A little bee sting for denialists

A simple beekeeping analogy to precaution in climate change.

While we´re on the subject of knock-down pub arguments for taking global heating seriously, I´ve not seen this one – a simpler version of Mark´s here.

I may just not be aware of a common trope. So set me right.

(Source: Wikimedia)

Suppose I keep a hive of bees in my garden for fun. By taking precautions when opening the hive, and handling individual bees at other times with skill, I can avoid getting stung. But my neighbours are less skilled and do get stung occasionally. Can they sue me successfully for tort? Suppose a neighbour´s child suffers from a bee-sting allergy (frequency say 1%), goes into anaphylactic shock and dies. Am I legally liable for her death? Many a lawyer would I think say that even at this frequency the death was reasonably foreseeable, and I have a good chance of losing in court.

(My bee-keeping is a hobby. I assume the professional, large scale industry protects itself from legal risks either by legislation or insurance. It also operates in the countryside, among a rural popularion with greater understanding of the hazards then suburbanites.)

Law doesn´t always reflect generally plausible ethical principles and intuitions, but in this case it does. I have a moral as well as a legal dury to avoid harm to my neighbours – Lord Atkin indeed referred explicitly to the Golden Rule in his judgement in the key English case on negligence, Donoghue v. Stevenson, 1932. (footnote)

The common law standard of proof for torts is that the harm be ¨reasonably foreseeable¨. This is the sort of squishy language that makes economists wince and trial lawyers rub their hands in glee. The social costs of settling individual disputes by direct reference to such an imprecise test are high, and I´m not arguing here in defence of the tort system as against clear quantitative regulations. But as a broad guide to ethics and policy, reasonable foresight makes ä lot of sense.

Ler´s try to put a percentage on it. For lawyers, it certainly covers risks much lower than ¨more likely than not¨, i.e. 50%. In radiological protection it extends to risks in a hundred thousand. My fatal bee-sting risk is two orders of magnitude greater. (Number of neighbours = 10; chance of a particular neighbour getting stung by my bees during the year = 10%; expected annual number of bee-stings = 1; allergy prevalence = 1%; allergy causing anaphylactic shock = 100%; percentage of fatal anaphylactic shocks = 25%; expected annual number of deaths, 0.0025). I think this is still a reasonably foreseeable harm.

Now here is my killer bee argument. Experts show me how I can reduce the quite small risk to my neighbours from my bees by a factor of 15 by keeping just 2% fewer of them. It doesn´t seem a difficult choice to make the change. Now suppose the risk of a fatal reaction every year from one hive was not 0.25% but 50%; so if I don´t change, my bees will kill one neighbour every two years. How would you describe my refusal to change: moral imbecile and scoundrel come to mind, possibly criminal and monster.

The way I´ve set up this thought experiment, my beekeeping is a trivial hobby, not essential to my or anybody else´s welfare. Is this element crucial to the intuitions I posit? It doesn´t look like it. Let´s change the frame to the commercial beekeeping industry, which provides vital pollination services to farmers and growers as well as directly producing honey. In the USA, there are ¨30-120¨ deaths annually from wasp and bee stings; I suppose these are more likely to be from bees, because the barbs on their stings prevent retraction when you swat the angry hymenopterite. There are 2.4 milion hives in the USA, run by 12,000 firms. Let´s say they cause 24 deaths, or 0.00001 per hive, or 0.001 per beekeeper. So keeping the parallel, the cut in bee numbers and presumably output of 2% would cut annual deaths from 24 to 2.5. This looks probably worthwhile, though it´s not quite so obvious as in my garden case, and would depend on the total value of the lost output. In the second sceanario, the risk is similarly 200 times greater: annual deaths are 4,800. The 2% cut in production reduces this by a factor of 15, to 320, saving 4,480 lives a year. The call here is not even close: the industry would be be required as a matter of course to make the change.

Now what is the difference with global heating? If you reject the analogy, kindly indicate in your response what percentage risk of global catastrophe makes not paying a 2% of GDP penalty the right thing to do: 50%? 10%? 1%? Now make a case that the real risk from business-as-usual is not higher than your limit.

I bet it can´t be done.


From Wikipedia on negligence in common law:

[In Donoghue v. Stevenson (1932)] Lord Atkin interpreted the biblical passages to ‘love thy neighbour,’ as the legal requirement to ‘not harm thy neighbour.’ He then went on to define neighbour as “persons who are so closely and directly affected by my act that I ought reasonably to have them in contemplation as being so affected when I am directing my mind to the acts or omissions that are called in question.” Reasonably foreseeable harm must be compensated. This is the first principle of negligence.

My source for the underlying propositions that (a) a 5º C increase in global mean temperature would be catastrophic and that (b) a feasible shift in technology and consumption costing 2% of global GDP would reduce the risk of this happening from 50% to 3%, is Nick Stern´s A Blueprint for a Safer Planet, 2009.

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web

10 thoughts on “A little bee sting for denialists”

  1. The denialist response will go in the order:

    1) Bees don't kill people, look how small they are!

    2) Ok, bees might kill people, but there are plenty of more important risks such as wild bees, elephants and orangutans. And since we aren't doing anything about those we shouldn't do anything about the bees that might, but probably don't kill people.

    3) James Wimberley is not a very nice person and he wont tell us what type of bees are used in his calculations.

    4) Its actually 48% to 29%, how can we trust you after you knowingly falsified that data?

    5) God will provide for protection from bees.

    6) If, in the unlikely event that the bees do become a problem, we can build bee proof nets around our houses.

    and the list goes on…

    My point is that your error was in assuming denialists are arguing/acting in good faith and further that their opinions or thoughts on the matter can be swayed.

  2. Now, let's suppose that honey, rather than being an optional flavoring, was essentially the basis of the entire human diet, and reducing the number of bees would result in widespread death, far outnumbering the toll from bee stings… Now you're starting to approach a valid analogy.

    There are arguments you can use to defend turning our industrial economy upside down to reduce CO2 output, but that the cost is trivial is not among them. Reducing the rate of economic growth in the third world doesn't come free of human suffering.

  3. "Now, let’s suppose that honey, rather than being an optional flavoring, was essentially the basis of the entire human diet, and reducing the number of bees would result in widespread death, far outnumbering the toll from bee stings…"

    This is at best a misleading hypothesis. The suggestion is not to abolish industry but to transform it so it will reduce the pollution, i.e. CO2. Of course, altering the fuelsource or installing a filtersystem to clean up the waste produced is costly and requires political courage to implement. To claim it effectively turns our world upside down is only true if you take the oposition of pliticians and CEO's trying to protect their financial wellbeing. Nothing wromng with that but be honest: money is more important than human life and that's why tackling Global Warming has become near impossible.

  4. I think we have an existence proof for not-arguing-in-good-faith. The recent, erm, financial unpleasantness has already cost us rather more than 2% of GDP, and will continue to do so for the indefinite future thanks to the magic of compounding. Yet many of the people who argue against doing things that might mitigate global warming are also in the group arguing for keeping that particular drain on GDP as it is.

  5. Brett: kindly adduce some evidence against Stern´s 2% estimate of costs instead of random scaremongering. If you don´t want to buy the book, his estinate is based in good part on McKinsey & Co.´s meticulous global cost-abatemnt curve, freely available here. They know a lot more than you or me about the potential of different technologies.

  6. Are you really going make the government try to keep the temperature of the planet constant? Is that the goal? What is the planet's temperature supposed to be? How did you figure out what the ideal temperature was, such that you know it's not better for it to be higher?

    Conservatives do not see this as the role of government. Keeping factories from dumping poison in the water we drink: Yes. Maintiaining a constant global temperature forever: No.

    You can disagree with me, but this is very honest conservative thinking, and you need to at least know it.

    You tell us to emit less CO2. Why? -Because global temperature will change. What's wrong with that? -The polar bears will die. Before we started emitting CO2 there was global temperature change, and some species died and others adapted. According to you guys, this happened for millions of years. Why should that change now? Are you making the planet a zoo, such that no species will die out and no species will ever have to adapt again? -Some people's farmland will be too hot for them to survive. Won't other farmland become warm enough that was previously barren? Is there more farmland lost or gained with a global temperature change?

    I'm not here to make a whole argument. I'm just making a few points to illustrate the 'denialist' worldview. We are being told to sacrifice for the sake of something that is not well-defined. There is apparently a vision somewhere of exactly how the world ought to be: What temperature it will be, what animals will live in it, what land will be desert and what land will be forest, etc etc. But this vision has not been shared with us. If we are to unite and sacrifice in the name of the common good, you must define for us what that good is, and you must make a convincing case for that good in the court of public opinion. And that case has not been made, or even attempted, as far as I can tell.

    Maybe you can link me to something that explains what the best temperature is for the world to be. If it's convincing, I'll share it with my conservative friends.

  7. Wait– so you're saying that because Ice Ages have happened naturally, us creating a change in climate comparable in size to an Ice Age but IN THE OPPOSITE DIRECTION, over a much shorter time course, is okay?

    Let me tell you about something called the Permian Extinction. This thing was so nasty that it made the K-T event that finished off the dinosaurs look tame by comparison. 99% of land vertebrates went extinct in a geological blink of the eye. Almost nothing survived– one species that led to the dinosaurs and birds, another that led to us.

    And what set of this cataclysm, this geological armageddon?

    Most likely, uncontrolled global warming, an increase of about 7-8 degrees C, helped in part by massive release of frozen methane from the bottom of the oceans.

    Hmm.. abrupt release of methane. Maybe you should take a look at what's happening in the Arctic, RIGHT NOW–


Comments are closed.