I liked Ben Stein a lot more as a character actor and game show host. Stein embarrassed himself terribly last year in Expelled, in which his painful ignorance of evolutionary science was put on display for all the world to see. In that movie he equated science - apparently all science, judging from comments he's made since - with Nazism, and supporters of the facts of biological evolution with Nazi sympathizers. All of that is bad enough for one flailing end-stage career in the public eye, but apparently Stein isn't finished with his war on reality.

I normally like to read Stein's column in the NYT Sunday Business section. Stein is an economics and political science expert of sorts, and I usually enjoy reading his take on current events. But his most recent column surprised me by arguing against a market-driven cap and trade system regulating carbon dioxide emissions in the US, and arguing for a tax increase. This, from a fiscal conservative?

Emissions of carbon dioxide from combustion of fossil fuels are the leading cause of anthropogenic global warming. Adding more CO2 to the atmosphere strengthens the ability of the atmosphere to retain infrared radiation (heat). More heat retention pushes global temperature up, with ramifying effects throughout the global climate engine, such as changing rainfall patterns and sea level rise. The science is in: dragging gigatons of geologically-stored carbon out of the crust and throwing it into the atmosphere over a few decades has changed the global atmospheric heat budget. One proposal for dealing with CO2 emissions without shutting off civilization is to establish a cap/trade system, in which national annual carbon emissions are capped in total (with a lowering cap, over time), but can be bought and sold as a commodity. Old power plants that spew too much CO2 can buy credits under a cap/trade system to accommodate their antiquated hardware. Power plants that spew less - or no - CO2 can sell their unused credits to others for a tidy profit. A market is established, where CO2 credit prices respond naturally to the shifting demand/supply landscape.

Cap/trade systems aren't new. The US has employed a sulfur cap/trade system for years to reduce acid rain effects, and the system has worked like a dream. Anyone can buy sulfur credits on the open market, at any time. As a result of sulfur trading, US air is cleaner now than it's been in decades, and plants that used to emit tons of sulfur now emit less. Sulfur trading lets the market do its magic in an evolutionary system that rewards innovation. The government doesn't tell anyone how to reduce sulfur emissions... people figure that out for themselves, and profits are made. The system works for sulfur to great benefit, and it should work for carbon, too. The details will differ, but the outcome is likely to be the same: an evolving system of innovation that promotes efficiency, thrift, and environmental hygiene.

Which is why Stein's opposition is so striking, and surprising. His claim is that a cap/trade system would mean volatility in energy prices would translate into volatility in carbon-credit prices. Said volatility would make life difficult for energy companies (the most profitable human enterprises ever invented), and that would be bad. The cutthroat wildcatters of the energy sector are very sensitive, it seems. Anyway, Stein's solution is to spare the energy sector the pain of innovating, and instead levy a tax on energy use. Stein, a proud conservative who advised Nixon, prefers the dead weight of a tax in favor of using the market to drive progress. Really?

A cap/trade system is probably the best and most useful measure we can take to help alleviate the problem of carbon emissions in the US. A tax on carbon would raise the price of energy, and one result might very well be a reduction in CO2 output. But a cap/trade system would give people an incentive to find clever solutions that cost less, such as high-efficiency solar photovoltaics and wind turbines, smart grids that deliver power with maximum effectiveness, producing natural gas from organic wastes or algal farms, next-generation superconductors and fuel cell technologies for energy storage, and the list goes on.

When markets work well they work as evolutionary systems, in which ambient selection pressures favor new and creative solutions to problems. Once we set the rules and regulations defining the selective landscape, the engine of creativity is off and running. Markets self-organize in response to shifting imperatives, just like biological systems through time. It's unfortunate Ben Stein hates evolution, or he might understand that.

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Comment by Stephen Goldin on March 2, 2009 at 4:20pm
This was 8 years ago, so my memory's a little hazy. (I've got a card with the questions on it stored away somewhere...) I don't remember anything specifically scientific. One question I got right and he missed was what Broadway show starts off with the song "Let Me Entertain You"? Broadway musicals are one of my passions.
Comment by Planetologist on March 2, 2009 at 2:11pm
Stephen, that's very cool. Did you win on science questions? On the show he often seemed particularly weak in that area...
Comment by Stephen Goldin on March 2, 2009 at 11:17am
I come at this from a different angle--I actually won Ben Stein's money (all $5,000 of it) on his quiz show. The man is very personable and intelligent--which was why I felt so horribly betrayed when he made that movie Expelled. I guess even intelligent people can have hideous blind spots.
Comment by cj the cynic on February 25, 2009 at 4:00pm



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