Picking the right horse
Michael G. Richard goes through the relevant chapter of Tim Flannery’s The Weather Makers and pulls out a series of points and arguments that add up to this: carbon sequestration is unlikely to play a major role in our fight against global warming. (I basically agree — see this post.) Give it a read.
I have just one quibble. Richard says:
society civilizationspecies, we must back the right horse and stop being misled by the coal industry’s delaying tactics. There’s a big opportunity cost in time and resources to going down the wrong path.
I would question the notion that we need to "pick the right horse."
As our resident marketer will no doubt tell you, one of the great advantages of open markets is that widely distributed decision-making — thousands of individual ideas, experiments, and failures — almost always produces better results than decision-making by a single authority, no matter how well-educated and good-willed that authority may be. (If you fancy these kinds of parallels, you might note that biological evolution works this way too — mutation and selection — which is why it has produced something so much more robust than any "intelligent designer" ever could.)
The energy future is hazy and complex, to say the least, and it’s unlikely that any environmentalist or federal official will be able to "pick the right horse" — predict the fastest, most efficient way to reduce energy use and produce it more safely.
The best way to move forward would be to institute a carbon charge: a cost on carbon emissions, made revenue neutral by reductions in other taxes (payroll, etc.). The crucial benefit is that this puts uniform pressure on the market. It doesn’t pick and choose solutions; it doesn’t discriminate. It leaves the fine-grained decisions to market actors.
The worst way to move forward would be to institute a complex patchwork of subsidies and tax breaks — flailing efforts by various people and interest groups to "pick the right horse." Unfortunately, that’s what we’re in the midst of doing. We haven’t made it any more expensive to burn fossil fuels. Instead, we’re picking other energy sources (biofuels, clean coal, and nukes, mainly) and attempting to make them cost-competitive by plying them with subsidies.
It’s insane, and irrational, and wasteful.
For more on just this subject, see "Subsidies are the wrong road to biofuels," a nice op-ed from Professor Michael O’Hare.