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.