Welcome to the China Lab
Warm weather makes me think of beaches, and sea level rise
Thanks for signing up. I used to blog (as in, a decade and a half ago) to a miniscule audience of classmates, family, and friends, but writing is a practice that rewards persistence. These posts will be intermittent, which sounds better than sporadic.
I’ve just completed a book manuscript Seeking Truth and Hiding Facts: Ideology, Information, and Authoritarianism in China, that is currently under review. When it gets back to me, I’ll share snippets or additions or extra thoughts that didn’t make the final edit. But right now I’m in that sweet spot of tenured academic life that is exploring the next big project, which is tentatively titled Decarbonizing China: The Political Economy of Tackling Climate Change. In terms of topics, here’s a sneak preview of points of discussion:
Support for renewables
carbon neutrality pledge
UHV grid stuff
wastage, curtailment, capital inefficiency
Tibet, pumped hydro storage, Xinjiang, energy imperialism
decreasing urban density (urbanization of people versus urbanization of land)
urban air pollution
real estate bubbles
high speed rail
cities for whom
adaptation (sponge cities, all the other kinds of cities)
threats -- heat waves, sea level rise, storms
emissions trading, carbon border taxes
But today, the sun is shining and our huge snow pile has finally given up the ghost, and so my thoughts turn to summertime pursuits. The NYT published a nice little story on the nice little towns of North Carolina’s Outer Banks.1
These towns face disappearing beaches and inundated access roads. We know these kinds of stories. Climate change is, among other things, causing the oceans to expand and encroach on the land. The LAT published a similar one about Marina, CA and its grappling with managed retreat last year. I expect that we’ll see more of these kinds of stories.
The details of this narrative though reminded me of an excellent new paper written by Jeff Colgan, Jessica Green, and Thomas Hale for the journal International Organization, Asset Revaluation and the Existential Politics of Climate Change. Rather than accept the normal notion of climate change as a collective action problem — where Country A is unwilling to take costly action unless Countries B, C, D, and E step up (and if they already are stepping up, then Country A can just slow walk its actions anyway) — they argue that we should change our mental framing.
We offer a dynamic theory of climate change politics based on the present and future revaluation of assets.… We argue that climate change, along with decarbonization policies to mitigate it, will trigger a profound and uneven process of economic revaluation of these assets. That revaluation will ultimately render certain assets valueless, creating a stark distributional struggle, which we term “existential politics.”
“Climate politics can be understood as a contest between owners of assets that accelerate climate change, such as fossil fuel plants, and owners of assets vulnerable to climate change, such as coastal property.”
Holders of climate-forcing assets (CFAs) are thus in conflict with those holding climate-vulnerable assets (CVAs) (in a nice review of their paper, Matthew Paterson argues that they should include climate-saving assets (CSAs) too). Obviously most of us have a mix of assets that are climate forcing and climate vulnerable (or both, like a coastal oil refinery), but Colgan, Green, and Hale’s model is mostly interested in the national and international implications of these conflicts, which are “existential” in that they are both highly important for the asset’s holder and at high risk of becoming worthless. They use the abolition of slavery to jolt the reader to recognize the scale and finality of such asset revaluations.
I am in complete agreement that the collective action model should be replaced by something along the lines of their asset-holding existential politics. What the NYT story on managed retreat suggested to me was the need to extend this further, and not just to include wind farms or solar production facilities as industrial antagonists of the oil companies (CSAs to their CFAs as Paterson put it). Instead, and especially when considering issues of adaptation rather than mitigation, while CVAs do really seem to share a general interest, especially vis-à-vis CFAs, at the same time they also are competing for adaptation funds from local, state, national, and international governments. Saving Manhattan by spending billions on a sea wall might, or might not, save Staten Island, and definitely doesn’t help Miami Beach.
And the NYT story shows how fine those distinctions can be. In debating how the county is to pay for beach nourishment:
In interviews with more than a dozen homeowners in Avon, a frequent concern was how the county wants to divide the cost. People who own property along the beach will benefit the most, Mr. Outten said, because the extra sand will protect their homes from falling into the ocean. But he said everyone in town would benefit from saving the road.
To reflect that difference, the county is proposing two tax rates. Homeowners on the ocean side of the road would pay an extra 25 cents for every $100 of assessed value — an increase of 45 percent over their current tax rate. On the inlet side, the extra tax would be just one-fifth that much.
Who should pay and how much to protect these assets, which vary in their value and vulnerability? Some simply expect others to pay for it.
Sam Eggleston, a retired optometrist who moved to Avon three years ago from outside Raleigh and bought a house on the western side of town, said even that smaller amount was too much. He said that because Highway 12 is owned by the state, the state should pay to protect it.
Living on the western side of the road, he wants those only on the eastern side to pay for something that benefits him, yes, but it benefits them more. And then he demands that taxpayers in Raleigh and Charlotte pay up to repair a road that means 1000x more to him and his home than it does to them.
We take so much for granted. Infrastructure, in particular, is notoriously under-maintained as we simply assume that once it is present in a given place it will remain useful and functioning as it always has. Most of the time, in North Carolina and elsewhere, once a highway is built, it is a safe bet that it will simply be there, potholes notwithstanding. But climate change increases uncertainty and reminds those who took for granted that we all live in societies that also can change.
In China, where real estate is king, fights between those with directionally unified interests will be complex and messy. I look forward to working through them on the China Lab and hope that you find them as fascinating and important as I do.
Ok, so it’s really one of those amazing multimedia extravaganzas where the NYT shows off with video and gorgeous photos and lots of reporting. You should read it.