So Why Does Joe Romm Even Bother With Cap and Trade?

Joe Romm of Climate Progress is a leading climate alarmist, telling the world that burning fossil fuels will increase CO2 concentrations by 0.04% of the atmosphere over the next century and thus destroy mankind.  As such, he is a supporter of the current cap-and-trade bill in Congress, whose purpose is to raise the price of fossil fuels (either directly as a tax or by restricting their supply) so that less will be used.

On a different but related topic, Joe Romm is also apparently a peak oil alarmist.  As I have written, I suspect real oil prices will rise steadily over the coming decades, but we aren't going to fall off some cliff and see a sudden hyperinflation of oil prices (temporary spikes are a different story).  He writes

The IEA's work makes clear that for oil to stay significantly below $200 a barrel (and U.S. gasoline to be significantly below $5 a gallon) by 2020 would take a miracle

I tend to doubt it, in part because I have seen so many very similar predictions ever since the mid-1970s, but I suppose some day someone will be right with one of these.   I wonder if there is some kind of psychological profile that causes people to see positive feedback-driven accelerating curves everywhere.

But here is my confusion -- he is absolutely convinced that oil is going up by $140 a barrel or more.  Let's look at this in the context of Co2.  The CBO estimates the clearing price for a ton of Co2 emissions under the current bill will be between $20-$30 a ton.  Since a barrel of oil creates about a third of a ton of CO2 emissions, this implies the cap and trade bill might increase the price of oil by $7-$10 per barrel.  But if Romm think oil is going up by natural market forces by $140+, why even bother?  Why not just put a tax on coal and be done with it?

I congratulate Mr. Romm, however.  If he is so sure of 2020 oil prices, there are all kinds of fabulous ways to become ridiculously wealthy with this knowledge.

Postscript:  There are two reasons why people have been making this same forecast for 30 years and have been wrong most of the time.

First, there is a very human tendency to assume current conditions and trends will go on forever.  Everyone is subject to this bias, even the smartest analysts.  Romm might argue that these are savvy, detail-oriented commodities analyst, but I only have to point to the recent behavior of savvy detail-oriented debt security analysts.

Second, analysts tend to apply current understandings of what technologies and substitutes are economic at $60 oil to a world where oil is priced at $160.  It just doesn't work that way.   The market for petroleum and its substitutes is enormously multi-variate and complex.  A $100 bump in prices will do things that are sometimes hard to predict in detail to the markets for exploration, new technologies, substitutes, conservation, etc.  But in all this complexity, the one thing we do know is that time and again, such changes have occurred quickly and decisively in response to rising oil prices, and have acted to mitigate and reverse price increases.

One ironic way of looking at it, since this is Joe Romm, is to say that there are negative feedbacks that cut in to slow and even reverse sharp rises in oil prices.  Romm seems to reject these negative feedbacks, in favor of a price model that rapidly accelerates.  This is all ironic, since this issue of negative vs. positive feedback is what separates climate alarmists like Romm from many climate skeptics like myself.


  1. ElamBend:

    One of the best unintended consequences of growing up in a rural area was the kind of books I was exposed to in the local library (and at the school). These libraries couldn't always get the newest books, so I was exposed to a lot of books from the seventies and early eighties detail disaster in this form or that.
    That exposure helped me to realize that people predicting disaster usually have forgotten the last time it was predicted.

    (My exposure to "The Rapture is Coming!" tracts from the seventies reinforced this.)

  2. Henry Bowman:

    Well, I find it quite credible that oil will be over $200/barrel in, perhaps, a year or two. Not necessarily because the world economy will be using oil at a great rate, but because the U.S. dollar, in which oil is presently priced, will likely lose a substantial portion of its value w.r.t. other currencies.

    I assume, though, that Romm is talking about prices in current dollars. I doubt we'll see $200/barrel anytime soon.

  3. Kelly:

    Consistency of thought or argument is not part of Romm's skill set. For him, climate alarmism is merely a tool to advance the political agenda of his employers. A review of the contradictions in his three years of posting on climateprogress makes me wonder if he has any real commitment to the content of what he writes.