huge legislative efforts to convince them to stop. Not just punitive taxation, but a whole raft of other measures: plain packaging, banning smoking in public areas, very strict measures against underage smoking, bans on advertising, forcing cigarettes to be hidden from shop counters, widespread distribution of subsidized treatments for tobacco addiction, huge investment in educating general practitioners about smoking cessation, investing overseas aid money in developing alternatives to tobacco crops and increased funding to police action against illicit tobacco trading. With regards to children, a whole range of laws have been passed to prevent them from getting access to tobacco. Companies and public organizations – especially hospitals – have gone further, passing laws to prevent teachers, doctors and nurses smoking within sight of such facilities. The WHO will not employ smokers. Some states and countries have suggested a gradually increasing age-related ban, so that everyone coming of age in the west is permanently banned from smoking – a kind of generational form of prohibition.
Yet despite this campaign, 16% of Australians still smoke. What would the equivalent measures be in a “voluntary” decarbonization scenario: finding that massive carbon taxes failed to prevent the use of carbon-based energy, governments would be required to ban certain uses of coal or oil, would force all petrol companies to use the same non-branded advertising, would require all public organizations to use non-fossil fuel energy and would push big private companies to do the same; would pass incredibly strict air quality laws; would invest aid money heavily in non-fossil fuel energy products; would introduce any other public measures against carbon that could be effectively policed; would heavily subsidize all alternative energy sources.
Without these interventions, smoking rates would not have dropped to 16%; and smoking is an addictive substance. If exponentially increasing taxes cannot prevent smoking, why do carbon tax advocates think it will work to reduce carbon emissions to the required level : zero?
The lessons of HIV and AGW mitigation strategies
In the early years of the HIV epidemic, before treatments became available, the only prevention was behavioral change: wearing a condom, and always using a clean needle. In a few settings, promotion of condom use worked, but in sub-Saharan Africa HIV became a generalized epidemic before people even knew what it was, and by the time the preventive measures were understood it was widespread and devastating. In this context, mitigation through behavioral change became a completely ineffectual tactic. From 2000 under PEPFAR, the Presidents Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief, testing and treatment strategies – essentially, adaptation strategies – became widespread in sub-Saharan Africa. This wasn’t due to any progressive plan of George Bush’s, but through dumb luck they were successful because treatment reduces the infectiousness of treated people by about 95%. In the long term, in the face of a complete failure to effectively disseminate behavioral change in Africa, testing and treatment made huge gains in combating HIV, and now there is a lot of confidence that if well managed and supported by international donors these strategies may be sufficient to eliminate HIV. Those of us (like me) who grew up in the era of HIV in the west, where HIV never became a generalized epidemic and gay men responded well to condom use initiatives, were initially unwilling to believe the success of test and treat strategies – we falsely believed that our mitigation strategies would work in all settings, but we were wrong. As the evidence came in, I changed my mind and now recognize that behavioural change for HIV (mitigation) is a tactic that works in unique settings (primarily, injecting drug users, politically connected gay men and unionized sex workers). In a generalized epidemic, such strategies fail.
Of course, global warming is a classic generalized epidemic. Mitigation won’t work by itself, but at the moment we have no alternatives – just like HIV in the 1980s. We need to do whatever is necessary to prevent further spread of the disease, but as soon as someone finds an effective treatment (carbon capture and storage) we need to switch.
Public health lessons for decarbonization
If we can’t eliminate smoking through exponentially increasing taxes, why do we think we will do better with carbon? No one really cares if people choose to smoke, it’s a personal choice and a non-zero smoking rate is no big deal. But we need to be carbon neutral within 30 years. We couldn’t do that through taxation alone for smoking, so why does anyone think we can do it for decarbonization? Such a goal is going to require measures well in advance of the FCTC, and those measures are pretty harsh. We also need to accept the possibility that mitigation measures aren’t going to work. In health, naturally, no one assumes that prevention is the only cure. We look for a cure. The same attitude needs to be applied to carbon. We need a range of strict legislative responses, and we need major investment in projects to find cures. And we need to treat this situation with the same urgency we applied to the HIV epidemic – or more. Carbon taxes alone will not be enough. We need a full range of legal interventions, now.