Monday, June 7, 2010

The blog is changing!

After 128 posts on varied topics, I am shifting the focus of this blog to be more relentlessly philosophical. Over the next year, I am going to be posting less often but in larger slugs, as I write in five areas:
1. Risk: What is the importance of the psychology of risk perception at the individual level in understanding our attitudes toward risk? What are the differences between how we assess collective risk as opposed to individual risk? How should we analyze extreme risk?
2. Social Choice: How does the Tragedy of the Commons mislead us in thinking about collective action to stem climate change? What can we learn from international public health models about how to turn the free rider problem to our advantage?
3. Rights: Can our theories of ethics coherently grant moral standing to both future generations and Nature?
4. Psychology: How important are beliefs in the determination of behavior and attitudes in the determination of acquiescence to government policy? What prompts change on either account and how is it best measured?
5. Fairness: How important is it to argue for doing the right thing, if there is a better chance of getting others to do the second best thing? How important is historic responsibility in assessing fairness going forward? How important in intranational equity as opposed to international equity going forward?

Monday, May 31, 2010

A coalition of the willing?

Despairing of coordinated international action a la Copenhagen, Thomas Hale and Scott Moore call for those who are ready, to simply move - be they governments, sub-national states, corporations or even individuals. (See Chinadialogue .)It is an engaging idea because it appeals to the frustration of the willing not wanting to be held hostage to the unwilling. I am all for unilateral action, but only if it creates conditions to win over the unwilling. Otherwise, such actions have no chance of making a dent in the problem of greenhouse gas output. Meaningful voluntary action will only work if big players act unilaterally, and that is what makes the need for U.S. climate legislation so important. If the United States joins Europe in enacting serious legislation, they remove the risk to others who may fear that if they were to act unilaterally they would lose a competitive advantage. Moreover, action by the United States and Europe to impose import tariffs, on those who do not join them, could create a stick that goes along with the carrot. Whether such a stick could be wielded without starting a trade war remains an unresolved issue in this scenario.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Smoking and Seat Belts

I used to smoke and I enjoyed doing so very much. I gave up because my doctor told me it might kill me. ‘Might’ was enough to convince me that the pleasure did not outweigh the risks. For all I know it may turn out that his warnings were misplaced. Maybe the correlation between smoking and disease will turn out to be spurious. The result of a common cause. But the uncertainty gets swamped out by the costs of being right. The cost of death to me is high. High enough that even if there is only a small chance of my doctor being right, I want to avoid it. And the cost of avoiding it, foregoing the pleasure, pales in comparison to that: s < p.d That is to say, the forgone pleasure of smoking (s) is less than (<) the probability of smoking causing my death (p) time (.) the cost of my death (d). I used not to wear seat belts. I found them too much of a bother to fuss with and I disliked the way the chafed on my shoulder. I started wearing them because of published data about the superior survival rates of those wearing seat belts in crashes. The data was enough to convince me to put up with the bother of wearing seat belts even though I was not sure of their reliability. For all I know, those who wear seat belts are more cautious that those who don’t. So here too the correlation might be spurious. But here to the cost of death is high and swamps out such considerations. s < p.d where now ‘s’ stands for the foregone convenience of not wearing seat belts. As things go with smoking and seat belts, why do they not also go when it comes to climate change? Here ‘s’ is the cost of significantly reducing greenhouse gas output. ‘p’ is the probability of climate change caused by such output and ‘d’ is the cost of such climate change. If there is a non-zero chance of catastrophic climate change, of ecological collapse, then even if that chance is low, the costs will be so high that p.d will still be high, high enough to outweigh the costs of avoiding it however low the value of p.

Monday, May 17, 2010


The Kerry-Lieberman bill is far from perfect. But it does not matter. Given the current horizon of polictical possiblity, anything that can be passed is bound to be too weak. And given the indeterminacies of measurement and growth of carbon output, current goal setting is a shot in the dark. None of that matters. What matters is that we put in place a framework and mechanism that can be adjusted over time as our knowledge improves. What also matters is that the United States take unilateral action that can be used as a political lever on others to take action as well - most especially China.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Chinese energy demand

As China moves toward higher consumption and a switch to heavier industrial production, The New York Times reports that: “Even as China has set ambitious goals for itself in clean-energy production and reduction of global warming gases, the country’s surging demand for power from oil and coal has led to the largest six-month increase in the tonnage of human generated greenhouse gases ever by a single country.” Why coal? Because it constitutes 94% of China’s energy resources. Wind production may have doubled, but, as the Times reports, it still only constitutes 2% of electricity production. More troubling still, "China’s National Bureau of Statistics has begun a comprehensive revision of all of the country’s energy statistics for the last 10 years, restating them with more of the details commonly available in other countries’ data. Western experts also expect the revision to show that China has been using even more energy and releasing even more greenhouse gases than previously thought. Revising the data now runs the risk that other countries will distrust the results and demand greater international monitoring of any future pledges by China. If the National Bureau of Statistics revises up the 2005 data more than recent data, for example, then China might appear to have met its target at the end of this year for a 20 percent improvement in energy efficiency.” For more see: May 6, 2010
China’s Energy Use Threatens Goals on Warming

Monday, May 3, 2010

Lucky gains

I have written about luck before in the context of the use of resources that everyone thought to be unlimited but turned out not to be so. Today I want to consider a different kind of luck. Geoengineeering harms and compensation: Suppose geoengineering were used to cool the planet and did so on average but was nonetheless expected to cause harm to some by making them worse off than by climate change alone. Should we differentiate between those made worse off from GAINS they made through climate change (eg Canadian farmers) versus those made worse off relative to LOSSES through climate change (eg Ugandan farmers )? If so how? Do law and morality come apart on this issue? Assume that as the world gets hotter, Canadian farmers’ crop yields increase by $x. Assume that as the world gets hotter, Ugandan farmers’ crop yields decrease by $y. When geoengineering is used to cool the planet, the Canadians’ crop yield decrease by $x as temperature is reduced. But assume that such reduction is not uniform worldwide and that in fact in some regions, temperature goes up and precipitation goes down as compared to the levels AFTER climate change. That is to say, for those regions geoengineering makes things worse not better. Thus, assume that fir Ugandan farmers, geoengineering produces a reduction in crop yield of $x. Empirical data and modeling data support this hypothetical for areas of sub-Saharan Africa and India due to changes in cloud cover as well as disruption of the monsoon cycle. The Canadians and the Ugandans suffer the identical loss due to geoengineering but for different reasons. The Canadians lose because their gains from climate change are offset as cooling takes place locally due to geoengineering. The Ugandans lose because their losses from climate change are made worse as heating takes place locally due to geonengineerering. Should there harms be given equal moral standing? Assume causal responsibility plays no role in differentiating between the two. The intended policy is to cool the planet. Such an intervention is global and since not all localities where affected by climate change to the same degree, the intervention is bound to have uneven effects. Still, there is a difference between uneven benefits of a policy and harms created by that policy. The Canadians suffer a loss as a consequence of the implementation of a policy not just less benefit than others. So do the Ugandans, but their loss is a direct harm created by an unintended effect of the implementation of the policy, not just a consequence of it being inherently uneven in its intended effects. But that seems to be a distinction that carries no moral weight. Another difference is this – judged relative to the post climate change environment, both the Canadians and the Ugandans suffer an equal loss. But judged relative to the pre climate change environment, only the Ugandans suffer a loss. But why should one basis for measuring loss count more than the other? So what grounds the idea that the Ugandans should be treated differently from the Canadians? That even though both have been harmed, that both have been made worse off, only the former has an entitlement? I say it is because the Canadians’ gain was “lucky” in the following way - suppose my tree blocks your view of the ocean. My tree falls down and you gain an ocean view. Now you try to stop me replanting a tree claiming it would deprive you of your gain. (Note: if I dally for generations in planting the tree you may indeed have an entitlement based on detrimental reliance.) Contrast that to the Ugandans – they are akin to my other neighbor on whose roof the tree fell. (And whose property I need access to to bring the new tree onto my property.) One way to ground this intuition is by way of an egalitarian conception of equity. As my colleague Larry Temkin writes: “Among equally deserving people, it is bad, because unfair, for some to be worse off than others through no fault or choice of their own.” “Luck” follows directly from this conception: “....luck egalitarians object when equally deserving people are unequally well off, but not when one person is worse off than another due to her own responsible choices, say to pursue a life of leisure or crime.”

Monday, April 26, 2010

Collars on caps

The great virtue of cap and trade over taxes is that the former gives you determinate levels of carbon output. Taxes, as Paul Krugman put it in the NYT a few weeks ago, give you determinate price but indeterminate carbon output. If you are worried about climate, the former wins out over the latter hands down unless you have a mechanism for adjusting taxes to adjust carbon output. But such a mechanism forces legislators to revote and pay the price of such votes – for one big difference between permits and taxes is that the former can be handled administratively unlike the latter. When it comes to cap and trade, there is another trade off – how smooth you want to make market adjustments. One way to achieve that is by gradually tightening caps. Another way is by introducing a price collar that provides both a floor and a ceiling on the traded price of permits. The problem with such a ceiling is that it simply acts to bust the cap unless it is implemented very judiciously. The problem is that once the mechanism is in place, there will always be a temptation to invoke it in response to howls of pain as the caps are tightened. The only way to avoid that, is to tightly specify how and when such a collar kicks in. The current bill under design in the Senate has worrisome features in its collar provisions that should raise alarms – the worst thing would be to have cap and trade with a collar that is so tight that you have no real determinate limits on carbon at all. Indeed that might be worse that a tax!

Monday, April 19, 2010

More on fairness

Last week I wrote about fair pricing. This week is about fairness and a change in pricing regimes. Under what circumstances is a change in pricing fair? At the Rutgers April 9th meeting (which will soon be avaialble online), Frank Felder took up that question directly, while William Hogan proceeded from a conditional : if an existing system is fair, what changes are allowable that would retain its fairness? These are really issues about efficiency and fairness. The easiest cases occur when there is no change in fairness but a gain in efficiency, or even better, a gain in both. Anything else puts the two on a collision course - something we are often hard pressed to take seriously, because the assumptions of standard economics with which we have been raised tell us this is impossible. For that theory tells us that the most efficient outcome is the fairest outcome. But of course that is only true when the idealized assumptions (like equal initial endowments, perfect information and a high number of market participants) of the theory are satisfied. How much should we care if fairness and efficiency do come apart in utility pricing? Must we choose? Philosophers shy away from using rights talk in the premises of arguments for anything but negative rights – the right not to be interfered with. If there is a right to food, housing, or even utility services, these come as the conclusion of arguments. I think these are harder arguments to make than people think. On the other hand, I don’t think it is hard to make the argument that there is a prima facie right to a fair share of such goods. Indeed, I would claim that recognize this right is at the core of what it is to take on the moral “point of view”. Thinking like this makes it easier to ground the idea that in the case of greenhouse gasses, the safe annual global budget (about 18 gigatons) should be divided on a per capita basis, and given as a tradable right. For now we think of this in terms of nation states. But it is not outlandish to imagine the proliferation of information technology that would allow individuals to be assigned such rights and to trade both them, and some sort of associated non-renewable energy allowance. Why do that rather than relying on the existing market? Because as we saw earlier, a market system only marries fairness to efficiency if we can assume an equal endowment of resources, perfect information and the like. Trying to backward engineer that into the existing market is next to impossible. On the other hand, overlaying a market for tradable rights on top of existing markets may allow us to do just that.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Is flat fair?

We held a conference last week on pricing schemes for utilities. The idea of using prices to either smooth out peak demand (and thereby cut capacity) or reduce overall demand has to meet two objections. One is that there are classes of people who have little choice about when they need to use power (eg night shift workers who need to run air conditioners to sleep during the day) or overall demands (eg most dramatically someone on an iron lung). Here the challenge is to identify such people. Some poor people (with a lot of kids) may use a lot of electricity. And some rich people (with second homes) may use very little (in that home). So identifying those in need is not as easy as it seems at first. One interesting suggestion (by Bill Hogan of Harvard) is to reverse the challenge. Assume everyone is needy and then identify those to exclude. That may be just as hard, but at least you err on the side of caution in throwing your net too wide. The other challenge is the claim that flat pricing is more equitable than other systems for pricing – like real time pricing (which charges based on the actual wholesale prince at the time of consumption) or inverted block pricing (which charges more the more you use). I don’t think this argument from equity is very easy to make. But that said, I do think there are arguments that can be made to support the idea that flat pricing and its competitors as alternative ways to share out costs which we can choose between based on primarily pragmatic grounds. Just because electricity is more expensive at some times of the day than others, does not automatically generate an argument that pricing should follow. We may choose to do so on policy grounds, but that in itself does not generate a moral argument. Here is a parallel. Heavy people and light people pay the same prince for airlines tickets. But it costs more to fly heavy people than light people. We could have a policy of charging by the pound and weighing at the gate. We don’t do that. Other considerations outweigh the benefits of doing so.

Monday, April 5, 2010


We held an interesting national working meeting at Rutgers last week on people as citizens as opposed to consumers. I thinK we focus too much on the latter when the key is the former. Acquiescence to government policy is much more important than changing light bulbs. The goal of the meeting was more to throw up questions in need of research than anything else. Among the most interesting:
1.Even if acting as a consumer does not do much goOd directly, does it create more of a commitment to acting as a citizen when it comes to climate policy support?
2.Does a focus on climate adaption increase or decrease the chances of support for mitigation policy?
3.How much do voters vote out of self-interest as opposed to national interest when the two are in conflict?
4.What determines when a partisan legislative issue continues to be contested after lesigslation?

Monday, March 29, 2010

Thoughts on a meeting about geoengineering experimentation.

1. I very much like a suggestion of David Keith that we make a distinction between “processes” research and “sub-scale deployment” research.
2. Of course, this is a murky distinction – much process research is very sub-scale deployment.
3. I would argue that it would be a real contribution to characterize this distinction in clear terms with a goal of carving out the process work so it is either unobjectionable or already regulated. If these do not suffice, drawing up regulative guidelines would be very worthwhile. I taking the guiding idea to be this: process research can be reliably characterized ex ante as posing no risk.
4. When it comes to sub-scale deployment, if you think such deployment is plausible given the timeline David posed, I agree with a view espoused by David Morrow that consent is key. But I don’t think it is useful to use(as he suggests) a biomedical model for the following reasons:
i. The population of the world is not one person-like entity. So there is no one thing in which benefits and burdens can be balanced.
ii. A maximin approach (only pursue a course of action if you know ex ante that it will be at worst the best off all possible worst off outcomes) assumes we have knowledge of risks and we don’t.
iii. In hospital committees (and I have served on them) there are occasional such cases but they only proceed with terminal patients for which no existing treatment is available. Not only is the world not one patient it is not terminal!
5. You may say, “look, how can we make things worse than we are already with climate change”? The burden is on you then to show that you can’t. Not that you can’t on average, but that you can’t for at least some non-trivial parts of the world in some non-trivial ways. I don’t think you will be able to do that until and unless climate models improve to give confidence in predictions at a local level.
6. Without such confidence, I would urge a ban on sub-scale deployment for now.
7. This is no great sacrifice for advocates of such deployment, for all those who favor research have their hand full with the “process” agenda.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Cognitive Dilemmas

Talks at a conference I was at this week on cognitive theories and climate change were by and large wildly optimistic about the lessons of behavioral economics, neuro-economics, as well as evolutionary psychology to provide a basis for changing people’s behavior. “Wildly optimistic” because the participants were oversold on these approaches and seduced into thinking the problem of climate behavior is just that we have failed to see some key switch that these theories uncover. Wish that it was so easy! Of the three, behavioral economics is the only one that has delivered anything approaching a set of empirically reliable findings but they are incredibly piecemeal and constitute nothing approaching a comprehensive alternative to the “standard” model. All of that said, I was stuck again and again by two features of our constitution that make things so hard. One is this: we are much more responsive to appeals in terms of the local effects of climate as opposed to universal effects or effects on others. That is a problem if you live in an area that is comparatively unaffected by prospective climate change (and lots are especially in the Developing World given its location and adaptive wealth). But the trouble goes beyond making the salient effects of climate on the “other” real for “us” when the other lives far from our environs. For the real other effected by climate change are those of future generations – and not just the next generation or the one after that. To see the problem, imagine (if you don’t have any yet) your grandchildren. Think of providing for their well being in your will. Now do the same for their children. And their children. And so on. See how soon you become indifferent even if they are your genetic descendents. I can only keep it up for 2 generations. So the first problem is that it is very hard to feel anything for those who will be most affected by our actions. The second cognitive problem is the challenge of climate is (at least in part) one of dealing with a low risk, high cost outcome. If I tell you there is a non-zero chance of truly cataclysmic ecological collapse, you ought to pay heed as a rational action – however low the probability, as long as it is not zero, the high cost will swamp it out creating an obvious choice to act to avoid it. But we are not making that obvious choice. Here is why (I think): we actually face low probability, high cost alternatives every day – when I cross the street I may be run down by a car. When I fly, the plane may. When I eat out, I may get botulism. And on and on. Now all of these may cancel each other out. If I have to travel, all kinds of travel carry potential (low probability) deadly worst case scenarios. They have different probabilities but that difference gets washed out by the size of the cost – especially if you attach an infinite cost to the loss of your own life! So I suspect we are just not very good at making such assessments – even when doing so could count for a lot.

Monday, March 8, 2010


Isabel Hilton has an interesting profile of India's Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh. (See quotes Ramesh at the 2007 Sustainable Development Summit in Delhi, attacking India’s reluctance to contemplate limiting its future emissions as outdated and unhelpful: “If we have superpower ambitions and superpower visions then we should take on superpower responsibilities.” It merits reading this sentence through the lens of Chinese-Indian competition in the 20th century. One of the lessons of Copenhagen was China's ambiguous relationship to Developing World interests. China is not only the world's leading carbon emitter but already above its allocation on a per capita "fair share" basis. Not so India. And with a significant cushion before it reaches such a per capita level, unlike China, an Indian willingness to act repsosnilibty is a costless gesture - but one that reaps large political benefits for it in both the Developing and the Developed World.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

One big fear

I have always argued we ought to be as worried about the aftermath of legislation and getting it through in the first place. Once in place, the key is to win voter acquiescence so that the legislation is resistant to repeal or revocation. California and New Jersey have led the way with biding legislation of greenhouse gas reductions and both are parts of regional cap and trade systems. Now we see the first signs of how these kinds of efforts may get undermined. In California an attempt is being made to put in place a voter initiative to suspend the climate legislation because of unemployment. In New Jersey, Governor Christie has announced plans to divert funds raised by cap and trade auctions to the general fund to deal with the state deficit. These are both shortsighted moves because they undermine the need to render climate legislation sacrosanct – off the table for partisan political jousting – in a way that a few political issues are treated. But achieving that sacrosanct status is really what you need to do for any issue for which you want to win voter acceptance through thick and thin …. something we know we need to gain when it comes to climate legislation since we know it is eventually going to hurt.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Geoenigneering and risk: more

Let us assume, though limited experimentation, we can be confident that we can effect an overall cooling of the plant by sulfur injection – we just don’t know what the risks of such planetary insertion are. Insertion might buy us 50 years to develop other technologies to deal with the underlying problem. We also don’t know the risk of climate warming which we could avoid by sulfur insertion – at least for those 50 years. (Assume here what most climatologists take to be the case: these are our likely choices, even if we ceased all carbon output today, because of warming already built into the climate system.) So here is a choice in which we are ignorant on both alternatives when it comes to some worst case scenarios. Why isn’t the rational choice to bracket these and make the decision based on other considerations? Am I evincing a prejudice against advertent intervention over inadvertent intervention? I think there is a different consideration that makes my argument non-prejudicial. Assume global warming carries some risk known only to God as it were. Geoengineering is an imperfect offset for that warming at best. For example, it does not counter ocean acidification. As such it is a mistake to treat the choice as an exclusive one between climate change and geoengineering. We can’t rule out that geoengineering might make things worse (at least locally) than they would be with climate change alone. Still, we make choices in everyday life in the face of worst case scenarios that loom in the background. Crossing the street, I may be run down. The plane I ride on may crash. The food I consume may be fatally contaminated. But these are cases in which we can be crudely guided by expected utility. (“Crudely” because as behavioral psychology has show, we discount the future more than we should, we overvalue the familiar, and so on.) Courting death may make sense (for me at least) when I chance giving up longevity for a life of gluttony given my preferences. But what about when I can’t assign probabilities to such outcomes? You are dying, nothing more can be done for you as things stand. The doctor comes in with news – there is a new idea. We have no sense whether it will help or hurt. Should you try it? Why not, you have nothing to lose. But of course, that is only because all is lost. But that is not the risk posed by climate change. Things are (possibly) very bad. But we don’t face extinction (in the short term). The parallel here is that you are very sick with an unknown prognosis and no treatment alternatives. The doctor comes in again with the same offer. If you are a gambler by preference perhaps you should double up on risk. Or perhaps you should toss a coin. But the problem of geoengineering is one level more complex than this. For all the unknowns concerning risks, there is some reason to believe that those risks, if they exist are not going to be equally spread throughout the planet. For example, one of the unknowns about sulfur insertion is its effect on participation patterns as opposed to temperature. Hence those populations that are vulnerable to precipitation stress are more at risk than other if there is indeed risk. A lottery in which (we hope) most will benefit and some will be hurt is one thing when everyone has an equal chance. But without that an equal chance, incentives for those less likely to benefit to agree to such a lottery decline.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Geoengineering Research Reservations

Remarks to AAAS, Feb. 20th San Diego

My interest in these remarks is how to assess the risks inherent in geoengineering.
My argument is that geoengineering is deviant when it comes to the normal process by which science proceeds – perhaps deviant enough to undermine the whole enterprise.

Some proponents of geoengineering advocate limited experimentation to better the technology by which full scale geoengineering might be effectively implemented. But if there is no basis for full scale implementation whether or not the technology is available, the value of researching the technology is thrown into question.

In these remarks, my talk of geoengineering is restricted to solar radiation management and does not include carbon capture. Moreover the kind of solar radiation management I have in mind is planetary wide and (for the purposes of discussion) sulfur insertion into the stratosphere. (This is not an arbitrary focus in that, with others, I take this to be the only currently plausible candidate to achieve a 2 degree centigrade cooling should there be a need to do so.)

Some people have worried that such insertion on a planetary wide basis might produce unforeseen global consequences due to unexpected atmospheric non-linearities. I think these worries are over blown based our general knowledge of atmospheric systems and the record of volcanic eruptions which insert concentrations of SO2 many times greater than the concentration that would be needed to produce a 2 degree cooling.

The locus of my worry is quite different: our current climate models become progressively weaker in their accuracy the more fine grained you go. At the local level, they are of limited value. As such, assessing the risk of sulfur insertion when it comes to local weather disruption (and attendant agricultural output) is very hard to do. And of these the most notable area of concern is monsoon disruption. Indeed, both theory and modeling raise concerns about sulfur’s role in affecting precipitation as opposed to temperature. (See G. C. Hegerl, S. Solomon, Science 325, 955 (2009); published online 6 August 2009 (10.1126/science.1178530), and A. Robock, L. Oman, G. L. Stenchikov, J. Geophys. Res.113, D16101 (2008).) But even bracketing these considerations, my argument is more abstract: in its applications, most science proceeds from a model, to the laboratory, to field tests, and only finally to wide implementation. Nowhere is that more true than in medicine. At each stage, there is trade off between verisimilitude to the final implementation and the limitation of risk. (Think of the use of animals in experimentation.) What makes that possible is that most of science deals with modular phenomena. You can test a vaccine on one person, putting that person at risk, without putting everyone else at risk. So, even though we have lot of planetary wide goals – like eradicating smallpox – we can test them for untoward effects before full scale implementation. Not so for geoengineering. You can’t build a scale model of the atmosphere or tent off part of the atmosphere. As such you are stuck going directly from a model to full scale planetary wide implementation.

It has been argued that sulfur insertion could be usefully implemented in polar regions without effects on the rest of the planet. But modeling to date as well as the volcanic record would seem to undermine this idea by demonstrating that polar insertion does not in fact remain restricted to those latitudes.
The idea that one could study the risk of planetary wide insertion with low concentrations might seem plausible. But it has been shown that doing so would require at least a decade to derive enough data to differentiate a signal from noise. (See Robock, Alan , Martin Bunzl, Ben Kravitz, and Georgiy Stenchikov, 2010: A test for geoengineering? Science, 327, 530-531, doi:10.1126/science.1186237.)

Geoengineering is not unique in forcing us to go directly from a model to full scale planetary wide implementation – but it is rare. The only other example I can think of is genetically altered crops. But a difference between the two is that in the case of genetically altered crops, we have rich theoretical knowledge of natural selection as well as a long history of selective breeding.

One response to these concerns is to argue that risk is risk and all risk can always be assimilated into a standard cost-benefit (or expected utility maximization) analysis. On that basis, the risks of climate change may be greater than the risks of geoengineering, especially when understood as a temporary stop gap measure.

But such analyses become less and less coherent as our ignorance of both the likelihood and the magnitude of worst case scenarios goes up. That is as true of our understanding of potential untoward effects of geoengineering interventions as it is for the effects climate change itself.

Now one response to such ignorance is to defend a variety of precautionary principles which come down (in philosophical terms) to adopting what is known as a maximin principle. That is, choose between alternative courses of action so that the worst case outcome is the best of alternative worst case outcomes.

But to even apply such a maximin approach assumes we have some knowledge to characterize these alternatives. My claim is that we do not have such knowledge in hand for geoengineering and I don’t see how we can gain it to have a basis on which to make a prudent choice until and unless our climate models undergo considerable improvement. Nor do I think is it plausible to think that international agreement to implement geoengineeering would be likely without such improvement in our models.

As such, a focus on more benign forms of intervention that don’t need to be implemented on a planetary wide basis has much to recommend itself, including, especially, ambient carbon capture.

Monday, February 15, 2010

On risk

Debate about climate change and its attendant risks is dominated by too many people with the following conviction: all risk can always be assimilated into a standard cost-benefit (or utility maximization) analysis even if the tail is “fat”. But doing that becomes less and less coherent as our ignorance of both probability and the cost of worst case scenarios go up. One response to this problem is to defend a variety of precautionary principle analysis which, in philosophy, comes down to a maximin approach – that is, choose the alternative in which the worst outcome is the best of all possible worst outcomes. But even such approaches assume some knowledge to characterize the alternatives. But our problem is that we don’t even have this minimum knowledge.

Monday, February 8, 2010

China after Copenhagen

In an interesting post on ChinaDialogue which is reprinted at my programs website (, Qin Xuan, a reporter at Southern Metropolis Daily, analyzes the aftermath of Copenhagen citing some sources close to the Chinese delegation. The most interesting claim is that the “developed nations are becoming more closely aligned, while developing nations are diverging. Maintaining unity within the developing world is an increasingly difficult task” for China. Indeed, the core of Xuan’s analysis is that members of the “BASIC” group (China, India, Brazil and South Africa) are increasingly seen by developing countries as more part of the developing bloc in the alignment of climate interests. Qin Xuan write that “I believe that China should form a twenty-first-century diplomatic strategy to deal with climate change. At the core of this strategy will be this question: what costs is China willing to bear to meet regional and global diplomatic responsibilities? Until those strategic changes have been made, it is hard to imagine there will be any progress in climate-change negotiations.”

Monday, February 1, 2010

Geoengineering - more

Here is a link to some recent work my colleagues and I published that again focuses on the problem of argicultural risk in geoengineering. The central claim of this paper is that you can't assess for these risks without full scale multi-year implementation. To do that prudently, we argue, you would need to make provision for the chance of widespread multi-year crop failure affecting up to 2 billion people. For details go to:;327/5965/530?maxtoshow=&hits=10&RESULTFORMAT=&fulltext=bunzl&searchid=1&FIRSTINDEX=0&resourcetype=HWCIT

Monday, January 25, 2010

Does Nature have rights?

Writing about historical carbon output, like most philosophers, I worry about who has done what, who is owed and who owes, whether ignorance matters or not, and so on. But in all of this debate there is an embarrassing silence about “Nature”. As we worry about what (if anything) the Developed World owes the Developing World, a fair division of the pie seems still to only involve “us”. As I have posted here before, one reason for that is that we don’t have room in our moral discourse for things like Nature – because, as it were they are things and not people. “People” here need not mean just humans. In fact a humans can cease to be a person (if they are brain damaged enough) and, if there are Martians, that in itself ought not to prevent them being people (if nonetheless rather different from people we have encountered to date). If this is sounding like a non-standard use of the term ‘people’ it is. I am using the term to apply to anything that ought to be treated as having a claim to moral standing. What you need to have to underwrite such a claim is where the philosophical trouble starts. Is it a point of view? Something like it is to be you? These notions impose pretty strong standards to meet – perhaps sentience. And so on that account, both Nature and most of the things that make it up, don’t qualify. On the other hand, if we weaken the condition on moral standing to having interests in some vaguely objective sense (say reproduction and survival) then stones don’t have standing but flees do. Hold on! Does a flee really care if it is eaten or not? And that pushes us back into the arms of a condition of standing that it is likely that only we can satisfy. But Stone’s wonderful article “Should Trees have Standing?”, reprinted in a book of his essays with the same title, takes a radically different tack to break this impasse. Begin with the Law not Philosophy he argues – and take legal rules as nothing more than rules, not as rules that express underlying moral principles. Then ask if those rules can be plausibly applied to things that do not have interests of their own. The key move in this is the model of guardianship. Consider a profoundly brain damaged child for whom a guardian is appointed to speak on the child’s behalf, to represent the child’s interests. Now the philosopher wants to say, “Wait a minute! What if the child has no interests. What if the child is so brain damaged that it (literally) has no point of view?” Stone’s argument is that this does not matter from the point of view of the law. All that matters is what the law decrees. “…. what the legal rules touching on the ward provide”. And if those rules can accommodate the guardianship of trees, so much the better. Is this anything more than legal sophistry? Does it carry any philosophical weight? Here is why I think it does – Stone’s argument is embedded in a much broader conception of the relationship of ethics and the law. The law, he argues, develops by extension and in doing so, it offers us a social mechanism to develop our account of ethics as well.

Monday, January 18, 2010

On Lomborg

A reader asked my view of Bjorn Lomberg. Lomberg argues vigorously for the view that the cost of mitigating climate change would be better spent on other programs for the benefit of the poor. All other things being equal, eradicating malaria will produce more good than avoiding climate change as it were – at least when it comes to spending today’s dollars. The argument assumes a number of things: 1. That we have fixed resources so there is a choice. 2. That if the money were not to go to climate mitigation it would go for the benefit of the poor. 3. That even if putting off the mitigation of climate change increases the cost of mitigation and adaption in terms of today’s dollars, the lower cost of future dollars (and technology) will more than offset that. My reaction to this line of argument is fourfold: 1. I don’t think our resources are fixed and I think it is na├»ve politically to think that money is fungible in any case. 2. Our inaction now effect not just the costs of future action but also the probability of some climate effects that once they occur cannot be undone. These include extinctions but more significantly ice melts. 3. If we proceed on a business as usual way, we will exhaust a 450ppm CO2 budget by 2050. That would mean proceeding with zero net carbon emissions from then on which is totally implausible. 4. Like most projections in climate, Lomberg pays too little attention to the effects of climate change on GDP growth itself as opposed to the effect of climate mitigation. My skepticism is different from Lomberg’s in the following way: in projections of the cost of mitigation, economic growth is set as an externality derived from business as usual models. The projection then simply assume the availability of “green” energy whatever the economic growth is set at in the models. The cost comparison is then between the cost of economic growth by green as opposed to fossil fuel. This sidesteps the question of the availability of such green energy at the level and on a timetable consistent with the projected rate of economic growth. My colleagues and I are beginning to look at this most closely in a case study of China’s economic and energy needs between now and 2030.

Monday, January 11, 2010

China's stand

Cao Haili’s interesting post on ChinaDialogue - When China said “no” – deserves close attention. It is reposted at
As Haili reports: Besides the rift between China and the United States over measuring, reporting and verification (MRV), the cited evidence of China’s “wrecking” behaviour was its firm opposition to inclusion of the target of global emissions reduction of 50% on 1990 levels by 2050, with developed nations making cuts of 80%. The reason for China’s opposition was simple: it would restrict China’s development. Given the country’s rate of development and its economic and energy structure, the target would be a tough one for it to reach. Lu Xuedu, a Chinese delegate and deputy director of the National Climate Center, pointed out that global carbon emissions in 1990 were 21 billion tonnes, so a 50% cut by 2050 would mean emissions of 10.5 billion tonnes. In 2005, China emitted 6 billion tonnes of carbon. If the current rate of development continues, those 10.5 billion tonnes might not be enough for China alone, let alone the rest of the world.

There is some hyperbole in Lu’s comment – nobody, not even China, expects it to continue to grow at its current rate for the next 40 years. As a maturing economy it is bound to be lower than the current 8-10% rate and more likely in the 5-7% range. Its energy intensity is also bound to improve as well as its economy undergoes maturation. That is not to say that China’s planned rate of growth and associated energy needs are self-evidently compatible. But as Einstein said in a different context, “god is in the details”.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Citizens or Consumers?

We spend far too much time worrying about how to change energy behavior of individuals – although we know full well that the energy savings under individual control are modest. Market forces and national policy set the range of choices that individuals have and significant change means operating at that level. As such, it is action as citizens not consumers that need attention. Action here means voting – voting to support politicians who implement climate friendly policies or at least acquiescing to such policies. Ed Maibach (of George Mason) writes that with regard to climate change, “Our data, however, shows that even among the one segment of Americans who are truly committed to addressing climate change, they are vastly more likely to be responding as consumers than as citizens.” It is common to think that, notwithstanding the limited direct energy savings of individual action, the real payoff is that such a focus set one on the path to citizen support of policy. But is there actually any evidence to support this view?