Jun 02 2017

The Sixth Extinction

ExtinctThere have been five major extinctions since the evolution of multicellular life on earth. These are events marked by a geologically rapid loss of biodiversity, the most dramatic of which was the end Permian extinction 245 million years ago with 90% species lost. The other four events had between 19-30% species loss. It is interesting and scary to think how close we came to total extinction in the end-Permian event.

The causes of these extinctions vary. Events 1 and 4 were due to volcanic activity. Events 2 and 3 are uncertain but perhaps causes by climate change due to tectonic plate activity. The fifth extinction, the one that wiped out the non-avian dinosaurs 65 million years ago, was mostly due to an asteroid impact.

Many scientists believe we are in the midst of a sixth great extinction event, caused by human activity. It is always difficult to tell when you are in the middle of such an event – it is easier to discern from a perspective after the event is completed. But it’s pretty clear humans are having a dramatic effect on the ecosystems of the world and other species are paying the price.

There have actually been several books titled: The Sixth Extinction. The first, which I read many years ago, is by Niles Eldridge.  Most recently, in 2014, Elizabeth Kolbert published a book: The Sixth Extinction, An Unnatural History.

Niles Eldridge relates the alarming statistic:

There is little doubt left in the minds of professional biologists that Earth is currently faced with a mounting loss of species that threatens to rival the five great mass extinctions of the geological past. As long ago as 1993, Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson estimated that Earth is currently losing something on the order of 30,000 species per year — which breaks down to the even more daunting statistic of some three species per hour. Some biologists have begun to feel that this biodiversity crisis — this “Sixth Extinction” — is even more severe, and more imminent, than Wilson had supposed.

I always like to do a deep dive to investigate any critical numbers, like number of species lost per year. Typically the real answer is complicated and there is a range of estimates based on various assumptions. The 30k species per year is not documented, but estimated, and is at the upper range of estimates. We need to estimate because we haven’t catalogued every species on Earth. We’re not even sure how many there are (another difficult number to get at, but 10 million species is an average estimate). It is also difficult to know when a species has gone extinct – how certain do we have to be that there isn’t a small population out there?

At the more conservative end of the spectrum it is estimated we are losing about 8 thousand species per year. Another way to look at this is the rate of extinction compared to the background. Species go extinct all the time as part of the natural turn over. However, scientists have estimated that currently species are going extinct at between 10 and 100 times the background rate.

However, as pointed out by Eldridge decades ago, many species that are not currently extinct will very likely go extinct over the next thousand years. With habitat loss few species go immediately extinct. Rather, they simply move to a nearby similar habitat. This means, however, we have many more species crammed into a small area, with far fewer numbers. When a population falls below 2,000 individuals, they are extremely likely to go extinct within the next thousand years. They are highly vulnerable to extinction, partly because their loss of genetic diversity will make them more vulnerable to stresses. So while existing species loss may be lower than estimated, long term species loss will likely be much higher.

A recent paper in Nature takes another look at the notion of a sixth extinction. The explore which human activities are contributing to species loss, what the impact will likely be, and what we can do about it. The causes are no mystery. Primary among them are habitat loss.

About 40% of the Earth’s land mass is now covered in farmland. We have also decimated tropical forests around the globe, including 20% of the Amazon rainforest. Urban sprawl claims more land. We are getting to the point of going from wilderness dotted with civilization to civilization dotted with wilderness.  This means that islands of natural ecosystems are increasing isolated, making it more difficult for animals to migrate or to keep away from the dangers of humanity, such as roads.

We also have introduced invasive species around the world. Invasive species, without natural predators, can decimate native species. Over hunting and fishing is also taking its toll on some species. And finally, climate change is adding more stress to ecosystems.

This much is already well known and nothing new. The authors of the Nature paper also point out that there is a huge economic benefit from natural biodiversity to human. Wood, fish, hunting, and grazing land have an economic benefit. At present, they estimate, the world derives ten times the economic benefit from natural biodiversity than we spend on conservation.

Here is the good news in all of this. If it is true that most species stressed by human activity have not yet gone extinct, even though their range and populations have been drastically reduced, this means we still have a window of opportunity to prevent much of that loss. We don’t even have to make any sacrifices. In fact, preserving biodiversity can have a net economic benefit.

We just need to use the Earth smarter. This means looking carefully at the footprint of humanity on this planet and thinking of ways to reduce it. It further means carefully tracking the effects of human activity on species and taking steps to mitigate it. Preserving migration corridors, for example, is a simple method of minimizing our impact on other species.

Optimizing the efficiency of our farmland use is also critical (see my recent article on why organic farming is bad for the environment, for example). Minimizing the introduction of invasive species is important. Improving the quality of life in developing nations (especially for women) is also helpful, since this correlates strongly with stabilizing populations.

And, of course, not rapidly changing the environment would help. And again, this doesn’t have to cost anything. Cheap, renewable, clean energy (believe it or not) is actually a good thing. Energy efficiency saves money. It’s all just a matter of priorities.

Perhaps more than any, our generation are the stewards of the sixth extinction. The decisions we collectively make now will have a dramatic impact on how extensive this extinction is.



38 responses so far

38 thoughts on “The Sixth Extinction”

  1. MikeB says:

    “We just need to use the Earth smarter. This means looking carefully at the footprint of humanity on this planet and thinking of ways to reduce it. It further means carefully tracking the effects of human activity on species and taking steps to mitigate it.”

    Sounds like a plan!

  2. Jason says:

    Cheap, renewable, clean energy (believe it or not) is actually a good thing. Energy efficiency saves money. It’s all just a matter of priorities.

    Renewability is irrelevant; it doesn’t matter that the sun shines for another five billion years when the energy we receive from it on Earth’s surface is in a dilute, intermittent form that is prohibitively expensive to store and scale. Humans are an ingenious species; we should use the best available forms of energy we have in the present and privately invest the wealth they generate to innovate as necessary.

    Solar and wind are no better for the environment than is organic farming; the “clean” halo they enjoy is a concoction of radical environmentalists and industry cronies. The materials used in the equipment are actually more dangerous to mine than coal. Their pitiful energy density would require vast land use to meet the world’s energy needs.

    Energy inefficiency costs lives; just ask the families of the 7,000 Britons who perished from the cold several winters ago thanks to the governments renewable mandates:


    I implore you to read the copy of The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels that I purchased for you. Search your theness.com inbox for it. Then let’s hash out our disagreement on energy policy once and for all.

  3. Jason,

    I think you are being bamboozled by partisan deception. The source you link to above to Friends of Science, is an oil-industry sponsored group comprised of climate deniers. http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php/Friends_of_Science

    In the very document you link to they repeat the false claim that there has been no warming for 16 years. They also repeat the false claim that there are negative health impact from wind turbines. They are not a reliable source of information.

    The point about solar is a classic Nirvana fallacy. First, roof top solar does not use land. Second, solar has benefits even if it does not provide 100% of energy demand. So that is a false issue. It remains debatable whether or not desert solar power plants would be sufficient – but again, even if not, so what.

    We do have to consider the entire lifecycle of solar panels, including their carbon footprint and environmental impact and cost. Even still, they are far better than burning fossil fuels.

    In short – you need to do a more thorough review of sources on these questions and not rely on industry propaganda.

  4. Teaser says:

    Steve said

    Minimizing the introduction of invasive species is important.

    There has been quite a bit of discussion regarding invasive species, what they are and what their impacts are. As with most subjects once you scratch the surface you discover a number of larger complicating factors. Here are a couple of good links regarding the ongoing discussion the biology/environment community.

    Dr. Thompson and other scientists have called for a more nuanced approach to evaluating whether the presence of a species is harmful or beneficial. Eradicating most invasive species is virtually impossible in an era of globalization, they note. And as climate change pushes more species out of their home ranges and into new areas, the number of so-called invaders is likely to multiply exponentially.
    Yet the notion that a species should not be judged on its origins is highly controversial, as Mark Davis, a biology professor at Macalester College in Minnesota, discovered when he and 18 other researchers submitted an article in 2011 saying just that in the journal Nature.


    Davis said that non-native species need to be addressed on a case-by-case basis. “We’re not saying, ‘Everything is okay, let’s open the doors,’” he said. “What’s frustrated us is that the actual data has often been misrepresented. People have heard that non-native species represent the second-greatest extinction threat in the world, and it’s just not true.” Davis noted that in many places, non-native species actually increase total biodiversity.

  5. MosBen says:

    Teaser, the low hanging fruit of invasive species seems to me to be human pets. Cats and dogs should not be allowed to roam free outside, and nearly all pets should be spayed and neutered.

    Jason, I could see an argument that the renewability of solar and wind is outweighed by their drawbacks and costs, though I don’t think that it would be a very good argument. But the idea that their renewability is irrelevant is just silly. It’s one of their best features! Yes, we need to be very careful about the mining techniques used to get the materials to make them and we need to be very careful about how we recycle, reuse, and dispose of those materials when a solar panel reaches the end of its life cycle. We also need to think about whether there is enough raw materials to make enough solar panels and wind turbines to provide enough power for humanity into the future, though we should have that discussion about any energy producing resource, including fossil fuels. But just as it would be silly to the point of ridiculousness to suggest that we could transition to a fully renewable energy system next year, it’s equally ridiculous to suggest that wind, solar, and other renewables (e.g. tidal, etc.) should not be a growing part of our energy plan.

  6. Sarah says:

    You’d find if we factored in the health costs of fossil fuels, they wouldn’t be nearly as efficient.

    Even if we ignore the historical costs of fuels such as coal, all you have to do is look at the yearly health impacts to see that your cute little example (assuming it ever happened) is repeated over and over again near coal plants and the miners who bring it up. Less so in oil and gas, but they aren’t off the hook.

  7. Sarah says:

    Comment more directly relevant to the article:

    I’ve heard the drumbeat for environmental action since I was young, but it seems like the vast majority of people have either tuned it out (or worse, react to environmentalism with visceral hatred) or, almost as bad, have become married to the wrong solutions (organic food, no nuclear, no GMOs, ecoterrorism.)

    The faction of people calling for genuinely effective action is so small and unpopular I despair of making headway, though I know we make progress here and there.

  8. MikeB says:

    Teaser: “There has been quite a bit of discussion regarding invasive species.”

    The best comment I’ve heard about “invasive species” came from a toxicologist friend:

    “Look in the mirror.”

  9. Jason says:

    Steven Novella:

    The source Friends of Science cites concerning excess winter deaths in the UK is John Hill’s “Fuel Poverty: The Problem and its Measurement.” He works for the Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion, which has no connection to the fossil fuel industry. Moreover, I don’t think the “shill for whatever” guilt-by-association game is all that productive. Some of the big oil companies including Shell and BP who looking to diversify into energy brokerage actually support cap and trade schemes and no longer fund skeptical climate research. There are many more alarmist scientists on the much larger payroll of the big government climate establishment. Everyone is biased; my bias is energy affordability. In approaching energy policy I prefer look past motivation and focus on the actual data. If you can find a refutation of Hill’s research I’d be very much interested to see it.

    If solar and wind can compete on the free market, more power to (from?) them. An electron is an electron; I don’t care where it comes from. Just don’t ask me to subsidize anything whatsoever. If you’re competent you don’t need subsidies and if you need subsidies you don’t deserve them.

    You might argue that the externalities of fossil fuel use justify state-imposed adjustments to energy markets While I do support science-based limits on genuine pollutants such as sulfur dioxide, I see no justification for classifying carbon dioxide, a essential ingredient of life the atmospheric increase of which might make the Pleistocene Ice Age we live in just a bit more livable, as a pollutant. As for actual fossil fuel contaminants the newest coal plant designs emit hardly any volatiles or mercury at all. One such plant has already been opened in Texarkana:


    In your post on Phasing Out Coal you cited a report from the Clean Air Task force on the negative externalities of coal. This report is based on some critically flawed assumptions:

    -The linear no-threshold hypothesis, which is the assumption that a substance that is harmful at some dose is harmful at any dose. As someone who prescribes medication you know this to be false. Under a more realistic biphasic dose response assumption there is little reason to believe that Clean Air Act compliant levels of emissions have much of a health impact at all. See the work of Dr. Edward Calabrese for more on the LNT hypothesis.

    -The uniform monetary value attached to all allegedly premature deaths resulting from pollution. A young skilled professional is actually much more materially valuable to society than an unskilled elderly person or an infant.

    A broader point: the whole “externality” framework is not especially useful for policymaking. It’s based on the mistaken notion that a price is some mystical representation of a good’s value to “society.” A price is a weighted monetary average of marginal individual preferences for a good relative to its availability. A gallon of gas may in fact be worth much more to me than $2.25, especially if I’m being driven to the emergency room. A better framework is a rights-based approach: we don’t regulate pollution based on some chimerical social utility function; we simply consider the risk of certain levels of pollution to be too high relative to the economic benefit of no regulation. Note that the tolerance ratio can vary by regional culture and economic needs.

    You really ought to read The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels and interview Alex Epstein on the Skeptic’s Guide. We could use a lot more rational science-based discussion of energy and environmental issues these days, especially in the wake of the exit from the Paris Accord.

  10. tb29607 says:

    My experience has been similar to yours and I agree with you.
    I do wonder if some of the apathy is due to a lack of viable, helpful actions the average person can take. Most people I know are supportive of environmentalism but have a “well what the Hell am I supposed to do about it” type reaction. Just my observations.

    Is there any data on how many species would be saved if traditional Chinese medicine were no longer a thing?

  11. Sarah says:

    Ah, Jason – using a lot of fancy language to put a sheen on crap.

    Tb – worth mentioning the rhino horn thing is Vietnamese. China’s appetite for ivory is largely decorative. I’m not overly familiar with other examples.

  12. Sarah says:

    Special attention to Jason’s carbon dioxide comment:

    You know we aren’t proposing the elimination of carbon in the atmosphere, right?

    We just want to not acidify the oceans to the point it causes mass extinction (which will harm industries) and if you think warming the world would make it more livable, I’d remind you that conflict prone regions who suddenly lose a lot of arable land and water will become even more bloodbaths than normal. Further add that a huge number of people live on coastlines and the massive economic damage that will follow rising sea levels.

  13. MosBen:
    “Teaser, the low hanging fruit of invasive species seems to me to be human pets. Cats and dogs should not be allowed to roam free outside, and nearly all pets should be spayed and neutered. ”

    While I agree in principle, especially on the spayed and neutered part, even not allowing cats to free roam outdoors has potential unforeseen consequences.

    It would likely mean a significant shift in populations of birds, rodents, etc that shouldn’t be assumed to be universally positive.

    I wonder if removing domestic cats from the outdoor, residential ecosystem, which means removing one of the few predators keeping populations in check in residential areas, might lead to increased population stresses resulting in an increase in spread of zoonotic disease, etc.

  14. MosBen says:

    Karl, the idea that we’ve removed predators from most human-occupied areas, and that this has allowed their prey to have increased populations is a fair point. I’m not sure that allowing our pets to just randomly murder some portion of that population is a particularly well-targeted solution though. To the extent that, say, rat populations get out of control and become a legitimate nuisance I’d prefer to see some specific methods to address it. I feel like humans shrugging their shoulders and declaring their own laziness a sufficient solution to a problem is at least part of where the problem came from in the first place.

  15. MosBen:

    I didn’t say it was a well targeting solution, but I did imply that any changes to the current equilibrium should be thoughtfully considered and well researched before implementation. I stand by that.

    “To the extent that, say, rat populations get out of control and become a legitimate nuisance I’d prefer to see some specific methods to address it.”

    But considering such a problem in isolation rather than trying to address the bigger picture has significant potential to lead to other problems.

    There was an old lady who swallowed a cow;
    I don’t know how she swallowed a cow!

    She swallowed the cow to catch the goat,
    She swallowed the goat to catch the dog,
    She swallowed the dog to catch the cat,
    She swallowed the cat to catch the bird,
    She swallowed the bird to catch the spider,
    She swallowed the spider to catch the fly;
    I don’t know why she swallowed a fly – Perhaps she’ll die!

  16. Let me rephrase that slightly, “Any -significant- changes to the current equilibrium should be thoughtfully considered and well researched before implementation.”

  17. MosBen says:

    I think that that assumes that we’re in some kind of equilibrium, which I’m not at all sure is the case. In the context of an article about a new period of increased extinction I’d put my nickel down that outdoor pets are doing significantly more damage than simply keeping populations of wild species hovering at some new, stable level.

  18. “I’m not at all sure is the case.” I don’t know whether it is or is not the case. That’s my point. Taking action out of ignorance or assumption of something as fact is often a very bad idea.

    Elimination, reduction, and alteration of habitat & ecosystem are the bigger picture problems. Free roaming domestic cats may be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, or they may just be the icing on the cake (or they may be something other than either of those).

    Understand, I’m not talking about feral domestic cat populations, and I not talking about domestic cats allowed to roam freely in rural settings. For the sake of discussion, I’m discussing only pet cats allowed to roam freely in residential neighborhoods.

    It brings an interesting question to mind. Are there any (non domesticated) species that would likely go extinct if either they were eliminated from all/most residential neighborhoods or if such neighborhoods became uninhabitable to them? Are there any (non domesticated) species that are now dependent on residential neighborhoods for the continued survival of their species?

  19. Sarah says:

    I was under the impression that several bird species were at threat due to cat action. The point about unintended consequences is a good one.

  20. tb29607 says:

    I thought rhinoceros horn was used for fever reduction in TCM? Will have to look that up. I was actually thinking of pangolins and tigers when I floated the question.

  21. BillyJoe7 says:

    …pangolins are being trafficked to extinction:


    Beautiful photography and music to pull at the heart strings…all for a good cause of course.

  22. Haggard says:

    Jason- You said “Just don’t ask me to subsidize anything whatsoever. If you’re competent you don’t need subsidies and if you need subsidies you don’t deserve them.”

    I think that perhaps you are arguing from an ideological or political perspective, rather than assessing the facts at hand. A step back from the issue without preconceived ideas may benefit you here.

    If you had cared to look into subsidies of energy such as coal, oil, or gas, you would fall off of your chair and march down to whomever your local representative is to declare these industries incompetent and undeserving of your tax dollars.

    Nonetheless, if “not wanting to subsidize anything whatsoever” really is your perspective, I encourage you to look into the subsidies of coal, oil and gas. You’re in for a true awakening, and I recommend that you brace yourself before you do so, because I fear it may cause some harm to your sense of place in the world.

  23. Haggard – the very point I was about to make. Fossil fuels are massively subsidized. https://www.treasury.gov/open/Documents/USA%20FFSR%20progress%20report%20to%20G20%202014%20Final.pdf

    $4.7 billion

    That does not include the externalized costs:

    You dismiss this argument with some straw men. The estimate of health care costs is what current fossil fuel use is actually costing, 100 billion per year in the US alone.

    The notion that CO2 is not a pollutant is a non sequitur, and reveals the bias in your sources. Even conservative estimates are that changing climate will cost hundreds of billions of dollars. These externalized costs are absolutely a fossil fuel subsidy.

    So sure – you want to play fair, no subsidies. Fine. Get rid of all fossil fuel subsidies, and make all energy production pay their fair share of any externalized costs.

    In that scenario renewable energy kicks fossil fuel’s ass.

  24. And regarding excess winter deaths in the UK, you are citing pure propaganda. The vast majority of excess deaths are due to the flu. They track with the effectiveness of the flu vaccine from year to year.

    Poorly insulated homes and fuel poverty are an issue to, but minor compared to the flu. Further, this issue has nothing to do with renewable energy. The problem is will people in poor homes who can’t afford any energy. The solution is not to burn coal, but to provide assistance to people who need it.

  25. Sarah says:

    The market in rhino horns is almost entirely from Vietnam as a sexual supplement. Do a quick search on “rhino horn market Vietnam” and you’ll a a few articles.

    Also, this hilarious idea about subsidies – what about research subsidies for things that aren’t of immediate economic benefit? Health care subsidies so people (ie, the basis of the economy) don’t die or become crippled with illness?

    I can make strong economic arguments for the value of subsidies all day.

  26. Jason says:

    As I explained in the coal thread depletion, depreciation and amortization are standard expensing procedures in tax accounting, not subsidies. I’ve studied tax accounting at the graduate level so you can trust me on this one. The treasury department report listed some tax credits I find objectionable so I’d be happy to jettison those. They don’t amount to very much compared to the expensing, however.

    The piece you cited improperly characterizes the Clean Air Task Force’s Social Cost of Carbon externality estimate as a subsidy. This estimate shares the same faulty assumptions as their estimates of coal health impacts and then some. On net the side-effects of hydrocarbon use are likely mild and benign. Even if the net side effects turn out to be slightly negative the benefits of hydrocarbons more than equip humanity to deal with the side effects.

    You once interviewed Steve Milloy of junkscience.com on the Skeptic’s Guide. He recently published a book called Scare Pollution exposing the awful advocacy research underlying the EPA’s cost estimates. You should have him back on the show to discuss it. Please have Alex Epstein too and read The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels. It’s not long at all but it packs a very persuasive punch. If you can recommend to me a book that makes persuasive case for taxing fossil fuels to the tune of $100 billion per year I’d be happy to read it.

    The poor Britons who died couldn’t afford energy because the renewables mandated by their government made energy too expensive. If you think an intermittent energy source with a density of 1-6 watts/m^2 doesn’t cost more than a gas well producing a dispatchable minimum of 20 watts/m^2 you’re out of your mind.

  27. bachfiend says:


    ‘If you think an intermittent energy source with a density of 1-6 watts/m^2 doesn’t cost more than a gas well producing a dispatchable minimum of 20 watts/m^2 you’re out of your mind’.

    I wonder about your figures. Average insolation is around 250 watts/m^2 (year round, winter and summer, day and night). Assuming that photovoltaic panels have 10% efficiency, that gives 25 watts/m^2. How exactly is the corresponding figure calculated for gas wells? A gas well might have a small area on the surface, but it also has a large area beneath the ground.

    Where did you get your figures? I’m curious.

  28. MosBen says:

    Tax breaks and direct subsidies are not literally the same thing, but from a public policy perspective they are a distinction without a difference.

  29. Jason says:

    bachfiend: I got the stats from Robert Bryce:



    Expensing is not a subsidy. An oil well or coal mine is asset that generates revenue over multiple fiscal periods. In order to match expense with revenue, the cost of the asset is allocated over its useful life. For most assets this procedure is called deprecation; in the case of a natural resource such as a well it is more appropriately called depletion. If a special accelerated depletion schedule were permitted for tax purposes this could be considered preferential treatment. This is not the case for the fossil fuel industry, however.

  30. MosBen says:

    Whether it’s preferential treatment or not, it’s still a subsidy. Any method which allows an individual or business to keep money that they would otherwise owe in taxes functions as a subsidy. Also, you dismiss the idea of a non-taxed externality as a subsidy with the argument that the benefits of hydrocarbons outweigh the impact of their negative externalities. But, of course, the best way to know that it to price the externality and have it become an expense for the industry. If the benefits of hydrocarbons vastly outweigh the negatives then the costs associated with their use will not be a detriment to the industry. Protecting an industry from the full costs of doing business is not a great sign that the industry is beneficial overall.

  31. bachfiend says:


    Your getting the stats from Robert Bryce doesn’t say much for the statistics. He’s a journalist – nothing more – explaining why he’s adopted such a nonsensical method of comparison. Comparing the area covered by a solar panel to that covered by a gas or oil drill is just silly.

    He should have been comparing cost of each energy unit generated. Adding more solar panels will increase the amount of energy generated (and it won’t run out as long as the sun continues to shine). Adding more drilling sites to a field will increase the rate at which gas or oil is produced, but it will cause the fuel to run out more quickly. And the oil or gas still has to be burned to produce energy.

  32. Jason says:


    Deduction of normal expenses from revenue to calculate taxable income isn’t a subsidy. A subsidy is a handout in excess of earnings (or an offset of losses). By your definition every single business in the US is subsidized.

    Again, an externality is not a useful concept for policy making. If a certain level of by-product poses a level of risk relative to the benefits of a product that constitutes a threat to someone’s right to life, then set a reasonable limit to the amount of that by-product emitted. An externalized cost is not necessarily an inefficient outcome, and federal regulation rarely improves such outcomes. Pollution is mostly a local issue and should be dealt with by tort where possible.


    If you account for the cost of the materials, storage media, the efficiency losses incurred in cycling backup sources, and subsidies most of all, solar is at least three times as expensive as natural gas. Solar is useful for living off the grid and heating water, that’s about it. Those of us who prefer to live as non-hermits, however, can do without this boondoggle thank you very much. Without subsidies the industry would collapse.

  33. MosBen says:

    Yes, most businesses and individuals ARE subsidized. We, or rather Congress, have chosen a variety of behaviors that we want to encourage, and the mechanism of that encouragement is often the tax code, either through a direct subsidy or a tax credit or deduction. There are many ways in which direct subsidies and tax credits are different, but from a behavioral perspective it’s the same result. If you owe me money and I take that money and give you $5 back it’s no different from if I just told you to give me $5 less instead.

    Torts are an incredibly inefficient way to deal with pollution. First, if someone is suffering a respiratory injury related to some pollutant in the air it’s going to be very difficult in most cases to determine which polluting entity is truly responsible, or if there’s some kind of contributory responsibility, how that should be divided up. And even with class actions available we’re talking dozens of cases clogging up the courts indefinitely.

    As for your suggestion that we just cap the amount of carbon emitted, that’s a fine idea. But, of course, such a system would require a bit of flexibility. After all, a UPS store may not need all the carbon emissions allowed by their cap, while a food delivery service might need a bit more. So we might decide to allow businesses that come in under their cap to trade the excess to businesses that exceed their cap. But, of course, we’d need to price some unit of exchange, but it sounds like we’re on our way to a system that could discourage carbon emissions!

  34. Jason says:

    Your attitude toward the tax code as a means of manipulating behavior is revealing.

    I don’t support carbon taxes or quotas. CO2 emissions are probably beneficial to our environment on net.

    I’ll make you a deal: you can have a modest carbon tax in exchange for the elimination of the income, capital gains and estate taxes plus a commensurate reduction in spending starting with the elimination of “green” energy subsidies and climate science funding.

  35. MosBen says:

    First, using the tax code to influence behavior is something that pretty much all politicians along the spectrum have engaged in, primarily because passing some kind of tax cut/deduction/etc. is easier than passing funding for a program with similar goals. So we let people deduct their home mortgage interest to encourage home ownership. We allow businesses to deduct health insurance costs. It’s not great that the reason for using the tax code this way is because spending has become so demonized that using the tax code is just way easier, but while it makes the tax code and filing taxes harder than it needs to be it’s not the worst solution ever.

    As to the “deal” you propose, what sort of ludicrous deal is that? Are you suggesting that a “moderate” carbon tax is equivalent to the taxes that you propose eliminating? I’m all for reforming the tax code, but why would anyone agree in a reduction in funding for the studying of climate science in exchange for a moderate tax aimed at addressing the subject of that study? I’m sure that I could come up with a deficit neutral proposal for a carbon tax, but you’re essentially arguing that in exchange for more properly price the cost of products which currently benefit from the negative externalities of carbon emissions we should enact most of the completely unrelated conservative political agenda on taxes?

  36. Jason says:

    First, using the tax code to influence behavior is something that pretty much all politicians along the spectrum have engaged in, primarily because passing some kind of tax cut/deduction/etc. is easier than passing funding for a program with similar goals. So we let people deduct their home mortgage interest to encourage home ownership. We allow businesses to deduct health insurance costs. It’s not great that the reason for using the tax code this way is because spending has become so demonized that using the tax code is just way easier, but while it makes the tax code and filing taxes harder than it needs to be it’s not the worst solution ever.

    Yeah let’s soak single people, renters and people with preexisting conditions yoked to their employer’s insurance plan with using an already horribly Byzantine income tax code. Real compassionate.

    All government spending is ultimately taxation. All taxation is extortion. Spending is therefore rightfully demonized.

    I tire of your insipid statist apologetics.

    C ya.

  37. MosBen says:

    I didn’t say that I support the health insurance deduction. Indeed, though there are lots of reasons why we ended up with that system it’s not really a great way to do things in 2017. The problem is that people are change averse, lots of people get insurance through their employer, and lots of them are scared about being worse off in some kind of universal system, even if it’d make it easier for them to change jobs. But that being a bad tax deduction doesn’t change the fact that politicians of both parties and large numbers of citizens at least nominally support using the tax code in this way, especially when we’re in a situation where directly funded programs are much more difficult to pass.

    As to your point about government spending being taxation, and taxation being extortion, that’s both wrong on the economics and the morality. In a country with a sovereign currency spending does not flow from taxes. It’s more accurate to say that government spending creates money in the economy and taxing takes it out. Taxing and spending have a relationship, but not a direct or tied-together relationship.

    Taxing is not extortion, but your comments in this and other threads paint you as a less than lovely person to go down that path with, so best of luck to you.

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