Saturday, October 24, 2009

Environmentalism and Persuasion

Lately I've been thinking far too much about the persuasive skills of environmentalists. I've already discussed my general distaste for Joe Romm's blogging style, though I believe his information is solid. Joe is unhappy with Andy Revkin because his time spent blogging has lowered the quality of his journalism. The list could go on forever; I think any conversation will ultimately end with The Death of Environmentalism (pdf).

One shortcoming of many environmentalists was their unwillingness to claim things as certain. I was just watching Everything's Cool, a 2006 film on the public opinion and global warming, on Thursday and heard scientists talk about how, as scientists, they don't like to claim certainty. I assumed this was a major part of the reason the public could never become enamored with the cause.

Tyler says I'm wrong. According to him, experts are taken more seriously when they hedge their statements. I'm lost - I really don't know what to think about the intersections of science and global opinion any longer.

Is Global Warming?

A new survey by Pew Research says more Americans would answer "no, not really." I'm struggling to understand why... as Pew says in the article, "From 2006 to 2008, these numbers had been quite stable" (regarding the number of people who viewed warming as a serious or very serious problem).

I understand that this year and last have been filled with debates about the economy and health care, both of which hit closer to home with Joe American. What I don't understand is how that translates into fewer people believing that global warming is happening.

The biggest losses are among Independents and moderate Democrats, who represent the margin of this issue, I suppose. Is anyone able to shed some light on why?

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Wall Street, Climate Change, and Risk Tolerance

I've been wondering for the past couple of weeks why I haven't heard anyone comparing the recent debacle on Wall Street with the upcoming mess we are making with regards to our climate. It seems to me the errors of the past decade - not understanding complex financial instruments, underestimating the likelihood and the consequences of the devastating scenarios - are the exact same mistakes we are making in the current climate change debate. So it's heartening to hear someone finally parallel the two.
We condemn Wall Street for taking risks with our economy — risks that all of you are trying very hard to reverse — but at the same time we’re taking exactly the same kind of risks, with no upside whatsoever, with regard to our climate, failing to practice even the basic risk management techniques in terms of climate change reduction.

That's J. Wayne Leonard, CEO of Entergy, addressing the US Congress. Am I imagining the parallels between the two cases or is there a similar discounting of long-term risk because we fail to recognize how catastrophic the worst-case scenario would be?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Elinor Ostrom on Climate Change

Found the link at MR - where else? - for a podcast of Ostrom with Joe Cone, of Oregon State University. After reading the transcript, I'd like to highlight a couple of interesting quotes and their implications for the upcoming negotiations in Copenhagen.
...the concept of resilience caught on among ecologists big time, because it goes to some of the issues of forests and fisheries and other biological systems that they may be resilient to one kind of change, but adapting to that change may make them more vulnerable to another change. And so, nothing is eternally resilient. Basically, it means capacity to have a change and adjust, and continue functioning about like you did before, as a system. (emphasis added)

In this quote, I see support for those who believe we must act now. An economist-friend of mine has often argued that once the effects of climate change get more serious, then we will get market-based solutions to the problems, which ultimately will be the best solutions. I don't disagree that free market solutions will likely be the best, but a lot of data shows we cannot wait. The feedback loops are such that the effects will become nearly irreversible and the technology exists now to mitigate enough of the worst consequences that a "good" solution is good enough.
But Bangladesh is very poor and while there are discussions, I doubt that they will be able to take the actions that would enable them to be fully resilient.

If you believe in rights to life, which most Americans do, I think you need to take this sentence very seriously. If you are a "skeptic" who wants to wait to see further affects before committing to take action, you are going to be infringing on the rights of some people to life as the sea level rises.
Recognizing that this is something that must be done at multiple levels, so what I am concerned about is a lot of people think that the only way to cope with global change is international agreements.

Attention, America: We can act independently of Kyoto, or any other protocol that we may or may not see come out of Copenhagen. Fortunately, many states have taken the lead in taking action. Hopefully this trend continues regardless of what the federal government negotiates.
Community A has a very good plan for dealing with disasters and it’s sent around and everybody copies it verbatim. That is, I think itself a disaster. I’m strongly urging against. Because, the difference for a community that is below sea level and one that has cliffs right up to the edge of an ocean is dramatically different...we need diversity of response. I’m not recommending that nobody plan. I am recommending that people plan knowing a lot about their own ecological systems, their structure. How fragile are they to this threat versus that threat.

Ostrom clearly would support the AWG-LCA (long-term cooperative action) track, advocated by the United States, for these upcoming negotiations. I personally agree with her view, that everyone needs to plan for their own contingencies. As long as everyone is taking *some* action, this will ensure that everyone's actions will have the best results for themselves. Self-interest at its finest!
But, we’ve got to somehow get over the problems that people will screw one another upon occasion. And we have to find ways of using sanctions and other mechanisms to make sure that the people who are not trusting, or trustworthy and using reciprocity, are discovered and encouraged to change their ways or to not participate. To get out.

This is one of the final things she says, and again, I think it's easy to read her and think about Copenhagen. We have to have some kind of international monitoring system to ensure that everyone is doing their fair share. But we also have to get over this philosophy that we won't take action unless we know for sure that everyone else is going to take similar action. Ultimately, in a cooperative situation, something you have to take the plunge and assume that everyone is plunging with you.

This was a long post, but I haven't even covered everything from the transcript. I found all of it very interesting and this tends to reinforce my belief that the Nobel selections this year, in some small way at least, had Al Gore's success resuscitating Bali and the upcoming negotiations in Copenhagen in mind.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

On... ?

I was going to call this post "On Healthcare," then "On Americans," but ultimately I'm not sure what it's on. I'm reposting the final paragraph of a recent post by Megan McArdle because it resonated with me, but I can't figure out exactly why I loved it so much. Maybe someone else can help me describe what it is I see.
It's no good saying that well, we should try to be more like the Netherlands--you can't build a system on the assumption that you will, suddenly and for no apparent reason, be able to import someone else's political culture. Progressives are watching the whole health care legislative process with utter dismay as it produces a monster of a bill that not even its mother could love--and trying to love it anyway, on the grounds that it's a start. But this ridiculous hodgepodge, this hypertrophied Rube Goldberg apparatus, is not some startling aberration of the political process, induced by some Republican dark magic. This is the kind of thing the American political system produces. This is why all of our programs have a substantial element of the inexplicable and bizarre.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Somewhere Between Hayek and Kuhn

That's the best way I can describe this article from Monday's New York Times. It's about how "nonsense sharpens the intellect" and cites psychological research describing human pattern-recognition capabilities.

F.A. Hayek would not be surprised at any of the results. In The Sensory Order, he describes the mind as a mass of connections between different impulses. Neurons that have fired together in the past are likely to fire together again in the future; hence, we are likely to recognize (perceive?) situations that are similar to those we have already experienced.

Thomas Kuhn would be equally unsurprised. In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, he describes the progress of science (really, knowledge) as a series of revolutions, during which we break out of a "paradigm" which restricts our thoughts to view phenomena in an entirely new way.

Both of these ideas come together, in my mind, to form the foundations of this article. We see the world in a certain way, which is colored by everything we have already seen, we have learned - basically by everything we know. When something we know is challenged, we look at that something differently; the truth, however, is that we look at everything differently. Humans are able to escape the boundaries set by their own knowledge when they are reminded that these boundaries exist; this is why reading Kafka allowed above-average recognition of patterns.

Thinking about thought is one of the toughest exercises I have ever undertaken.

Compared with the totality of knowledge which is continually utilized in the evolution of a dynamic civilization, the difference between the knowledge that the wisest and that which the most ignorant individual can deliberately employ is comparatively insignificant. ~Fredrich Hayek in The Constitution of Liberty