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The cave will be quiet and empty next week, for the Old Man is off on his travels, until late next Friday. A lot of water will pass under the bridge between now and then, so there will be some catching up to be done.

In the meantime, I have been ‘inspired’ by several developments in thought and ideas from a range of sources, first amongst which must be James, William, Michael, Paul Baer and some of the kind people who have paid a visit to the cave recently.

So here is something for us all to ponder ’till I return. Please comment if you wish; I’ll catch up and post your words as soon as possible.

Climate Science, the Environmental ‘movement’, and international policy, are all dealing with how we might help shape the world our children, and their children, inherit. The fundamental subject matter is the future. If the arguments about whether the climate is changing and whether pollution is a ‘bad thing’ are broadly accepted as given, how should we proceed now?

Of course, it would be foolish to try to answer this question before we ask the preliminary one of import; what kind of world do we want to imagine for the future?

This is not simple. We so often tend to think in terms of the world of our immediate acquaintance, ‘our’ world, if you like, but here, there is the challenge of thinking about a much bigger picture. Why is this necessary? Because none of the really important problems which face us ‘at home’ are truly local problems; they are universal, in the sense that any policy, strategy, or ideal has to be workable for the planet as a whole. Climate change and pollution, energy production and consumerism, equity and justice, apply everywhere and impact everywhere.

So, what do we want for our descendants? More of some things, less of others. The chance to do some things, the chance to avoid others. Assuming, for a moment, that certain principles are given; a fairer world, one where there is less warfare or murder, one which recognises, at least in principle, the equality of value of the existence and survival of each and every inhabitant of the planet, a world where more people are free to live the way they choose to without fear of persecution, insofar as this does not prevent others from doing the same. These can be allowed as the barest minimum of our expectations. So how do we achieve them? Are there other important fundamental principles which we must (should?) take into account before starting on a road to Tomorrow?

Two requests, then; answers or suggestions for this: what is it we need to do, most urgently,  to ensure a better tomorrow?

Then answers or suggestions for this: What other principles should guide our decisions and our actions? In other words, what rules do we want to make for our new, exciting, dynamic, better world?

As always, be loved.

When the Old Man asked what the odds were, Tamino very helpfully put a scientific gloss on answers which were no great surprise at the cave. To help you if you missed it, here are some baseline numbers for the odds of some climate impacts by 2040:

  • 65% chance of temperatures increasing by more than 0.5C from now.
  • 87% cumulative chance that the increase will be greater than 0.3C.
  • 90% chance that sea level rise will be greater than 10cm, 50% that it will be between 10-20cm.
  • 85% cumulative chance that Arctic sea ice extent will decline by more than 10%.
  • No clear indication that tropical cyclone activity will reduce, increase or stay the same. (it does change if you use different rulers to measure it).
  • 60% cumulative chance that life in the oceans will decline by up to 25%.
  • 60% cumulative chance that global forest area will decline by more than 10%.

Looked at as a package, the picture is not encouraging. These are not dramatic exaggerations or unrealistic expectations. You may feel that some of these things are more likely to come about than others. On the other hand, you may recognise that the odds are good that most or all of these things will happen in tandem with one another, as they all relate to how the change in climate is changing the systems within which our civilization functions.

Now you can turn those odds around; odds against a temperature rise of >0.3C, a sea level rise of >10cm, and an Arctic sea ice loss of >10%, are about 1 in 10; not a great prognosis.

There are other climate impacts which can be considered as important, too, though the odds are rather harder to calculate for some of them; once again, the marker is set at 2040: What are the odds of the following:

  • the Palmer Drought Severity Index (the ‘standard’ measure of drought occurrence) showing an increase in globally drought-affected areas of more than 10%?
  • ocean acidity levels (pH) increasing by more than10%?
  • the number of persons displaced by climate impacts or development related to climate increasing by more than 20%?
  • the economic cost of coastal damage to life and property increasing (at net present values) by more than 20%?

The Old Man would guess that the odds for each of these is probably comparable to the previous set of impacts; I await discussion with bated breath.

What is the point of bringing these things up? How significant are changes to individual measures at these relatively modest levels? It could be argued that a 10% increase in drought-afflicted areas is not ‘catastrophic’ (unless you depend on the land for a livelihood) in a global picture. The same argument could be made for any one of these impacts; in itself, no one impact need necessarily be seen to be a ‘disaster’.

But we aren’t talking about one, or even a couple, of highly likely climate impacts by 2040; we’re considering all of them, happening at the same time, together. And there’s no consideration of feedback effects, ‘knock-ons’ or, save us all, some or all of these impacts being worse than this ‘gentle change’ scenario suggests.

Two fairly obvious thoughts spring to mind. Firstly, the environmental and human consequences of such a collective transformation in the global ‘system’ will intermingle; the ‘big picture’ is far worse than the sum of the nasty little parts. It’s as if the planet has been run over by a large truck. The injuries sustained are none of them, individually, going to kill the patient, but the compound effect of all that trauma makes the odds of pulling through a whole lot lower.

The second thought is that the Economic A&E department is going to struggle to cope with all this damage. The recent reports on the economic costs of mitigation (or adaptation) have tended towards considering these in a 100-year timeframe. The argument here is that the likely compounded cost of climate change by 2040, even with some mitigation, is more than enough to justify immediate action to reduce emissions, and, beyond this, is of a far greater value than the Stern, IPCC or other assessments have allowed for.

The break-even line should be measured at 2040, not 2100. The chances are very good that nothing we can do about mitigation will prevent at least some of these impacts and costs by this time. But they are also quite good that we could see some real benefits from immediate action soon after this. As this is likely to coincide with the effective termination of readily-accessible oil and gas reserves (at current usage rates), there is a benefit for energy providers and resource managers, who can set a target deadline for the implementation of an 80% transfer of primary energy and fuel sources. It is also within the lifetimes of a large proportion of the world’s population. It is more real and more relevant.

So now it is your turn; the goalposts are going to move towards us, to 2040. What do we need to do, what policies need to be adopted, what messages need to be transmitted, to reach a state of the global human/environmental/climate system in 2040 which is, at the very least, no longer out of control?

Be loved.

Sometimes the Old Man pops out of the cave for a spot of fishing. This weekend, he’s been engaging in a bit of philosophy at RealClimate. Thanks to RC for providing the platform for the discussion, and to Steve Reynolds for his interesting and challenging observations; I hope he comes to the cave to carry them on.

It starts with the Old man saying:

“It is interesting to observe the difference between this discussion and one which a group of philosophers might have on the subject. Too much of the above is about cost and responsibility. There are more fundamental questions to ask. Why do we perceive warming in the future to be ‘bad’? Is this a function of a reduction of wealth, a hindrance to ‘progress’ or development, or of risk to life and livelihood?

Is it possible to operate sufficiently effectively within a ‘shallow’ ecological framework, which accepts the economic systems and markets as they are and seeks to adjust the details, or do we need to take a ‘deep’ ecological approach, which posits a fundamental conflict between capital/developmental/market-based society and the nature of the changes needed to prevent a deeply undesirable future?

As I have mentioned on this blog before, we cannot avoid the moral problem faced by the inaction option; if, in the event that we can have a reasonable supposition of harm to others, we choose nonetheless to do nothing, then we must shoulder a burden of responsibility for the consequences of that inaction; we chose not to prevent harm.

The only way you can get out of this is to establish that we don’t know whether or not climate change projections are reliable enough to posit future harm. What future generations choose to do is irrelevant to our moral obligation. The only other out, it to argue that we have no collective responsibility to others, even if they might be innocent victims, and our lifestyles are the source cause of their suffering.

I’d also point you to the ‘Ethics and Climate Initiative’, which I know little about, but seems to have its heart in the right place.”

In response, Steve Reynolds offers:

“…we cannot avoid the moral problem faced by the inaction option; if, in the event that we can have a reasonable supposition of harm to others, we choose nonetheless to do nothing, then we must shoulder a burden of responsibility for the consequences of that inaction; we chose not to prevent harm.”

But what if actions to prevent harm cause greater harm (even with good intentions)?

The Old man replies:

“Steve Reynolds; then you end with an argument for consequentialism; the virtue in an action being determined by the consequence, rather than the intention. but consequentialism isn’t the only show in town. There is more than one way to define a ‘moral’ or ‘good’ or ‘right’ action or decision. Most climate (and policy) arguments revolve around a broadly pragmatic, humanist, utilitarian view of what constitutes ‘right’, or ‘good’, that is to say, that the sum of happiness/pain is an appropriate metric to determine the moral status of a decision. There is also the additional suggestion of ‘enlightened’ self-interest; that what is good for the planet/climate is good for all of us. If we persist in measuring what is good for us in terms of what makes us wealthier, or sustains our current lifestyle, then the economics of action to prevent serious climate change can never be fully justified, Stern or not, until such time as it is self-evident that inaction is more costly than action. By which time…

Even before we start arguing about the economic implications of action/inaction, I would contend that we need to consider the human (social) implications. In this type of argument, we must place value on human life, collectively and individually. If you wish to take it further, you can also place value on ecosystems and species, habitats and regional environments. The simple principles of equity, justice, and equality demand that we place no more intrinsic value on one life than on any other. This, however, comes at a price; the compromising of the principle of liberty.

Though there is so much more to say, I’d better stop here.”

Steve replies:

“If we persist in measuring what is good for us in terms of what makes us wealthier, or sustains our current lifestyle, then the economics of action to prevent serious climate change can never be fully justified, Stern or not, until such time as it is self-evident that inaction is more costly than action. By which time…”

Which is an argument for geoengineering as insurance.

But I do not accept that the impact of mitigation on the wealth of developed nations is the only issue. Access to cheap energy in developing nations is likely the difference between life and death for many more people than any difference mitigating AGW would make.

Old man:
“Steve: why would this imply a geoengineering solution; I don’t get it? I’d have thought that the geoE. solution was implied more by the cost/benefit approach rather than the alternative. Can you perhaps expand on your thinking on this?

I won’t argue about your second point; it seems relevant and important. I had been talking from the POV of ‘our’ lifestyles, of course. However, I’d dispute the assumption that, in the long-term, cheap energy will preserve or create more ‘good’ than mitigation. This is not to say that developing nations’ peoples don’t need energy to improve their chances of survival, just that the timbre of the impacts assessments is on a whole different scale to these.

Where we’ll agree is that everyone’s well-being has to be considered, both geographically and temporally.”



Re. “why would this imply a geoengineering solution; I don’t get it? I’d have thought that the geoE. solution was implied more by the cost/benefit approach rather than the alternative. Can you perhaps expand on your thinking on this?”

My point was that the potential severe unintended economic consequences of strong mitigation regulations might be avoided by near term concentration on energy production research. If warming effects are more severe than expected, then a short term geoengineering solution would be available as insurance.

Old Man:

“Thank you for explaining; I think I get where you are coming from. What sort of thing might an ‘unintended economic consequence’ of mitigation be? I presume you are thinking in terms of global recession, derived from dramatic economic impacts on consumption patterns in the USA, or something similar. Whilst I can see how this can be seen as undesirable in many ways, I am not sure how such an incident would be helped by a short-term geoengineering solution; it is more likely, surely, to be managed by a market solution. However, I don’t feel that we are thinking that much differently on this subject.”



“What sort of thing might an ‘unintended economic consequence’ of mitigation be? I presume you are thinking in terms of global recession…”

That is one concern, but primarily the more certain and likely more harmful effects of very expensive non-GHG energy on people in developing nations unable to afford it.

The booming economies of China and India are making great progress bringing people out of miserable poverty. I want to see that continue, not end.

Note that severe effects from AGW are not likely to occur until these people can afford to adapt and advanced research gives us reasonably cheap non-GHG energy.

There’s a further reply, which I’ll add later.

Another dialogue ensued in the same thread, between the Old man and ‘Onar A?am’; I may put this up on the site for further consideration. The important thing for you, dear reader, is to see that the Old Man is really quite approachable, and loves nothing more than a lively debate with interested seekers after wisdom. It would be nice to see a bit of this kind of dialogue going on in the cave…

Much of the argument about whether or not emissions should be controlled, the mitigation debate, revolves around questions of the cost of reducing emissions compared to the value of the benefits. Objections seem to be founded on the idea that suppression of the (global) economy, with its relevant effects, (which is assumed to be an inevitable consequence of any emission reduction policy), is not adequately justified by the measurable value of the benefits, which in this case are usual defined in negative terms, as ‘future costs’. So, the argument is about present versus future cost.

This is, in a sense, a natural way to look at the problem of climate change and its impacts. Change and impacts alike are understood to be disadvantageous (on a global scale), so it is easy to think in terms of ‘cost’, whether this is measured in terms of economy, human suffering or support, or biodiversity/ecosystem damage.

So, the emissions debate is framed in two important ways; firstly, as an argument about present versus future damage, and secondly, as a fundamentally economic issue. This is not helpful. It emphasises the negative implicit in climate change policy debate, and implicitly accepts that value is properly measured in terms of money. Whether the latter is the case or not is an issue between economists and others; there are good arguments both for and against the persistent use of monetary value as a metric for determining present or future benefit or loss.

So, we see the arguments discussed in terms of risk, damage, loss, injury, suffering, cost…

The language of the debate is both evaluative and negative. It is almost as if we have become so used to considering the future in terms of potential disaster that we cannot even think positively any longer. I am reminded of the traditional conception (trying hard not to stereotype) of the role or attitude of the mother, who spends her life, after the birth of a child or children, worrying for and about them. To paraphrase my own mother-in-law; it doesn’t matter how grown up they are, how independent or successful, they are still my children…

In a sense, it is sort of reassuring that governments might have a maternalistic feeling about their ‘children’. On the other hand, by choosing to think and speak in these ways, we are condemned to be negative and therefore fearful about the future, and thus, about climate change and impacts.

‘So?’ You may ask, ‘what is there to be positive about?’ On the surface, this is a fair question. In response, I want to suggest that it is possible to understand climate change, emissions regulation, mitigation and adaptation policies, as opportunities, not problems. Instead of thinking about the cost of the damage (and who gets to pay), we can think of the current decisions we have to make as investment opportunities. We are not paying to prevent future disaster, we are investing in a better future; putting something aside, so that our ‘children’ will benefit from our work and efforts. This is a normal way to behave, showing our love and care for our charges by thinking ahead on their behalf, knowing that we know better than them that, sometimes, doing well will get harder for them, or they will have changing needs that they cannot, on their own, respond to.

What are we going to invest in? Property seems a good bet at the moment. We might invest in a bit of real-estate (the Earth, the Amazon, forests) which we expect to at least sustain its net present value, and, hopefully, make a small gain in real terms compared to the cost of living. We might also take out an insurance policy against unexpected losses, making sure that, if there is a problem, we’ll be compensated, though this is also perhaps a bit negative. We might set a side a little of our income each month in a pension plan, so that, when we cease work, we do not become dependent on the good will or the wealth of a future generation.

Surely it makes sense for us to think ahead, to invest in the future, if not for ourselves, then for our children’s sakes. When we do so, we look for a safe but reliable vehicle for our investment, after all, it is future happiness we are addressing here, not present indulgence.

But we can go beyond the financial analogy, the economic way of thinking, entirely. Rather thank think in terms of present versus future cost, let’s think in present versus future value. All discussions of the future, about climate change, economics or policy, depend on the assumption that some things have a value of some kind. But this does not have to be measured in financial terms. There are a great number of things in human experience which have a value far greater than pure cash. Most, if not all, of our most cherished moments with our families have nothing to do with cost or benefit; they are to do with shared experience, pleasure, sharing, enjoyment.

And so, to avoid making this post even longer, here is a suggestion. What is it about our experience and the future experience of our children that we place most value on? What future pleasures, happinesses, do we most ardently wish for? Taken in these terms, we now have an opportunity to try and shape the future in positive ways. A future where fewer people go hungry or even die, by virtue solely of geographical location. A future where more of the great wealth of nature’s bounty, food, is more fairly distributed amongst all who need it, regardless of their current ability to pay. A future where cooperative endeavours to both get rid of the garbage and tend the garden of our collective property enriches both us and our neighbours, with whom we share the benefits. A future where resources are used more carefully and not squandered. A future where cooperation is seen as more useful than conflict. A better world. That is our unique opportunity. That is what we should be thinking of; how to make our world better, not how much it will cost to take out the garbage, and who is going to pay for it.

Be loved.

Quite a few comments on climate blogs recently have drawn attention to the precautionary principle and the validity of its application. Noticeably, the are often posted by individuals with a degree of ‘cynicism’ about AGW, (I wouldn’t want to suggest, necessarily, that this represents a ‘guided’ shift in ‘sceptic’ strategy, but…).

To be clear what we are talking about here, this is what Wikipedia gives as a definition. Simply put, the principle is that, if there is a belief that present action might cause future harm, but there is no scientific consensus on this, then prudence recommends that action is taken, any; the ‘just in case’ approach. The entry also points to the conclusion that, in the absence of consensus, the burden of proof lies with the agent of change.

But the precautionary principle is no longer an issue. It has become an irrelevant argument, thanks to the progress made in climate science and the observed changes in climate recently. This is because there is no longer a need to apply it. The application is only required in the absence of scientific consensus.

Therefore, someone who refers to this is leading readers to the underlying assumption that the case for AGW is still somehow undecided; that there is no scientific consensus on climate change.

If you choose to define consensus as the total agreement of all scientists, then any who challenge the scientific findings of the IPCC, or of the many papers published in the past few years, thereby nullify it. But consensus surely means something less extreme than this; it means a general agreement by a majority. There can be no question that the majority of climate scientists agree that global warming is happening, that it is not purely natural, and that CO2 plays a role in this. They may be wrong, but they do agree.

Therefore, there is no longer an ‘absence of scientific consensus’. Therefore, the precautionary principle no longer applies. The argument for action is no longer based on uncertainty about the causes of recent changes, but on the consequences of action or inaction, given the ‘agreed’ facts.

There is a complication, though. Some applications of the precautionary principle deal with issues arising from actions whose consequences are uncertain, or unknowable in advance. This means that certain geoengineering ideas still fall within the remit of the application of the principle, as how they might change the system is unclear; Paul Crutzen’s ‘sulphur-seeding’ suggestion is one such.

It is no longer necessary, though, to say ‘we should act because we think that not to act might be dangerous’; now, the argument should shift to questions of what to do, not whether: ‘we know that not to act will be dangerous, so we will act; what should we do?’

So, when someone suggests that your call for action on climate change is founded on the precautionary principle, put them right; it isn’t, not any longer.

Be loved.


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May 2007