Error Deflection: a Different Way of Looking at Global Warming

Sometimes, the best way to solve an intellectual problem is to recast the question. One of my law school professors had a favorite: assuming that any decision includes the possibility for error, in which direction do we want to err? After washing the question through this framework, the result isn’t so much a new starting point, as a new perspective, grounded in the acknowledgment that there are no absolutes and perfect answers.

As the Copenhagen conference begins, amidst worsening warming and an overblown “controversy” over out-of-context stolen e-mails, it’s best to remember what the stakes are. If we consider that scientists could be wrong about warming, but so could the opposition, we’re left with a choice. Where do we want to end up?

Let’s imagine both sides have a 50% chance of being “right.” We grade the possible harms, the risks of being wrong, on a scale from 0-100. At worst, if we take action on climate change, and buy all of the critic’s hyped up conspiracy theories, we could destroy the economy for a decade (I refuse to credit the concern that America would “lose her sovereignty”).  Let’s set that at a 50. Alternately, at worst, global warming shall surely kill us all. That’s got to be at 100. Assuming a level playing field, the math works out like this:

Harm for pursuing climate change remediation: p(i) = .25

Harm for taking our chances: p(i) = .50

It’s a simplistic model but it illustrates the point. Where the stakes are this high, and there’s even a modest chance the stated harm could materialize, we deflect error to the outcome that doesn’t end in Armageddon.

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54 comments

  1. The basis idea of asking the question that way (what would we lose in either case?) is excellent, but I would assume quite different consequences in both cases:

    From my perspective, enacting measures for the reduction of CO2 emissions need not cripple an economy. On the contrary, position yourself now at the forefront of energy efficiency and renewable energies, and you may have made a strategic decision that will pay off for decades when oil and uranium get ever more expensive and other countries want to acquire your technology.

    On the other hand, “global warming shall surely kill us all” is completely overblown. There will certainly be inundations, terrible famines killing tens of millions, mass migrations of displaced refugees, presumably wars and collapses of entire nations, but the extinction of humanity is nowhere on the horizon. For one thing, we are simply too many. For another, there are actually a few places on earth that will benefit at least agriculturally: Canada, Greenland, Russia.

  2. I my mind the ‘run-up’ to global warming policies are not all that different than the ‘run-up’ to Iraq. IN both cases the process has been politicized. In both cases the findings are suspect. In both cases one side may or may not be overstated the dire need of action. Etc, etc.

    1. The difference with Iraq is that the evidence is there to support that the administration was acting with ulterior motives. What ulterior motives do scientists have? To believe that there’s a conspiracy amongst scientists to overstate/fabricate global warming to destroy the oil and gas industry simply because they don’t like it is ridiculous and shows a serious misunderstanding of the way science works (not surprising, then, that so many Americans don’t believe in global warming). And in the case of the debate on climate change, it’s painfully obvious that those in the anti camp do have ulterior motives. Are you going to trust oil and gas companies to look out for our best interests, especially over trusting scientists?

      1. The anti camp has scientists of their own Kris.

        And while the scientists talking about global warming may not have other motives, the politicians who are taking up their cause most certainly do.

        1. Consensus does not mean unanimity. The consensus</i< among scientists, particularly climate scientists, is that global warming is serious. They may disagree about certain findings, about magnitudes here and there, but there aren't the kinds of gross diagreements about fundamentals that would prevent it from being characterized as a broad consensus.

          The politicians who have taken up the cause may have other motives, but that doesn’t invalidate the cause like it would if the politicians had originated the cause. With Iraq, it was the Bush administration, the politicians who spearheaded the WMD-fueled war craze even as the UN weapons inspectors (the scientists in this case), said they wanted more time, didn’t believe there really were WMDs.

      2. “Scientists.” You keep saying that word. I don’t think that word means what you think it means.

        1. Riiiiight…. Ames there are people who worked on the IPCC who dispute the processes and some of the findings. Are they not scientists?

  3. Mintman’s got a point, I’m just taking both extremes.

    And Mike, the difference is one not need wonder “whether” Iraq was overblown; history has solved that for us once and for all. And the threats were never credible. Anyone who thought Iraq could develop a missile capable of hitting the US was uninformed; anyone who thought invading would stop suitcase-bombers, naive.

    1. And there are a LOT of respected scientists who say the global warming stuff is waaaaay overblown. History may solve that one for us as well.

  4. Now you’re making the creationist’s mistake.

    1. How – there IS dissent on the severity of global warming, right? And that dissent has come from credible and respected scientists, right?

      1. Unless you install a totalitarian regime, you will never have 100% agreement on anything in science. The question I guess is how you define respected scientist. I would say that looking at the temperature and CO2 curves of the last 250 years and going “hey, nothing to see here, no reason to worry” is a very good step towards deservedly losing respect.

        History will indeed solve that one for us, just like it has solved the Iraq question. In 100 years, we may know for certain that global warming was man-made and catastrophic, just like we now know that Saddam did not have WMDs (except continental Europe knew that before the invasion already, so there’s a difference; or not, as the scientific evidence on AGW is solid enough as well).

      2. Mike, Yes, there is dissent, but not to the extent you and others think there is, an dnot always by scientists. Much of that “dissent” also centers around sceintific research that, once it was published, turned out to be wrong, and was subsequently disproven by other publications.

        As to the severity, recent papers in seveal dozen journals are all dcoumenting that, if anything, the current predictive models may be understating the likely outcomes, since they understatsed outcomes for years that we’ve already lived.

        1. Or they may be over-stating them or creating a problem that doesn’t exist at all.

          I’m not a global warming denialist, but I DO believe the process has been completely politicized and I am skeptical whenever a scientific issue divides along Left/Right lines. I also know that most of the scientific dissent has been squashed. The entire process really should be re-started from scratch.

  5. Mike, with all due respect, how the hell does one “restart” a process? And it’s not like it was politicized by our side, either. We stated a problem, stated the solution, and Bush’s team politicized it by castrating the EPA, redlining reports produced by those very few honest, capable scientists who remained, and embarrassing this nation by flipping off the world over Kyoto. I’ll agree that it’s been politicized but to pretend that that process was started by anyone but your boys is to put a huge gloss on the scenario, and blame us for problems you created.

    As for the “dissent is squashed” line, you’re sounding like a creationist. Bad science is rightly squashed.

    1. I would start with closing the IPCC. Then I would rebuild it with a better framework no subject to political tampering.

      As for Kyoto – Clinton had 2 years to sign on before he left office. What happened?

      You know there is dissent out there from respected scientitsts. Why is it not ever talked about?

      1. Oh, and don’t think I don’t have issues with Bill Clinton. I do. Homeboy signed DoMA.

        1. Then he should have been mentioned and not just Bush. Or was that just spin?

        2. If we apportion responsibility based on years, Bush is four times more responsible than Clinton. If we apportion it based on actively hindering the process, Bush is infinitely more responsible. Neglect leads to the same result as open hostility, true, but the latter is much more offensive on the national stage.

          And, I notice you don’t touch the allegation that Bush’s “scientists” tampered with global warming science. Good; you shouldn’t. This is observed, documented fact at this point (see, ahem, my published works :) ).

          1. My point is that you chose to omit Clinton’s role in not ratifying Kyoto (you can make yourself feel better with your 2-8 year comparison). So let’s say some person who wasn’t as informed about the poltical process stumbled across your blog and only read your statement. If they assumed that you were some kind of political expert then they might also assume that it was only Republican presidents that opposed Kyoto.

            So you see, that is how quickly people can be mislead. And that’s my point on climate science. You certainly don’t have the background to intelligently critique the science involved but you just know it’s right. And why? Most likely because the political ideology you ascribe to has embraced it, therefore you have no choice but to do the same as a loyal soldier for the Left.

          2. We’re talking last best chance here. The fact that a President, ten years ago, failed to act is completely irrelevant to modern Republican opposition, started by Bush.

            And I can only imagine you’re blowing this so wildly out of proportion to distract from the fact that, though you mention “scientists,” you can’t name one.

            1. I’m pointing out that you were deliberately misleading with your statement…and how easy it is for that to happen.

              Ames – I think you are smart enough to use Google – but just in case:

              http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_scientists_opposing_the_mainstream_scientific_assessment_of_global_warming

              1. Of that “very long list” of scientists, fewer than a dozen are climate scientists. I have no idea how quote-mined some of those blurbs are, and even so many of them are very tempered in their criticism.

                There’s a chemistry professor at Rice University who doesn’t believe in evolution. And that really doesn’t mean anything.

                1. There are plenty of non-climate scientists on the IPCC.

                  So discredit them all. Line by line.

              2. That guy’s hilarious. He also submitted INCREDIBLY GRAPHIC Easter “advertisements” to the Thresher, the student newspaper. Remember, Kris? My sophomore roommate was later the editor in charge of opinion/ads/etc., and said that the eventually placed ads, which were way graphic, were actually TONED DOWN. He refused to show me the originals, sadly :)

                1. So discredit all of them.

                  1. That’s not the point here. It is not necessary to discredit every single dissenting scientists, even climate scientists.

                    1. Then you have to admit there is credible dissent on a variety of levels.

    2. Because it’s not real. You can say there’s dissent from respected scientists, but who?

      And no system isn’t subject to political tampering; especially because there is no “tampering,” except with the messaging element. Peer review hasn’t been polluted; the transition from ivory tower to the public square is the problem.

      1. So you’re suggesting that any claims that global warming is not happening at the pace suggested by the IPCC or that it poses the level of threat that some claim – are obviously false? Ames – you should know better. Very little in the scientific world is 100%. Global warming science is still a very new concept and nowhere near perfect. Just compare the various reports the IPCC has released over it’s lifespan.

        1. But what’s the probablem with hedging our bets? As the post contemplates, what would really be so bad about acting on the assumption that global warming is real? Even without overblowing the possible effects of global warming and going all doomsday on you, the moderate economic cost of preparing for global warming can’t do any better than break even.

          1. Look at cap & trade alone. That has the potential to bankrupt more than a few companies. The problem is that the Left doesn’t care about that so long as their environmental goals are achieved.

            1. So?

              Imagine there was no law prohibiting the dumping of toxic waste into the water supply. Certainly, when the alternative to dumping are expensive waste processing and requisition techniques, many businesses with simply dump the waste since there is no mechanism that requires them to account for the “cost” to the community of dumping that waste.

              Such businesses would fight tooth and nail to prevent legislation that would require them to dispose of their waste safely. “It will add to our costs and surely bankrupt us!” The truth is that those costs should have always been a part of doing business. That they’ve been getting away with it for so long is no excuse for not forcing them to start accounting for the “social cost” now.

              1. Because the science isn’t complete enough to know that cap & trade would even have a positive effect. In lieu of that certainty, why hurt businesses?

                1. Let’s take away all the oil and gas subsidies as a compromise, then.

                  1. I have no problems with that – the only industry I believe in subsidies for is agriculture and emerging technologies.

                    1. I can agree there to a point, as certainly the subsidies for corn have gotten us in a bit of a mess.

        2. No, Mike, Global Warming science goes back to the 1950’s. Serious and prolific wrok began in the late 1960’s. The effects of global warming began to be documented in the 1970’s. That’s not new.

          1. “The effects of global warming began to be documented in the 1970’s.”

            Was that before or after the warnings of global cooling?

            1. It is now 44 years since President Lyndon Johnson’s scientific advisory council warned that our greenhouse gas emissions could generate ‘marked changes in climate’. That’s 44 years of research (now costing, by one estimate (1), three billion dollars per year ), symposia, conferences, articles, documentaries, and now 80 million references on the internet. Despite all this information, polls over the past five years have shown that 40% of people in Britain resolutely refuse to accept that our emissions are changing the climate. In the US it is over 50% .

              From http://climatedenial.org/2009/07/24/why-we-still-dont-believe-in-climate-change/

              And as to global cooling . . . see below.

  6. Mike,
    I really grow weary of folks talking baout cap and trade as hurtin gbusiness. That’s a presumption about an outcome that is entirely within the control of business. The same doom and gloom scenarios were trotted out when the acid rain regulations were passed in the 1980’s – and so far as i can find, not a single business (much less a single sector) were done in. MOsta adapted, some pioneered new technology, but all survived.

    There is no reason U.S. Corporations can’t do that agin – excpet them might have to take a few % hit intheir profits for several years. But other business could be encourgaed to emerge to supply technology to meet cap and trade requirements. it can be a win for business, but only so long as business recognizes this as an opportunity, not a threat. It’s all in the mindset.

    1. There’s an interesting critique of cap and trade from yesterday’s NY Times. The critique, however, is hardly that it will hurt business, but that it simply won’t work to cut emissions.

      http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/07/opinion/07hansen.html

      1. Cap-and-trade is, ultimately, a market-based solution, the kind of thing you’d expect from the GOP. It sets a maximum, but lets companies bicker and duke it out over who gets what. I find it fascinating that Frum would rail against a market solution and, especially, critique its “transparency.” I thought you guys loved the free market.

        1. “The cap-and-trade bill moving through Congress comes attached to specific mandates requiring utilities to derive specified percentages of their power from favored power sources, especially solar and wind. These mandates utterly defeat the stated goal of reducing carbon emissions in the most economically rational way. Yet there they are. Likewise there is a huge new program of loan guarantees for federally favored technologies, including so-called clean coal.”

  7. Mike, Mike, Mike…

    You seem to have no idea how science is done and how scientists think and work.

    Restart all over? Science is about either poking holes into your colleagues ideas or, if that proves unsuccessful, building on what they have found out.

    The topic is politicized? So what? So is the teaching of evolution. That does not change the fact that one side is simply right, and the other is simply wrong*. Bad luck if your party has chosen to ideologically tie itself the second (something that has not happened in my country, for example; AGW is consensus there, they only argue about what and how much to do about it).

    Politicized? At its core, this is not a discussion about the best tax policy where pros and cons can be weighed about the effects a change in policy would have on foreign trade, the job market or savings, and where you can bring your own scientifically irrefutable notion of fairness into the fray. There are two simple factual questions: Does global warming take place or not? And if yes, are we responsible or not? If yes both times, then we have to do something to reduce CO2 if we do not want to have the Sahara in Spain and Italy, and if we do not want to have the Ocean in what is now the most fertile area of Bangladesh.

    *And I tend to assume that the majority of the qualified scientists is right, as long as nobody can give me a plausible motive for corruption on their part. So far, the purported reasons for a climate “hoax” I have read are on the intellectual level of a Jewish-Bolshevik world conspiracy and deserve the same amount of respect.

  8. Mike,
    You mentioned the myth of global cooling from the 1970’s It didn’t happen. Sorry to be blunt, but what ever denier site you got that from was wrong. They cherry picked, and missed badly.

    See here for the best debunking I have seen:

    http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2005/01/the-global-cooling-myth/

    Philip H

  9. To play devil’s advocate here, you have to extend this probabilistic analysis all the way down.

    Suppose, as you did, that our degree of certainty that climate change is going to kill everyone if we do nothing, P(KE|DN), is .5, and our degree of certainty that pursuing remediation will collapse the economy, P(EC|PR), is also .5. If this is the case, and disvaluing economic collapse at half of the disvalue of the extinction of the human race, then, with reasonable assumptions, all we can say is that:

    Harm for taking our chances: .5.

    Your other conclusion (that the harm for pursuing remediation is .25) isn’t justified by those premises. You’re assuming that remediation will prevent enough climate change to significantly impact outcomes. In terms of this model, where climate change either kills everyone or doesn’t, you’re taking P(KE|PR) = 0.

    In fact, the harm of pursuing remediation is P(EC|PR)*H(EC) + P(KE|PR)*H(KE), or something of the form .5*.5 + P*1.0 If the probability that climate change will kill everyone despite our best efforts to prevent it is greater than .25 (note that this is just half of the probability that climate change will kill us all if we do nothing, so I’m not assuming that efforts at remediation are useless) then your model returns a harm for pursuing remediation of >.5, and tells us that we ought to do nothing. To pedants: yes, technically you ought to subtract off the intersection of P(KE|PR) and P(EC|PR).

    And I note that, if anything, there is consensus that no politically feasible climate policy will be nearly enough to do what we need it to do. There are even significant numbers of climate scientists who find it plausible that it’s already too late and nothing we could possibly do, short of massive-scale geo-engineering, has a shot.

    So, by your own model, it isn’t obviously crazy to say that we only ought to pursue cheap solutions until such time as we have a better understanding not just of climate change, but also of how and to what extent we might prevent it.

    1. To take Gotchaye’s point one step further – wouldn’t it be arguably equally prudent to spend an equal sum of money on mitigation of the effects of global warming? Technologies for keeping dry places dry as sea levels rise, how do we keep Venice above water, how can we harness higher sea levels for our benefit? Etc, etc.

    2. Now I am not qualified to really assess that, but my gut feeling is that this kind of blind faith in the technological manageability of the process vastly overestimates our abilities. I do not think you appreciate how difficult it would be to keep an area like northern Germany or the Mississippi delta above the water if the oceans rise a bit. It would not just be a question of building a few dams, which is big enough of a project, but also of constantly pumping out what keeps pressing up from below.

      And that is not even touching the other estimated consequences of global warming: higher temperatures nearly everywhere and a thorough reorganization of water distribution on the planet, in many cases with changed seasonality. Central Europe, for example, will get dryer summers and wetter winters, and the Mediterranean will turn into a desert, both in the next ca. 90 years. The scale of these problems for agriculture defies descriptions, and the “solution” will most likely be the emigration of literally hundreds of millions of people, whether the target countries like it or not, and the death by starvation of a good percentage of humanity.

      Then again, I am quite convinced that additional warming will realistically not be averted (largely due to people exhibiting the same wishful thinking as you do, so thanks for that), and thus it seems obvious to me that some thought will have to be put into dealing with the catastrophe. But this is not how the discussion should officially be framed at the beginning, because if people start from that there will really be no political hope to even avoid 0.1°C of the warming.

      1. It’s irresponsible to devote so much time and energy to global warming and ignoring the likely outcomes if liberal predictions are correct. Are we looking at some scenario like Day After Tomorrow or will this be more gradual? Will some people benefit from global warming? These are important questions.

      2. Haha, the conclusion was that Russia, Greenland, and Canada would see real benefits from it, but Manhattan would be underwater. I believe my new apartment in the financial district would be substantially underwater. Presumably I could break open the window and float a kayak to get out. But at the point where we’re asking whether the harms of global warming outweigh its benefits, we’re trying to put a number on human life, the fact of warming is conceded, and I’ve already won. So no. This is not an important question.

      3. As far as Greenland is concerned, the indigenous Inuit culture (at least what’s left of it) is very dependent on hunting on the ice sheet and the surrounding oceans. If they melt, that culture will be gone. I’m not sure a couple of extra hectares of wheat is worth that, but I am sure that many other regions that would supposedly “benefit” face similar issues.

  10. [...] a few times, and because I feel like a more life-based post is in order, I’d like to hit on a topic that’s come up before: even and especially when making especially important decisions in politics, or the law, how do we [...]

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