Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Tyler Cowen and defensive innovation: reasonable idea, problematic execution

Tyler Cowen has an interesting point about "defensive innovation" meant to prevent future problems, wherein he describes climate change as a future problem and Tesla as a defensive innovator that solves the future problem without necessarily improving human lives over baseline conditions.

It's a reasonable point viewed in isolation, that we may overestimate how technology improves lives over the baseline condition when it just solves problems we anticipate. The problem is overplaying the point. One example is Cowen referencing a cure to Alzheimer's as a defensive innovation - yes it's true that Alzheimer's will likely become far worse of an affliction as our population ages in the next few decades. OTOH, it's already a tremendous problem today - as an economist, Cowen should appreciate the tremendous, current economic cost in treatment and decreased earnings from Alzheimer's today, let alone the negative utility from human suffering (and to be fair, he doesn't completely ignore this).

Climate change is a comparable example - for one thing, it's already harming us. For another, environmental impacts are rarely unique - the pollution that causes climate change has many other negative impacts on health and the environment.

A thought experiment:  compare a modestly optimistic future for our Earth in the year 2050 relative to Earth 2 in another universe, exactly like ours except some quirk in physics or technology keeps greenhouse gases from building up in their atmosphere. Earth 2 will be still be using coal and petroleum in 2050, with resulting air quality health impacts and devastated environment from mining and spills. They'll talk about switching to wind and solar, but those technologies will be expensive because Earth 2 hadn't spent many decades subsidizing research in those fields. Earth 2 will also be poorer than us because fossil fuel energy there will be more expensive than cheap renewables here.

Other than the climate impacts, Earth 2 will be worse than Earth. Climate mitigation is making Earth a better place.

One final point - from a policy perspective, it doesn't matter whether an innovation is defensive or an improvement over current conditions. If it fixes a problem in the future at an acceptable cost, then it doesn't matter whether that problem exists in the present or just in the future - you should still fix it. Climate change exists in the present, but regardless, the future catastrophe is well worth preventing.


Russell Seitz / Bright Water said...

"Climate change is a comparable example - for one thing, it's already harming us."

Drought has a head start, and is likely to maintain its lead as temperatures rise and even more water evaporates in consequence.

Which is why we need toget a handle on the albedo of all the water we store- the world is already losing a ton per day per capita of the fresh water humanity has stored outdoors:

Tom said...

Climate change is not already harming us. The .8C - 1C of temperature rises we have experienced have not caused harm. Where crops have declined in places, they have thrived in greater measure in others. Where storm surges have proved troublesome in places where storm surges have always proved troublesome, the 8 inch per century rate is as easily remedied as it was in the past century. A modest rise in heat deaths in some places is more than counterbalanced by a reduction in deaths by cold.

You should know all this. Perhaps you've forgotten. Agricultural yields are rising. Water availability is increasing. Death from all types of weather is going down.

You are the boy who cried wolf. You are making it more likely that we will sleepwalk into a future (in the next 30 to 50 years) where we are emitting much more CO2 and the non-existent effects you moan about today actually begin to bite us in the butt.

You are actiing in an incredibly destructive manner. You should point at the rare examples of extreme weather we see today as previews of a coming attraction, not the visitation of a biblical plague on the eart.

Canman said...

"Climate mitigation is making Earth a better place."

That's far from clear. Are ethanol subsidies making Earth a better place? How about shipping wood chips across the ocean to be burned in power plants?

Gordon Cutler said...

'Tom' is either delusional or it's his turn to reply on behalf of Koch Industries.

lifeisthermal said...

You are one of the few that doesn't ban me from the comment field. Several skeptics have. So I think you actually have a good heart, even though you seem to have been infected by "climate change". You let me play with the blanket people freely. It gives me pleasure, so thank you. View my comments with a glimpse in the eye.
What about this:

What if we can't replace fossile energy with Tesla-bullshit? What if the thermodynamic success of modern civilisation depends on deposits of energy that the bitch mother earth keeps delivering?

Should we still listen to bald fat guys like Michael Mann or retards like Gore?

Or is there a conspiracy of people trying to grab economic power from big oil?

What if... there is no greenhouse effect? And a theory of surface temperature including an exact correlation between heat flow from the sun and gravity falsifies the GH-effect?

Just suck on that for a while.

Then think about: should you be just a tiny bit more sceptical about alarmist blanket-religion?

Remember: "climate change" claims that a cold fluid heats its own heat source. That is what anyone in real physics would call a "retarded statement".

I read somewhere that any branch of science that has a name including the word "science", probably isn't.
So... "climate science"... Yeah...

Russell Seitz / Bright Water said...

View my comments with a glimpse in the eye.

We're trying, but the nictating membrane is a major distraction.

David B Benson said...


So there.

Bernard J. said...

"Climate change is not already harming us. The .8C - 1C of temperature rises we have experienced have not caused harm.

You're trying out for the ignorance Olympics, aren't you?

In Australia, my corner of the world, the Great Barrier Reef is already reeling, and is already doomed to around 90% loss of coral.

The Western Australian and Tasmanian kelp forests have been seriously impacted, to the extent that Tasmania's forest ecosystems are already effectively extinct.

The Carpentaria mangroves are being seriously affected by a mix of global warming-related climatic phenomena. At the current rate the mangrove ecosystems as they're recognised may well be lost.

At the rate that the Australia Alps (an optimistic nym if ever there was one) are warming, the mountain pygmy-possum (Burramys parvus) will be irrevocably phenologically disconnected from its spring food source of Bogong moths which, together with the human penchant for destroying its habitat, pretty much guarantees its functional extinction in the wild. It may get a few more decades as curios in captivity, for as long as there are Australian institutions with the inclination to maintain such...

And all along the Eastern Seaboard of the country, the alpine Nothofagus forest communities are being pushed further uphill toward (and eventually above) the summits by the warming temperatures and the greater fire resistance of the sclerophyllous eucalypt associations on the lower slopes.

Oh, almost forget (as if...). Tasmania's Southwest wilderness, a World Weritage Area (look it up...) which contains a biologically significant and extraordinary remnant of Gondwanan flora and fauna relic species, is already noticably suffering greater summer drought, leading to increased vulnerability to wildfire. I predicted about 5 years ago that by around mid-century the amount of summer drying, caused by global warming, would be such that large portions of the WHA would be so heavily burned that the cool temperate rainforest would be replaced by sclerophyl forest and more buttongrass plains. I was a bit optimistic with that projection - last summer saw serious wildfires that devastated significant areas of unique Gondwanan flora communities. The process of change of the cool temperate SW rainforest has already begun.

So try again Tom Fuller. Climate change IS harming us, and at the rate that it's going you may even live to see Australia's (and the rest of the world's) ecosystems irreparably devastated by the warming that you are so blithely lauding as a boon to the planet.

Welcome to the 6th Great Extinction - you have a front row seat, and you're rabidly doing your bit for the stoking of the fire under the planet's biosphere.

Bernard J. said...

"What if... there is no greenhouse effect? "


Jeffrey Davis said...

If a sign says "Bridge Out", you might wonder if it's true and keep driving. If you start seeing people doing u-turns, you'd be foolish to keep going. You don't keep driving because the missing bridge isn't a problem until you get to the crossing.

Russell Seitz / Bright Water said...

"At the rate that the Australia Alps (an optimistic nym if ever there was one) are warming, the mountain pygmy-possum (Burramys parvus) will be irrevocably phenologically disconnected from its spring food source of Bogong moths "

The nurse should check Bernard's moth drip too.

Bernard J. said...

'The nurse should check Bernard's moth drip too. "

If you have issue with my observation Russell it's a simple matter to put your case.

Russell Seitz / Bright Water said...

The case for Bogong moths is best left to the pygmy possums.