Wednesday, May 02, 2012

The Climate Casino

As the bunnies know, Eli is not a fan of the Breakthrough Institute, and it ain't because of some of the senior fellows and wanna be senior fellows, it is because there are no guarantees in life and technology.  One can hope for miracles and ponies, but expecting them because of a wistful reading of history is not recommended.

There is, of course, one case where such a bad strategy is worth following, and that is if things are so bad, or soon going to be so bad that one has abandoned all other hope, somewhat like the question of your driving up a narrow road on a mountain with rock on one side and a fall off on the other only to see an eighteen wheeler coming at you at 100 mph.  What do you do?  You drive over the edge and hope the fall is not to steep.  Otherwise you are dead anyway.

Eli thought of this proposition when reading William Nordhaus' reply to Roger Cohen, William Happer and Richard Lindzen in the New York Review of Books

The thrust of CHL’s argument is that the uncertainties are likely to resolve in favor of inaction rather than strong action to slow climate change policies, and in any case, they argue, policies are unimportant given the size of the uncertainties.
Are the uncertainties likely to be resolved in favor of inaction? Of course, if we knew the answer, we would not be uncertain.
Nordhaus likens CHL to gamblers in the Climate Casino
However, the major problem with the conclusions of CHL is that they ignore the perils of the climate-change uncertainties. To illustrate, think of the issues as if we are playing roulette in a Climate Casino. Each time the roulette wheel stops, we resolve one of the uncertainties. Our best guess is that CO2 doubling will increase temperatures by 3°C, but if the ball lands on black it will be 2°C while a ball on red will produce 4°C. Similarly, a ball in a black pocket will lead to minimal damages from a certain amount of warming, while a ball in a red pocket will lead to much larger warming than we anticipate. On the next spin, a ball in the black will produce low growth and slow growth in emissions, while a ball in the red will produce rapid growth in CO2 emissions. And so forth.
But, in the Climate Casino, the ball also might land on zero or double-zero. If it lands on zero, we find significant loss of species, ecosystems, and cultural landmarks like Venice. If it lands on double-zero, we find an unanticipated shift in the earth’s climate system, such as a rapid disintegration of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.
and like a gambler they never think they will lose because they have not done the math and don't understand the economic issues
The point is that CHL have the impact of uncertainty exactly backward. A sensible policy would pay a premium to avoid the roulette wheel in a Climate Casino. This means that the economic model estimates of the cost of doing nothing for fifty years are understated because they cannot incorporate all the uncertainties—not just the obvious ones such as climate sensitivity but also the zero and double-zero uncertainties such as tipping points, including ones that are yet undiscovered.
William Nordhaus' penultimate paragraph explains succinctly the Breakthrough Bankruptcy Principle
It is possible that the world will not warm over the coming years. It is possible that the impacts will be small. It is possible that a miraculous technology will be invented that can suck CO2 out of the atmosphere at low cost. But in view of the evidence we now have, it would be foolish to bet on these outcomes just because they are possible.
He is being kind.  These things are improbable.  Basing policy on finding ponies is not recommended.

14 comments:

John said...

Eli, dead link to NYR.

-John Farley

chris said...

"....suck CO2 out of the atmosphere at low cost."

There is a very simple way to do this of course, and at some point it will presumably be required to deal with our CO2 problem.

It's something we can all make a contribution towards and at very low cost. If each of us, say 6 or 7 times a day, were to do some repetitive breathing into a brown paper bag, we can all trap a little CO2 from the atmosphere. The paper bags with CO2-enriched air can be kept under the bed, to be collected weekly (for example) and stored in disused coal mines....

...this will also have a very positive effect on our anxiety levels

Anonymous said...

Dr. Jay Cadbury, phd.

its just a classic case of analyzing the same data and coming to different conclusions, so Nordhaus is really just offering a scientific opinion to the scientific opinions of CHL.

EliRabett said...

Fixed. Thanks:)

EliRabett said...

No, Nordhaus is offering an economic opinion to the blathering of Cohen, Happer and Lindzen.

John Mashey said...

Eli:
Another way to say this is Never schedule breakthroughs, a mantra repeated often by some very smart guys I used to work for, even though we worked in a place famed for creating breakthroughs.

I am encouraged that the 2012 BI Senior Fellows List has folks like Burt Richter, whereas 2010 had Bruno Latour. See this.

Of course, CHL is another story, not much hope there, when the only climate scientist of the lot (L) references a dog astrology journal and can't even get it right.

David B. Benson said...

to steep?

Jeffrey Davis said...

Lindzen (et al) should be breaking rocks in a prison somewhere.

First, they introduce the by now familiar trope of "no statistically significant warming" as if we all don't know that it's a contrived bit of mis-direction. And not simply because of the cherry-picked span of years too short to provide statistical significance. Mostly it's because of the substitution of the atmospheric record for the temperature of the planet. It's as if you were accounted broke when you spent what you had in your pocket. Ocean temps keep rising.

Later, they parlay that into a "hiatus". There's been no warming "hiatus".

At that point, I quit. I don't have the stomach for it anymore.

Anonymous said...

OT: interesting new research article:

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/04/120426155117.htm

Snow Bunny

Russell said...

"A sensible policy would pay a premium to avoid the roulette wheel in a Climate Casino. "

As anyone named Grimaldi can testify, the only sensible policy vis-a-vis roulette is to own the casino.

Anonymous said...

Kahneman points out, in his recent book, that people will accept high costs to escape risks when it comes to a potential gain (say, giving up 25% of a prize they have 9/10 probability of winning in return for a guarantee of winning), but when faced with potential losses, they choose to take similar risks in hopes of avoiding the loss altogether. It seems to me that deniers see any response to climate change other than BAU as a major loss, and are willing to run very high risks to avoid it. This is clearly irrational, and predictably human.

Bryson Brown

Chris McGrath said...

Thanks Eli. I adapted Nordhaus' last comment based on the point you made as follows for use in teaching climate law and policy:

"It is improbable though possible that the world will not warm over the coming years. It is improbable though possible that the impacts will be small. It is improbable though possible that a miraculous technology will be invented that can suck CO2 out of the atmosphere at low cost. But in view of the evidence we now have, it would be foolish to bet on these outcomes just because they are possible."

Or a shorter version: "don't base climate policy on belief in the tooth fairy."

Bjorn Lomborg is another leading proponent of believing in the tooth fairy of technology just around the corner.

Brian Dodge said...

What the gamblers have failed to notice, since it is a really big casino, with lots of wheels whizzing around chaotically, is that the number of red pockets is increasing - and some of the wheels now have triple zeroes (clathrate guns, jellyfish explosions, tundra megafires, black swans?). Land in one of those, and you lose things you weren't aware you had bet - your house, your car, your job, your life. The gamblers think that because each spin has a random outcome(weather) that the probability of losing(CAGW) can't be predicted. Las Vegas Casinos won $5+ billion dollars in 2009 from losers (like CHL or people that listen to them) that don't understand math, statistics, or the difference between projection and prediction. Why do YOU think that we've had record floods, droughts, heat waves, glacier loss, sea ice declines, rice prices & food riots, early springs, heavy snowfalls - anything YOU've noticed weird? - all in the last decade. Random chance? Or is more CO2 loading the dice, braking the roulette wheels, spiking the decks with death cards, and generally tilting the odds against us?

ReCaptcha; shistst gednere (rhymes with "-storm getting near"? &;>)

birdbrainscan said...

Thanks for pointing out the broader range of Senior Fellows now with B.I. which I had not been following. Daniel Sarewitz seems like a good addition to to mix there. See this piece of his, linked on his B.I. Bio page:
http://thebreakthrough.org/blog/Sarewitz-Nature%20tech%20fix.pdf
Key idea: which problems do r do not lend themselves to resolution via R & D? Not C mitigation in general, but he sees better odds for air capture R & D.