What if you’re wrong?

2009-12-04

in Economics, Politics, Science, The environment

Sasha Ilnyckyj concentrating

Whatever your position on climate change policy, this question is a good one to ask. It drives you to do two important things: consider what it would take to change your mind, and consider the risks associated with making the wrong choice.

I would change my position on what action we should take in response to climate change if any of the following was adequately demonstrated:

  1. The Earth’s climate is not changing.
  2. Greenhouse gas emissions are not the cause of warming.
  3. Warming will not be dangerous.

Exactly what level of evidence would be required is difficult to pre-judge, but the definitive rebuttal of any of those positions would be sufficient to prompt a major change in the policies I would advocate.

On the question of risks, there are two major kinds of error we could make: over- and under-reacting. If we over-react to climate change, we would sacrifice wealth and other opportunities in order to cut out emissions, achieving no good purpose. At the very worst, we would seriously damage the global economy for an indefinite span of time, and delay the emergence of many people from extreme poverty. If we under-react, the very worst outcome would be the undermining of the capability of the planet to support human life. This is clearly a much worse outcome, though it is not an easy task to determine how probable it is, relative to the ‘overreact and go broke’ possibility. Clearly, I think that the risks of climate change as it is now understood justify much more action than we have taken to date.

Another thing to bear in mind is that there are co-benefits to shifting the energy basis of our society from fossil fuels to zero-carbon and renewable options. In his response to the Munk Debate, Tyler Hamilton lays out a few: “I mean, even in the unlikely event that climate change science shows us we overreacted, is it such a bad thing that we also acted to reduce air pollution, mercury emissions, the use of water in thermal power plants, and the other environmental footprints caused by our addiction to fossil fuels. That’s a pretty nice consolation prize.” In a situation where we took aggressive action, we would also be better protected from the distinct but related challenge of peak oil. Fossil fuels are inevitably going to run out anyhow, so the real cost here is of making the transition away from them earlier than we otherwise would. Climate change or not, a fossil fuel based economy simply cannot keep going forever.

Ultimately, the choice we make on climate change policies is a matter of risk management. Being able to hedge against a potentially catastrophic risk, and secure co-benefits, while simultaneously running some risk of overreacting seems much more prudent and sensible than doing the opposite.

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{ 25 comments… read them below or add one }

Gail December 4, 2009 at 5:55 pm

When people say it is too expensive to convert to clean energy, the response to that is simple: What is the cost of the alternative? It isn’t really that complicated to understand that burning fuels has a hidden price – climate change, degrading the environment, human health impacts – that is being fobbed off, and eventually will result in a bill that must be paid. And not just by future generations, or poor people in Africa, but by us, grownups in USA and other developed countries.

There is no escaping debt. It’s a bit hilarious that those who bill themselves as “fiscal conservatives” are anything but.

I recommend following the Sarah Palin road show as comic relief. It’s priceless. There are many great sites, my favorite is http://palingates.blogspot.com/

fossilfreak December 4, 2009 at 6:16 pm

Is it more important to win an argument or to reach a goal? The goal is a rapid as possible movement away from carbon based energy. It is exciting that technology has finally advanced to the point that energy transformation is possible. I’ve started making a second career as an alternative energy activist and have been amazed how many different reasons people have for wanting to get involved. Surprisingly, some of the most ardent supporters are also total climate skeptics. Go figure.

fossilfreak December 5, 2009 at 12:56 am

I would change my position on what action we should take in response to climate change if any of the following was adequately demonstrated.

How about adding if it were adequately demonstrated that climate was not the right science to base policy on if the goal is to eliminate carbon based energy. Not that the science is wrong, but that the emphasis on CO2 as the measurement and driver of policy is wrong.

oleh December 5, 2009 at 8:23 am

Good article. There are many benefits to reduction of dependance on fossil fuels.

Tristan December 5, 2009 at 12:09 pm

The problem with the two-columns argument is that the worst version of “what happens if we do try to mitigate global warming” is the (paranoid) global governance depopulation thesis.

I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised that someone was able to come up with a “what happens if we do” which is as bad as what happens if we don’t.

Milan December 5, 2009 at 2:07 pm

I don’t think you can really conjure a ‘worst case when we take action’ scenario that is as bad as the worst ‘worst case where we do not’ scenario.

Taking action costs us money and opportunities, but those would all be taken away by runaway or catastrophic climate change anyhow.

Milan December 5, 2009 at 2:09 pm

Not that the science is wrong, but that the emphasis on CO2 as the measurement and driver of policy is wrong.

CO2 is not the only important gas, but it is the most long-lived major gas.

While there are good near-to-medium-term opportunities in dealing with methane, black carbon, etc, the long-term problem is largely a matter of CO2.

Of course, later science should be taken into account when we decide how to focus our mitigation efforts.

Tristan December 5, 2009 at 4:47 pm

Sure, I can’t. At least not while keeping a straight face. But there are those who can. Just plug in any of these search terms after global warming – “Global Currency”, “Fema Camps”, “Bohemian Grove”, “Eugenics”.

Or you can amuse yourself with the entertaining media they produce.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x5mRYdZCBxY&feature=related

There is something essential about all this conspiracy theory talk – it repeats the logics of “golden age” and “decline of the west” which have been memes in Western thinking since the Greeks. Perhaps the most famous 20th century example is Oswald Spengler’s work “The Decline of the West”.

Actually, with the Olympics coming up, it isn’t a bad time to think about notions of decline – the idea that the body was weakening was certainly a motivation for the revival of the Olympic games in 1896, as well as the Greek-only “Zappas” Olympics in 1859, 1870 and 1875. The idealization of the strength of the “unaltered”, “natural” body (training and GMO foods are fine, performance enhancing drugs are not) is rightly called a distraction from real political concerns (i.e. climate change) and a colossal waste of money.

Anyway, the point of these remarks is that we can’t simply ignore the climate change deniers thesis and say “even if they might be right, we should still act”. Their ideas are far more radical than you might think, and it’s important for them to be refuted.

fossilfreak December 6, 2009 at 1:14 am

If you are saying that in the unlikely event that climate science was proven wrong, you would no longer care about carbon emissions, then we would disagree. My view is that of all the reasons to quickly transform to 21st Century energy, climate is the worst – wrong word; all the reasons are good and probably of equal value – and should not be the basis of policy.

For example, in the CO2 based cap and trade schemes (The Copenhagen approach) governments sell or give away CO2 emission allowances, which are tax/penalty avoidance coupons. This approach is so wrong that Dr. James Hansen, recognized as the preeminent CO2 climate scientist, has vehemently condemned it.

Milan December 6, 2009 at 12:14 pm

Cap-and-trade can be implemented well: for instance, with 100% auctioning of permits. It’s also important to consider how the revenues are used.

Still, carbon pricing (based on either cap-and-trade or a carbon tax) seems likely to be a key mitigation policy.

Tristan December 6, 2009 at 1:40 pm

“all the reasons are good and probably of equal value – and should not be the basis of policy.”

So, what kind of reasons should be the basis of policy, if not “good” ones? What criteria of policy reasoning do we have other than “good” reasoning?

Tristan December 6, 2009 at 1:42 pm

I think it’s a mistake to leave out subsidy as part of mitigation. The “free market” didn’t build the existing infrastructure, why should we assume it can build the carbon-neutral infrastructure? Roads were built by states, railways were built by near-slave labour and land grants, etc… I can’t see any good reason to think that market solutions could be sufficient for a transition to a zero-carbon economy, at least so long as that economy runs off the same infrastructure whose functioning is predicated on cheap oil.

fossilfreak December 6, 2009 at 5:01 pm

Policy should be based on things that actually replace or eliminate the need for carbon energy. I would focus on bringing down the costs of alternatives rather than increasing the cost of carbon. Increasing the cost of carbon does not necessarily promote deployment of alternatives. It is as likely to merely make both carbon and alternatives unaffordable. I also encourage those of us who see the necessity for energy transformation to work together outside political and governmental frameworks. I am not against government or politics, but I do believe they are more avenues of delay than of success. I support subsidies and tax breaks for alternatives and government procurement policies that maximize deployment.

Tristan December 6, 2009 at 7:35 pm

“Increasing the cost of carbon does not necessarily promote deployment of alternatives.”

So, if I increase the price of jam, that doesn’t necessarily promote development in the peanut butter industry?

I agree that it’s important not to ignore subsidy. But not ignoring subsidy doesn’t have to mean ignoring the most basic principles of economic theory. If you think it’s wrong that increasing the price of a commodity does not increase demand for substitutes, you’re going to need an argument.

Milan December 6, 2009 at 7:53 pm

Beyond efficacy, there is also a strong moral and political case for carbon taxes.

When people emit GHGs, they are causing harm to others around the world and in future generations. Making them pay part of that cost, in the form of a tax or auctioned permits, discourages bad behaviour while also accumulating funds to use for things like low-carbon investment and compensation for victims.

Tristan December 6, 2009 at 8:22 pm

“Making them pay part of that cost, in the form of a tax or auctioned permits, discourages bad behaviour while also accumulating funds to use for things like low-carbon investment and compensation for victims.”

Do they really pay the cost if they pay carbon taxes? Only if the carbon tax actually compensates those they are harming. In reality, it is just “as if” they are paying the cost. The purpose of the tax is not to pay a debt, but to create a dis-incentive. The purpose of the dis-incentive is the shift away from the carbon economy. If the tax does not help produce this shift, then it is not morally justified.

Milan December 6, 2009 at 8:29 pm

We discussed this before.

If the payments aren’t actually being used as compensation, they should be set at a level that prevents the harmful behaviour.

fossilfreak December 6, 2009 at 10:09 pm

If you think it’s wrong that increasing the price of a commodity does not increase demand for substitutes, you’re going to need an argument.

I think there is already tremendous pent up demand for alternatives. The problem is the high initial cost vs the time it takes to break even. Raising the price of carbon does nothing to lower the cost of alternatives.

The sad fact is that emitters will not bear any of the costs of either cap/trade or a carbon tax. All these will be passed on to the consumer. In cap/trade, by changing the currency from government issued CO2 emission allowances to units of carbon free energy actually produced, alternatives deployment occurs and individual consumers can participate and profit in the market.

Here’s some perfectly good reasons for the necessity of energy transformation: EnvironmentEnergy independenceClimateEconomic survivalNational/International security
Let’s look at how each might drive policy. Ethanol was originally favored by climate groups because it emits less CO2 than gasoline and by energy independence types and, of course, farmers. Environmentalists opposed ethanol, especially corn based. We now know we should have listened to the environmentalists. Climate folks now understand the terrible effects of ethanol, not on the climate but on living plants and that’s a good thing.

Tristan December 7, 2009 at 12:45 am

“Raising the price of carbon does nothing to lower the cost of alternatives.”

It just does though. Prices are relative, not absolute – even given a fixed income.

Compare these two scenarios: A) Taking the train costs 500$, and flying is 100$. B) Taking the train costs 500$, and flying is 500$. For the sake of this example, you have to assume the train is as fast as the airplane (this is sometimes true in Europe).

In which scenario is it easier to choose to take the train? In scenario A, you have to pay 400$ for your principles (if you think taking the train is more in line with flying), whereas in scenario B your principles are free. I think the correct language here is to say that an option becomes more desirable as the opportunity cost of that option decreases (the alternative choice gets worse).

Tristan December 7, 2009 at 12:50 am

“The sad fact is that emitters will not bear any of the costs of either cap/trade or a carbon tax. All these will be passed on to the consumer.”

Within the logic of capital, this complaint simply makes no sense. Of course the costs will be passed onto the consumer. But, with higher prices, consumers consume less, so profits go down. That’s how the emitter pays – with reduced profits. For the emitter to have reduced profits though, the consumer cost needs to go up. The consumer’s consumption is after all the problem – consumers need to stop consuming carbon heavy commodities.

If you think something about this logic is all a bit strange and off putting, then I think your emotions are running in the right direction. The problem is living in a society where corporate elites control the means of production. That same capacity, controlled democratically, could much more quickly and equitably be transformed into a carbon neutral economy.

The fact capitalism is a lousy, recalcitrant, and generally immoral system doesn’t mean we can think sloppily when playing through its logics.

Milan December 7, 2009 at 8:25 am

In most cases, the consumer is the person who should bear responsibility for the emissions. Toyota doesn’t make cars – and Shell doesn’t make gasoline – because it amuses them to do so. They do it because there is a consumer demand.

When consumers face higher prices for emission-intensive things, they will consume less of them. Firms competing for customers will also seek ways to reduce the emissions associated with their product, so as to be competitive on price.

Tristan December 7, 2009 at 9:57 am

“Toyota doesn’t make cars – and Shell doesn’t make gasoline – because it amuses them to do so. They do it because there is a consumer demand.”

They actually do it to make money, and they can make cars and gasoline to make profit because there is consumer demand, but why is there consumer demand? Is it a property of the natural world?

I think that’s quite naive. If that was true, why do corperations spend millions on advertising and public relations? Consumer demand is produced – our desire is a product – and although it’s not something we are charged for up front, it is just as crucial for profit as the quality of the product.

Milan December 7, 2009 at 9:58 am

In his book, What’s the Worst That Could Happen?, Greg Craven has come up with a useful chain of reasoning, based on the paleoclimatic record:

  1. CO2 is a greenhouse gas,
  2. Greenhouse gases can possibly act as a forcing,
  3. Forcings can trigger tipping points, and
  4. Our climate has tipping points.

Collectively, this is one way to argue that humanity’s big experiment with boosting the concentration of greenhouse gasses (GHGs) in the atmosphere is dangerous. The records we have on the history of the climate suggest it can be changed quickly and dramatically. As we continue to emit GHGs, we are pushing towards whichever of those tipping points are closest.

. March 3, 2010 at 3:43 pm

Twenty Ethical Questions that the US Press Should Ask Opponents of Climate Change Policies.

This post identifies twenty questions that the US press has failed to ask opponents of proposed US climate change policies that should be asked if climate change raises civilization challenging ethical issues.

To understand why these questions should be asked, it is first necessary to review the kinds of arguments that have usually been made in opposition to US climate change policies, programs, and legislation and why these arguments fail to deal with the profound ethical questions raised by the threat of human induced climate change.

. January 29, 2012 at 9:30 am

“To doubt one’s own first principles is the mark of a civilized man. Don’t defend past actions; what is right today may be wrong tomorrow. Don’t be consistent; consistency is the refuge of fools.”

-Hyman Rickover

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