"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Quandaries about ethics

So William objects to my argument from intergenerational equity on the grounds that I have claimed an ethical basis without specifying a coherent ethical theory, never mind one that can serve as the basis of a social contract.

His point seems to be that it's easier to agree on a discount rate (which is after all just a number, not to mention one decided by a free market (of extremely wealthy actors, but never mind that, it's in some sense objective)) than to agree on a whole theory of ethics. And that absent any such theory of ethics, we can't decide anything on an ethical basis. Ergo, ethics doesn't matter, and therefore economics, QED.

Contrast this with this interesting argument that life doesn't begin at conception, intended to undercut ethical arguments against abortion:



See also http://www.scarymommy.com/patrick-s-tomlinson-twitter-abortion/ where Tomlinson's conclusion is discussed:

Here, ethics is derived from what "any rational [sic] human being" and "anyone with a beating heart" would agree to. I am not advocating a position on the claim that anyone would behave in this way, though I'm fascinated by the "argumentam ad ducking the question by missing the point of the analogy" aspect of some of the responses. "No they aren't viable", "no they don't weigh that much" etc. I am admitting that something about this way of arguing strikes me as unsatisfying, and I think that William is accusing me of doing something similar.

Now to be fair, this is a trolley problem, an absurdly unrealistic distillation of reality, while climate change, alas, is something we actually are bequeathing to succeeding generations.

But I'm saying "if we could distill this climate problem to its essence, people would not behave the way they are now behaving". That is, I am arguing from an innate ethical sense, just as Tomlinson is doing.

As I keep saying, my position on ethics is fundamentally the traditional conservative one, the Tory one. It is that we do know good from evil in some sense, whether this is by nature or nurture, and that this understanding should be honoured rather than trivialized. In particular we should honour ethical standards that apparently arise in disparate cultures, such as acting in service of the eternal at the expense of our own personal benefit.

That we increasingly lack a consensus on ethics seems to be core to both William's point and mine. Building an ethical consensus when it is breaking down is more difficult that maintaining an extant system that optimizes for self-interest and eschews any long view. I think we agree on this. Where we disagree is what to do about it. I think, in what I believe is a fundamentally Tory way, that we should reach back to our ancestors and try to understand what they'd think of our behaviour, and consider modifying it appropriately. William's position seems to me to be that it's too hard, and we need to settle for what economics will buy us, and hope that is enough.

Tom's position is like that of the guy who refuses to answer Tomlinson's question. It isn't that we should or shouldn't temper economics with ethics. It's that climate isn't that big a deal. Of course, I find that position wrong, but in the present context it's worse than wrong, it's irrelevant. Do we owe something to the seventieth generation, specifically, a viable ecologically diverse planet? I say yes, and I say we're screwing it up spectacularly. William shrugs, defers to his friend the economist, and says, well, the ecological viability of the seventieth generation isn't worth much according to revealed preferences in the marketplace. Tom F says "squirrel".

There's a new entrant in the field, Steve Mosher, who considers my explicit appeal to ethics "wacky and repugnant". I remain hopeful that Mosher is an outlier in making such a claim, that ethical discourse is acceptable to most people in deciding, well, what we should do.

Notice the "should"?

The trouble is that we don't really have an explicit ethical basis. It's possible that "life begins at conception" could be a consensus. The Spartans said "life begins when the infant is granted a name", allowing for postpartum abortion. This could also be an imaginable consensus.

(I know I'm treading on dangerous ground here. Lord give me strength not to voice an opinion on this question!)

But I do think that most people do not want to believe that their lifestyle is destroying the world for their grandchildren.

Since in fact it quite arguably is doing exactly that, the easy approach is to resort to denial. "It's not really a problem." ("The embryos in the case are not really viable." "Global warming will have modest impact.") And a denial industry has arisen to serve exactly that predeliction, simultaneously protecting literally trillions of dollars in reserve fossil assets.

But I'm venturing that "we should not irreversibly damage the world" is a proposition that a vast majority of people would agree to. An ethical consensus still exists, even if accompanied by no formal ethical philosophy.

That being the case, denial that major change is necessary, without due consideration of the evidence that it is, is in violation of a global ethical consensus.

So we're being bad. Evil, by our own, very limited but still extant, shared ethic.

Mosher further suggests that it is impolitic to say so. I think that's weird, but that's another topic.

Impolitic, repugnant, too difficult, lacking a coherent philosophy, squirrel.

Sorry, I still vote none of the above.

We may not agree when life begins. But we can still agree that it would not be a good idea to end it or drastically curtail its potential.

51 comments:

David Young said...

MT, I'm quite sympathetic to your ideas about ethics and their importance. I personally think there is far too much emphasis on economics as a justification for everything. The almighty dollar is not a good reason for much in my view. This was also the heart of the Progressive critique of the Gilded Age and it was a correct critique. The problem here is that this critique was really grounded in Christianity. Teddy Roosevelt and William Jennings Bryant agreed on that. Christianity was also the primary motivation of abolitionists. And that's the problem here I fear. In our post-Christian culture, there is no agreement on ethics. European culture is clearly post-Christian. That's less true in the US, but the intellectual elites are clearly hostile to it. One of the great stupidities of the Left is their embrace of Islam while they retain hostility to Christianity. It can only be explained by deep irrationality.

William Connolley said...

> Ergo, ethics doesn't matter

I have never said that. To the contrary, I think that ethics does matter. But I am suggesting that it is easier and more likely productive of agreement to treat the problem in another way.

William Connolley said...

> Here, ethics is derived from what "any rational [sic] human being" and "anyone with a beating heart" would agree to.

Yes, but that statement is ambiguous, so you need to be clear what you're saying. "derived" could mean (a) "what any (rational) human would do is ethically correct"; or it could mean "by observing people (possibly hypothetically) we see that *actually*, these are the moral choices that people make, and so we know that in practice this is their morality". I think the argument itself means sense (b). I can see why you might be uncomfortable with it; it is rather similar to the "revealed preferences" of economics.

William Connolley said...

> my position on ethics is... we do know good from evil... we should honour [common] ethical standards that apparently arise in disparate cultures

I've inserted the word "common" there, because the remainder implies it. But this is the traditional problem of absolute versus relative ethics. We observe that different cultures have different ethics. We can solve this by declaring one of them correct; and we used to; but that won't fly any more. We can flee to the other extreme, and declare all ethics relative to time and place; but that is unsatisfying. You appear to propose a middle ground, which is to declare only ethical positions *common* to (many, all?) cultures to be correct (honour implies that they are correct, yes?). Philosophically, that wuld be hard to defend; but pragmatically it is not unreasonable; though I bet when examined carefully it would be problematic.

But in fact...

> such as acting in service of the eternal at the expense of our own personal benefit.

It seems to me that you've likely just happened to select a system that gives you the answer you want.

Also, notice that your previous prime examplar (in https://initforthegold.blogspot.co.uk/2017/09/the-seventieth-generation.html) of cathedrals was largely shot down by TinyCO2, and I think you admitted that. It didn't change your opinions, of course; because the example was only there to buttress those opinions.

So I think it is true that the culture of the cathedral-builders gave them the appearance of sacrificing the present for eternity; but not the reality.

Michael Tobis said...

"It seems to me that you've likely just happened to select a system that gives you the answer you want."

This is the rub. I am confident that if people could see what was happening, they would be willing to sacrifice some immediate benefit for the benefit of the future world. But I cannot test this because it's circular - if people are not willing to make such sacrifice it seems to me it's because they don't understand the information in front of them.

But it remains the case that I am convinced they *should* be so willing. And it remains the case that I believe I *should* be in a position to advocate for that. And it remains the case that my basis for advocating that what economics tells us to do should be a lower bound for what we undertake in this matter is ethical. And it remains the case that I believe that ethical positions *common* to most cultures can be brought to bear in support of my position.

It also remains the case that philosophy tends to muddle more than it clarifies. You're dragging me from advocacy into hair-splitting.

Is there really no such thing as right or wrong?

Is ethics not about considering the lives of others in weighing one's own behaviours? Can one not make the case that future generations have a claim on our decisions? Don't most cultures value continuity? Isn't it wrong to just fuck everything up, even if economics tells us (let's posit that it does tell us this and that it's true) that it's optimally advantageous to us acting in our self-interest to do so?

How do you propose that someone who holds that we are collectively acting unethically make such a case? It seems to me that you won't let me, because I don't have an airtight philosophical system, which hardly stops other people from advocating for various things.

Mosher just thinks it's distasteful. He wants me to shut up about this because it's reprehensible to make people uncomfortable about their behaviour.

At some point, isn't such shutting up itself a capitulation to evil? Should we do nothing at all except indulge ourselves, because even raising the possibility of anything else is ill mannered, presumptious, and declassée?

I find this proposed capitulation (don't discuss ethics until it's as solid as mathematics or as unthreatening as discussing sports) inelegant, to say the least.

That all said, what I mean by this follow-up is to admit that we don't have any consensus about how to think about ethics.

But if we are discouraged from even talking about it, how the hell are we supposed to fix it?

manuel moe g said...

"Impolitic, repugnant, too difficult, lacking a coherent philosophy, squirrel."

Your critics agree to disagree, but cannot agree how to disagree. I think that is because you have stumbled upon a truly disturbing moral exercise. Not a mere trolley problem.

Of course we owe the seventieth generation something, because without the prior negative seventieth generation we wouldn't exist.

Of course we owe the seventieth generation nothing, because a monkey is a poor mechanism to expect to realize moral consequences for time spans such as seventy generations.

Of course we owe the seventieth generation something, because one property of morals is that they transcend the poor corporeal mechanisms used to realize them.

(*) Of course we owe the seventieth generation nothing, because it is too hard.

(*) is where your critics effectively agree, and where you disagree.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Preferences are not the only thing revealed. Morality is also so revealed.

Marco said...

"Christianity was also the primary motivation of abolitionists"

Yes and no, in the same sense that christianity was the primary motivation of slave owners. *Human rights* were the primary motivation. While some took inspiration from the bible to claim such human rights were incompatible with slavery, others argued the exact opposite. After all, Jesus explicitly condoned slavery!

The fact that it took christian societies more than a millenium to stop slavery should make you think twice about arguing that christianity was the primary motivation. There simply was a group of people who gained sufficient traction to introduce a new view and make that the only ethically acceptable view of human rights.

Next thing we know, you'll tell us that women's suffrage was thanks to christianity, too...

Michael Tobis said...

For what it's worth, my parents were agnostics with no interest in religion, my ancestors were Jews, and my first interest in religion was in Hinduism, so Christianity doesn't have a particularly dominant influence on my own beliefs about ethics.

Rob Ryan said...

Well... as often happens, my post will not address Michael's main point (generational equity as an ethical consideration) but rather "Tomlinson's razor." I can honestly answer A and still maintain that abortion is an ethical atrocity. While I can present many arguments regarding the ethics of abortion, let me merely address Tomlinson's conundrum (as off topic as it may be, as they say in court, "you opened the door counselor").

Let me do so initially by turning it back on him. You rush in and there is a healthy five year old child and an 85 year old woman whom you know has a terminal cancer. Whom do you save (same logistic conditions)? If you save the child then, by analogy with Tomlinson's example, the woman is disposable in the same sense as the embryos. If the retort has to do with "1000 embryos vs. one woman" then exactly how many would equilibrate the situation?

I didn't and won't read the Tweet thread because I've already falsified his Tweets by stating "A" unequivocally and honestly and yet am passionately against abortion. As mentioned above, I won't present that argument.

Michael Tobis said...

Not going to discuss abortion.

I don't want to hear anybody's opinion about abortion. The point is just about Tomlinson's approach to ethics.

Is ethics revealed by the decisions we would make in some hypothetical situation? Or is there some better way of thinking about it?

Rob Ryan said...

Agreed. I don't want that. I'm arguing about his lame argumentation. But, in any event, I'm having a fair amount of trouble even understanding the relevance of his Tweets and the responses to your point. (Note: contrary to my assertion above, I did take a look.) Certainly the "you're wrong and immoral Tomlinson" crowd believes that ethics should inform policy. I believe that that's your point. It also seems like Tomlinson shares that belief.

To me, the only thing in the thread worth discussing is whether Tomlinson's hypothetical is able to demonstrate (as he contends that it is) that those with whom he disagrees do not hold that position on a moral basis, or at least not on the moral basis that they claim. I claim that it clearly is not. But I'm not clear on the relevance of that to your disagreement with William. That disagreement seems to be over whether, whatever one's ethical beliefs may be, they should play a role in climate policy or even in discussions about policy.

Tom said...

Well, Dr. Tobis, thank you for trying to characterize my position in your post. Sadly, you have not captured my opinions or beliefs.

I also believe you have not correctly described the real ethical dilemma we face.

For what it's worth, for me the 5-year-old who demands our succor represents those presently living in the developing world. The embryos are in fact those not born but living in the future when climate impacts will pose a problem (lukewarmer view) or threat (consensus view) to their well-being.

For me then, the approach to climate change is not a 'wicked' problem--perhaps because I have made whatever ethical judgments I need to make.

I call for vigorous 'pre-adaptation' to address those vulnerable to the climate of today and the past, but with margins built into adaptation to future proof those solutions.

I also support mitigation efforts, such as a revenue neutral carbon tax, investments in R&D, continued support for renewables by subsidy and tax adjustments, but would call for those to be affordable within the universe of public expenditure.

Tom said...

Well, Dr. Tobis, thank you for trying to characterize my position in your post. Sadly, you have not captured my opinions or beliefs.

I also believe you have not correctly described the real ethical dilemma we face.

For what it's worth, for me the 5-year-old who demands our succor represents those presently living in the developing world. The embryos are in fact those not born but living in the future when climate impacts will pose a problem (lukewarmer view) or threat (consensus view) to their well-being.

For me then, the approach to climate change is not a 'wicked' problem--perhaps because I have made whatever ethical judgments I need to make.

I call for vigorous 'pre-adaptation' to address those vulnerable to the climate of today and the past, but with margins built into adaptation to future proof those solutions.

I also support mitigation efforts, such as a revenue neutral carbon tax, investments in R&D, continued support for renewables by subsidy and tax adjustments, but would call for those to be affordable within the universe of public expenditure.

David Young said...

Marco, You are falling prey here to muddled thinking. Slavery (and its milder form, serfdom) has been a prominent feature of human societies for millennia. What is remarkable is what caused it to be abolished in the West. The British crown first outlawed the slave trade and then gradually slavery was outlawed throughout the West. What explains this? "Human rights" was not even a doctrine in the 18th and 19th Century. That "some" Christians argued in favor of slavery means little. "Some" Progressives were very strong advocates of eugenics and were explicitly racist. So what? Many of the prominent members of the abolition movement were motivated by Christianity. That's a fact, albeit perhaps an inconvenient one to modern anti-Christian ears. The British were the ones who really turned the tide against slavery when they made slave trading piracy and vigorously enforced this definition in a blatantly imperialist manner. The post-modern dogma that the West is to blame for all the world's ills is simply a fiction.

William Connolley said...

> Is there really no such thing as right or wrong?

Of course there is. And you should continue trying to work out what that is, and keep trying to argue for it in a coherent way. Just don't expect it to be easy. Trying to positively build a system is much harder than poking holes in the system that people are trying to build. But you should be very cautious about thinking you can build such a system, because people have been trying for ages and failing. And you should of course welcome people poking valid holes in your system (unless you've become a propagandist, which I hope you haven't).

> Isn't it wrong to just fuck everything up, even if economics tells us (let's posit that it does tell us this and that it's true) that it's optimally advantageous to us acting in our self-interest to do so?

This (IMHO) is where you go wrong (noting first that yes it is of course wrong to fuck everything up, but of course the std.econ view is not that we'll fuck everything up). You have a preconceived view of what is acceptable; and yet there are futures that economics says are acceptable but you say are not. But you don't really know why economics says they are acceptable. Sorry that isn't quite right but I'm struggling with language here. You need to be able to look from the viewpoint of a superset of your argument, and the economic argument, and so clearly point out where the economic view is inaccurate, self-contradictory, or something. But you don't seem to be able to do that. For example, SRES says CO2 doubles by 2100 (let's say) which implies we're all richer by 5x now; but you say aha no, that would cause damage of... well, what? You can't really say; you have a strong sense that, say, +2.5 oC would be badly damaging but really that's just a gut feeling on your part. Don't you need to be able to do better?

Michael Tobis said...

William, thanks for the constructive reply. That said, I think you ducked a question in that irritating question-ducking way.

I ask "Isn't it wrong to just fuck everything up, even if economics tells us (let's posit that it does tell us this and that it's true) that it's optimally advantageous to us acting in our self-interest to do so?"

You reply that "there are futures that economics says are acceptable but you say are not". Well, yes, there is room for dispute on that. Indeed, that is what I am disputing. But the question is what happens if the point I am making is right. I am asking you to posit that std.econ (thanks for the term, I accept it) advises something that very few non-economists would find morally acceptable. Then what do we do?

Obviously, by construction, what we should do under those circumstances would be to tell economists to stuff it, that we're not taking their advice, and that they should offer new advice subject to the constraint that we want to (e.g.) stop emitting CO2 in the net as soon is is feasible.

The trouble is that std.econ doesn't think of itself as a service to policy. The idea is to build the best economy (according to some very bad metrics, but let's leave that aside). Their idea is not how to best create a society that meets other constraints.

"You can't really say; you have a strong sense that, say, +2.5 oC would be badly damaging but really that's just a gut feeling on your part." This is both fair and unfair. We should be operating in the ocntext of an internationally agreed (and frankly unattainable unless the science is a bit oversensitive) target of 2 C. I don;t think we know what the threshhold of intolerability is. But I have looked into the economics closely enough to know that std.econ results (IAMs) are based on a PRESUMPTION THAT THERE IS NO SUCH THRESHHOLD. It's not, therefore, my word against a sophisticated community of interest, It's my word against a group of people who can't imagine the system going into a regime other than the one it's in now.

I think this is where our positions diverged. I well remember James' response to Lord Stern's report: "why should I care" if the world in 2100 is slightly less rich on account of climate change. He shouldn't and neither should we. But what if, as y'all say over on that side of the pond, Lord Stern's report is bollocks. It is, you know.

I don't know if 2.5 C u=is the tipping point. I'm sure it depends on other features of civilization. We might collapse anyway, with no climate stress at all, in which case the threshhold of dangerous climate change is moot, effectively zero. We might adapt well somehow, and be in some sense "rich" in the ecologically impoverished world that results.

(I understand England is already almost entirely managed environment. You might not miss wilderness as much as those of us who are used to having it around would. For us in North America, this is really a very big deal.)

So what the temperature is when std.econ breaks down entirely depends on many imponderables. I don't believe in a hard threshhold. But I think a dramatic collapse is very possible, and becomes more likely as climate diverges further from the baseline, for many reasons. std.econ fails to account for this possibility at all, and so its results are stupidly optimistic.

If IAMs are right, climate is not much to worry about, and Tom Fuller is basically right in his conclusions. I don't care about climate change as a drag on a richer future.

I care about climate change as a cause of tragic loss, chaos, a biologically impoverished world, and a brutal and decaying human civilization. I don't know where the threshhold is, but I am sure there is one. And I think it would be prudent never to find out what it is.

Also its objective function is insane. Otherwise it's pretty good I suppose.

...and Then There's Physics said...

I'll try, here, to explain what I was trying to get at in this post. One of the most recent economic analyses I've come across (by Nordhaus - which is also discussed in this Glen Peters post) suggests that the optimal pathway is one in which we end up with about 3.5C of warming by 2100. In fact, given the uncertainties, it doesn't preclude warming of more than 4.5C by 2100.

Maybe one should simply accept this as the best we can do (which it may well be). However, if you consider the climate impacts of such warming, then there is a good chance that if we follow such a pathway, we will pass a number of tipping points. Tipping points are typically large, irreversible changes, the impacts of which are hard to describe with any certainty. I think, therefore, that it's perfectly reasonable for people to argue that this is unacceptable; that making such changes to the system that is crucial to our survival is simply something we should do all we can to avoid (which might be close to what MT is suggesting, but correct me if wrong). FWIW, this is largley my own view, with the caveat that "all we can do" is the bit that is hard to define (I think one point being made in the Glen Peters post that I linked to above is that there are indeed economic analyses that consider how to achieve certain targets, rather than trying to develop opimal pathways based on cost-benefit analyses).

Additionally, if the optimal pathway is one in which we could cross a number of climate tipping points, then how much confidence should we place in such an analysis? It may well be that it's been done as well as it possible could have been done, but if we aren't sure of the consequences of passing these tipping points, how do you incorporate them into the analysis? It's possible that they've tried to do so, but it's hard to see how they can do so in a way that we would regard as accurate. So, it may well be the best possible economic analysis that we can do, but that doesn't mean that we should accept it without also considering the consequences of following that pathway, which may well end up with much larger negative impacts than the economic analysis suggests.

Tom said...

Is it possible that you are creating a mythical ogre in your view of economics, Dr. Tobis?

My understanding of it is that it is a discipline that can be used (and obviously, misused) for allocating scarce resources to provide the greatest utility for all.

Anyone can use (or misuse) it. As taught and studied today it shows a lot of hidden traps that may result from well-intentioned behavior, counter-intuitive results from well-meaning policy, but also some broad-based rules from getting from A to B without harming too many human beings.

If I might be so bold, perhaps you should study the field more closely instead of railing against it.

Tom said...

Oh my goodness--tipping points and 4C again? That is certainly one way to throw economics out the window, especially if you do not name and quantify the possibility of reaching those tipping points.

Well, it is almost Halloween.

But it seems that we should be borrowing from another holiday for this type of discussion. Instead of counting how many shopping days there are before Christmas we should note how many years before the end of the century there are. Only 83 more years before ATTP's worst fears are proven in error.

Why stop at 4.5C? (I love that fraction--it adds so much... credibility, don't you think?) Why not 6 or 8? Eventually you can reach a level where tipping points can be postulated and Dr. Tobis can achieve his frequently mentioned state of economics not being relevant.

I don't mean to be ragging on either ATTP or Dr. Tobis, but when you look at how much data one needs to ignore to postulate 4.5C by end of century, most of it coming from the IPCC, it seems as though... I don't know. You two are scientists. I am not. But it seems that Dr. Tobis with economics and ATTP with climate projections are fighting facts, history and rational thinking.

Michael Tobis said...

I don't know if 4.5 by end of century is likely but it's not implausible. If I were in a position to bet on 2100, my central estimate would be between 3 C and 3.5 C given how people are now behaving, and assuming we avoid collapse or world war before then. But that's my central estimate. I'd be no more surprised by 4.5 C than by 2 C.

In any case, time does not end in 83 years. The ethical concern is the peak temperature, not the temperature in 2100. 4.5 C is entirely plausible if emissions are not brought to zero before supplies run out. Recent developments have expanded available fossil fuel supplies substantially, and that's not even accounting for the clathrates.

...and Then There's Physics said...

Tom,

but when you look at how much data one needs to ignore to postulate 4.5C by end of century, most of it coming from the IPCC, it seems as though... I don't know.


I don't know how to explain this any more clearly. The 3.5C by 2100 is from the optimal pathway presented in Nordhaus's recent paper. The standard deviation is 0.65C, so doesn't preclude warming by more than 3.5C (I said 4.5C because that's between a 1sigma and 2sigma deviation from the median of 3.5C). I'm not postulating this, I'm pointing out that this is what a recent economic analysis indicates would be the optimal cost-benefit pathway.

Why stop at 4.5C? (I love that fraction--it adds so much... credibility, don't you think?) Why not 6 or 8?

Because, given a standard deviation of 0.65C, it would seem highly unlikely that, if we did aim for the optimal pathway, that we would end up warming by 6, or 8C.

I don't mean to be ragging on either ATTP or Dr. Tobis

If you don't (which I find extremely hard to believe) why don't you try actually reading (and thinking about) what is written? If you have some issue with Nordhaus's calculation, why don't you explain what it is. Part of what is being discussed is why we would reject some kind of economic analysis, and what we would do instead. So, assuming that you're actually rejecting Nordhaus's calculation, rather than simply having a knee-jerk reaction to a suggestion that we might warm by 4.5C by 2100, what is your alternative, and why?

Tom said...

Well, as the Summary for Policy Makers in AR5 writes,

"Future climate will depend on committed warming caused by past anthropogenic emissions, as well as future anthropogenic emissions and natural climate variability. The global mean surface temperature change for the period 2016–2035 relative to 1986–2005 is similar for the four RCPs and will likely be in the range 0.3°C to 0.7°C (medium confidence). This assumes that there will be no major volcanic eruptions or changes in some natural sources (e.g., CH4 and N2O), or unexpected changes in total solar irradiance. By mid-21st century, the magnitude of the projected climate change is substantially affected by the
choice of emissions scenario. {2.2.1, Table 2.1}

Relative to 1850–1900, global surface temperature change for the end of the 21st century (2081–2100) is projected to likely exceed 1.5°C for RCP4.5, RCP6.0 and RCP8.5 (high confidence). Warming is likely to exceed 2°C for RCP6.0 and RCP8.5 (high confidence), more likely than not to exceed 2°C for RCP4.5 (medium confidence), but unlikely to exceed 2°C for RCP2.6 (medium confidence). {2.2.1}

The increase of global mean surface temperature by the end of the 21st century (2081–2100) relative to 1986–2005 is likely to be 0.3°C to 1.7°C under RCP2.6, 1.1°C to 2.6°C under RCP4.5, 1.4°C to 3.1°C under RCP6.0 and 2.6°C to 4.8°C under RCP8. The Arctic region will continue to warm more rapidly than the global mean (Figure SPM.6a, Figure SPM.7a). {2.2.1,
Figure 2.1, Figure 2.2, Table 2.1}"

Given that our modest collective efforts to date have already rendered RCP 8.5 invalid (and given that the RCPs are explicitly labeled as not a prediction or projection, having started with the w/sq mt levels as a base assumption and working backwards from that), given that a high figure for sensitivity was baked into the narratives written post facto to explain the emission pathways, I just think you are not working from first principles in your interpretation.

I am open to the possibility of being wrong, both in this discussion and about my lukewarmer stance on climate change. But after 10 years of following this issue, I don't see effective argumentation that would do so for either.

Tom said...

Well, I like Nordhaus a lot--always have, unlike many others in the climate discussion. But his projected growth rate for GDP in this is quite low (2.1%), his discount rate, while better than Stern is still under 5%, and his borrowing of Olsen's figure for sensitivity at 2.8 is higher than I think likely. So he could be right. But given his explanation of his Bayesian approach, especially wrt uncertainties, is less than convincing.

He's a bright guy. He could be right. But did you read his own caveats?

Tom said...

In any event we're getting into the weeds, as often happens.

Economics and ethics are closely related--again, economics is a discipline that has the mission of advising how to allocate scarce resources to ensure the best possible outcome for the greatest number of people. That is a statement of an ethical goal.

The people of the future cannot help the people here in the present. We are the only ones who can do that. That weights our obligations toward them. They should have a greater call on our resources. I don't advocate ignoring future generations, but today's poor are our responsibility to help.

William Connolley said...

I don't think I'm making my viewpoint at all clear. I may be forced to write my own post; everyone should re-invent their own wheel after all. But

> if the optimal pathway is one in which we could cross a number of climate tipping points, then how much confidence should we place in such an analysis? It may well be that it's been done as well as it possible could have been done, but if we aren't sure of the consequences of passing these tipping points, how do you incorporate them into the analysis?

I think is typical of the incompatibility between my (and std.econ) and mt / ATTP, I think. I find it very hard to understand what anyone means when they write stuff like that; it seems to imply a complete failure to understand the std.econ viewpoint. So I'll make one last despairing attempt here: the std.econ viewpoint takes into account all those tipping points, costs then as best it can, and then balances all the different costs in an attempt to provide a view of competing costs and benefits. This is fundamentally incompatible with your viewpoint, as I understand it, which is (I exaggerate for effect) "woo tipping point scary lets not go there". Which is to say you substitute your (and others) intuitive ideas of damage for the std.econ analysis.

There's probably an analogy here with the denialists; there usually is. The std.econ folk, if challenged, could write all their stuff down in numbers and equations. Just as std.gw folk could do the same for their calculations of warming, or of sea level rise. But the denialists that write bollox about "cooling is about to start" or "the GHE doesn't exist" can't write their stuff down in that way, and we are contemptuous of them for it. Why do you expect protection from contempt when you do the same for costs?

Michael Tobis said...

To the extent that std.econ relies on IAMs to make these assessments, which I think is almost total, "viewpoint takes into account all those tipping points, costs then as best it can, and then balances all the different costs in an attempt to provide a view of competing costs and benefits" is simply false.

IAMs assume something called an "underlying growth rate" and do not allow tipping points to affect that. It's essentially a linearization, and like all linearizations, requires a justification of the small-signal approximation. I frankly don't think economists even understand the question posed that way.

Since the key to the issue (what dT is dangerous) amounts to asking where the small-signal approximation breaks down, a tool which assumes that the approximation is valid is of no use.

I seem to recall that an IAM still showed growth in a 15 C perturbation scenario. It's not suited for purpose.

...and Then There's Physics said...

Tom,
I just think you are not working from first principles in your interpretation.

I'm not really working from anything. I'm pointing out that there is a recent economic analsyis that produces an optimal cost benefit calculation that suggests that we should follow a pathway that - if correct - would quite probably lead us to cross some tipping points. The discussion here is about how one makes decisions as to what to do; do we simply accept some kind of best economic analysis and do what it suggests, or do we try to develop some kind of ethical framework that guides our actions?

My argument is that an economic pathway that would quite probably lead us to cross some tipping points is probably not one that we should be aiming to follow. Your argument appears to be that this analysis seems to be suggesting an emission pathway that we may already have excluded. In either case, it doesn't seem to provide much confidence in this economic analysis. So, what do we do instead (or are we wrong, and this economic analysis is still what should be guiding our decisions)? [I will add that your quoting of the IPCC numbers may not actually be some kind of rebuttal of this economic analysis, since I doubt that it is inconsistent with the general IPCC position, but that isn't all that relevant to the overall discussion]

Michael Tobis said...

Tom, the elimination of a trajectory along the lines of RCP 8 seems to be a consensus between you and yourself.

If the IPCC summaries are correct and the summaries I'm seeing of Nordhaus are correct, Nordhaus appears to be advocating emissions comparable to those of RCP 8 as optimal, but perhaps I'm missing something.

There's a lot of carbon to be found, and everybody seems to be looking for it. Our own Mr Trudeau claims to be solidly behind the Paris Agreement, but also finds it incomprehensible that Canada would refrain from developing the Alberta tar sands.

Michael Tobis said...

The people of the future cannot affect our circumstances. We can affect theirs.

Poor people can't participate in economic exchanges very much. People not yet born can't at all. Both of these situations require ethical constraints on economic activities.

There are, at least we hope, a great many people yet to be born. I really think they are going to be resentful toward our generation and I think that will be justified. I'd like to limit that, but I don't know how.

If any people of the future read this, I apologize for my own failures and those of my contemporaries, for whatever little that is worth.

Tom said...

Well, Dr. Tobis, I might be in a minority but I'm not alone. The rather iconoclastic Larry Kummer of the Fabius Maximus weblog agrees.

"RCP 8.5 assumes the fastest population growth (a doubling of Earth’s population to 12 billion), the lowest rate of technology development, slow GDP growth, a massive increase in world poverty, plus high energy use and emissions. For more about the RCPs see “The representative concentration pathways: an overview” by Detlef P. van Vuuren et al, Climatic Change, Nov 2011.

RP8.5 assumes population growth at the high end of the current UN forecasts: 80% odds of between 9.6 and 12.3 billion people by 2100 (Gerland, P. et al, Science 10 Oct 2014). Most of this growth occurs in Africa, assuming that the collapse in fertility seem in the rest of the world will not occur there (Iran’s fertility was 6.0% in 1980, it is ~1.6 now, below the replacement rate of 2.1).

Gerland makes a purely probabilistic forecast, without considering if Africa can support the same population density as China does today. Their high end forecast, used in RCP8.5, is that Nigeria’s population will grow from 175 million today to 1.5 billion in 2100. See this for more information about the Gerland 2014 forecast.

RCP8.5’s assumes that the centuries long progress of technology will slow. Most importantly, it assumes that three centuries of evolution to ever more efficient energy sources reverses and we burn off almost all of Earth’s fossil fuel reserves.

RCP8.5 describes a hot dirty future for the world, in which coal use increases to become the major source of power for the world.

RCP8.5 assumes no decarbonization of world power sources from new technology (e.g., solar, wind, fission, fusion) or regulations to reduce not just climate change but also air pollution and toxic waste. Although possible, how likely is this? For example, use of solar and wind is skyrocketing as these technologies improve.

RCP8.5 also assumes a slowing of technological innovation, most clearly seen in energy use. By 2100 energy efficiency has improved only slightly, so that despite GDP being one-third lower than under RCP2.6, energy consumption is over twice as large. That breaks the decades long trend, as partially shown in this graph of energy efficiency from the World Bank. There is not reason to assume this progress will halt.

The RCP8.5 scenario assumes ominous breaks in several important and long-standing trends. As such it provides a valuable warning against complacency and a reminder to prepare for extreme outcomes. But that meant that there was no business as usual scenario, a critical component for forecasting. None of the RCPs is even remotely close to fulfilling this role."

I don't find RCP 8.5 very credible. I find the narrative accompanying even less so.

David Young said...

It seems to me that this discussion should naturally lead on to discussion of various policy options and how to achieve them. There may indeed be ideas that could garner majority support that are both cost effective and displace fossil fuels, particularly coal. The problem here as I see it is that the route to rapid decarbonization is simply too painful to work in democratic societies. Thus, we need policies that can be palatable. I've stated above some ideas that I personally think could work.

1. Convert transportation to natural gas. Particularly in the US, that's easy because of pre-existing infrastructure and on my calculations, would reduce the cost of transportation fuel at least a factor of 2 and perhaps 4 depending on taxation issues.

2. A strong building program for nuclear electrical generation.

3. A strong innovation program. Bill Gates is already spending a lot of money on this, but perhaps his fellow malefactors of great wealth like Soros and Steyer and Gore could chip in a few more tens of billions instead of spending their money on essentially left wing political propagandizing.

...and Then There's Physics said...

WMC,
But the denialists that write bollox about "cooling is about to start" or "the GHE doesn't exist" can't write their stuff down in that way, and we are contemptuous of them for it. Why do you expect protection from contempt when you do the same for costs?

Seriously? Because it really isn't the same, and this seem patently obvious. In fact, I really do find it hard to believe that you see an equivalence. When someone disputes the GHE, they are disputing something that is regarded as virtually true. When someone disputes that CO2 will cause warming, they're disputing something that is virtually true.

When someone disagrees with how economics has valued something, they are not. People are quite entitled to attribute different values to things based on their own judgements. They may well be in a minority and society may well accept the economic judgement of value. They may not, and economics will shift its valuation. They may well have to advocate and convince others to change their minds so that the valuation changes. But the suggestion that rejecting a cost benefit analysis is somehow equivalent to rejecting the GHE is - to use you words - bollox.

I find it very hard to understand what anyone means when they write stuff like that; it seems to imply a complete failure to understand the std.econ viewpoint.

Given that your description of the standard economic framework is pretty much exactly my understanding, then - no - it isn't a complete failure to understand it. Not agreeing with something doesn't necessarily mean not understanding it. As I've said, I don't see how a pathway that has a reasonable chance of exceeding 4.5C can be the optimal cost-benefit pathway. If you want to make an argument that it is, please do, but I certainly don't think that you have.

For the avoidance of confusion, I'm not arguing against something like a carbon tax (which I think we should implement) simply suggesting that I don't see how one can regard Nordhaus's optimal pathway as actually optimal (as in, let's follow that one).

Tom said...

Again, Dr. Tobis, it is precisely because the people of the future cannot affect our circumstances that we must shoulder that responsibility first. I'm sorry--I am willing to be chastised by future readers if I am more willing to help today's poor than to blindly guess at their primary needs. (I think whatever criticism I receive from them will involve my barbaric practice of consuming animal flesh than anything else, but we'll see.)

Michael Tobis said...

The RCPs are not an exhaustive list of futures. In fact none of them will actually happen in detail.

They're just some representative pathways to guide intermodel comparisons.

There are other high-carbon scenarios. Arguing against a particular one in detail doesn't mean that one of the other benchmarks will occur in detail. These are just the ones that IPCC decided should me the standard model projections spanning the range of plausible forcing scenarios.

Also, it's worth mentioning that there's a possibility of geochemical carbon feedbacks, which may well push us effectively to worse cases.

So Larry's argument is silly. It confuses benchmarks with prognistics.

...and Then There's Physics said...

MT,
Also, it's worth mentioning that there's a possibility of geochemical carbon feedbacks, which may well push us effectively to worse cases.

I believe that Richard Betts has made this point. Even if we follow an emission pathway that is typically associated with a lower RCP than RCP8.5, given carbon cycle feedbacks, we still can't rule out that we will end up following something close to an RCP8.5 concentration pathway.

Tom said...

There is an equal possibility (as neither can be quantified) that geochemical processes will serve as a damper on several hyrdrological responses to increased CO2. I'll see your clathrates and raise you increasing vegetative cover...

Tom said...

As for RCP 8.5, to my knowledge without exception, all other high carbon scenarios acknowledge increasing GDP growth as an underlying assumption--after all, if wealth doesn't grow rapidly, neither will emissions. If the poor stay poor they will not be buying air conditioners.

RCP 8.5's base assumptions of no new technology, slow GDP growth and increasing population are almost self-contradictory and I say almost in the sense that one must concede the remote possibility that they could happen in some alternate universe.

Michael Tobis said...

"Thus, we need policies that can be palatable"

I am inclined to agree, because we aren't as ethical a species as I'd like us to be.

I agree with David Young's second point in prticular: I think a full-bore global emergency implementation of nuclear energy is the best bet we have left. It does the right thing and its aggregate cost is relatively modest.

I think methane cars would be a bad mistake. We need to electrify the fleet - that seems to be generally agreed by anyone who takes the climate problem seriously. As for "innovation", throwing money at the energy problem may turn out to be useful, but it's not sufficient.

But this is basically off the present topic. The present topic is to what extent we can use the tools of economics to guide our decision-making. My position is that this is backwards. We should use economics primarily to implement our decisions, not to constrain them.

The engineering attitude is "I can help you do that, but you might not like the result and here's why". The economics attitude is "You shouldn't do that, you should do this, because your values are revealed in your aggregate behaviours and they imply this".

I would like economists to be more like engineers. Offer options, and stop pretending that we work for you.

Tom said...

I don't believe you have accurately captured the 'economics attitude,' or even come within shouting distance of it. But I submit that until agreement on that is reached, shouting is what we'll end up doing.

...and Then There's Physics said...

I would like economists to be more like engineers. Offer options, and stop pretending that we work for you.

Yes, I see no reason why Economists should have any kind of priviledged position. I have no argument against std.econ providing information such as how to follow some kind of pathway, how to achieve some kind of goal, the consequences of various options, etc. What I object to is the idea that some kind of cost-benefit analysis should define our policy options. In the same way that climate science does not define what we should do, climate economics should also not define what we should do. They both provide information that can inform policy; neither should (in my view) define it.

Tom said...

Could someone point me to that cursed hell-hole where economists actually hold sway? It is not in my country--nor is it Canada or the UK, where Dr. Tobis and ATTP hail from...

Perhaps someone can highlight policies that were dictated by that cursed breed? None come from the lands of Trump, Trudeau or May. Indeed I believe that the only thing that would unite economists is their dismay at the policies of those lands. Well, there's Nudge... but that's small beer, don't you think? And Thaler just died, so even that will fade into obscurity.

Economists mostly work in academia, where their papers are blithely ignored, or in obscure government bodies where their papers are... blithely ignored. Can you name more than three economists? The only one with a regular public forum is Krugman, right?

Some economists have put forward proposals to deal sanely with climate change. Their proposals are... wait for it... blithely ignored, when they are not howled at with rage.

Allocating scarce resources to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number. I can understand why Trump would dismiss this. Why do you?

David Young said...

MT and all,

I disagree with WMC's theory which seems to me a form of economic fundamentalism. It assumes everything can be monitized and traded based on its "value." I disagree strongly with that. Our most important accomplishments as a species are often not very important economically, for example, religion, music, art, and even a large part of science.

However, MT, to have credibility it seems to me you need a practical program that people will sign on to to achieve lower emissions. Perhaps in the past, you have laid out one, but I'm unaware of it. I also think Tom is correct that to conjure the worst, you need to make particularly pessimistic assumptions that are not consistent with existing trends. The only way we will "burn it all" is if the West is taken over by Islam (or some other dangerous ideology) with its medieval notion of human nature and its weird and brutal notion of what God demands of human beings. What puzzles me about this is that the climate alarmed community seems remarkably content to watch Western values slip under a growing tide of Islamification. They never utter a word or even care about these important cultural issues. Science depends on Enlightenment values. Conservatives are not a significant threat to those values. However, we have only to look at the Muslim world to see that these values are not automatic and in fact contrary to deep threads in Islamic doctrine. In any case, assuming a reformation in Islam, continued scientific advances will surely have a big impact as they have in the past. Population seems to me quite likely to level off soon as well.

The tipping point argument seems to me to be lacking firm foundations. There have been many false alarms such as with regard to the "methane bomb." The science here, which I am admittedly only passingly familiar with, seems to me to be pretty weak because it deals with things that are not well understood such as ice sheet dynamics or hurricanes, or the thermohalene circulation. I tend to agree with WMC that we can adapt to even 5C. That value seems to me to be quite unlikely. In any case, scaring people this way is very unlikely to work. We live in a media marketing environment where people selling something are constantly trying to scare us. Democrats try to frighten us about Republicans and vice versa. The supplements industry tries to frighten us about cancer and deficiencies. The drug companies are masters of overselling. Many NGO's send out scary propaganda about the latest dangers of chemicals in the environment or whaling or nuclear power. Civil rights organizations grossly exaggerate the numbers of "fascists" in the world. Everyone who is trying to extract money knows that scary stories can work with those who are already somewhat sympathetic with your point of view. The end result is that most people are very skeptical of these stories, especially if they don't like you in the first place. This is the mechanism by which alarmism becomes self-defeating.

Michael Tobis said...

David, thanks for the thoughtful comment. There's much to think about there.

But dismissing fascism as a trivial distraction is a bit glib for me given my family's history.

Not taking the fascists too seriously was something Germans did quite a lot of during the Weimar Republic, as it happens.

Alarmism is hard to distinguish from justified alarm. Sometimes the most intuitively unlikely damn things do happen.

Michael Tobis said...

"you need a practical program that people will sign on to to achieve lower emissions"

I have my opinions, but I don't think it's likely that a majority of people will listen to them. Nor am I so sure of myself that I am sure people should make me emperor of the world and obey my impulses.

Consequently I spend more time thinking about how we can think together, and less time working up a detailed plan.

I think it unlikely that any individual can work up a detailed plan that optimally navigates our problems and prospects, and astronomically unlikely that the same individual can prevail upon the world to follow it. So Tobis's Practical Planetary Program would be a waste of time. I'm a bit proud and self-righteous I suppose, but I'm not *that* arrogant.

...and Then There's Physics said...

Since we seem to be heading into the weeds, let me try and clarify something. What I'm trying to suggest (which I did think was obvious) is that people are perfectly entitled to consider what some cost-benefit analysis suggests will happen, and to decide that they regard that outcome as unacceptable. The tipping points was just me highlighting a reason why some might regard the optimal pathway suggested by Nordhaus as being a pathway we should be aiming to avoid (my own view wasn't all that relevant, although I presented it anyway). If people think that some kind of optimal cost-benefit pathway should define our response maybe that can explain why and why anyone who disagrees with that deserves being regarded as equivalent to WUWTers.

Michael Tobis said...

aTTP, I don't understand your concluding sentence. It almost parses grammatically, but I don't see what you are saying.

Michael Tobis said...

David, I am not touching your latest contribution. It strikes me as part of the problem, not of the solution. Take it elsewhere if you must cast blame.

...and Then There's Physics said...

aTTP, I don't understand your concluding sentence. It almost parses grammatically, but I don't see what you are saying.

I was mainly referring to WMC's suggestion (which I may have misunderstood) that disagreeing with/rejecting something like the Nordhaus optimal cost-benefit pathway is akin to denialists rejecting the GHE (or that CO2 can cause warming). That seems to imply that a optimal cost-benefit pathway (such as that presented by Nordhaus) should define our response, rather than simply informing what we do. It is possible that we (WMC and I) are simply talking past each other, but I'm interested in having this clarified.

...and Then There's Physics said...

Okay, maybe it was a typo that caused some confusion. It should have been

If people think that some kind of optimal cost-benefit pathway should define our response maybe *they* can explain why, and why anyone who disagrees with that deserves being regarded as equivalent to WUWTers.

Michael Tobis said...

For David Young: https://twitter.com/KeikoZoll/status/924382250271215616

David Young said...

After wading through the twitter nonsense, MT, I found the original wired article and I found this money quote: "Here’s how you make a dystopia: Convince people that when disaster strikes, their neighbors are their enemies, not their mutual saviors and responsibilities. " I was not aware I was advocating a dystopian view.

What I suspect you and I disagree about is human nature. The classical Christian view is that human nature is flawed and fallen. The Romantic view is that "natural man" is noble and civilization ruins everything. Many moderns are ignorant of history and so refuse to confront the savagery, brutality, and exploitative nature of human history and in fact human nature. In fact, we seem to be enjoying a vogue of these brutal cultures with Vikings and Game of Thrones. In these series, brutality is not hidden, but not stigmatized either. Civilization is a thin veneer that often fails. One can cite Nazism, Communism, and of course the more brutal islamic regimes.

If you examine ape and chimp behavior honestly (as has taken a long time but in the salt 20 years has been documented) you find warfare, violence, and infanticide by dominant males. Not exactly like bunny rabbits peacefully grazing on grasses. Predators have evolved this way because it works in a "state of nature." And humans probably were only able to take the leap to large brain sizes when hunting provided a steady stream of high protein food.

Another factor here is the romanization of "indigenous cultures" by politically correct dogma. In fact, in America, these cultures were brutal and involved mass human sacrifice, continual warfare, disease, famine, and short lifespans. Stone age cultures were simply horrible, especially for females. Even antiquity is often whitewashed, especially Roman culture. The problem here is that civilized standards and enlightenment values are not natural or some kind of default. They must be defended and perpetuated vigorously. So, I guess I'm puzzled by your criptic responses above. My basic point was that there are in fact ideological dangers in the modern world similar to communism or fascism, the twin European ideological disasters of the 19th Century.

What disturbs me the most is that many seem to regard the brutality of these primitive cultures as worthy of praise, or rationalization.