Precaution, uncertainty, insurance, and morality

Whether to apply the “precautionary principle” in an actual situation depends on the size of the potential disaster, the probability that the disaster will come about if no action is taken, and the costs – including the opportunity costs – of taking the action. So at the end of the day there’s not much “principle” left, just a heuristic for doing decision analysis.

But one point ought to be clear: greater uncertainty argues for more caution – more willingness to accept certain current losses to avoid possible large future losses – not less.   That’s because it’s easier to adjust to small changes than it is to large ones, so damage is likely to increase more-than-proportionally as the size of the change increases.

Assume some climate model predicts that, under some set of assumptions, average global temperature would rise 3° C by 2100. If the model were very accurate and precise, that might be 3°± 1°. If the mechanisms involved remain obscure and the data unclear – as is the case today – that might be 3°± 5°: that is, the best guess would be a 3° increase, but the actual outcomes might range between an 8° increase and a 2° decrease.

Given how bad a 3° increase would likely be, if we knew for sure that would be the outcome in the face of inaction there would be a strong agument for making big and expensive policy changes to prevent it from happening. And if we knew that for sure, it would be very hard politically to argue against doing something about the problem.

By contrast, 3°± 5° means that proponents of inaction get to say “We’re not even sure there’s any problem at all.” That makes the political case for action much weaker. But it makes the logical case for action much stronger.

The world – especially the much richer world of our great-great-grandchildren in 2100 – could adjust to a 3°, or even a 4°, increase in global average temperature, though at great cost in species extinctions, land area lost to rising sea levels (and therefore the forced migration of some large populations), and more extreme weather. That hotter planet would be, on average, a less pleasant place to live. But it would still be habitable.

But an 8° C average temperature increase is a completely different proposition, rendering much of the tropics virtually uninhabitable and, quite plausibly, hitting various triggers for positive-feedback effects such as the melting of the polar ice caps, which would reduce the amount of solar energy reflected back into space, and the melting of the Siberian permafrost, which would release a huge amount of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.  (Most systems are more stable in the face of small changes than they are in the face of large changes.)  Thus a primary increase of 8° might really mean an increase even larger than that: an increase that might not be reversible even if greenhouse-gas emissions were then sharply curtailed.

That would be the kind of disaster to which some version of the precautionary principle reasonably applies: if the risk of its happening is more than merely speculative, it’s not a risk to take, even if avoiding that risk requires major dislocations. It’s the same principle that tells you not to deal with a tighter family budget by canceling your homeowner’s insurance, even though the annual risk of a major house fire – unless you’re the kind of drunk likely to pass out in bed while smoking a cigarette – is way below 1%.

Ordinarily, it is the proponents of action who bear the burden of persuasion.  But in this case political inaction means, in effect, licensing a massive gamble, though no individual chooses to make it. Rather, the gamble would be the outcome of billions of uncoordinated self-interested decisions: precisely the sort of process that, in the absence of external costs, leads to efficient outcomes.  But none of the arguments for the freedom of economic activity applies to activities with huge, indirect, deferred, and diffuse external costs:  by contrast with Adam Smith’s baker, there is simply no “invisible hand” mechanism that directs private action in such a situation in the direction of the public interest.

The willingness of some politicians and pundits to bet the planet on the claim that climate scientists are talking through their hats, which involves the larger claim that they have managed to assemble an enormous conspiracy to perpetrate a hoax, calls either their intelligence or their morals into serious question.  And that goes for the journalists and media moguls who treat their ravings as if they represented simply one side in a reasonable argument.

If anyone tries to tell you that uncertainty about climate change is a reason for inaction, he’s either a fool or a scoundrel. Probably a bit of both.

Comments

  1. Acorvid says

    The moral element that haunts me most, as an American, is our dual role as greatest contributor to the causes (per capita) and greatest roadblock to reform. Oh, and….nice argument. May I ask that you contact Sarah Palin and explain this to her?

  2. JMG says

    Worse, your 3F +/- 5F only applies if there was a true randomly variable process at work. The actual uncertainty would be expressed as 3F (+5F, -3F) because even if you completely ignore climate science, there is simply no theoretical basis for arguing that more greenhouse gases have a cooling effect on the earth … so the proponents for inaction can't even logically pretend that the error is symmetrical around the most likely case — the error is, like everything else in this problem from hell, biased against us.

    I am not hopeful about our ability to rally people any more. I am glad I have no kids.

  3. joel hanes says

    I note with great dismay that Arctic sea ice and the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets have declined faster than the worst-case estimates from just a few years ago. It's beginning to look as if -2 to +8 will have been an unrealisticaly optimistic prediction.

  4. K says

    When denialists say the forecasts are uncertain, they mostly mean they're wrong, that they know the risk is certainly or almost certainly not "more than merely speculative." (Or maybe that the costs of an adverse outcome, even if real & even if certain, will be borne by others.) They evidently lack more than just prudence. It seems fair to presume that like the rest of us, they routinely buy insurance against things they're willing to grant might happen.

  5. Brett Bellmore says

    Look, I'm not totally averse to applications of this precautionary principle. Two weeks ago I had my prostate removed, because I'd been diagnosed with early, low grade prostate cancer. There was a considerable range of uncertainty about what this implied: Anything from a slow growing cancer which I could just live with, to an aggressive one that would kill me in a few years. I opted for the surgery, not the "watchful waiting".

    On the other hand, the cost of action in this case was a month's pay worth of medical bills, a couple weeks out of work, and a period of partial incontinence. Relatively inexpensive, IOW, compared to the worst case scenario of leaving the cancer alone.

    In the case of global warming, the situation is rather more complex, and the balance of costs not nearly so one-sided.

    First, the error range in the predictions comes not just from scientific uncertainty, but also moral uncertainty. Some of the science is undoubtedly honest. Some of it, it's becoming clear, is flat out fraud. It's going to take at least a year or three of far more transparency than the climate modeling community is accustomed to, to sort out the extent to which the predictions are dependent on the fraud. And that year or three IS going to have to be taken, climate modelers have, rightly, lost the presumption of good faith, and have to earn it back by doing everything under the harsh gaze of unsympathetic eyes. Even eyes they don't respect.

    Second, there's uncertainty as to the consequences of global warming. They're not all bad, after all. Some low lying areas may flood. Some deserts may bloom. Agricultural productivity will drop here, rise there. We don't even know how it will net out!. And it's all going to be happening in slow motion, people will have time to adapt. And more wealth to do the adapting with, if we don't act.

    Third, let's be frank: The costs of the recommended actions are immense, possibly even on the same scale as the costs of not acting if the predictions are correct. An 80% reduction in CO2 emissions is not going to come cheap, either in monetary terms, or lives. (If having my prostate out had carried a 30% risk of killing me outright, and would have left me crippled for life, you bet I would have gone with "watchful waiting".)

    Finally: Mansions with $30,000 a year utility bills. Flying private jets to international conferences. (Instead of teleconferencing.) Continued irrational opposition to nuclear power. It's really quite simple: Why should I treat this like an emergency, if the people screaming about it don't treat it like an emergency themselves? Would you listen to somebody telling you there was a water shortage, you had to limit yourself to sponge baths, if they had their lawn sprinklers going in the rain? Granted, this doesn't logically prove they're frauds, but it's highly suggestive.

    In short, I don't see how the precautionary principle could be rationally applied until the whole issue of scientific fraud has been resolved, and how to apply it in cases where the "insurance" is nearly as expensive as just enduring the harm is not at all clear.

  6. matt wilbert says

    These last are amazingly weak arguments.

    "Second, there’s uncertainty as to the consequences of global warming. They’re not all bad, after all. Some low lying areas may flood. Some deserts may bloom. Agricultural productivity will drop here, rise there. We don’t even know how it will net out!. And it’s all going to be happening in slow motion, people will have time to adapt."

    That might be true at 3 degrees C. There is no possibility that there will be net benefits at 8 degrees C–none of our grain crops or farm animals have been developed to deal with anything like that much heat. Not to mention that there won't be any rivers running in the summer in dry areas, because there won't be any snowpack. So the precautionary principle is certainly sensible here.

    "Mansions with $30,000 a year utility bills. Flying private jets to international conferences. (Instead of teleconferencing.) Continued irrational opposition to nuclear power. It’s really quite simple: Why should I treat this like an emergency, if the people screaming about it don’t treat it like an emergency themselves?"

    This is just silly. First because individual action without a supporting institutional framework is simply irrelevant to the scale of the problem. Second, because sometimes you have to expend resources to build support for conserving them. And thirdly, because this kind of logic isn't observed in other areas of public policy. Senators who support wars should go fight them personally? People who support early education have to go and do it themselves? Supporting collective action isn't strongly related to one's own actions, and there isn't any particular reason it should be.

  7. guest says

    "the much richer world of our great-great-grandchildren in 2100" – Professor, where does this assumption come from? In addition to warming, there is resource depletion (oil, burning of which is the principal cause, is one such resource, but there are others, potable water being just one of them – you live in Southern California so must have heard about it). Do you assume/know that in hundred years we will discover abundant new resources, or will have a drastic population reduction – or did you mean "if we assume that the world in 2100 will be much richer"?

    Brett Bellmore, care to point out a case of a flat-out fraud in peer-reviewed research on global warming (as opposed to some interpretation of some banter in some private emails)?

  8. Brett Bellmore says

    Matt, opposing nuclear power while demanding that CO2 be reduced 80% is rather like supporting a war while disbanding the Air Force. It's a LOT worse that a bit of hypocrisy.

    Guest, I see YOU care to ignore the evidence in the emails that the peer review system has been corrupted.

    See, for instance, The Smoking Gun at Darwin Zero, as an example of evidence of positive fraud. There's more and more situations like this cropping up, which need to be explained, not dismissed.

    Like it or not, the recent data dump was a blow to the credibility of climate modelers, and they DO have some work to do before they can demand that anybody trust their work again.

  9. says

    I'm going to ignore the trolling and wonder instead whether this isn't some kind of variation on the learned helplessness so many people experienced during the Cold War. Back then a complete inability to affect the likelihood of being vaporized, comminuted or poisoned en masse led a lot of people into denialist authority-worship. The craziness reached a high point, as I recall, when a secretary of defense said he simply didn't accept the possibility of nuclear war, so there was no reason to worry about its potential effects.

    In a similar way, contemplation of the high-side tail of the global-warming estimates leads to such misery that many people just give up and turn to denial instead. Which is sad, because all that energy could really be used on the side of doing things that might stave off catastrophe.

    (Which brings me to another, slightly troll-related point: most complaints about the cost of doing things to avoid warming and its consequences are dishonest, rather like the spend-the-money-back-on-earth complaints against space programs. Spending money on climate mitigation still creates jobs, funds all the ancillary things that people with jobs usually pay for, blah blah blah. It diverts spending from whatever shiny the denialists want to put money into, but the folks the denialist crowd look to have not been exactly wise at allocating capital for maximum longterm growth. So the credibility of claims that climate mitigation would ultimately impair G(N/D)P is not really there.)

  10. Marc says

    The Darwin station topic makes me angry Brett – but not at the scientists. It's the deliberate lying on the part of the denialists. There were changes in the enclosures around temperature measuring stations in Australia which led to completely spurious lower temperatures. These changes were calibrated out of the system, which is what scientists do all of the time when dealing with instrumental data. The raw data isn't even meaningful until it's calibrated; true absolute measurements are quite rare. And the denialists post nonsense about how this is some giant fraud, even though the reasons for the changes were completely explained if they had bothered to look. See http://scienceblogs.com/deltoid/2009/12/willis_es….

    You just took the link at face value, which isn't your fault – but what Eschenbach did was an extremely serious scientific error, and it's the sort of thing that would get a real scientist exiled permanently to the fringe of their profession. If that's the quality of the critics, then they really do have to mind the Biblical injunctions about dealing with the beam in their own eye before the mote in the eyes of others.

  11. Richard Cownie says

    "Second, there’s uncertainty as to the consequences of global warming. They’re not all bad, after all. Some low lying areas may flood. Some deserts may bloom. Agricultural productivity will drop here, rise there. We don’t even know how it will net out!. And it’s all going to be happening in slow motion, people will have time to adapt. And more wealth to do the adapting with, if we don’t act."

    This is about 85% wishful thinking.

    a) Yes, low-lying areas *will* flood. There's really no doubt at all that warming

    climate will melt ice and raise sea level. That's very straightforward – *and*

    we can already see the melting of the ice in very substantial ways (the Northwest

    Passage opened up for the first time …). How much damage will that do ?

    A heck of a lot: because low-lying areas next to the ocean are, and have always

    been, prime sites for trade and agriculture (in fertile river deltas).

    b) "Deserts may bloom". Maybe, occasionally, here and there. But to elevate this

    to a general principle is to ignore the reality of what's needed to make land

    productive: water, a suitable range of temperatures, a suitable pattern of

    sunlight, *and* good soil. If you take a region that has had little or no vegetation

    for thousands of years, and you add water, then I'm sorry, but you don't get a

    paradise overnight. You start on the long and slow process of soil formation,

    which proceeds at an average rate of 1cm every 178 years. The Canadian Shield

    region, around the Hudson Bay, was scoured clean by glaciers in the last ice age,

    and still has thin and inadequate soil 8000 years later.

    The asymmetry is interesting: you can turn productive land into desert within a

    few decades. That happened in the American Dust Bowl of the 1930s, around the

    Aral Sea, to parts of the Sahara which used to be productive in Roman times,

    and in various other places. But turning desert into productive

    land takes much much longer: in most cases much too long to help us adapt to

    large climate changes happening within 90 years.

    c) "And it’s all going to be happening in slow motion, people will have time to adapt"

    This isn't "slow motion" at all: it's incredibly, phenomenally fast. At the higher

    end of the climate predictions, we're talking about a change within 90 years that

    might make it hotter than any time in the last 50 million years. That's scary.

    And one idea about how to "adapt" is that people will just move to higher latitudes.

    But that idea is really an epic fail in the Southern Hemisphere, where the "higher

    latitudes" are all water, with the South Atlantic, South Pacific, and Southern Ocean.

    There's precious little land between latitude 30S and 70S – to imagine how bad that

    is, think about the consequences of warming if the Northern Hemisphere was all water

    north of Houston, Texas and Cairo, Egypt. The billion or so people in Africa -

    already hotter than ideal in many places – can't go south. They'll starve, or go

    north twards Europe. And that's going to cause chaos, and probably (even more)

    bloodshed.

    d) "And more wealth to do the adapting with, if we don’t act"

    The implicit assumption is that the next 50 years are going to be just like the

    last 50 years in terms of economic development.

    All in all, Brett's response to the problem is to stick his fingers in his ears

    and wish that it all goes away. Yeah, that would be nice. But it's very unlikely.

  12. Vadranor says

    It seems to me that Pascal's Wager comes into play here. According to Pascal, an agnostic should behave as if God does exist, because if this is not true, then the consequence is merely that the agnostic has wasted a couple of hour every Sunday going to mass. On the other hand, if the agnostic behaves as if God does not exist, and the opposite is true, the agnostic risks the eternal damnation of his soul.

    If someone does have doubts that human activity is responsible for climate change, he should reason thusly: If I am right, the costs of reducing greenhouse gases are far less than if I am wrong and we fail to take the necessary steps, therefore we should act.

  13. Richard Cownie says

    We should also note that we're going to run out of fossil fuels anyway -

    and in fact are very probably already past the point of peak gas production

    and peak oil production. So there simply isn't an option of continuing

    to rely on fossil-fuel energy indefinitely into the future. We *have* to

    transition to non-fossil energy resources; the only question is whether we

    start that transition right now, or try to wait a couple of decades.

    From that perspective, it's very likely that a gradual and carefully-planned

    transition to a lower-carbon economy will actually be *cheaper* than

    carrying on investing in high-carbon infrastructure right up to the point

    where the oil and gas run short and the prices escalate dramatically.

  14. SRW1 says

    Thanks Mark, succinctly put, and pretty much the reasoning why I thought that Bush's 'the scientific jury is still out' was an inexcusable dodge. Especially given the dual role of the US as one of the largest CO2 emitters and at the same time also the leader of the industrialized world which will have to come up with technological solutions if we are to have any for this challenge.

  15. MobiusKlein says

    Richard, I wonder if the Peak Oil price increase is part of the carbon miner's plan. Anything that gets in the the way of that must be avoided, warming or not.

  16. SL Miller says

    Matt Wilbert: "This is just silly. First because individual action without a supporting institutional framework is simply irrelevant to the scale of the problem. Second, because sometimes you have to expend resources to build support for conserving them. And thirdly, because this kind of logic isn’t observed in other areas of public policy. Senators who support wars should go fight them personally? People who support early education have to go and do it themselves? Supporting collective action isn’t strongly related to one’s own actions, and there isn’t any particular reason it should be."

    Asking for less hypocrisy among the doyens of climate is not silly. If fifteen years ago some individual had agreed to pay Brazil and Indonesia a few billion dollars a year to engage in less deforestation, atmospheric concentrations of carbon would be quite a bit lower than they are today and we would be experiencing less global warming. I dare someone to disprove that the UNFCCC meetings, UN events related to climate, travel for dignitaries, advertising and publicity by interest groups, and debates on various climate bills in legislative bodies that have taken place over the last two decades have not represented an opportunity cost of tens of billions of dollars.

    There's no question that sometimes you have to spend resources to build support for conserving them, but there is an enormous industry out there that exists just to build that support and has done very little to conserve resources. The NY Times essentially called Michael Crichton a charlatan and a child molester after he made this very obvious and fair point in State of Fear. Finally, Brett Bellmore's request that proponents of a cause not be allowed to revert to the "do as I say not as I do" mantra is observed in other areas of public policy. Liberals were, in my view, right to howl about Bush and Cheney sending people off to fight in wars similar to ones that those two had cowardly weaseled their way out of. They were also right to point out that Bush's drug policy wasn't very compassionate given that he had previously used cocaine some not insignificant number of times. Other examples abound.

  17. Bernard Yomtov says

    May I ask that you contact Sarah Palin and explain this to her?

    Why don't you start on that? Mark will join you as soon as he finishes knocking down the Great Wall with his head. You'll still be at it when he's done.

  18. Richard Cownie says

    "I dare someone to disprove that the UNFCCC meetings, UN events related to climate, travel for dignitaries, advertising and publicity by interest groups, and debates on various climate bills in legislative bodies that have taken place over the last two decades have not represented an opportunity cost of tens of billions of dollars."

    This displays a remarkable contempt for numbers. Let's suppose there are 5 big "events related to climate" each year.

    Let's suppose each one has 1000 attendees each costing $5000. That gets us to 20 years x 5 events x $5M for a

    total of $500M. How do you get from that (exceedingly generous) estimate to "tens of billions of dollars" ?

    Well, you just wave your hands and make shit up, conjuring up a factor of 40x or more out of nowhere.

    Then try to shift the burden of proof onto the other side.

  19. Richard Cownie says

    It's interesting to think a little more about the consequences of Peak Oil and Peak Gas.

    The argument of those opposing early CO2 reduction goes like this:

    1) It's very expensive to reduce the carbon-intensity (lbs of CO2 per $ of GDP)

    of the economy

    2) Continuing economic growth will make us much richer in the future

    3) … so it's better to do nothing right now.

    But if you believe, as many serious analysts do, that Peak Oil production

    either has already occurred, or is going to occur within the next 10 years,

    then you can't have both 1) and 2). If oil production is limited, then

    oil consumption is also limited. And if the ratio of GDP to oil consumption

    can't be greatly improved, then GDP won't grow much. So we won't be richer.

    At the micro level, go look at a building site: you see a whole lot of diesel-

    powered trucks and bulldozers and excavators and cranes, and steel and

    lumber and concrete all of which consumed a lot of fossil fuels in their

    consumption and transport. If we run short of oil and gas, we won't be able

    to do all that stuff, or at least we won't be able to do it cheaply and quickly.

    My own belief is that we *can* improve the GDP-to-carbon ratio with fairly

    modest investments. We *have* in the past, notably after the oil shock

    of the early 1970s. And that if we can, then we *should*.

  20. SL Miller says

    Richard-

    A few things:

    First, I used the term "opportunity cost" not money spent. Second, I asked for a statement to be disproved and all you did was attack one aspect of it with horribly incomplete figures.

    Third, I stand by $20 billion being a reasonable back of the envelope estimate. It cost the U.S. a lot more than $5,000 for President Obama to attend the most recent UN General Assembly Meetings which shut down Midtown Manhattan. Sending Barry Obama to China to talk about Climate change was also a dear venture. Far more than 1,000 people attend each of those climate meetings. I imagine that when you include the main representatives and their entourages, at the big annual meeting (Bali, Copenhagen, Busan) you are looking at 10,000-15,000 folks. Also, each country has a lot of people on their payroll who are just focused on "climate issues" they get paid a salary and benefits.

    The private climate lobby is huge as well. I can't give you any global estimates because I don't know enough about the European contingent but Americans spend hundreds of millions of dollars on ad buys and congressional lobbying every year. I think when you include people around the world you are looking at big money. The media blitz on the green side has required the polluters to start their own media blitz (read the Economist or the NY Times and let the BP and Chevron ads wash over you).

    The Kyoto Protocol essentially required every European nation to create their own GHG regulatory framework. The process of administering those regulatory systems is tremendously expensive especially given that Kyoto requires at most two countries (UK and Germany) to reduce their GHG emissions below business as usual. The cost of lobbying on whatever bill the US Congress deigns to propose is high. I would completely acknowledge that I'm waving my hands and making shit up, but so are you. If you really don't think that the costs of trying to marshall the world's nations to enter into an agreement to reduce GHGs are less than $20 billion then throw out your own back of the envelope calculation that actually addresses all of the inputs I put into mine.

    1. Lobbying and advertising dollars spent by various interest groups in American and European politics on climate change issues – this has to be in the billions of dollars

  21. Richard Cownie says

    "I would completely acknowledge that I’m waving my hands and making shit up"

    Good. Glad we agree on that.

    Now we'll move on to the complete incoherence of your argument, which is

    that if we stopped spending money on all government efforts relating to

    climate change, we could solve the problem by bribing people to stop

    deforestation. And you further suggest that could be done by "some

    individual" paying "a few billion dollars a year". Huh? Maybe, just

    maybe, Bill Gates or Warren Buffett might be able to pay out "a few billion

    dollars a year". But nobody else can. Action on that scale requires

    government. And if government is involved, then yes, there's going to

    be some overhead of meetings and debates and lobbying. But it's really

    implausible that "a few billion" a year will suffice: this is an enormous

    global problem, it's probably going to take $100B/year or more to make a

    dent in it – way beyond the resources of any "individual".

  22. Warren Terra says

    My personal favorite episode involving the wingers and a perverse misuse of confidence interval is the time David Kane, who at least at the time was working at the Harvard Institute for Quantitative Social Science (he shares his name with a prominent musician and so cannot easily be found through Google), claimed that the Iraq war brought the dead to life, and got Michelle Malkin, among others, to trumpet his findings.

    For those unfamiliar with the story, in 2004 a study was published in the Lancet whose authors used mortality information collected at about 30 locations, compared it to information from before the war, and estimated about 100,000 extra people had died in the first year of the war in Iraq, with a 95% confidence interval of 8,000 to 194,000 extra people. When the study's authors were randomly selecting sites at which to collect data, one happened to be Fallujah, which had been the site of a prolonged and vicious pitched battle. Because Fallujah was unusual in this respect, resulting in a mortality rate dramatically higher than any the authors encountered elsewhere and an obvious outlier, the study's authors did not include the Fallujah data in their calculations. So Kane reanalyzed the data including the numbers from Fallujah, and because there had been so much more violence in Fallujah the result was a somewhat higher estimate for total extra mortalities in Iraq, but also what Kane wanted: a much broader distribution, and thus a much larger 95% confidence interval, part of which extended well below zero. There were mathematical reasons that this confidence interval was wrongly calculated, which you can find if you follow my first link for long enough – but the memorable part is that Kane's blitherings literally had the online right, and their friends in talk radio, claiming that the Iraq war brought the dead to life.

    Well, I guess a lot of winger Iraq war supporters were alleged to be motivated by Christian Zionist visions of bringing about Armageddon …

  23. Brett Bellmore says

    Funny you should mention peak oil. You do realize that there's this little clash between CO2 induced warming fears, and peak oil? To wit, achieving those nasty CO2 induced warming fears requires more carbon based fuels be burned than are actually available to us.

    You'd think that at some point this would have been factored into the projections. We're not going to overheat the planet because we're going to run out of carbon to burn before we've put that much CO2 into the atmosphere.

  24. Richard Cownie says

    "We’re not going to overheat the planet because we’re going to run out of carbon to burn before we’ve put that much CO2 into the atmosphere."

    Just wrong. Badly wrong. The total of fossil fuels represent carbon that was taken out of

    the atmosphere over hundreds of millions of years. Releasing all that carbon back into

    the atmosphere over roughly a 300 year period 1900-2200 is a huge dangerous disruption,

    of which the earlier effects are already visible (from a warming of about 0.7C), and the

    later effects have been studied and predicted by a variety of sophisticated models.

    And in talking precisely about Peak Oil and Peak Gas, I was careful to avoid saying

    Peak Coal: because there's still a *lot* of coal, which is the *worst* fuel in terms

    of carbon emissions. But having nothing but coal would screw up the economy, because -

    in case you hadn't noticed – our economy these days is heavily reliant on internal-

    combustion engines. Do you really want to spend the money for a big transition, and

    choose to transition back to coal-fuelled steam engines ?

  25. Brett Bellmore says

    "The total of fossil fuels represent carbon that was taken out of the atmosphere over hundreds of millions of years. Releasing all that carbon back into the atmosphere over roughly a 300 year period 1900-2200 is a huge dangerous disruption,"

    But you can't release ALL that carbon back into the atmosphere, because ALL of it didn't end up as fossil fuels. Very little of it did, as a matter of fact. Most of it was consumed by weathering reactions, or tied up in chalk and limestone deposits. And not all of what was converted to fossil fuels is actually accessible.

    Severe climate change unlikely before we run out of fossil fuel

    Speaking of weathering reactions, some of them are quite exothermic, and proceed at a respectable rate at elevated temperatures. I imagine we might actually exploit them as a source of energy in the future. Or at the least, get enough energy out of them to make carbon sequestration an economic wash.

  26. Marc says

    The relevant comparison is to the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere, not the amount of carbon tied up in rocks. Venus and the Earth have the same total carbon content – but that of Venus is in the atmosphere and almost all of ours is in the rocks. Is this an argument to change that balance?

    Brett, you're either arguing disingenuously or without being fully informed. There is no relevance, except for confusing people, in comparing things like weathering rates and the annual growth and decay of leaves to what we're doing to the air. The sobering thing is that ultimately we do need to put the carbon back into the rocks, and the natural timescale for that is a thousand years or more. I would have thought that "conservatives" would want to think a bit before they bequeath such a gift to their descendants fifty generations down the road. I guess I underestimate the depths of shortsightedness involved.

  27. Richard Cownie says

    Brett, I didn't say all carbon ended up as fossil fuels. I said all the carbon

    that's in fossil fuels ended up in fossil fuels. Duh. And that's plenty to

    cause a big problem.

    As for the idea that fossil fuel production will decline soon, I'm open to that

    possibility. But the appropriate policy response to that would be to implement

    taxes and subsidies to encourage and accelerate the transition to an economy

    with lower carbon-intensity. Which are the EXACT SAME POLICIES that we need

    to mitigate global climate change. A "soft landing" transition would be a heck

    of a lot better in every way than a "hard landing" of rapidly rising prices

    causing us to scrap huge investments in fossil-fuel-based infrastructure.

  28. matt wilbert says

    Brett Bellmore wrote: "Matt, opposing nuclear power while demanding that CO2 be reduced 80% is rather like supporting a war while disbanding the Air Force. It’s a LOT worse that a bit of hypocrisy."

    Well, I support disbanding the Air Force, but not eliminating the use of air power. That probably isn't what you meant though.

    But as far as nuclear goes, maybe in some cases. However, to take myself as an example, I don't oppose nuclear power in principle, but because it seems hopelessly uneconomic. However, if a carbon tax or cap-and-trade system is put in place and that makes it economic because of the carbon benefits, or if we get better at reducing the costs associated with such plants, I personally don't have a problem with that. Nuclear waste is much less of a problem than global warming, but that doesn't mean wasting money is a good idea.

  29. Richard Cownie says

    "I don’t oppose nuclear power in principle, but because it seems hopelessly uneconomic"

    Agreed. One big danger of nuclear is that we plan for, say, $500B of investment

    in non-fossil generation capacity; we put a large chunk into nuclear; and then

    the nuclear plants suffer long construction delays and large cost overruns -

    two problems which have occurred regularly on nuclear projects in the past – and

    we find ourselves 20 years from now having achieved very little.

    The other problem with scaling up nuclear is that supplies of cheap high-quality

    uranium ores are not plentiful. There might be various ways around that, but it

    isn't a slam dunk.

  30. Brett Bellmore says

    Oh, come on! Nuclear power isn't inherently uneconomic. The laws of physics and engineering are not different in France, or any of the other nations which seem to have no particular trouble building nuclear power plants on time, and on budget. It's just that opponents of nuclear power in America have had enough clout to make the regulatory environment remarkably hostile to building nuclear power plants.

  31. Dan Staley says

    So the recent bids for nuke in Europe and cost overruns in there are because America has a bad regulatory environment? And the issue with France's nukes having to shut down in the heat (making France buy power from UK) doesn't make nuke more inherently uneconomic? Who knew?

  32. says

    It's not difficult to understand why nuclear power is so terribly expensive in the US. In fact, it's eerily similar to the reason that Emu farming is not very commonplace, nor very profitable. The oilmen and ranchers in Texas and other places saw to that, because it threatened their livelihoods. If Emu meat were plentiful and inexpensive, that would hugely cut into the cattle industry, on which the old west has been developed with a dependency towards; Since the production and fuel cost related to nuclear power is so much less than that of coal-fired plants (it is), then it is necessary to cause an insurmountable capital expense to prevent the conversion from coal to nuclear, which was what happened in the US in the 1970s and early 1980s. This did NOT happen in France, for example. so, now, 40 years later, we are again in a position to change our infrastructure away from fossil fuels. The right answer for the US is a complex one, as portions of the nation are best suited for hydro-electric power, some portions for solar, some for wind, and some for nuclear. And some for fossil fuels. Why is it that we use twice as much energy as the Germans to achieve a similar standard of living? Why is it that we create so much waste, and would rather put it in a landfill than re-use the natural resources? Who cares whether it's cheaper or more expensive? What's the RIGHT thing to do?

  33. Bilgeman says

    "If Emu meat were plentiful and inexpensive, that would hugely cut into the cattle industry, on which the old west has been developed with a dependency towards"

    Aren't you assuming that emu meat would be as desirable to anyone's palate as beef is? Never having partaken of emu meat,(although I'm not averse to trying it), I'd observe that you can get a beef steak almost anywhere in the world, but I know of nowhere, including where emu are indigenous, that one can find it on the menu.

    Doesn't this rather important detail knock your cattleman conspiracy theory right into a cocked hat?

    "Since the production and fuel cost related to nuclear power is so much less than that of coal-fired plants (it is), then it is necessary to cause an insurmountable capital expense to prevent the conversion from coal to nuclear, which was what happened in the US in the 1970s and early 1980s. This did NOT happen in France, for example."

    Again, you seem to conveniently overlook the fact that the US is literally sitting on a bed of coal, while France is not. Humans exploit resources which are cheap and plentiful and available to them.

    If the US would take a page from the French nuclear effort and build reactors of only one or two sound and thoroughly tested designs, rather than "one-off" custom jobs for each station, we'd likely see the costs decline sharply.

    (Oddly enough, the French probably got the idea of mass standardization from us in the first place, via our Liberty and Victory ship designs of World War II. If you learned the steam triple-expansion engine room of one Liberty, you had pretty much learned them all).

    You seem to favor the deus ex machina of conspiratorial "hidden hands" generally, rather than simple and straightforward explanations.

    "Why is it that we create so much waste, and would rather put it in a landfill than re-use the natural resources? "

    Why do you think that putting waste in a landfill is an irretrievable waste? Think of landfills as future resource mines for alloys,(among other things).

    "Who cares whether it’s cheaper or more expensive?"

    As long as you alone are paying the costs, I DON'T. But when you want me to help pay the tab, I DO.

    "What’s the RIGHT thing to do?"

    Pray for the humility of wisdom…or the wisdom of humility.

  34. Richard Cownie says

    "it is necessary to cause an insurmountable capital expense to prevent the conversion from coal to nuclear,

    which was what happened in the US in the 1970s"

    For anyone who really wants to understand what happened to nuclear power in the USA, I

    highly recommend picking a few reactors off the comprehensive list
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_nuclear_reac
    and reading their histories. There were some good reactors; there were also

    an uncomfortably large number of lemons that had short lifetimes, shutdowns

    for technical or safety reasons, and low load factor.

  35. says

    This whole climate gate thing is just bizarre. Who are these freaks that believe this stuff? First they didn't believe in global warming. Then they didn't believe it was anthropogenic. Now they think they have this smoking gun that proves the ENTIRE science (all the papers, researchers) is fraudulent.

    What's really weird is that creationists aren't even this bold. They never say its all a big conspiracy paid for by wealthy Darwinist donors, or scientists knowing Darwinist research will get them grant money. No, that would be too retarded even for them.

    Instead, they ignore the 99.9% of evidence FOR Darwinism, and focus on the "gaps" – trying their best to spread FUD (Fear, Uncertainty & Doubt – see Wikipedia). This is much of what the AGW denialists are doing with climategate, but taking it to a whole new level by attacking the scientists, not the science.

    Of course, we all know what creationists' real problem is: Darwinism doesn't fit their dogma. And this is exactly what's wrong for AGW denialists: it doesn't fit their dogma. It is no coincidence they are all people who are fundamentally opposed to any regulation of business by government. They need to take a serious look in the mirror and ask themselves if any evidence would EVER be convincing enough. This is certainly the case with creationists. Evidence stopped being relevant a long time ago.

    I fear AGW denialists have joined their ethereal ranks.

  36. says

    Excellent post. I had a post on blog action day relating this concept to the calculation of net present value for anti global warming measures. Given that these are greatly insurance, that they are not just low risk investments, but negative risk investments, social NPV becomes enormously positive:

    …a large study lead by Oxford trained economist Sir Nicholas Stern on the economic costs and benefits of global warming action. The study concluded that large expenditures to combat global warming were more than paid for by the economic benefits of avoiding potentially extreme global warming costs to the world.

    One of the criticisms, though, was that Stern's team applied too low a discount rate to future economic benefits of decreased global warming. And some of these benefits are far in the future. For example, the report has forecasts of GDP in the year 2100.

    If you look at the Wikipedia entry on the Stern study. You see several counters to the low discount rate criticism. Nobel Prize winning economist Kenneth Arrow says that the large investment in global warming action may be justified even with a discount rate up to around 8%. And in the face of somber new evidence, Stern in June doubled his estimate of the justified amount of spending on global warming (the original study was in 2006).

    You also see a lot of discussion of things like pure time preference rates, not favoring the current generation over future ones, and comparison to market rates of return. But what I did not see, at least not explicitly and clearly, is the risk-return tradeoff. And this is something I have rarely seen in global warming articles and discussion. But it's crucial (an outstanding exception is a 2007 article in the Economists' Voice by Nobel Prize winning economist Thomas Schelling, "Climate Change: The Uncertainties, the Certainties and What They Imply About Action").

    The risk-return tradeoff says that the higher the risk of an investment, the higher an average rate of return you will, or should, require. But it also says, conversely, that the lower the risk of an investment – or the more risk decreasing an investment – the lower an average rate of return you will happily accept.

    What average rate of return do people happily accept for fire insurance for their home? A negative one, not just a low one, a very negative one. People even accept a very negative return for insurance on their car.

    So what return would you accept for fire insurance on the planet you, and your children, and your grandchildren will live on? Scientists aren't that sure what exactly will happen with global warming. The feedback effects could get out of control and devastate the planet.

    Stern's study justifies large spending on global warming even using positive rates of return (or discount rates). But when you use a negative, insurance like, rate of return, then clearly it becomes far more than worth it to spend at least moderate sums combating global warming, sums much greater than anything that's currently being discussed.

    at: http://richardhserlin.blogspot.com/2009/10/blog-a

  37. James Wimberley says

    Brett: "Funny you should mention peak oil. You do realize that there’s this little clash between CO2 induced warming fears, and peak oil? To wit, achieving those nasty CO2 induced warming fears requires more carbon based fuels be burned than are actually available to us."

    Have you heard of coal?

  38. James Wimberley says

    Brett: Whose calculation? What evidence have you for opining that we can burn 847 billion tonnes of coal without changing the climate? Surprise, surprise, actual scientists (Matthews et al in Nature) estimate that "total future carbon emissions consistent with 2 deg C of warming must be restricted to a best estimate of about 0.8 TtC [trillion tonnes carbon]". Add in conventional oil and gas and we are obviously well over the limit, without counting the unconventional reserves and land-use changes.

  39. Richard Cownie says

    Brett's argument is that we don't need to hit the brakes because the

    car is going to hit a big wall before it falls over the cliff. Does

    that sound good to *anyone* ?

  40. Brett Bellmore says

    Well, it DOES kind of imply that you don't have to implement a massive, world-wide centralization of power to prevent the world from overheating. Disappointing as some people will find that.

  41. says

    So let me get this right: warming isn't going to reach its full potential because we're going to run out of carbon-based feedstocks (and die of cold, starvation and disease) before it does. Therefore a massive co-ordinated effort to reduce the use of carbon-based feedstocks is unnecessary. This reminds me of the argument that Iraqis should be happy to be killed by US weapons.

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