What’s with the precautionary principle?
Lomborg discusses the Precautionary Principle in his book, but none of his critics seem to refer to this discussion. They seem to ignore it, because they do exactly what he warns about.
Lomborg essentially argues that the Precautionary Principle is being abused by scientist to attract unjustified large amounts of resources.
So what is the Precautionary Principle? Of course, there are lots of interpretations floating around, but in the context of climate change this is the authoritative one:
Principle 15 of the Rio Declaration 1992 states that: “in order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by States according to their capabilities. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall be not used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.”
Now, as one would expect, this is non committal diplomatic talk at its best. The most explicit bit is:
lack of full scientific certainty shall be not used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures
Note that “lack of full scientific certainty” is something completely different than “an unknown probability”. This principle, at least the way governments have agreed on it at this point, can only be used for events that are quite likely, albeit not 100% certain.
Extreme events, if their probability is completely unknown, do not fall under this principle. This excludes Gores and Fogs twenty meter sea level rise and extreme weather events. At least until they present us with reasonable estimates of the odds, projected damage and the likely effect of reducing carbon emissions on these two factors. A term like “doubly whammy” is highly misleading in this context, because it incorrectly implies that we know these three things.
But if current diplomatic agreements do not support the critics interpretation of the precautionary principle, perhaps common sense does? I mean, it’s not as if politics is in any way related to common sense.
Let me introduce you to 10 ways the world could end… Here’s the list from that video:
- mental depression
- alien invasion
- ecosystem collapse
- particle accelerator mishap
- biotechnology mishap
- magnetic poles reverse
- solar flare
I would like to add some more items to that list of really bad things:
- nuclear war
- nuclear terrorism
- unexpected extremely rapid melting of Greenland or Antarctica
- tsunami wiping out several major cities
- current economic crisis resulting in global mayhem
- twenty degree rise in global temperatures in fifty years
- global sulfur poisoning
- benevolent effort to capture carbon from the atmosphere gets out of hand and causes the next ice age
- cutting down whatever is left of the Amazon
- cutting down every single tree on earth
- massive chemical accident kills off an entire ocean
- nearby supernova
- cosmic high energy event pointing directly at us
- Yellowstone explodes
- Other volcano or big earthquake kills tens of millions
- OPEC boycott
- military coup in the USA
I encourage you to brainstorm for a couple of minutes to come up with more ideas, if you have the stomach.
Now what I think is reasonable is to spend a significant amount of money on research into these topics. Such research should at least reveal the probability, likely damage and ways to prevent or counter it. Only after that has been done properly, is it justified to consider spending massive amounts on actually preventing them.
What I think is not reasonable is to guess the worst case damage for each of them and start defending ourselves against all of these issues regardless of cost and probability.
You might argue that because a twenty meter sea level rise is at least a topic of debate, whereas nobody seriously talks about an alien invasion, that this means the former is far more likely than the latter and thus justifies massive spending to be on the safe side.
But this argument is flawed. If the odds of an event are completely unknown, it means you can not tell whether it is more likely than something else of which the odds are completely unknown (unless they are correlated).
As far as I know the odds of twenty meter flooding are completely unknown and so there is no valid reason to think it is more likely than an alien invasion.
If on the other hand the odds of twenty meter flooding are known, then there is no excuse for treating it differently than any other issue that is effected by climate change. It means you have to look at the damage such flooding will do and different ways to mitigate it. It may turn out that such a massive catastrophe can be relatively cheaply avoided by cutting carbon emissions, but it may also turn out that the effect is irreversible and it is too late to cut carbon. In that case, evacuating coastal cities might be the next best option. But we simply don’t know at this point, so there is no point in cutting carbon or evacuating coastal cities before we have some useful numbers to work with.
A frequently heard argument is that fixing climate change is not that expensive so that we can comfortably afford to be a bit of inefficiency and err on the safe side of caution. I have two arguments against this point.
First, given our current societies obsession with even the smallest changes in purchasing power, I seriously doubt that there is any political will to spend more than strictly necessary. The only reason climate policy gets popular support, is because tax payers do not understand that they are the ones paying for it. The environmental groups are happy, suppliers of alternative energy are happy, even the traditional energy sector is happy with all the extra investments. Politicians are happy because they are making themselves popular. Utilities companies are happy because they will see their revenue go up as energy prices increase and they receive more subsidies. The only kind of political parties that would protest against this have a nasty reputation of supporting imprudent tax cuts and will be seen as crying wolf this time. Some government central planning agencies should be ringing their alarm bells about this, but they have no way of knowing that the proposed carbon price might be too high, because nobody tells them. Many environmental scientists don’t seem too keen on figuring out if this is the case either. I guess they’ve been the underdog for too long to realize what kind of power they have at this point in time.
Second, if you only focus on preventing unexpected climate events, then indeed even wasting 10% of our GDP is really not a catastrophe. But because we have no idea of the odds, we have no reason to justify spending more on these things than on the other 20+ doom scenarios I just summed up off the top of my head. We’re biased toward climate change disasters, so we conveniently forget about the other ones. If you add those up, you end up wasting a lot more than 10%. And let’s not forget, some of these issues are on our political agendas, e.g. ecosystem collapse, asteroid impacts, nuclear terrorism, tsunamis, financial crisis and the Amazon. Each of these is effected by many other factors than climate change and so even the most ambitious carbon measures won’t cover for them, even though they deserve equal attention given the lack of knowledge.
What about Ackermans paper?
Frank Ackerman wrote a paper ‘Hot, It’s Not – Reflections on Cool It!, by Bjorn Lomborg‘, to be published in Climatic Change. He spends a significant part of the article debating Lomborg’s credibility, which I will ignore in this discussion but I will come back to it later on.
I have stated before that Ackerman currently does not understand the proposed paradigm. I base this observation on the following quote:
If he had confined himself to actual examples of oversimplification and exaggeration in climate change rhetoric, Lomborg could have written a short, useful article – perhaps making the point that it is unhelpful and unnecessary to overstate the case, since the real problems of climate change are serious enough. Unfortunately, Lomborg did not write that article, but instead stretched his story into a book length claim that climate change is only a moderately serious problem, while the proposed remedies are all prohibitively expensive. Many other problems, in his view, are both more urgent and cheaper to solve.
There are three things at play in Lomborg’s book and Ackermans sees the least important two.
First, Lomborg indeed claims that “oversimplification and exaggeration in climate change rhetoric” is a problem. Second, he also claims that “climate change is only a moderately serious problem, while the proposed remedies are all prohibitively expensive”. But Lomborg makes the case that climate change is being looked at in the wrong way. That third – and in my opinion most important – statement is ignored by Ackerman.
Ackerman proceeds to analyze some of the numbers and models that Lomborg is using, basically disagreeing one or two orders of magnitude on some issues. Of course he also takes on the heat versus cold death issue and rightly so.
But just like Fog, he fails to put different solutions to heat and cold death in perspective. He does not answer the question whether the errors in Lomborg’s analysis make any difference to his conclusion, which still seems to be orders of magnitude safe from attack.
Ackerman tackles the issue of cost-benefit analysis:
There are three separate problems with the notion that cost-benefit analysis has shown other issues to be higher priorities than climate change: there are no meaningful monetary valuations for many of the benefits of climate mitigation; the range of policy options considered by the “consensus” was arbitrarily truncated; and the calculations in the “consensus” cost-benefit analysis rely heavily on wishful thinking.
Let me tackle the last two first. Ackerman overemphasizes the relevance of the Copenhagen Consensus results. The Copenhagen Consensus is an effort by Lomborg to create a top ten of the most effective ways to to improve the world. When he talked about it on TED, he clearly stated that it is very reasonable to be skeptic about that analysis. He encourages others to come up with an alternative way to set priorities for the world. If nobody else does that, than you can’t really blame Lomborg for begin a little overconfident. It takes competition to excel.
Let ‘s look at the first argument:
there are no meaningful monetary valuations for many of the benefits of climate mitigation
The fact that he does not suggest an alternative way of evaluating benefits gives me the impression that he believes there is no sensible way of prioritizing issues at all. I hope I am missing something, but that would imply we might as well do something completely random. In that case, I’ll opt for Lomborg’s plan.
Let’s study his more detailed argument about cost-benefit analysis:
In the case of climate change, it is possible, at least in principle, to calculate the cost of emission reductions. On the other side of the balance, the benefits of reducing carbon emissions include decreases in all manner of harms to people and nature, and a lowered probability of truly catastrophic, irreversible changes. What is the dollar value of a human life saved, of a coral reef or a polar bear surviving undisturbed in its natural habitat, or of the lowered chance of catastrophe due to a slowdown in the rate of melting of the Greenland ice sheet? Does the dollar value of a human life depend on the income of the person whose life is saved? Simply asking these questions reveals why there are no meaningful answers. But without those answers, cost-benefit analysis is unable to incorporate and measure the most important benefits of climate change mitigation.
The wonderful thing about Lomborg’s paradigm is that it solves this dilemma. No longer do you have to answer the question how many dollars a human life is worth. If you use his approach, you are suddenly comparing human lives to human lives and dollars to dollars: no fuzzy combination.
When Lomborg deals with malaria, he compares the number of people saved using a health care system to the number of people saved using the climate system. He expresses the cost of the health care system and the cost of manipulating climate in dollars, but that is not the same as setting a price on a human life.
It is tempting to confuse “the maximum number of lives you can save with one dollar” with “the maximum amount of dollars you are willing to spend on saving one life”. Lomborg enables us to talk about the former, while Ackerman refers to the latter. Lomborg would ask a politician ” How much money would you like to spend on saving lives” and will then use his method to save as many lives as possible on that budget.
Once you start combining issues, things get messy. Lomborg does not solve this. But when you look at the current climate change debate it still represents a huge improvement.
Currently, politicians are presented with one huge complicated package. The climate scientists tell them that for an X amount of dollars, they are buying themselves part of the solution to a very large number of problems. They are free to choose the size of the package and even who is going to pay for it, but not the details of the package.
For example, one billion dollars might get them 5 million penguins, 3000 polar bears and 600 less cases of malaria. Half a billion dollar will get them half of all those, two billion twice as much. It’s like having to choose a bundle for your cellphone, where for $10 you get 60 minutes and 10 messages and for $5 you get 30 minutes and 5 messages.
But what if for some reason you would actually want less penguins and more bears and malaria? What if you don’t care about text messages and just want more minutes? The current consensus seems to be that you are out of luck and not ‘allowed’ such choices. Ackerman soothes our pain by arguing that such choices are subjective anyway.
In comes Lomborg: no longer do we have to buy text messages and calls in one package; we can get a separate package for both of them and make up our own mind about how much we want of both of them. Likewise, Lomborg offers politicians the freedom to choose which problems they want to solve and how much they want to spend on each of them: he frees them of the one size fits all solution currently on the table.
As Ackerman argues, it is difficult – if not impossible – to put a dollar value on a human life, or a polar bear. But politicians do this for a living, usually with the blessings of their voters. One can debate if their choices are arbitrary or well founded, but it is undeniable that they make them.
An economist can tell a politician: “I can save penguins at $5000 a piece, polar bears for $10,000 and prevent malaria for $10 dollars per person: what can I get you?”. The politician is then free to decide how many penguins, polar bears and malaria he wants to order. The economist will then get back to him with a list of measures, which may or may not include cutting carbon.
Note that this does not imply that a penguin is worth $5000, a polar bear is worth $10,000 and a human live saved from Malaria is worth $10! Just like a text message is not worth 50 cents. These amounts are simply the cheapest penguin, polar bear or prevented death from malaria that the economist can get you. There is nothing arbitrary about that.
Take some time to digest that one, it’s tricky.
Lomborg considers a so called Kyoto Forever policy, in which emissions are still reduced after the current agreement ends. Ackermans calls this:
… something as utterly bizarre and inconceivable as extending the Kyoto Protocol unchanged for 300 years …
He is right, but the question he does not answer is how the protocol should be changed over the next centuries. Enter the realm of the End Game, a topic mostly avoided.
William McDonough explains the concept of the End Game quite eloquently when he talks about Cradle to Cradle design:
Modern culture appears to have adopted a strategy of tragedy. If we come here and say, well, I didn’t intend to cause global warming on the way here, and we say it’s not my plan, then we realize it’s part of our defacto plan, because it is the thing that’s happening because we have no other plan. And I was at the White House for president Bush meeting with every federal department and agency and I pointed out that they appear to have no plan. If the end game is global warming they are doing great. If the end game is mercury toxification of our children down wind of coal fire plants as they scuddle the clean air act, then I see that our education program should be explicitly defined as brain death for all children, no child left behind.
So what is our End Game for climate change?
We haven’t got a clue what is going to happen hundreds of years into the future, but we do know this:
First, if there is no emission reduction plan after Kyoto ends a couple of years from now, emissions will simply go up again and the effort of the last couple of years will have negligible impact on future temperatures and even less on heat deaths, malaria, flooding, etc.
Second, the only way to stop carbon levels from increasing, is to have zero net emissions. This may seem trivial, but I have yet to see this expressed in clear language. But even zero emissions will not stop temperatures from rising any time soon. Some alarmist even fear temperatures spiraling out of control, but assuming that they don’t, it still takes a long time for temperature to ‘catch up’ with the latest CO2 level.
Given these two arguments, it is reasonable to assume that a Kyoto Forever protocol will have to be more strict than the current one.
The difficult part is estimating the cost beyond the near future, which Ackerman points out.
So we face a dilemma here, as to how far in the future we can legitimately compare Kyoto with with other solutions? My personal educated guess is about 30 years.
I don’t think it is controversial to say that even a Kyoto Forever will have no measurable impact on heat deaths, malaria, flooding, etc as soon as 2040, whereas Lomborg’s proposals – even if vastly overestimated – do. Beyond that time it is unfair to compare them.
Ackerman concludes as follows:
The massive effort that is needed to address the climate crisis today could do the same for the decades to come. Suppose that we spend money today to launch a new set of technologies and industries based on maximizing energy efficiency, renewable energy production, and sequestration, thereby creating the jobs, incomes, and products that shape the life of the next generation. Our descendants will not blame us for having reduced the level of short-term shopping opportunities at the mall. They will be especially happy to get a more tolerable climate as part of the package. And that – unlike Lomborg’s fantasies – would really be cool.
This just confirms Lomborg’s point: that same massive effort, jobs and incomes, could have been used to take care of heat deaths, malaria, flooding, poverty, AIDS, hundreds of times over. The term “more tolerable climate” has no value without specifying which particular benefits you have in mind. Once you do specify them, it turns out there are infinitely better ways to achieve these benefits.
How is doing something useless in stead of doing something useful cool?
The organizational perspective
One question that I have only subtlety touched on, is Why does Lomborg make so many mistakes? There is an entire website dedicated to them, so that has to mean something.
One explanation floating around is that he is sponsored by big evil oil companies to tell lies. Please refer to my earlier post on conspiracy theories for that one.
Ackerman points out a strong bias in the literature cited by Lomborg. He shows several tables where the world is divided between climate skeptics and climate believers and where Lomborg only cites the skeptics and ignores the believers. Now this division requires a fair bit of skepticism.
Firstly, it suggests that he actually knows what differentiates a climate skeptic from a climate believer. Second, it suggests these two groups are the same size. Third, it suggests the papers of the first group are equally relevant to Lomborg’s analysis as the papers of the second group. This may all turn out to be true, but he makes no effort to prove it in a systematic way or even to suggest these possible shortcomings of his analysis. Fourth, even if it holds up, it is a well known phenomena that scientists tend to mainly cite their in crowd and not look outside their own discipline, so this argument should be presented in perspective.
My theory of Lomborg’s flaws is a bit more boring: he is trying to do too much.
Basically he tries to understand every big problem in the world, and what the most important factors are that drive these problems. Make no mistake: the IPCC usually keeps these other factors constant (for very good reasons, this is not an allegation). But we also need an IPM (International Panel of Malaria), IPHD (Heat Deaths), IPHD (Hurricane Damage), IPFD (Flooding Damage), IPPB (Polar Bears) to achieve what Lomborg is trying to do.
So we end up with one man trying to do more than a massive agency plus a whole bunch of imaginary massive agencies. Anyone who lives an even remotely organized live should recognize that that is just asking for trouble.
Given the sheer number of problems in the world and the number of important factors that contribute to it, Lomborg can only strive to have a very flimsy understanding of them. For each factor and each issue, there are probably dozens of experts who can easily shatter his analysis to pieces. And this is exactly what happens.
The opposite is also true: experts tend to only understand their own field of expertise and don’t have a clue about the big picture. The IPCC must focus on the impact of climate change while keeping all other factors constant. Again and again this post show experts that debunk the details, but not even once offer a revised big picture. They either don’t have one, or do not know how to translate their observations to it.
It is extremely difficult to be able to consistently think while switching between many orders of magnitude. It is a mental minefield. In all likeliness you lose sight on one end of the scale.
Politicians ruling from their ivory tower are a perfect example of people who get the big picture, but forget the small picture, resulting in completely ineffective policy or even extreme cruelties like war.
In the other extreme we find people who are completely obsessed with one little topic. Society is geared towards this kind of behavior because it is a necessary evil for specialism; a cornerstone of civilization.
There is also – if you allow me a little excursion – a Darwinian argument for the inability of most people to clearly think between so many orders of magnitude. Humans are the only species on this planet that are actively concerned with the survival and well begin of their entire species! I have yet to see a polar bear be even remotely concerned about a another bear that he has never met. This is probably our main competitive advantage in an age of mass species extinction and the reason that we are probably not going to be one of the unlucky ones.
In fact, I expect to see four types of species thrive on global change: intelligent and communicative species like humans and crows, species that have already proven themselves useful (or cute) enough for us to protect, brute force survivors like cockroaches and plain lucky ones.
But back to my point here: the most probable reason for Lomborg’s many mistakes is that he is trying to do more than the IPCC and all other single issue groups combined. If his paradigm gains enough credibility for more scientist to at least try to work with it, we will start seeing far better results.
What if Galileo had lived today and taken his telescope to the Vatican to look at Jupiter’s moons? What if for some reason we had not already discovered them? The pope would reply that his telescope is flawed and that Hubble has delivered impressive pictures of far away galaxies. Who is Galileo to presume that he could see something as ridiculous as Jupiter’s moons using such a primitive tool?
We live in a world where fuzzy thinking is the norm, not the exception. A world where religion thrives, hypocrisy on a global scale is seen as a necessary evil. A world where feeling good is more important than doing good. Worse still, it is a world where dragging people out of their comfortable illusions is seen as bad.
We are making tremendous progress, but please do not for once have the illusion that we have reached enlightenment as a species.
Education equips us with the mental tools to better deal with our shortcomings. It is for that reason that highly educated people, including some scientists, are usually less susceptible. It is certainly the reason why many people demand scientists and others with great responsibilities to be completely immune. That’s what they pay you for!
I hope to come up with a more eloquent way of phrasing it soon, but this will have to make do:
Climate change is not inherently good or bad. It is only the effect of climate change on issues that matter. For any particular issue, climate change is not the only factor that influences it. When dealing with an issue, we should focus on the most effective ways to do so.
Now get to work!
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