Thursday, December 06, 2007

The uncertainty principle

Over Thanksgiving, Eli was out in Colorado visiting Ethon, [for those who don't know, a rather large bird specializing in liver pecking] who offered a ride in the mountains. Coming down the hill at lickety split units of distance per second, Eli wondered if Ethon knew where the cliff was, and if he had a clue where to start stopping to avoid going over the edge. Ethon pointed out that he could fly and wondered what Eli's problem was. Eli silently wrapped his ears around his eyes, you don't mess with a big liver pecker but you can prey.

This is the situation that Nicholas Stern identified, and that Marty Weitzman tip-toed up to but did not quite go over the edge on in his review of the Stern Review which Eli reviewed yesterday. Weitzman concludes that

In my opinion, public policy on greenhouse warming needs desperately to steer a middle course, which is not yet there, for dealing with possible climate-change disasters. This middle course combines the gradualist climate-policy ramp of ever-tighter GHG reductions that comes from mainstream mid- probability -distribution analysis (under reasonable parameter values) with the option value of waiting for better information about the thick-tailed disasters. It takes seriously whether or not possibilities exist for finding out beforehand that we are on a runaway-climate trajectory and –without “leaving it all up to geoengineering”– confronts honestly the possible options of undertaking currently politically incorrect emergency measures if a worst-case nightmare trajectory happens to materialize.
This might have been a good policy ten or fifteen years ago, when some, including Eli were arguing for it, but today we are a lot closer to the cliff, wherever it may be, and probably closing rapidly on the beyond this point we are going over point (see for example the IPCC WGII take on where the cliffs might be) . Weitzman and other to be named later assume that there is lots of time to organize a response. Hansen and now Pachauri think not. The Roadrunner never tells.


Anonymous said...

Hey Rabett, always interesting to hear from those who tell us the end is nigh, and yet the nigh never quite eventuates. The climate faithwarmers are just the most recent religion to spray rhe repent word.
At least in times past the nighers went around in sack cloth, had bad teeth and smelt a little. They lived the message.

Current faithwarmers shout repent, but live energy profligate lives- AlGore as prime example, but sundry professors who will whinge if air conditioned offices are a degree below comfort, also qualify.

Ethon obviously knew about vehicle and cliffs, Rabett. The end did not come. A very apt example you used. The world will comfortably continue well into centuries ahead not because of faith warmer nighers but efficient Ethon type operators.


Marion Delgado said...

10 or 15 years ago, AGW was at the top of my list, perhaps, although I had the opposite approach, i figured the steps I wanted to fight for - conservation, alternate energy, population control, reducing the meat industry, etc., would alleviate it along with other problems. And I remember still being about equally distressed about how slowly the ozone holes were receding(not year to year but overall). I also remember Gore featuring it prominently in EITB.

Interestingly, perhaps my biggest critique of EITB when it came out applies to AIT, as well. While he's improved by leaps and bounds with pulling out some of the Western capitalist apologism, the simple fact remains, that just as he made a complete apples and oranges comparison between the Western capitalist nations, which exported most of their externalities, including pollution, species impact and resource degradation, and the East Bloc, which had to live with the results of their industry, even now, while he definitely presents a more balanced picture of contributions to GHGs, he's still missing a little bit of the imbalance, which is even greater than he indicates. I might add that at some point some nations like Japan and Saudi Arabia and perhaps even the UK should be properly assigned some of the US's contributions, since most of the profits from it will end up there.

Anonymous said...

I'm still of MDs original viewpoint: we should clean up the environment and change our way of life to make our surroundings more liveable. That should be an end in itself.

We should be realistic about the East Bloc environmental record. These were simple dictatorships, and the reason for their environmental disasters was they did not set any value on health and safety. Other things were more important to them.

So, you had appalling accident rates in industry, appalling pollution levels. But it was about management, it was not about exporting or living with your wastes. They could perfectly well have run their industries cleanly and safely, they just chose not to. I knew of an interesting case where a US company took over an E German chemical plant. The thing was simply insanely unsafe by Western standards. Probably they thought they were saving money.

Same thing is currently happening in China. The worst environmental practices of the UK and the US in their early industrialization are occurring there. We learned that business must be regulated. For them however, business is more or less the State. It is down to the state to regulate itself and it doesn't. Its a question of what their priorities are.

Of course, when it came to mass murder, the East Bloc did indeed keep it all in the family. I guess Russia murdered some 20-40 million over around 70 years, and China did even better, probably 100 million or so over only 20-30 years.

Anonymous said...

Before you put Weitzman into a specific corner, go ahead and read "On Modeling and Interpreting the Economics of Catastrophic Climate Change" by him, you can find it on his homepage. The point about fat tails is made very clear in that one.

Anonymous said...

It's quite ridiculous to take a "wait and see" policy toward high cost/low probability events.

If the insurance industry did such a thing, they would be put out of business when the first disaster came along.

The approach toward climate change has to be one of risk minimization and it is quite possible to come up with a plan that deals with uncertainty in a logical way (ie, through mathematical expectation -- in this case, "expected cost").


Anonymous said...

Once again, Roger Pielke Jr. plays the nattering, contrarian boob. The goto guy when journalists need someone in the story to say that claims of global warming effects are "wrong" or "overblown."

Climate scientists debunk claim of increasing storms


Mus musculus anonymouse

Horatio Algeranon said...

Don't worry, be happy.

EliRabett said...

Thanks to Richard Tol for the correction on the Norhauser.

Anon 12:32, Eli tends to think that the environmental mess in the FSU and eastern european countries was to a significant extent a result of Marxism, which emphasizes industrialization above all else.

EliRabett said...

Anon 1:05, the issue about fat tails is but (IEHO) a small part of the problem. As every bunny knows, it's not if your tail is fat, but when it gets chopped off, something that Weitzman walks up to, but turns away from. See also Long Term Capital Management and a post here soon to come.

Anonymous said...

Interesting that Pielke Jr lets himself be described in that article as "another climate expert".

Apparently, writing about climate-related issues on a blog makes one a climate expert, just as writing about medical issues on a blog makes one a doctor.

Pielke, Jr did not correct the misrepresentation of his credentials.

Hank Roberts said...


As a political scientist, he can say he's an expert on the climate of public opinion. That's another climate, right? So he's an expert on another climate, or, another climate expert.

He's a master.

'The question is,' said Alice, 'whether you CAN make words mean so many different things.'
'The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, 'which is to be master ....'