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Is Kyoto Cheaper than Iraq?

University of Chicago law professor Cass Sunstein thinks so. He makes the case in today's Washington Post:

For the United States, the cost of the Iraq war will soon exceed the anticipated cost of the Kyoto Protocol, the international agreement designed to control greenhouse gases. For both, the cost is somewhere in excess of $300 billion. These numbers show that the Bush administration was unrealistically optimistic in its prewar prediction that the total cost would be about $50 billion. And the same numbers raise questions about the Bush administration's claim that the cost of the Kyoto Protocol would be prohibitive, causing (in President Bush's own words) "serious harm to the U.S. economy."

The incidence of the two costs is not equivalent. Iraq is funded from general tax revenues while any Kyoto-style policy would be likely to increase energy prices. For some, these distributional differences may matter. Moreover, Kyoto represents but a tiny downpayment toward an emission stabilization policy. (Of course, one might say the same about Iraq and its relation to the overall war on terror.)

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, the EU's fledgling carbon trading market has experienced tremendous price volatility, due in part to an over-allocation of emission credits. Europe has yet to impose real limits on its own carbon emissions, and questions remain how effectively its carbon trading market will reduce the cost of curbing greenhouse gas emissions.

[NOTE: Post edited to fix typos.]

UPDATE: As some commenters have noted, the comparison of the costs of Iraq and Kyoto is misleading — but this is not necesarily a point in Professor Sunstein's favor. As a former colleague points out,

Wartime spending is primarily a wealth transfer from taxpayers to soldiers, defense contractors, and Pentagon bureaucrats. Although defense spending may reduce GDP (because taxes divert resources from more highly valued uses), the GPD loss is usually less than the amount of wealth transferred, which after all boosts investment, employment, and profits in defense-related industries. The Energy Information Administration estimated Kyoto would reduce U.S. GDP by $100-$400 billion in 2010. Is Sunstein prepared to assert that the Iraq War reduces U.S. GPD by $100 billion annually? I doubt it, because the economy is growing robustly. Sunstein not only fails to compare apples (GDP losses) to apples, he also fails to compare oranges (wealth transfers) to oranges.
I am also told that Sunstein wrote in his 2005 book Laws of Fear that "the Kyoto Protocol appears to impose costs in excess of benefits - and this is so even if improbable catastrophic risks are taken into account." (P. 171)

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Comparing Kyoto & Iraq - Sunstein Comments
  2. Is Kyoto Cheaper than Iraq?
Steve:
Iraq is funded from general tax revenues

This isn't quite true, of course. Iraq is funded via deficit spending, which is the principal reason taxpayers have felt very little pinch from the fact we are at war.

The larger point is valid, but I suppose the costs of Kyoto could be borne by the government through some form of deficit spending, if we wanted to make the two equivalent.
5.10.2006 10:32am
m:
The incidence of the two costs are not equivalent. Iraq is funded from general tax revenues while any Kyoto-style policy would be likely to increase energy prices.

Is the contrast here based, in part, on the assumption that the war in Iraq hasn't increased energy prices? If so, given the difference between energy prices before the war compared to prices after, it's hard to see this distinction.
5.10.2006 10:38am
Taimyoboi:
"Its defenders respond that the agreement would spur new technologies and provide an international framework for major reductions."

I'm not sure I follow how depressing the economy through mandatory emmissions cuts would lead to new technologies. I would have thought that less economic growth means less investment, not more.
5.10.2006 10:43am
guest:
m: I don't think the contrast is the cost of energy. The constrast is that one policy has the administration's support and the other doesn't. One gets wildly optimistic cost estimates the other is portrayed as doomsday spending. And while the contrast is effective, I don't agree with Prof. Sunstein's point because he starts with the assumption that we can afford the war in Iraq.
5.10.2006 10:50am
ATL (mail) (www):

Moreover, Kyoto represents but a tiny downpayment toward an emission stabilization policy. (Of course, one might say the same about Iraw and its relation to the overall war on terror.)


Or one might say that Iraq has nothing to do with the GWOT, and in fact, represents $300B that we could have spent actually prosecuting the GWOT instead. Having said that, one would probably be more correct.
5.10.2006 10:51am
Taimyoboi:
"Europe has yet to impose real limits on its own carbon emissions, and questions remain how effectively its carbon trading market will reduce the cost of curbing greenhouse gas emissions."

I think more importantly, the Kyoto Protocol in non-binding on developing countries like India and China, and so you won't see any reductions in emissions in these countries.
5.10.2006 10:58am
Fishbane (mail):
The incidence of the two costs is not equivalent. Iraq is funded from general tax revenues while any Kyoto-style policy would be likely to increase energy prices.

Putting aside other complaints, this strikes me as odd. The U.S. government already heavily subsidizes energy costs in other ways. Surely, if there were the will to do so, it could subsidize it further. (I'm not saying that's a good idea, merely noting the possibility.)
5.10.2006 11:12am
Irensaga (mail):
Another question is:

If Bush hadn't decided to cheese-off half the free world by unilaterally pulling out of the Kyoto Treaty, would Germany currently be footing a large part of the bill for our Iraq expenses?
5.10.2006 11:28am
Raw_Data (mail):
"Iraq is funded from general tax revenues while any Kyoto-style policy would be likely to increase energy prices."

As others have said, your comparison is misleading on several counts.
5.10.2006 11:34am
Andy Freeman (mail):
> If Bush hadn't decided to cheese-off half the free world by unilaterally pulling out of the Kyoto Treaty

Bush wasn't in office when the US Senate rejected Kyoto by something like a 95-0 vote.

> Germany currently be footing a large part of the bill for our Iraq expenses

The entire EU doesn't have enough weight where it counts to do Iraq. China does, Russia might, but the Euros can't project force. (The Brits can, somewhat.)
5.10.2006 11:42am
Bart (mail):
Professor Sunstein is using a very optimistic figure for the cost of compliance with Kyoto. We are currently consuming 24% more carbon emitting energy that we did in 1990. Kyoto would compel us to reduce our energy consumption by that amount in less than 10 years. A compelled reduction of energy use of that magnitude would cause a severe recession whose cost in lost GDP and additional taxes over the time horizon Sustein is using would amount to the trillions.

Currently, our GDP growth adds about $600 billion in wealth per year. That would be lost and we would crash into a sever recession if we had to suddenly reduce our energy consumption by even a fraction of that 25% required under Kyoto.

That loss would be compounded by the hundreds of billions necessary to pay for services for the newly unemployed.

This would not be a one time loss. Like interest, GDP growth compounds over time. Our rapid growth since 1981 has raised our share of world GDP from a quarter to about a third of world GDP. Likewise lost GDP now will provide a smaller base to compound in the future.
5.10.2006 11:45am
Alan Meese (mail):
I think the Kurds would choose the $300 Billion liberation over the $300 Billion Kyoto agreement.
5.10.2006 11:53am
TJIT (mail):
The analysis ignores the expense (in human suffering and money) of maintaining the no fly zone and sanctions against Iraq if the US had not invaded.

Kyoto was never going to be ratified by the senate, which is why it was never presented to the senate for ratification. Bush simply acknowledged this fact and killed it outright.
5.10.2006 11:57am
great unknown (mail):
To add to Bart's comments: Kyoto would be pure loss, and no benefits, from an economic perspective. Besides requiring a drastic reduction of growth in GDP, it would engender a distruption of lifestyle that even $10/gal gasoline could not.
Conversely, a major portion of the costs of the war in Iraq are being plowed back into the economy in terms of increased manufacturing production and research. It is likely that a major contribution to the burgeoning job market is generated by war-related industrial growth.
That being said, the ultimate decision regarding Kyoto and the Iraqui War must be based on a cost-benefit ratio that involves far more than pure economic considerations.
5.10.2006 11:58am
Houston Lawyer:
The money spent on Kyoto would be for no useful purpose whatsoever, while the money spent on the Iraq war may result in a crippling blow to Islamism. So any comparison of amounts spent is useless.
5.10.2006 11:59am
Alan Meese (mail):
Bart offers a partial explanation for why the rest of the world wanted to impose Kyoto on us. We are cleaning their clock economically, and the only way for them to slow us down would be to impose such burdensome regulation upon us, since we use more fossil fuels per unit of output than they do. (France, for instance, relies very heavily on nuclear power, as does Japan.) We antitrust folks call this "raising rivals' costs."

On a related note, I've always said that the best way to slow down China's growth is to convince them to impose American-style environmental regulation, along with American-style securities regulation. Of course, Kyoto did not apply to China, which is only the third largest GDP in the world. Nor did it apply to India. That's a bit like having trying to clean up Lake Erie by ignoring pollution sources in Ohio.
5.10.2006 12:02pm
Freder Frederson (mail):
I doubt that complying with Kyoto would result in at least 35000 deaths (Iraqi and U.S.) and the over 17000 American casulties either.
5.10.2006 12:19pm
DK:
Short version of Sunstein's editorial: you just spent $300 billion buying the Brooklyn Bridge, so, you should be happy to spend $300 billion buying the Lincoln Tunnel, too.
5.10.2006 12:22pm
Robert Schwartz (mail):
This is on a par with the bumper sticker argument that claims the federal government should fund nursery schools and the navy should have bake sales to support its fleet.
5.10.2006 12:23pm
frankcross (mail):
I suspect the war has clobbered US GDP. There's some finance research suggesting that the stock market took a huge hit from the war. The long term costs of medical care for those severely injured is projected at hundreds of billions of dollars. Plus, the loss of labor from those serving in the reserves. The economy is good now but should have been far better for the past five years.

I wouldn't use this money for Kyoto, but the costs of the war have been truly enormous.
5.10.2006 12:25pm
alkali (mail) (www):
Wartime spending is primarily a wealth transfer from taxpayers to soldiers, defense contractors, and Pentagon bureaucrats.

I think this requires some justification. Social Security taking $x of my income and sending it to Grandma is a pure wealth transfer. DOD taking $x of my income and buying a Hummer that gets blown up by an IED in Baghdad is not a pure wealth transfer.
5.10.2006 12:34pm
Jack S. (mail) (www):
Kyoto aside, what's wrong with investing money in trying to reduce harmful emissions? Global warming or not, I think everyone agrees that excessive COx, NOx, SOx and other noxious gasses are a bad thing and the should be reduced. Kyoto or Kyoto like principles (not any politicized treaty) will have long term benefits. What's the long term benefits of invading a country that doesn't necessarily want to be democratized and trying to democratize it?
5.10.2006 12:44pm
Taimyoboi:
"DOD taking $x of my income and buying a Hummer that gets blown up by an IED in Baghdad is not a pure wealth transfer."

Alkali,

That is akin to saying because I ate some ice cream that I bought at a store, some of that wealth is lost.

Not true. So long as a transaction is made, and the market value for that product is paid, there is no loss in wealth transfer. And I think you'd be hard pressed to say that the government usually underpays for its contracts.

What you're leaving out is that manufacturer had to build that hummer. So the firm got paid for the contract, who in turn paid the people working there to build it. As well as the sub-contractors who made the parts that went into the hummer. All of which goes back into the economy.
5.10.2006 12:54pm
A. Zarkov (mail):
The long term costs of medical care for those severely injured is projected at hundreds of billions of dollars.

Putting the number of Americans "severely injured" at 10,000 and the cost of treating them at $100,000 each would give $10 billion not "hundreds of billions." If we assume the VA would treat them then the cost would be less.

The $300 billion cost of the war (other estimates are higher) must be compared costs we would have borne without the war, which are not zero. The prior policy was also expensive and coming apart as Russia, China, France and Germany were subverting it. Doing nothing also would have a cost depending on what Iraq would have done in the absence of containment by American force. One way or another, hot or cold, containment is not free.
5.10.2006 1:00pm
BCN (mail):
I would think that the factor of under-estimation for the costs of Kyoto would be simialr to the factor of unders-estimation for Iraq (if my quick math is right it is a factor of 6), so when the war is at 2.4 trillion then we can talk about these having the same costs.
BCN
5.10.2006 1:06pm
Anoymous Jim:
"Wartime spending is primarily a wealth transfer from taxpayers to soldiers, defense contractors, and Pentagon bureaucrats."

Wealth transfers to soldiers? Perhaps a little via combat pay and retention pay. To pentagon bureaucrats? Are there that many more of them because of the war or are they getting paid more because of the war?

I do entirely agree that it is largely a wealth transfer to defense contractors.

I also thing Prof. Adler's former colleague may be understating the effect of the war's impact on our GDP because while part (perhpas even most) of what defense contractors spend money on spurs the economy here, a not insignificant potion of what they spend is on products and services produced in other places.
5.10.2006 1:21pm
sadandbeautiful:
Houston Lawyer says:

"The money spent on Kyoto would be for no useful purpose whatsoever, while the money spent on the Iraq war may result in a crippling blow to Islamism. [...]"

Let's set asisde about whether Kyoto spending would or wouldn't have a useful purpose, but, how can anyone in his right mind say that invading Saddam's Iraq -- a secular regime, with no ties to Al Quaeda, nor 9/11, and no weapons of mass destruction -- result in a crippling blow to Islamism? Actually, every single informed analyst says that the ongoing consequence is exactly the contrary !!!!

Planet earth calling Houston lawyer ...
5.10.2006 1:27pm
alkali (mail) (www):
Taimyoboi writes:

What you're leaving out is that manufacturer had to build that hummer. So the firm got paid for the contract, who in turn paid the people working there to build it. As well as the sub-contractors who made the parts that went into the hummer. All of which goes back into the economy.

So if the government bought a million Hummers and dropped them in the Mariana Trench, that just would be a wealth transfer? There may be some wealth transfer there, but mostly there's a lot of deadweight loss.

(Cf. the case of Social Security: it is true that there may be some deadweight loss from Social Security in the sense that it costs something to administer the program and it is possible that (i) some people work marginally less because the FICA tax makes the additional hour of work uneconomic or (ii) some employers hire fewer people because FICA tax makes hiring the additional person uneconomic. Those deadweight losses are small relative to the size of Social Security, but they do exist. I can't imagine the same is true of the Iraq war.)
5.10.2006 1:29pm
Ramza (mail):
No offense Professor Adler, but your update/additional comments make no sense.

You are correct that war spending is a transfer of wealth, and any loss of GDP would be caused by a less effective use of resources. The same also applies to an implementation of Koyto. If Koyto was implemented it isn't like entire portions of our economony would disapear, no there would just be a tranfer of wealth from one group of people to another. This would be accomplished by additional regulation limiting carbon standards, to make up for the more stringent requirments companies would have to invest in new technologies that have low emissions or to buy credits from sectors/businesses that do so. In effect it would be a transfer of wealth from the dirty industries to the more cleaner ones. Any loss GDP would be incurred because these industries are less efficent at utilizing resources than before Koyto, or that it cost money to develop and implement these technologies.

These two comparrisions aren't apples and oranges, they are one in the same in that regard. Both are GDP losses, and both are wealth transfers. Now the cost benefit of these two may be completely different, the severity of the GDP loss and or the severity of the wealth transfer. It may not be economonically wise to implemnt Koyto but the comparrision is apt. We live in a world of limited resources and there is always an oppurtunity cost.
5.10.2006 1:29pm
Westie (mail):
The cost of reducing C02 emissions is only a total loss if you presume that it would have a negligible effect on climate change. But spending $300 billion now, rather than some greater amount in the future to accomodate climate change, attempt a more severe C02 emissions reduction, somehow reverse climate change, etc., might prove an excellent investment.
5.10.2006 1:30pm
Taimyoboi:
"So if the government bought a million Hummers and dropped them in the Mariana Trench, that just would be a wealth transfer?"

Yes. It may not be a wise wealth transfer, but it is nonetheless. There is no difference between that, and I, as a consumer, purchasing a million hummers and dropping them into the ocean.

The supplier gets paid just the same. Arguably though, the supplier gets paid more when it has a government contract.
5.10.2006 1:53pm
Thorley Winston (mail) (www):
Kyoto aside, what's wrong with investing money in trying to reduce harmful emissions? Global warming or not, I think everyone agrees that excessive COx, NOx, SOx and other noxious gasses are a bad thing and the should be reduced. Kyoto or Kyoto like principles (not any politicized treaty) will have long term benefits.


Which presumes that the Kyoto model is the only one available or even that it was a good one. The Bush administration found at least two better policies for moving towards the goal -- Markets to Methane and the Vientiane Pact. Markets to Methane focused on reducing methane emissions by improving technological efficiency in industrial and mining operations. Unlike CO2 reductions, these changes make economic sense in that they pay for themselves. The Vientiane Pact focused on helping developing nations improve their electricity needs through clean coal technology by allowing them to "skip" some intermediate steps of cheaper but dirtier coal-burning technology. Unlike Kyoto, this treaty did include India and China. However since both initiatives will move us towards a direction of cleaner energy and fewer greenhouse gas emissions without crippling the US economy, the Bush administration will probably receive little credit for it.

What's the long term benefits of invading a country that doesn't necessarily want to be democratized and trying to democratize it?


I'm not sure which country you're talking about because judging by the high turnout in the elections held in Iraq and Afghanistan; it seems that the people there wanted democracy. The only people who seem to think that these countries didn't want democracy were the dictatorships that used to be in power and the anti-war protesters.
5.10.2006 1:54pm
freethinker:
We have to decide if we will pander to the interests of people or to the interests of businesses. I would choose "people" without much hesitation, but many commenters seem to believe that interests of businesses should trump those of people. Sometimes the interests of people and businesses are the same, but with environmental regulation, they are normally diametrically opposed.* Here's my question: Why should we place the interests of businesses in front of the interests of people?

Maybe Kyoto wasn't ideal, but I get the feeling that many commenters would not accept any form of increased environmental regulation. My question is a more general one, in order to find out what the underlying, generally applicable argument is for placing the interests of businesses ahead of people's interests.


*That is, except for those businesses that would profit from tighter environmental regualtions, e.g. environmental consulting firms, or those firms who would save money by incorporating more (energy) efficient business practices.
5.10.2006 2:14pm
Houston Lawyer:
"Actually, every single informed analyst says that the ongoing consequence is exactly the contrary !!!! "

I like the extra exclamation points. That really convinced me. There is also a bold function key for future reference. All Caps also works nice.

Recently captured internal communications from Al Qaeda reveal that they realize that they are now only an nuisance to the Iraqi government. Their indiscriminate bombings have turned large numbers of would-be supporters against them. We are winning this war on the Iraqi front, much to the consternation of many.
5.10.2006 2:29pm
A. Zarkov (mail):
If global warming is a major threat to humanity then the Kyoto treaty is particularly poor way of dealing with this threat because even if you believe the predictions of the various general circulation models, the resulting temperature reduction is minimal. Kyoto is not enough. Moreover since some nations are exempt from the protocols, manufacturing will tend to shift away the US and the EU to China, India and other Asian countries-- countries whose efficiency and pollution controls are inferior. So we get more pollution, more unemployment, and a higher cost of living in the US and the EU for a trivial reduction in global temperature. The best way to deal with the global warming problem is nuclear energy. The left seems unwilling to come to terms with the problem on a realistic basis, steadfastly clinging to the fantasy that we can make up for the lost energy with windmills, bio-fuels, and other variants of solar energy. We can't. Perhaps the whole point to Kyoto is simply to hurt western economies—something the left really seems to want.
5.10.2006 2:55pm
Freder Frederson (mail):
We are winning this war on the Iraqi front, much to the consternation of many.

If this is what winning looks like, I would hate to see what you consider losing.

The truth about this country is that we consume (after differences in climate are taken into account), on a per capita basis, about 25% more energy than people in countries with similar lifestyles (i.e., Western Europe and Japan). We have tolerated the doubling of gas prices in the last two years while the economy has not been significantly.

We could use significantly less energy and pay more for it without harming our economy or standards of living. All the Chicken Littles who scream otherwise are just full of hot air (pun intended). Even if reducing the consumption of fossil fuels doesn't result in curbing global warming, the economic, environmental and political benefits of energy conservation and not being reliant on unstable regimes for our energy needs are evident.
5.10.2006 3:27pm
Ship Erect (mail) (www):
We are winning this war on the Iraqi front, much to the consternation of many.

You misspelled "slaughter."

Kyoto and Iraq are comparable in that both are diversions; emissions from developing naitons are ignored in the former, while corrosive fundamentalism is ignored in the latter. Both picked easy targets to hit but were/are ultimately failures.
5.10.2006 4:02pm
Andy Freeman (mail):
> Global warming or not, I think everyone agrees that excessive COx, NOx, SOx and other noxious gasses are a bad thing

CO2 isn't considered a pollutant outside the global warming argument. Plants love it and animals are pretty much don't care for the concentrations at issue.
5.10.2006 4:47pm
JerryM (mail):
Global warming or not, I think everyone agrees that excessive COx, NOx, SOx and other noxious gasses are a bad thing and the should be reduced.

CO2 is not a noxious gas. It is PLANT FOOD!!!. Without CO2, every plant on earth would die. There are 2Billion people on this planet that do not have clean water, sanitation or electricity. Millions die each year from maliaria. And we are worried about a theoretical 0.6C degrees increase in 50 years. The mean global temperature has dropped since 1998. Why is Vegas, Phoenix the fastest growing cities??? More C02 and other pollutants were emitted when Mt St Helen explodede years ago than all of the manmade emissions in history. Why is every Kyoto proposal anti-american and anti-capitalism. It is a joke!
5.10.2006 5:06pm
Dick King:
I will believe that mainstream environmental organizations really believe in their heart of hearts that global warming is a major hazard to the planet and the human race when they wholeheartedly and unambiguously call for a nuclear power station building program. No ifs, ands or buts. You can not make the case that a few tens of thousands of metric tons of radioactive waste that'll decay to mid-level waste within the time horizon of the supposed global warming risk or that the expensive but non-fatal sole serious nuclear accident that the US has had is as bad a problem as the global warming one is claimed to be.

Until I see this I have to assume that global warming is a club to beat political opponents with, not a fear they truly feel.

-dk
5.10.2006 5:23pm
Westie (mail):
I agree that relying heavily on nuclear power is good policy in connection with climate change. I think, though, the problem that Kyoto was trying to solve was not the "best way" for each country to reduce C02 emissions per se, but how to coordinate the actions of many countries when there is a free rider problem. Presumably one way the U.S. or any other country could have met their Kyoto target would have been to aggressively pursue nuclear power. Also, I disagree that the goal of reducing emissions is "anti-capitalist." Emissions are an externality of burning fossil fuels and it seems reasonable to require those who have benefited from that activity (the industrialized world), and continue to benefit, to absorb the cost of its externality.
5.10.2006 5:49pm
Ship Erect (mail) (www):
dk:

You can not make the case that a few tens of thousands of metric tons of radioactive waste that'll decay to mid-level waste within the time horizon of the supposed global warming risk

? Global warming threatens coastal areas, sea life, and polar ice caps within the next hundred years or so. High-level radioactive waste decays over thousands of years!

Organizations are currently working to create permanent storage for nuclear waste with warnings that will be intelligible to people alive long after all languages spoken today disappear. This is an extremely long-term problem.

Plus, you conveniently ignore that 60 people died at Chernobyl by isolating Three Mile Island (of course, many more supposed non-serious accidents have occurred just in the U.S.). After Katrina, don't you think it's a bit spurious to think that we're well-prepared for catastrophes?
5.10.2006 5:51pm
Dovid (mail):
There are three kinds of people: those who wish to belong in groups and those who don't.
5.10.2006 6:17pm
Abandon:
The whole question embedded in the title, "Is Kyoto cheaper than Iraq", can only be read from an opponent to Kyoto's accord perspective as far as I can understand it. It presumes costs and benefits can be qualified, quantified and computed in order to fit comparison. But can we even pretend we could even attempt to qualify the problem as a whole?

I am struck by the blatant obsession with numbers this thread has lead to. Kyoto can't be seen as a cost effective program if compared to an invasion war, let alone a war we can't agree on who's winning, who's the enemy and what are the victory conditions. Presumably, the war in Iraq may lead to the rebirth of political islamism in the Mid-East area or it could lead to its liberalization. As for Kyoto, each dollar spent leads us to a single conclusion: a decrease in the actual acceleration of human effect on human climate. The late is true even if we can't discuss whether the effects will be sensible on the short or long term.

The comparison between Kyoto and war in Iraq in itself is biased and stands on bad faith in my opinion. It lures and misjudges the benefits of one another even though Pr. Sunstein pretends to be careful about steping into the benefits question. One must read between the lines: Sunstein can not be considered as the Kyoto hugger some commentators tend to suggest.
5.10.2006 7:11pm
Dick King:
"High-level radioactive waste decays over thousands of years!"

No.

Radioactive waste that comes out of a reactor consists of a variety of isotopes with varying half lives, a mixture of high- and low-level wastes. The high level isotopes decay quickly -- that's basically what the word means. The low level isotopes decay over thousands of years -- but a minor leakage would not be the end of the world. If we practiced spent fuel reprocessing we would be able to separate the two.

Furthermore, suppose we leak some high-level waste. Maybe we trash a thousand square miles of the planet's surface, presumably chosen for their uninhabitibility -- out of about 57 million square miles of land area. To hear the global warming folks tell it, we're cruising for the loss of a million or two square miles of coastline if CO2 isn't brought under control, and the loss of the Gulf Stream Current, making Europe uninhabitable. Which do you prefer?

"Plus, you conveniently ignore that 60 people died at Chernobyl by isolating Three Mile Island (of course, many more supposed non-serious accidents have occurred just in the U.S.). After Katrina, don't you think it's a bit spurious to think that we're well-prepared for catastrophes?"

I chose to ignore Chernobyl because no fair or serious person thinks that the kinds of power plants that would be built in the US bear any resemblance to Chernobyl besides the fact that fission happens inside them. I will stipulate that when third world countries build and run nuclear power plants they can occasionally blow up. Furthermore, suppose you do count Chernobyl. Then perhaps nuclear power's safety in a unique year becomes about a third as dangerous as air travel in a good year.

The preparedness of the US for disasters is not at issue because no evacuation or other serious emergency action was performed or required in any nuclear incident in the US since ever.

-dk
5.10.2006 7:17pm
Dick King:
Also, have you read the Copenhagen Consensus?

This looks like an interesting book which I have on order but I haven't read it yet.

-dk
5.10.2006 7:27pm
Freder Frederson (mail):
Radioactive waste that comes out of a reactor consists of a variety of isotopes with varying half lives, a mixture of high- and low-level wastes. The high level isotopes decay quickly -- that's basically what the word means. The low level isotopes decay over thousands of years -- but a minor leakage would not be the end of the world. If we practiced spent fuel reprocessing we would be able to separate the two.

You really don't know what happens in a fission reaction or much about the problems created by the spent nuclear fuel, do you? You really should visit Hanford, the Savannah River Site or your local commercial Nuclear power plant before you start pontificating on things you know very little about. 10,000 years from now, the high level waste you think we can stop worrying about will literally still be too hot to handle.
5.10.2006 7:41pm
RegCheck (mail):
Sunstein commits a common error of confusing expenditures with costs, and assuming no expenditures are investments. Iraq war expenditures consist of both costs (real resources consumed) and investments (replenishment of defense stockpiles). One must do a line by line analysis of the war budget to begin making these assignments. The moral of that story: benefit-cost analysis is best left to experts, not University of Chicago law professors who have the ability to write faster than their minds can think.

The suggestion (in the UPDATE) that war spending constitutes a wealth transfer to soldiers is technically wrong and, to this father of a US Army officer, morally repugnant. Soldiers' pay does not go up when they are deployed. They receive combat pay when they're deployed, which is best viewed as (partial) compensation for risk-bearing. To the extent that we value their risk-bearing more than their combat pay, it is they who are transferring wealth to us.

Soldiers also face stop-loss orders that enable the government to unilaterally abrogate their contracts and compel them to serve longer than they committed. This is yet another wealth transfer from soldiers to taxpayers.

In short, we taxpayers are "price gouging" soldiers. "The elite" is last to realize this because few of its members even know anyone who is serving on active duty.
5.10.2006 8:33pm
Ship Erect (mail) (www):
The high level isotopes decay quickly -- that's basically what the word means. The low level isotopes decay over thousands of years

This is exactly backwards. From the Nuclear Regulatory Commission:

Because of their highly radioactive fission products, high-level waste and spent fuel must be handled and stored with care. Since the only way radioactive waste finally becomes harmless is through decay, which for high-level wastes can take hundreds of thousands of years, the wastes must be stored and finally disposed of in a way that provides adequate protection of the public for a very long time.

Furthermore, suppose we leak some high-level waste. Maybe we trash a thousand square miles of the planet's surface, presumably chosen for their uninhabitibility

You sound like General Turgidson from Dr. Strangelove! I prefer neither, by the way. You present a completely false dichotomy--we could also invest heavily into solar and wind power and biofuels. You obviously prefer a situation that could cause mass deaths and render parts of the world uninhabitable for thousands of years. I don't.
5.10.2006 8:37pm
Broncos:
Freder &Ship:
Nuclear reactions pose risks, and technology and techniques exist to reduce these risks. Spent fuel poses risks, and technology and techniques exist to reduce them. Weapons proliferation poses risks, and technology and techniques exist to reduce them.

This MIT report does a good job in canvassing these areas:
http://web.mit.edu/nuclearpower/pdf/nuclearpower-full.pdf

The question posed isn't whether nuclear energy poses risks. The question is whether we can take steps to reduce these risks to a level below those posed by fossil fuel consumption. The third option - to reject all imperfect solutions in favor of renewables - strikes me as irresponsible, given the dangers we currently face. The environmental community, for good reason, is reassessing nuclear.

As a tangential aside, I found this blog fascinating: http://thoriumenergy.blogspot.com/
5.10.2006 9:59pm
A. Zarkov (mail):
The Chernobyl reactor had no containment vessel-- virtually nothing between the core and the atmosphere. The Russians have a very poor safety record when it comes to nuclear reactors. Look at their alpha class submarines- their reactors used liquid metal coolant. Innovative yes, but very dangerous as they found out. Chernobyl is irreverent to the discussion of reactor safety.
5.10.2006 10:46pm
Josh_Jasper (mail):
As far as I can tell, the Bush adminsitration is not only uninterested in slowing or reversing the trend in rising per-capita energy consumption in the USA, they're actually in league with corporations that have a vested interest in increasing consumption, not only in the USA, but worldwide.

The question of this being a good or bad thing overall aside, it's an unavoidable point that energy suppliers have a massive influence on the policy of the USA, and given the profits they're making these days, they'd be fools not to use that to buy more influence, which means shooting down Kyoto type proposals, and lobbying against conservation measures, and any other thing that might cut profits for them.

These are people who benefit from the oil crisis. Think about it. If we invade Iran, and oil proices spike beyond $100/barell, who profits?
5.11.2006 2:46pm
Dick King:
I'll say this again, and then I'll give up. People who want to believe that the mere operation of a nuclear power plant is The End Of The World will continue to do so.

The assertion that radioactive waste remains radioactive enough to contaminate square miles for millenia is just wrong.

Each radioactive atom decays a small number of times. A lump of radioactive waste consists of a variety of isotopes with half lives ranging from minutes to billions of years. When the isotopes with half lives ranging up to a few decades are still in the mix the waste is radioactive enough to contaminate square miles, but that stage doesn't last long -- in ten half-lives the material abundance is reduced by a factor of 1000. The best example of an isotope like this is cobolt 60, with a half life of about 6 years.

Then we get to a stage where the isotopes with half lives in the century or in the millenia are still present. Now we have a material where you wouldn't want to put a few kilograms in your pocket, but it's no longer likely to render square miles uninhabitable.

Those who want to have an open mind can do the calculations with reasonable estimates of the background radiation [5-10 counts per square centimeter per second] and the number of atoms in the sample [6.02*10^23 per mole] and the percentage of the sample that's some fission product [2%]. Just come up with a composition that makes as much as a square mile uninhabitable [I'll take that to mean 100 times background radiation -- there are natural inhabited areas that have 10 times the average background radiation] with a metric ton of material after two hundred years. I'll let you make up your own isotopes with whatever half-lives you desire, although I'd like all of your radioactive atoms to mass at least ten daltons [the only one that doesn't is tritium -- if you choose to use that you may, but for tritium I will ask you to use its real half life, 11 years].

-dk
5.11.2006 7:00pm