Playing the Odds

My post a few days back ignited a pretty lively discussion of climate change. But here’s what I don’t understand: let’s say the science is far less compelling than I think it actually is. Let’s say it’s 50/50, rather than 98/2. It would still make sense to take steps to ameliorate it.

There are zero negatives to cleaning up the environment. No downsides–even if we are wrong. For our efforts we get an investment in cleaner air and water, and we create a lot of new jobs. On the other hand, if we do nothing and climate change continues at its current pace, we face increasing numbers of disasters–hurricanes, tsunamis, rising sea levels…Aside from the human suffering such effects would cause, they will require massive outlays of money and other resources–far more than an investment in green energy and environmentally-friendly technologies.

I understand why those with a financial stake in coal, oil and other pollutants are advocating that we ignore the science. But wouldn’t good policy require that we play the odds, even if they were far less lopsided than they are?

If you lived beneath a volcano and were told it only had a 50-50 chance of erupting, would you keep your family there?


  1. That is the number one issue that doesn’t get discussed enough in the debate.. (Number two is whether today’s climate is for some reason the ideal.). The steps urged to address this perceived problem, things like adoption of the Kyoto Treaty, even advocates admit would only have a tiny impact on curbing global warming. (I can’t say climate change because the climate always changes…it never stays the same.) Yes, they admit that no matter what steps we take we can’t stop global warming. But in the next breath they say that the changes they advocate would be good for mankind and therefore we should do them anyway. It’s an admission that they’re trying to at best trying to leverage a crisis for a political agenda that has nothing to do with the crisis. At the worst, the crisis is simply a manufactured crisis.

    The irony is that those steps they advocate we adopt for global warming, er climate change, would have the OPPOSITE effect. Things like implementing Kyoto and cap and trade would cost trillions of dollars and devastate the economies of several first world countries. But the greatest increase in greenhouse gases today are countries like China and India which isn’t even affected by Kyoto. The U.S. has reduced emissions even though we didn’t ratify Kyoto. But even if third world countries were included in Kyoto, it still would only have a slight impact on global warming.

    The greatest impact on reducing carbon emissions is economic development and technological improvement, both of which are harmed by measures that are being advocated by the alarmists.

    One thing I think we need to agree on, we need to stop letting people build along marshes and other areas of the coast line. A prime example is New Orleans. The marshes there used to act as a buffer to hurricanes. Now people have built in the marshy land. When people say that storms are more catyclismic today and point to the amount of damage being higher, well it’s higher because people are building out the coastal areas.

  2. Regarding comments from Ogden, on the one hand he is correct that a certain amount of warming (2 degrees centigrade) is inevitable. However, he misses the point that actions to reduce carbon emissions can still prevent warming from rising 5 degrees by 2100. Secondly he seems unaware of a significant body of economic research and modeling which shows that investment in avoiding damage stemming from unnecessary warming is paid for by many multiples in savings from not having to fix the damage which otherwise will be done. Similarly there is no evidence (other than the cries of fossil fuel companies) that conversion to safer green energy will wreck the economy. In fact even fossil fuel companies are beginning to see the light and are investing in alternative energy.

  3. Mr. Ogden, I’m a senior biochemisty student at IU with 2 and a half years of research experience in ecology. I know that’s not much, but I like to think I know at least a little about what I love to learn about. I would like to know where you find such solid scientific consensus about the idea that we can do nothing to curb all the problems we have been creating over the past couple hundred years. That’s not the message I’ve been getting. Just look at lakes and rivers over the past 30 years. Used to be chalked with heavy metal pollutants, but we recognized the problem and we addressed it. Now the problem is minuscule in comparison. Now the problem is algal blooms from heavy nitrogen and phosphate fertilizers.

  4. If McCain or Palin or Boehner had presented the same issues as Vice President Gore did, we would be well into solving at least some of the global warming (climate change, if that medicine is more tolerable) issues by now. Hatred of the man who started the conversation has kept us from moving forward. He was and is correct and we’re not where we should be. What a pity!

  5. Sorry to be snide, Sheila, but the answer to your question is that to even accept a 50-50 chance and react logically would open up the idea of rational, evidence based policies.

    We would have to entertain the possibility that research may show that some form of gun control might reduce the number of gun-related deaths (this research is now practically illegal). We might also have to entertain the possibility that an emphasis on fiscal austerity in the current economic conditions actually leads to another recession and that a massive investment in infrastructure repair might actually reduce the unemployment rate.

    Reality has a Liberal bias.

  6. “This world is a dangerous place to live in. Not because of the people who do evil but, because of the people who sit and let it happen.”
    Albert Einstein

    If sitting and doing nothing to prevent further destruction of our environment is not evil; what is? If doing nothing to prevent even a small percentage of needless deaths by enacting gun control is not evil, what is? What are the odds of logical and rational action being taken by Congress?

  7. You’re phrasing the debate under the flawed premise that this is a Pascal’s Wager scenario. That setup doesn’t really carry because there is an inherent risk to both sides. There also appears to be some confusion as to “cleaning up the environment” somehow being the same thing as “dealing with climate change.” While there would be some policy overlap, there are substantial philosophical differences between the two. As for me, I don’t put CO2 on the same level as black carbon, heavy metals, dioxins, etc.

    For example, if we are to buy into global warming eschatology, it would have to trump conventonal conservation (that whole bit about cities being underwater, cannibalism, the world’s population is at risk here.) If we truly are all in on “fighting” CO2 and producing carbon offsets, how can you argue against a future of kudzu, bamboo, and those godawful Princess trees? More importantly, how can we justify planting slow-growing, comparitively poor carbon offsetters like walnut, hickory, etc.? The inconvenient truth is the global warming logic fights deforestation because that’s how we remove CO2. However, at the same time any hardwood logging should NEVER be replaced because it just doesn’t produce the best carbon offset. If you don’t think global warming is THAT serious that such strict measures need to be taken you’re not keeping up with the tenor of the movement.

    Many logical people can agree on what’s best but perhaps disagree on how to get there. We all want a cleaner earth, some of us just have different priorities on how to achieve it. The logic that fails on me are these “investments” in future green jobs, often costing millions of dollars per attempt. It increasingly looks like these are little more than campaign contribution kickbacks, and my kids are already going to be dealing with $16,000,000,000,000+ worth of “investments” in the economy. THAT is the legacy my children will be dealing with. I do a bit of the woodworking in my free time, and I believe in sustainable logging, but there isn’t any room left in the global warming crowd for anything other than lyptus and bamboo. They’ve managed to push every voice of common sense and reason out of the environmental debate.

    This in a week where The Economist is reporting black soot has 3x the warming effect previously thought and we’re learning the last decade saw no rise in temperatures despite an immeasurable growth in fossil fuels. Obviously climate change has become a multi-discliplinary soft science, and if my liberal arts degrees taught me anything it’s much more difficult to make hard facts out of soft science. That debate still over?

  8. From your comments, it’s clear that you have very little understanding of the chemical sciences. I usually try to keep my mouth shut when issues I know little about are being discussed. Granted, I inevitable fail at times. You say “As for me, I don’t put CO2 on the same level as black carbon, heavy metals, dioxins, etc.” I could care less about how you rank them, as their relative harms are dependent on the context and nuances of how we are talking about them. Heavy metals for example are dangerous to the environment at high concentrations; however, they are essential to the proper functioning of many enzymes currently at work in your body as we speak. Either way, you would surely not deny that all 4 of these pollutants are present in the environment as a result of the fossil fuel industry? It appears your argument is self-defeating, does it not?
    In your comments, you seem to segregate CO2 from all other pollutants and treat it like a trivial matter. You say that throughout your life, the argument has gone from global warming to climate chance to acid rain to ozone depletion and so on and so forth, failing to realize that most of these things are distinct problems (though some are in fact interrelated) within the environment. To be honest, I don’t even know where to begin with what you’ve said about these various problems. Maybe you could elaborate more so I know exactly where you stand. Do you not believe that acid rain and the loss of ozone are current environmental problems?
    The last thing I feel deserves comment is your apparent attitude toward environmentalists. You say “their solution? Planting lots of pine trees.” Seems like a bit of an over-generalization. I don’t think any sensible ecologist would suggest such a terrible idea. Sounds like something a lumber company would suggest and even then it would be a terrible idea. Like I tried to get you to think about before, highly homogenous communities are highly susceptible to adverse environmental and pathogenic problems. That’s why our current loss of biodiversity, both within species and between species, is such a big deal. Planting huge groves of pine trees would just open up the door for an opportunistic fungal pathogen to come and wipe out the whole population, like it did the American chestnut or Butternut populations. Having worked with ecologists and environmentalists from most regions of the US and many regions of the world, I don’t know any who are that silly. What are the chances? As far as invasive species go, of course they’re a huge ecological problem. If you haven’t heard of conservationists trying to fix these problems, have you tried opening your eyes? There is a huge branch of academic research devoted understanding species invasion and there are conservationists of every kind, no not just pine tree conservationists but wetland conservationists, prairieland conservationists, rainforests conservationists, etc., etc., trying to fix invasive species problems. It might help if they had some cash and a good lobby.
    By the way, science has another thought problem for you. You seem to think global warming probably won’t have any actual effect on the environment and then you go on all apocalyptically about species invasion. Well, inform yourself about the differences between C3 photorespiration and C4 photorespiration and then make a hypothesis about what will happen when usually warm climates become colder and usually cold climates become warmer.

  9. Lol, no, of course our debt isn’t because of green jobs. It’s indisputable that this mentality is what has contributed to it, however. At a cost of over a million dollars a job (Googled it, rounding down) is that really “investing” in the future, a job that with interest will take generations to pay off itself? That’s the kind of economic mentality, to a T, that has led to where we are at. Furthermore, your insistence that we mustn’t triage the problems facing our nation today, that we must do SOMETHING about EVERYTHING, is again something that has led us to where we are at. We can agree to disagree on the role of government in accumulating debt for future generations.

    Reference the pine tree planting, that’s exactly my point. It’s funny you’ve asymetrically agreed with me on non-native invasive species, but again if we’re playing the global warming card, sacrifices must be made to save the earth. If carbon offsets are THAT important, logic dictates that’s what must be done. It’s hard to buy into the warming science without viewing global warming as an imminently apocalyptic phenomena, by virtue of it’s arguments we don’t have time for common sense. On that note, Chestnut Blight is believed to have been introduced in America, it didn’t evolve because we had too many Butternut trees. We’re seeing the same thing now with the emerald ash borer, but instead of focusing on real tangible problems people are marketing carbon offsets. Meh.

    As far as the science goes, I’m still operating under the arguments that were made 10 years ago, because that’s when “the debate (was) over.” My point is if the end is extremely f’ing nigh, then radical, incredibly devastating steps must be taken because we don’t have time for anything else. It’s this kind of cognitive dissonance that I’m not understanding, and I’ve yet to hear a rational explanation for the double-thinking these folks are espousing. If you’re the type that says “Hey, we’ve got a lot of gunk in the air and in the ground, CO2 is something to be concerned about but it’s a very small part of a very large problem,” that’s great and we’re arguing over trivialities. The problem there, however, is you’re disagreeing with much (most) of the global warming theorists, alarmists, what have you…

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