Category Archives: Climate Change

A Ratio for the Relative Climate Change Impact of an Economic Activity

I wrote a three-page paper and submitted it to the Social Science Research Network (SSRN) on a ratio for climate change impact using gasoline as as an example.

A Ratio for the Relative Climate Change Impact of an Economic Activity
Richard Thripp
University of Central Florida

I propose a ratio for assessing the climate change impact of an economic activity as a function of global greenhouse gas emissions and annual gross world product. To construct a simple example, I consider only CO2 emissions and use the purchase and combustion of gasoline. I show that it has a ratio of 8.82:1 in the United States as of March 6, 2019 at a national average price of $2.44 per gallon. This means that in consideration of the direct impacts of gasoline’s combustion alone, gasoline would have to cost $21.50 per gallon in order to achieve a 1:1 ratio. Other applications of the ratio and its impact are discussed.

Keywords: climate change, co2, greenhouse gas emissions, economics, fossil fuels, relative harm, carbon taxes

You can download the paper on SSRN (free account required) or by clicking here.

Distance education and telecommuting can slow climate change

Although the recent IGI Global academic anthology that I am a co-editor of, Handbook of Research on Emerging Practices and Methods for K–12 Online and Blended Learning, does not mention climate change at all, in fact virtual schools can help slow down climate change. Teaching and learning from home, also known as distance education, like working from home, which is referred to as telecommuting, reduces carbon emissions by reducing travel.

As I have written previously, the United States emits over five billion tonnes of CO2 per year, almost a third of which are from transportation. Preventing transportation from occurring, therefore, is an important way to slow down climate change. Although an enormous amount of CO2 is nonetheless being emitted and has already been emitted, this does not mean we should succumb to the “all or nothing” fallacy and concede that it is pointless to do anything offering amelioration.

Research has shown that distance education produces similar academic achievement to in-person education. Florida has pioneered and continues to lead in K–12 distance education with Florida Virtual School, through which students of all grade levels can take some or all of their classes from home. Distance education is not an all-or-nothing proposition; it is perfectly sensible for online learning to involve occasional face-to-face meetings and for a mix of online, face-to-face, and blended courses to be offered.

Although broadband Internet connectivity and computers are widespread, and many workers are now “knowledge” workers rather than doing location-dependent work, the majority of workers and students continue to show up in-person, and are often obliged to. Online work is perennially criticized for stifling valuable in-person interactions, but it is perfectly reasonable for many schools and firms to meet once a week or even biweekly rather than five days a week.

As a student and instructor at University of Central Florida, I have taken and taught the majority of my courses in fully online or blended modalities. Although I did elect to take mixed-mode courses several times, particularly in my Master’s program, even when fully online courses were available, the weekly or occasional meetings allowed me to make friends, ask questions in person, and participate in many educational projects. Commuting from almost 60 miles away in the Daytona Beach area, I was always aware that each round-trip emitted almost 100 lbs. of carbon dioxide, however (2,205 lbs. is a tonne).

Especially in the current strong economy, construction is booming. New housing, commercial buildings, and road expansion projects are happening everywhere. None of this is sustainable and much of it is ill-advised. Cement, concrete’s key ingredient, produces about three tonnes, or 8%, of annual global CO2 emissions. Steel production produces another 5% of CO2 emissions. Buildings, bridges, and roads are often made out of concrete and steel. Distance education and telecommuting can reduce the demand for cement, steel, cars, and fossil fuels.

Particularly in the United States, but throughout the world, most of the costs of driving a car are not assessed to the motorist. Of course, the carbon footprint and damage to the earth is not priced in, but also, the costs of roads and infrastructure are borne collectively by taxpayers but not charged incrementally. If these costs were all priced in, people would be traveling far less and clamoring for distance education and telecommuting. Any competent transportation planner knows of the phenomenon of induced demand, where widening a road results in more motorists miraculously turning out, making trips they wouldn’t have before due to congestion. Although Tesla drivers are helping reduce carbon emissions and increase production of lithium-ion battery cells, driving still requires roads made out of asphalt and concrete, and more driving prompts more expansion and repair of roads. Reducing travel is important.

Picture this: Children going to school one day a week instead of five, while the rest of their learning is done at home. Schools are much smaller in size, because each student has a certain day of the week when they go to school in-person and only about 20% of the student body shows up on any particular day. Children learn 21st-century skills while continuing to get valuable in-person interactions with other students and teachers, which are rendered special and precious due to only occurring once a week. Although parents previously relied on schools for childcare, now many of them are working from home too and only going to the office one day a week or even less. People are getting out for walks, talking with their neighbors, and organizing neighborhood events instead of driving out-of-town for work and socialization.

Going to the cubicle or classroom five days a week was a downer anyway, so people are now feeling happier and more well-adjusted while also emitting far less CO2. In Orlando, a massive freeway expansion project called I-4 Ultimate was just completed, but the 12-lane highway is never used to capacity and the congestion-priced toll lanes are producing little to no revenue. Attorneys for the 40-year public–private partnership to pay for the $2.5 billion project via toll revenues are currently working from home, drafting papers for a bankruptcy filing.

The recent, catastrophic destruction by Hurricane Michael in Mexico Beach, Florida was a call to action on several levels. One of these was to improve the building codes. Although building codes have already gotten far more rigorous in south Florida to withstand higher categories of hurricanes, Central Florida and the panhandle have lagged behind due to strong hurricanes rarely if ever striking. Due to climate change, this has changed. Ironically, building stronger structures emits more carbon dioxide, which turns into a vicious circle. Wood structures are replaced by masonry, and concrete blocks become solid and reinforced with steel. More trees are cleared and structures must be rebuilt from scratch after each disaster, emitting even more CO2, while the oceans reach their CO2 saturation point and polar ice melts releasing fantastic quantities of CO2 and methane. It’s pure madness.

The CO2 situation is dire, and the idea of “slowing” climate change is not unlike saying we cut the U.S. national debt by merely slowing its rate of increase. But, we are not even cutting the rate of increase; in fact, 2018 CO2 emissions increased 3.4% in the United States in 2018. The levels have already been outrageous for decades and continue to go up.

When we are at school or work, our house or apartment, in whole or part, is going unused. When roads are expanded, peak demand is being accommodated at the busiest times of the day, while the roads remain almost unused at night and below capacity during mid-day. When a new concrete mega-church is planted to go unused and locked most of the week, with a massive asphalt parking lot to boot, it is a travesty. There are eight parking spaces for every car in America—a CO2 nightmare—but of course, none of them are ever in the right place at the right time. The time for distance education and telecommuting is now.

I know that schools in Florida are also used as hurricane shelters, but even if we were to stop building and replacing schools due to distance education, churches can pick up some of the slack.

Like many Bay Area workers, my mother lives near Fremont, California and commutes on BART to San Francisco, 4–5 days a week. She works for the San Francisco government in a job that is completely computer-oriented, but only gets to work from home occasionally. Although she fully relies on walking and BART to get to and from work, there are plenty of days when she would prefer not to get up before 7 a.m. and be gone 12 hours due to over two hours of commuting. No one can actually afford to live in San Francisco, so technology workers, teachers, and countless others commute from cheaper areas each day, to do work that could be done from anywhere. Why?

Automattic, Matt Mullenweg’s company that is behind WordPress and many other interesting and useful projects, has about 700 employees, the vast majority of which work remotely. (You are currently reading a WordPress-powered blog by a 27 year old who developed a popular WordPress plugin as a teenager, with over a quarter-million downloads, but then got bored with it and abandoned the project.) Although Automattic’s employees do fly to 1–3 meetups per year, which is horrible for the earth (there are no electric airplanes), in principal this fits with my idea of having occasional face-to-face meetings with most work being by telecommute. If you get lonely, you can always go to the nearest Starbucks, which probably isn’t much of a commute because they are almost everywhere.

I hope you have enjoyed reading my ideas here, many of which were regurgitated from other sources, although I have not seen many suggest distance education and telecommuting as a multi-pronged approach toward reducing CO2 emissions. As further reading, I suggest Losing Earth at the Pulitzer Center’s website.

Climate Change and the All-or-Nothing Fallacy

Learning that concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere have increased 50% since the Industrial Revolution and are the highest they have been in approximately the past million years is what convinced me that human-caused climate change is real, has been occuring, is occuring, and will continue to occur. Even if all humans were to disappear overnight, the earth would continue to warm and CO2 levels would continue to increase for about 40 years. But, 37 billion metric tons of CO2 were emitted in 2018 and this is likely to continue or even increase.

The all-or-nothing fallacy, also known as the false dilemma, is a logical fallacy by which people argue that because climate change is happening anyway, we may as well keep doing what we are doing. It encourages defeatism rather than constructive action. It does not help that we are not psychologically equipped to easily comprehend a threat such as climate change, that is so diffused in time and space.

The world’s population growth compounds not unlike the stock market, with more people alive now than ever before. The global population has doubled since 1970, and of all the humans that have ever lived, about 1 in 15 are alive today.

There are 410 parts per million (ppm) of CO2 in the atmosphere now, or 0.041% by volume. This is compared with about 280 ppm at the start of the Industrial Revolution, and a projected 500 ppm in 2050 and over 600 ppm in 2100. Besides massive increases in natural disasters and malnutrition, this gives going outside to get a breath of fresh air a whole different meaning. Recent research shows people experience declining cognitive function from high CO2 concentrations, and it is not uncommon to see 1,400 ppm indoors due to lack of air circulation. People actually notice a decline in air quality above 600 ppm. If there are 600 ppm of CO2 outdoors, this is a baseline from which only higher concentrations will be seen indoors in 2100, and 600 ppm isn’t even a liberal estimate (some estimates are as high as 1,000 ppm).

Right now, historic ancient forests in Tasmania are burning on a massive scale. We have seen huge fires in California and elsewhere due to climate change, and all of these events release more CO2 while simultaneously reducing the earth’s ability to absorb CO2. Even the color and acidity of the oceans will never be the same again. As climate change continues, it will get far worse like a growing snowball. For example, arctic glaciers are releasing methane, which is far worse than CO2 by volume, and this will only accelerate.

Research by Irakli Loladze shows that when crops get more CO2, they grow faster but have fewer nutrients and more carbohydrates. This effect is separate from declining vitamins, minerals, and protein content in fruits and vegetables from factory farming focused on higher crop yields. CO2 will destroy the planet’s habitats and habitability for humans and it will even impair our cognitive function and nutrition, but no one seems to care.

Economists demonstrate that the true cost of CO2-emitting products are not included in prices. A gallon of gas may cost $2.30 now, but how much will humans of 2100 wish they could pay to go back in time and stop you from burning it? Even adjusting for inflation, $5.00 is not a stretch, and it likely may be $10, $20, or even more. The United States emits over five billion metric tons of CO2 a year, almost a third of which is from transportation. The impact of frivolous travel is enormous.

A large part of our economy and corporate valuations are built on emitting CO2 that will cost us dearly in the future. Although I write about personal finance and investing in the entire stock market to ensure capital gains over the long term and being well-funded in retirement, it is a fact that these gains come at a cost and are not sustainable in the long term. I have suggested in prior writing that rather than trying to pick corporations that are socially responsible, one should buy the whole market and contribute the differential gains to green causes; that is, the additional income one acquired by buying the whole market instead of a Sisyphean attempt to exclude polluting corporations. For several years now, I’ve railed against Amazon for continually stealing customer gift card balances, including my own $451 gift card balance in 2015. Nonetheless, my 403(b) and IRAs still invest in Amazon; it’s not like I have access to a special mutual fund that includes the entire S&P 500 except Amazon. But, with the gravity and enormity of the climate change conundrum, I find myself questioning this wisdom, particularly as my girlfriend and I are expecting a son in less than a month, who I certainly hope will live to the year 2100 and beyond.

Climate change is paradoxically both all-or-nothing and not at the same time. We have produced technological marvels that we could not even imagine 50 years ago, yet at the same time we cannot rely on humanity to miraculously come up with a technological panacea for climate change at some unknown point in the future. The answer is “all of the above.” We must invent, invest, abate, ameliorate, adapt, tax, legislate, regulate, educate, indemnify, chastise, and more. We asked Americans, “is this trip necessary?” during World War II to support the war effort. We took the drastic steps of making cents out of steel and nickels out of silver to set aside copper and nickel for the war effort. We sold $185 billion of war bonds, equivalent to $2.7 trillion today. Climate change is an even bigger threat than World War II. Why are we not investing $2.7 trillion in climate change solutions? Why are we not chastising tourists and jet-setters for their feckless recklessness? Why are Americans not united in protest against the U.S. military for not only consuming an ungodly amount of oil but orienting itself toward “controlling oil-rich regions and defending the key shipping supply routes that carry half the world’s oil” (Buxton, 2015, para. 4)? Talk about propping up fossil fuels. If Americans really comprehended the gravity of climate change, the protests would be larger and more widespread than the Vietnam War and Tiananmen Square protests combined.

I know I’ve stayed silent on the issue of climate change for far too long and done more than my fair share of polluting too (e.g., visiting family in China in 2017 and Yellowstone National Park in 2018), but I will stay silent no longer. My son’s future depends on it.

World War II poster