Friday, July 15, 2011

The Models Suck: Part I

Picture from DeviantArt

In which Eli begins to work his way through "A Perfect Moral Storm" by Stephen Gardiner. About a week ago, the Bunniglean Library brought this book to the Rabett's attention. There was enough in the prequel to justify putting a few carrots out to the Amazon.

Gardiner has an ethicist's POV. He is a hard nosed, but very polite fellow and leaves poorly thought through ideas standing there in their shorts. You learn pretty quickly in science, and evidently philosophy that anyone above clown level can make a logical argument (ok, that eliminates a few blogs the bunnies don't read), so you start by looking at assumptions, and the author does a good job of this. Gardiner shows how climate economics suffers from root and branch disputes which make the current versions useless (see Part II, coming soon)

These disputes stem from serious differences in fundamental assumptions, and result in strongly divergent policy recommendations. Contrary to initial appearances, these differences do not revolve around narrow technical issues within economic theory, but rather concern deep ethical claims that fill fundamental gaps in that theory. Moreover, recent economic arguments do not fill these gaps, and neither does the (perhaps heroic) claim that some appropriate kind of economic modeling must in principle be possible. This does not mean that good climate economics is not worth pursuing. But it does suggest that we are far from the position where we can confidently rely on such analysis when deciding how to shape the future of the planet.
But enough of this serious stuff, before moving on to a consideration of the cost-benefit paralysis which has delayed any action let us haul out the clown paraphernalia and let Prof. Gardiner beat Bjorn Lomborg about the ears.

He points out that the base of Lomborgianism is the false choice between helping the poor inhabitants of poor countries or their rich descendants later.

To Gardiner, this is already swallowing a large bunny foot without sauce, because there is no guarantee that climate change does not threaten anyone or anything besides the poor. Others can take it in the nose. But OK, he says
Lomborg argues that the right answer is to help the current poor now, since they are poorer than their descendants will be, because they are more easily (cheaply) helped and because in helping them one is also helping their descendants
But wait, there are, as they say, issues
The first is the threat of a false dichotomy. Arguments from opportunity cost crucially rely on the idea that if a given project is chosen, then that choice forecloses some other option. But this is not the case in Lomborg's version. Helping the poor and mitigating climate change are not obviously mutually exclusive. . .

Second it is not clear even that the two projects are independent of each other, in the sense that they are fully separable opportunities rather than necessarily linked and perhaps mutually supporting policies. . . .

Third, it is not clear that the opportunity that Lomborg wants to emphasize is really available.
After all, the poor have always been with us, and there is no evidence that rich countries will step in to eliminate poverty (or, as Gardiner points out to mitigate climate change). Fourth to Gardiner, this looks a lot like the first step in a "bait and switch" strategy.

Do tell.

"even hard nosed benefit cost analysts" agree that the claim that future people could be compensated by an alternative policy loses relevance if we know that the compensation will not actually be paid.
This is more subtle a point that it first appears. The benefit in this case is that the larger economy will allow future generations to deal with an exacerbated climate problem, but if climate change limits economic growth, there is no larger economy, and even if there is a larger economy, it may not be enough to deal with the chaos associated with climate disruption. The Dark Ages in Europe were not nearly as pleasant as Roman times.

To Gardiner, Lomborg is arguing that it is sufficient to pay for our kids' education without saving for retirement, because they will take care of us. Sure.


Phil Hays said...

"Simulations of the coming century with the current generation of
complex models may be giving us a false sense of security."

If the models are too stable, then reality is likely to shock and awe.

willard said...

Speaking of **Lomborg-Like Dilemmas**:

Vintage 2010.

Anonymous said...

There is no indication that people like Lomborg actually believe what they argue. Remember the GOP national convention in 2008. Right up until the moment that Sarah Palin was sprung upon the true believers, they were arguing the importance of "experience".

The right wing apparently believes nothing except their own right to vast sums of money. (Not even vaguely the "fruit of their labor". Just the moolah itself. Consider the belief among financial services sector, loudly brayed, of their right to be bailed out.)

People like Lomborg exist solely to provide words to be spoken. Some strange atavistic part of their brains recognizes that simply grabbing the loot without saying something -- anything -- would reflect poorly upon them.

Jeffrey Davis

Anonymous said...

Just look at what's going on in the Somalia drought region just now for a fine example of just how much we care about those poor people. So of course we can happily tell ourselves that we'll care even more in the future!

Jeff, just so, the Lomborgs of the world serve a ready market, as Krugman references today. Politicians, economists, pundits, even ordinary journalists have a far more direct employment connection to the rich than do most, and are very much aware of it, so why should they too not act on their own self-interest?

Thanks for that, Phil. A related issue is the fate of the permafrost and especially the East Siberian Shelf methane, the consequences of the rapid release of which latter in particular beggar the imagination. As it's already been established (recent NSIDC paper) that the permafrost is starting to melt and *can't be stopped* since the releases are enough to force the process to a conclusion no matter what we do, and since the latest report from the NSF-funded observing teams up at the ESS points to imminent large-scale methane release (sufficent for an abrupt global T increase in the 10C range), I have to say I'm starting to lose hope.

Steve Bloom

J Bowers said...

What happens when the rain eventually does fall in Somalia; hypothermia.

How have the Tols, Lomborgs and Pielke Jr's modelled that kind of physical process? What's the algorithm?

Hank Roberts said...

> the latest report from the NSF-funded observing teams up at the ESS
Steve, link or cite or pointer please?

J Bowers said...

I think this might be it.

IARC: East Siberian Methane Leak Research Highlighted in NSF Strategic Plan. There's a PDF there.

Anonymous said...

See here, Hank. The NSF article J linked is also worth a read.

Steve Bloom

Anonymous said...

Also, I continue to be unconvinced that our future generations are helped by the use of fossil fuels to, for example, build, heat+cool, and provide transport to and from, giant suburban McMansions. If you are arguing that spending resources and energy to a) research nuclear fusion, b) develop better crop varieties, c) develop better computer chips, d) improve education, or e) come up with pharmaceuticals that have fewer side effects... ok, I'll accept that reducing this kind of expenditure in order to reduce GHG emissions is one that should be weighed carefully in terms of net impact on future generations. Or if we are choosing between improving the standard of living of the poorest among us and reducing GHG emissions, fine. But those are false choices! Show me how not eliminating mortgage tax credits for one-family houses over, say, a million dollars would not result in a net improvement in quality of life integrated over the next hundred years, hmm?


Michael Tobis said...

This looks relevant:

Some economists and philosophers have even argued that in cases of environmental preservation 0 percent is the only ethically defensible number. That is, no discounting at all. But this debate over percentages may actually be a distraction from a more serious problem with the formulas used in discounting.


Revising the assumption of a never-changing discount rate leads to results totally at odds with current economic practice, Geanakoplos and Farmer have shown. To understand their argument, consider the next half-century. Year by year, the true discount rate (which no one knows precisely) will probably fluctuate in some complicated way, following one of many possible up-and-down paths. Since we don’t know the future, to determine the effective discount rate for the 50-year period, we should average over all possibilities.