Irrational beliefs I hold about carbon emissions

by on September 25, 2007 at 8:44 am in Science | Permalink

I have two sets of beliefs about global warming.  The first set I infer from the observed "scientific consensus," but applying my "sociology of science" adjustments to the filters of mainstream media, intelligent blogs, reports of peer-reviewed journals, popular science books, and so on.  That means somewhat more skepticism than the postulated consensus, but mostly I buy into the consensus account as our best available estimate.  Procedurally speaking, I am not sure how I could make these beliefs more rational.

The second segment of my beliefs is less rationally grounded.  I believe, for instance, that ocean acidification will, in the long run, be the most dangerous consequence of carbon emissions.  (And by saying that I don’t mean to downgrade the other worries.)

I am aware that this belief isn’t necessarily justified.  It is shared by some scientists as a speculation, and it could turn out to be true, but it is hardly well-grounded as our major worry even though it does seem to be a real worry. 

Still, for whatever reason, I cannot help but believe it, or at least believe it with some excess degree of credence.  Is this because I visited the ocean as a child, and received some mysterious emotional sense of its powers, a sense which I can no longer eradicate from my subconscious?  Or am I more generally attracted to explanations which postulate some deeper but slightly hidden or indirect problem with status quo policies?  (I could look for signs that I hold similar delusions elsewhere.)

I try to keep these beliefs from affecting my policy conclusions, but I am not altogether able to stop holding them.  And even if my belief turns out to be true (which I expect someone to suggest in the comments), I am quite sure my procedural reason for holding it is an irrational one.

Brent September 25, 2007 at 8:54 am

Why is it that pro-market economists so often seem to have irrational scientific beliefs about global warming? It’s a scientific issue, with maybe a political dimension. Economists should stick to discussing the economic effects any proposed solutions would have. With respect, they should refrain from propagating loony pseudo-scientific nonsense about this important issue.

Sandy September 25, 2007 at 9:21 am

I do not share Mr. Cowen’s equanimity in the face of climate change. Like many places, the gorgeous marine wonderland I saw in 1980 off the coast of Key Largo is now a brown, dead undersea desert. Marine pollution and, ironically, the current absorption of excess CO2 by the ocean, thus reducing its pH, has inhibited plankton growth, and reduced its ability to fix carbon dioxide.

This is why I don’t think that emissions reduction is sufficient–we need to be looking into engineered sequestration.

A student of economics September 25, 2007 at 9:57 am

Ocean acidification may or may not be an unexpected disaster, but the broader point is that we’re running a huge experiment with unknown parameters and uncharted feedback effects on the global climate. Will there be weird, unexpected positive feedback effects that suddenly, catastrophically and irreversibly destroy the existing equilibrium? Maybe.

The skeptics who preach “uncertainty” on global climate change don’t seem to realize that greater uncertainty strengthens the case for action today. If anything, it calls for buying MORE insurance and taking stronger measures, since it raises the specter of disastrous outcomes in the tails of our probability distributions.

Pitt September 25, 2007 at 11:05 am

Ocean acidification sounds similar in some ways to the acidification of lakes in Minnesota and the Canadian Shield area and in Scandinavia. But I see the oceans as a much more complex system with all types of feedback and buffer system loops. Is it truly predictable what the trend is based on the current data where this is going to lead?

caveat bettor September 25, 2007 at 11:46 am

I just created a global warming prediction market here:

Please sign up and trade ($5,000 of play money). Let’s hope we can get a real market up and running, and better inform our policy on global warming.

odograph September 25, 2007 at 12:05 pm

I suppose this is a trap. If gut-think is in this case an irrational but reasonable(?) attempt to weigh fuzzy factors in an uncertain domain … would endorsing it be opening a door to the irrational but unreasonable?

Certainly in a domain as uncertain as global warming (or the always popular peak oil) no one can show you their math, or logical proof, for a policy or outcome.

Fuzzy judgments are all we are allowed (my circumstance and available data) to make. Should we really constrain ourselves against such filtering?

odograph September 25, 2007 at 12:23 pm

chi, it’s the old difference between “best guess” and “most likely.”

Ocean acidification may be Tyler’s best guess, but he may (reasonably) filter that with knowledge of his own uncertainty.

Of course, even if that best guess includes disastrous consequences, he may spend a small fraction of his fortune to insure against it. Do compact fluorescents cost a fivespot? Does Tyler have them?

aaron September 25, 2007 at 1:50 pm

I’d look into it more. From what I understand there are vast amount of calcium compounds and others in the ocean that will neutralize the acidity. It’s not just improbable, not really even plausible.

Robin Hanson September 25, 2007 at 2:25 pm

It seems to me Tyler just said “I am wrong.”

jim September 25, 2007 at 7:07 pm

Well, we see a consensus of a small amount of warming (even given the highly politicized nature of climate research and incentives for worst-case alarmism).

The problem is the environmentalism ideology tries to steal an intellectual base by using the consensus forecast as proof of a consensus on policy.

And that’s where, just as economists aren’t the best to adjudicate environmental science, environmentalists are unqualified to decide economic policy.

Ideologies like environmentalism show an unwillingness to consider cost-benefit analysis. A consensus of a modest, human-caused warming — says nothing about what the correct response should be.

The Stern report was a good example of an attempt to browbeat the facts into submission to prove an ideology.

There seems a sizable risk the cure will be worse than the disease. I’m sure the, fundamentally silly, precautionary principle implies no action should be taken there for fear of upsetting the delicate balance of the current system. :-)

odograph September 25, 2007 at 9:57 pm

Starting with the last part jim, “the cure will be worse than the disease,” I cut my carbon footprint in half, while increasing my overall happiness and reducing my overall costs. I gather from a radio report this morning that WalMart thinks they can do the same (not sure about the happiness part).

But assuming that we have done all the win-win moves, the ones that improve our lives in other ways while reducing our carbon footprint … how do we make decisions about the harder things that might actually cost a little … and then the things that might cost a lot?

I think you’d have to assure me, not about the consensus for ‘most likely’ climate, but about the odds of sharper changes (sea level rise > 1m, loss of environmental services etc.).

Before I decide that the “precautionary principle” is right out, I’d like you to tell me the actual odds of those “bad things.”

If you can’t do that, you are asking me to make a cost-benefit decision with a lot of data missing.

… like Tyler, I might go with my gut.

Tracy W September 26, 2007 at 7:05 am

Robert, you say Most of the strongest deniers have a belief in the benefits of the capitalist system. This is based upon growth and climate change implies that there may be a need to change this goal. In a finite world permanent growth is impossible. Then something else will have to replace capitalism.

This does not follow. The capitalist system is a way of allocating resources. Even if we decide that we have to stop all increases in energy use, capitalism will still remain the most efficient way of allocating what resources we do have.

For example, consider a world in which there is no economic growth. I presume you believe humans will still be alive. This will require food. Therefore farmers will face choices about which crops to grow, taking into account what the eaters of those crops prefer (for example, people with coeliac disease cannot eat anything containing gluten, including wheat) and what the costs of growing any particular crop is on their soil. This information is best communicated through a price system. This is especially true because the farmer’s best choice depends on what everyone else is doing. For example, the majority of people may prefer having bread as their staple food and the farming land may be good at growing bread. But if the demand for grain for bread is being amply supplied by other farmers it may make sense for the first farmer to grow potatoes to supply the minority of the population with coeliac disease.

And before the farmer chooses what crop to grow, the land has to be assigned to farming or to some other use. Should the farm be converted to houses (people have to live somewhere). Or to a school, or a hospital? Price signals are useful for this.

And should the farmer be a farmer? Or a school teacher? Or a nurse? Or something else?

And a world with no economic growth will not therefore be a static world. The world will always change. Natural disasters happened long before CO2 levels in the atmosphere began to rise. If a flood wipes out a few million tons of grain, then how should the world economy adjust? The price system provides a way of answering that question – the price of grain will rise and that will ripple out through the economy. What happens if a new disease like Aids is discovered? Again, resources should be diverted to discovering treatments and cures if possible, and that will have ripple-on effects throughout the economy best mediated by the price system.

robertdfeinman September 26, 2007 at 2:03 pm

Trace W:
You have confused a market economy with a capitalist one. I see a distinction. A capitalist economy is based upon raising capital to fund enterprises. This investment needs to be paid back with interest. To do this the enterprise needs to grow. That’s capitalism. There is nothing there about allocating resources.

In a market place buyers and sellers bid with each other and supply and demand tends to determine which items are most in demand. This is an allocation of resources. How these resources are produced is not part of the transaction. We have had centrally planned economies where the state owns the means of production (the USSR was an example). The thing that failed was the market place. The determination of what should be created was determined by a bureaucracy which was not beholding to anyone. This is because the government was not subject to democratic forces.

Modern China has a quasi-capitalist economy. The state no longer set production quotas, but still effectively controls the means of production.

Even the US has a mixed model. We have many aspects of our economy which are owned by government enterprises. This ranges from roads to the TVA. Some enterprises run well and some don’t. It’s not the ownership that determines this, its the accountability.

I see we have our share of climate change deniers here as well. Let’s assume that the case is overstated. We won’t know this, however, for at least 100 years. Now there are two approaches to this. One, I can assume the most optimistic outcome and live like there is no tomorrow. This is perfectly rational for me, I won’t be here in 100 years and won’t suffer any adverse effects if my assumptions turn out to be wrong.

Or, I can take the most cautious approach. I’m willing to sacrifice some of my present standard of living to forestall the worst outcome, even though it won’t make any difference to me personally. So I cut back on consumption and work to have the economic model changed so that growth is not an end in itself.

This is a rephrasing of the fundamental libertarian (or whatever you want to call it) philosophy. Ayn Rand said live for yourself and disdain altruism. The competing claims of everyone will then produce the optimal outcome. This is utopianism, and an especially ugly form since it disregards the reality of unequal endowments in the real world.

Economists have been struggling with the alternative view which seems to imply altruism. This appears to be “irrational”. Why should I do something for another which doesn’t benefit me and might even involve some sacrifice? The answers are not wholly satisfying, but there is some evidence that people are hard wired to have a certain amount of altruism even though it is “irrational” from an economic stand point.

Finally, I’ll point out that capitalism is a fairly recent development in human society. It has only existed for several hundred years and only in a rather limited part of the globe. Obviously other societies have flourished without it. It’s time to look at alternatives (again).

odograph September 26, 2007 at 7:26 pm

Tom seems to be saying that we should never attempt hard questions, because we are human, and they are beyond us.

Sadly, that might be true in this case, but as always I’m struck by the internal tension in the idea:

We aren’t smart enough to figure global warming, so the smart thing is to do nothing.

Jim Hu September 28, 2007 at 12:49 am

IIRC, the vast majority of those Calcium compounds in the ocean are carbonates – in other words, they’re already tied up with CO3-. I don’t know the buffering capacity of the ocean – experiments with small samples of seawater kept at elevated CO2 do show drops of pH – but neither do you. “not really even plausible” seems rather strong based on ignorance.

Pitt September 28, 2007 at 9:46 am

And then there are those who would acidify the ocean to remove CO2 from the atmosphere and thus prevent the dreaded global warming–the feedback loops involved are just tremendously complicated and don’t we start to get into that economics area called “unintended consequences”. January 6, 2008 at 1:34 am

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