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To Beat the Climate Crisis, Carbon Taxes Should Start High 'to Give Us Breathing Room'

Climate
To Beat the Climate Crisis, Carbon Taxes Should Start High 'to Give Us Breathing Room'
View of the Belchatow coal-fired power plant in Poland on Sept. 28, 2011. DAREK REDOS / AFP / Getty Images

A new paper has overturned the conventional wisdom on how to best implement a carbon tax, Grist reported Thursday.


Most models have called for starting with a small price per ton of carbon and increasing it over time. But a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Tuesday argued the opposite: A carbon tax should start at more than $100 per ton, increase and then start to fall.

The reason is that previous models have not fully taken into account the uncertainty surrounding the climate crisis: We can't know how bad things will really get if we don't act.

"It's been broadly accepted that carbon prices should start low and increase over time," Gernot Wagner, study co-author and New York University (NYU) professor, said in an NYU press release. "Our paper argues that high uncertainty turns this view on its head: high prices today, which are expected to decrease in the long run as uncertainty clears up and technological change makes mitigation much cheaper."

The new model is called the "EZ Climate" model, and Wagner developed it along with Kent Daniel of Columbia Business School and Robert Litterman of Kepos Capital.

"Our model shows that properly taking climate uncertainty into account leads to the conclusion that we need to take stronger action today to give us breathing room in the event that the planet turns out to be more fragile than current models predict," Daniel reiterated in the press release.

That wasn't the only key financial revelation contained in the study, as MIT Technology Review explained:

Another notable finding from the model is that the cost of putting off a carbon price rises at a staggering rate the longer we delay. If we wait a year to implement an effective carbon tax, the estimated cost of additional climate-change impacts will reach approximately $1 trillion. If we wait five years, that swells to $24 trillion. A 10-year delay could cost the world $100 trillion.

"To me the most surprising result of the research was how quickly the cost of delay increases over time," Litterman, who used to be the lead risk manager at Goldman Sachs, said in the press release. "When we modeled optimal carbon pricing policy with various start dates in the future, we quickly realized that the impact of the mitigating effects are closely tied to when you actually start ascribing a price to carbon emissions."

Or course, there are political difficulties with implementing a carbon tax. A Washington state initiative that would have passed one failed at the polls last November after the oil industry pumped a record $30 million into the No campaign.

There is currently no carbon tax in place anywhere in the U.S., and the ones implemented in other countries have been too low to make a difference, Grist explained.

"For me, the crux of the paper is that it points to the value of acting now — this emerges clearly and it is still perhaps not as forcefully appreciated as it should be," Cameron Hepburn, the director of Oxford's Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment who was not involved in the study, told Earther. "The challenge with the paper is the inadequate reference to real-world politics, which is a bit surprising given the authors."

In a Twitter feed, Wagner acknowledged this point.

"Of course, saying we need a high price doesn't make it so ..." he wrote.

However, Grist pointed to another study that suggests how the idea could win more support with voters: Frame it as a "fine on corporations" instead of the dreaded t-word. When an Emerson College poll asked about voters' support first for a carbon tax and then for "a fine on corporations that pollute the air with carbon dioxide," that support jumped from 35 to 52 percent.

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A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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