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Climate Hustle

2018 SkS Weekly Climate Change & Global Warming News Roundup #27

Posted on 7 July 2018 by John Hartz

A chronological listing of news articles posted on the Skeptical Science Facebook Page during the past week.

Editor's Pick

Climate change will get a whole lot worse before it gets better, according to game theory

Wildfire San Andreas CA 

It’s going to get a lot worse before it gets any better. According to new research published in Nature, humanity will witness marked sea level rises and frequent killer heatwaves before governments take decisive action against climate change. And to predict the future, mathematicians have turned to game theory.

The paper, published by a team of mathematicians, uses game theory to explain why it is so hard to protect the environment, updating it so they could model the effects of climate change, overuse of precious resources and pollution of pristine environments.

The bad news is that the model suggests that, when it comes to climate change, things might have to get demonstrably worse before they can get better. The good news, on the other hand, is that game theory could help policymakers to craft new and better incentives to help nations cooperate in international agreements.

Climate change will get a whole lot worse before it gets better, according to game theory by Roger Highfield, Wired UK, July 6, 2018

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Comments 1 to 12:

  1. This updated application of game theory is not a new understanding for policy makers regarding climate science and the required corrections of what has developed.

    The fundamental understanding of the problem was clearly presented in the 1987 UN Report “Our Common Future”:
    “25. Many present efforts to guard and maintain human progress, to meet human needs, and to realize human ambitions are simply unsustainable - in both the rich and poor nations. They draw too heavily, too quickly, on already overdrawn environmental resource accounts to be affordable far into the future without bankrupting those accounts. They may show profit on the balance sheets of our generation, but our children will inherit the losses. We borrow environmental capital from future generations with no intention or prospect of repaying. They may damn us for our spendthrift ways, but they can never collect on our debt to them. We act as we do because we can get away with it: future generations do not vote; they have no political or financial power; they cannot challenge our decisions.
    26. But the results of the present profligacy are rapidly closing the options for future generations. Most of today's decision makers will be dead before the planet feels; the heavier effects of acid precipitation, global warming, ozone depletion, or widespread desertification and species loss. Most of the young voters of today will still be alive. In the Commission's hearings it was the young, those who have the most to lose, who were the harshest critics of the planet's present management.”

    And that understanding can be understood to be explaining the developed result of the failure of the winners of the competitions among humans for wealth and power to ensure that all members of humanity are well educated about what really matters, about how to help develop sustainable improvements for all of humanity far into the future.

    John Stuart Mill included a warning in “On Liberty”.
    “If society lets a considerable number of its members grow up mere children, incapable of being acted on by rational consideration of distant motives, society has itself to blame for the consequences.”

    So the problem is not that policy-makers are not well aware of what is going on. The problem is that the socioeconomic-political system has encouraged people to be more egoist than altruist. Competition to appear to be better off measured by materialist consumption, with popularity and profitability being deemed to be proof of acceptability, can completely ignore the ethical need to responsibly act to be helpful to the future generations understanding the limitations of the system (the system undeniably being this, or any other, amazing planet that humanity should be striving to sustainably enjoy thriving on for hundreds of millions of years).

    A related developed problem is the incorrect thinking of economists. They are incorrect in their evaluation of the acceptability of a portion of the current generation of humanity continuing to try to benefit from activities that are undeniably creating negative consequences for others, particularly the harm done to future generations by:

    • reducing the ability of future generations to benefit from non-renewable ancient buried hydrocarbons (developing sustainable ways to use them, or having them available for an emergency)
    • the environmental degradation caused by current day actions in pursuit of benefit from burning up that resource
    • the challenges and costs of the climate change impacts of burning fossil fuels

    Economists evaluating the acceptability of the burning of fossil fuels pretend that Others negatively impacted by the activity are not actually Others. They pretend that all of the impacts are experienced by the same person or group. They need to do that to justify an evaluation that balances the negative impacts with the positive impacts.

    And most economists perform even less correct evaluations by 'discounting' the future negative impacts. Even Stern did that in his evaluation which used a lower discount rate than Nordhaus, but still balanced the future negatives with the current day positives.

    That type of evaluation is only valid if the same person or group of people will experience all of the positives and negatives. When a business or individual wants to compare optional actions it is appropriate for them to use discounting of future costs or benefits to determine the best option, for them. However, corporations and individual investors should only compare options ethically/altruistically. They should only be considering the options that do not create negative consequences for Others.

    Governments need to do a different evaluation (governments should not simply be run like businesses). And detailed comparisons of the climate change economic evaluations like “The Choice of Discount Rate for Climate Change Policy Evaluation” by Lawrence H. Goulder and Roberton C. Williams III perpetuate the misunderstanding by only comparing the business magnitude discount used by the likes of Nordhaus to the lower rate used by Stern.

    The power of the Stern evaluation was not that it used a discount rate 'more appropriate for government evaluation' than the higher business-style discount rate used by Nordhuas. The Stern evaluation showed that even though it is simply unacceptable for the current generation to be negatively impacting the future generations, even an evaluation that balanced discounted future negatives with current day positives proved the unacceptability of what was going on.

    Governments, and everyone in the chain of support for policy making, must ethically strive to guide the development of a sustainable better future for their regions in ways that do not negatively affect any other region. That cannot be done if future negatives can be discounted or be excused because of the 'amount of benefit (perception of prosperity) obtained today that would have to be given up to not be creating those negative future consequences'. Without clear proof, not some made-up model analysis results, that what is beneficial today will continue to be a benefit into the distant future, there is no justification for leadership failing to aggressively acting to end the damaging ultimately unsustainable activity.

    Many economists fail to incorporate the reality that unsustainable pursuits of benefit will not last as future benefits in their evaluations. Unsustainable activity may be regionally temporarily popular and profitable. But that is only a temporary perception of prosperity. As long as new unsustainable developments can develop 'All is Good', until it inevitably isn't. Tragically, the ones who enjoy 'The Good Time' the most are seldom the ones to suffer severely in the inevitable damaging future reality. And when the reality that too much unsustainable damaging activity is occurring, it is already 'Too Late'. The popularity and profitability of the damaging undeniably unsustainable activity resists being corrected. And it can result in understandably undeserving winners getting significant power to do even more damage to the future of humanity, regressing progress that humanity had been making, before the unacceptability of their unjustifiable but popular false advertising loses its ability to significantly influence/impress people.

    Policy makers have little excuse to be unaware of all of this. Their only excuse is to claim that leading more responsibly would be less popular and less profitable. And that is a poor excuse, not a rational justification. The fact that so many of them continue to pretend that they can excuse 'what they understand is harmful to the future generations of humanity' is proof of the damaging power of the developed socioeconomic-political systems to harm the future of humanity (and the debilitating ability of false advertising appeals to basic emotional instinctive desires to over-power human thoughtful consideration).

    The 'legality' of false advertising in politics, the lack of consequences for failing to most fully inform everyone and failing to help everyone better understand what is really going on and what corrections are required to develop a sustainable better future for humanity (including developing truly sustainable perceptions of prosperity) is the real problem. It is the reason so many policy makers choose to be unreasonable. It is the reason so many people 'grow up mere children' to the detriment of the future of humanity.

    All of this has been unwittingly exposed by climate science. Many other unsustainable harmful developments have occurred. But climate science has undeniably exposed the way that the developed socioeconomic-political systems have tragically encouraged more people to choose to become competitive egoist rather than collaborative altruists, to the undeniable detriment of the future of humanity, all for the benefit of a portion of the current population.

    The socioeconomic-political systems that like balancing the benefits that a portion of current day humanity gets from burning fossil fuels with the negative consequences that Others have to try to live/deal with need to be corrected. The unacceptability does not need modifications of complex game-theory modelling in order to be understood. It is common sense that no one can justify doing something that harms another person by balancing 'the benefit they think they get' with 'the harm they think they are doing'. And it is even less acceptable to 'discount' the harm being done to the other person when evaluating the acceptability of a choice of action.

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  2. Regarding the tragey of the commons issue, the good news is societies do want to implement renewable electricity. Opinion polls by Pew research and others show quite good public support, even although people appreciate there will be costs.

    What has slowed the process down is not so much lack of reasonable agreement on cooperation but 1) the denialist campaign has persuaded a significant minority to be obstructive,  and 2) money in politics and political campaigns: He who pays the money calls the tune.

    And 3) we have some powerful people dedictated to maintaining the curent situation where they have prospered and gained personal status, and sadly many of these people fail to see the opportunities of a renewable energy based economy, and seem to have little regard for the wider intrests of society and future generations of people, other than their own immediate family. This will only change with push back from society as a whole.

    But despite this, lower costs of wind and solar power are now gaining an unstoppable momentum anyway. This will be hard to resist, as its partly due to free market forces, the very thing the climate denialists tend to value. So we see the White House making well known absurd decisions to try to stop the use of renewable electricity and "bring back coal",  things that conflict completely with their alleged  economic ideology of free markets. If it wasn't so serious, it would be hilarious.

    You then come to our personal carbon footprints, and issues like electric cars, and reducing use of concrete, and energy inefficient appliances and so on. The tragedy of the commons would suggest we "should"cooperate for the public good, however this isn't happening, except for a few people and relatively small things like led lightbulbs.

    The problem is nobody wants to make lifestyle changes, unless everyone does, because its not going to make much difference to the climate for just one person to do something,  and its not in their personal self interest, so because everyone doesn't make changes, nobody does. The only way to practically resolve this impass is a carbon fee and dividend scheme that creates pressure for everyone to change more or less in unison.

    The Ozone issue was a relatively simple issue compared to climate change, and didn't have such a concerted pushback from industry. I think the slower ressponse with climate change is just thhe scale and complexity of the issue.

    I have always said it might take an abrupt climate change to galvanise people. Hopefully it doesn't require this, but I'm reminded of the way governments only moved to clean up the Thames River in London when the stench was so vile that it reached the Houses of Parliament, and MP's held handkerchiefs to their noses and vomited.

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  3. Easy to read article on climate change and discount rates here. Have to agree its very hard to see how a high interest rate is justified, and how we can morally restrict our economic and social evaluation to just this generation.

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  4. More climate science related reading regarding discount rates, in The Economist.

    That 'less breezy' more 'Yawn Inducing' item highlights other reasons that many evaluations regarding climate change are underestimating the harm being done. But it also fails to clearly bluntly make the point I believe undeniably needs to be made: It is simply unacceptable for any portion of humanity to benefit by creating negative consequences Others have to deal with.

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  5. The scientific validity of this application of game theory is only as sound as the decidedly political "Tragedy of the Commons" premise on which it is based.  For a sophisticated critique of the unscientific nature of this premise, I recommend the article by Ian Angus entitled "The Myth of the Tragedy of the Commons".  It should be of interest to those with a scientific bent that Garrett Hardin offered no evidence to support his thesis about the causes of the historical destruction of the commons.  The commons in England was destroyed by a series of Enclosure Acts enacted at the behest of powerful interests, not by overuse by the peasants.  Beware of "science" that assumes facts about human nature that conveniently align with the interests of the powerful in any given era.  Slavery was justified by the science of racial superiority.  Now game theory explains the failure of our present economic system to protect the Earth.  The powers that be are always aided by pseudo-science that makes claims about the natural order of things, how "people" behave or what they are capable of.  Scientific skepticism should enable us to sniff out the unproven ideologically-based premises at work.

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  6. Ted Franklin @5, interesting history. I agree privatisation has been used as a way to resolve 'some' tragedy of the commons issues, but this would be unlikely and unacceptable if applied to the oceans and atmosphere or conservation land. We would have to fight anyone suggesting such things.

    The tragedy of the commons issue has a more modern economic meaning as well, and its based on empirical observations of how people treat the public realm, so I think it does have a scientific basis.

    From wikipedia "The tragedy of the commons is a term used in social science to describe a situation in a shared-resource system where individual users acting independently according to their own self-interest behave contrary to the common good of all users by depleting or spoiling that resource through their collective action." So I would say physical assets like the land, rivers, oceans and atmosphere can become dumping grounds for waste, whether originating with the "peasantry" or corporate interests.

    Competitive market forces and personal goodwill do not resolve this issue for various pretty obvious reasons, and the normal solutions have included court processes suing for damages based around the fact we all owe as duty of care, taxes, or environmental legislation perhaps with either fines or criminal penalties, and other processes.

    However make no mistake powerful people, political ideologues and people with vested interests have a long history of fighting all of these solutions. And this is the very problem we have with the climate issue. I once read a history of attempts by lobby groups to undermine environmental legislation and its mind boggling.

    Personally I think court processes are the worst way of resolving tragedy of the commons issues and envirnmental issues generally,  as vast resources are wasted on lawyers, it takes forever, and its hard for small interests to take on the corporates, so regulatory and standards systems with penalties are better where possible.


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  7. Ted Franklin@ said: "The commons in England was destroyed by a series of Enclosure Acts enacted at the behest of powerful interests, not by overuse by the peasants."  Oh, so I guess that makes it OK?  If there were just a few 'powerful interests', why didn't the commons speak up for itself and fight them off?  Surely that was simpler that fighting the entire peasant class.  You've presented an argument, and provided evidence that clearly works against it.  Way to not make your point.

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  8. nigelj,

    Your comment@2 prompted more thinking about my understanding of the best explanation for what can be observed to be going on (using abductive reasoning).

    There is some repetition in what I say below. I am still exploring different ways of expressing the same point (and I have not included 'Otter Breaks').

    The many different challenges faced when trying to get more people to be more aware and better understand climate science appear to fall under the umbrella of what I will currently choose to refer to as “Passionate Beliefs excusing unacceptable selfish behaviour - a version of Egoism” over-ruling “Thoughtful Consideration leading to Altruistic pursuits” (First time this specific wording has come to mind - all of my thoughts continue to be a work in progress).

    And the challenge is to overcome unwitting lack of awareness and understanding that is being aggravated by misleading marketing that appeals to people who are easily impressed, liking what they have developed a desire/preference for, disliking anything that appears to be contrary to their developed preferences, desires and interests. The related challenge is to over-power those who deliberately abuse misleading marketing to tempt people to become passionate resisters of becoming more aware and better understanding climate science.

    That is another way of expressing John Stuart Mill's warning about the damaging results of allowing people to 'grow up mere children'. And it is supported by (aligned with), the presentation by Susan Cain in “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking”, specifically her reference to the American transition from a Culture of Character (valuing, admiring and rewarding altruism - based on the real helpful substance of what a person does) to a Culture of Personality (valuing, admiring and rewarding egoism - based on the potentially unjustified impression a person can create) that started in the late 1800s (cultural historian Warren Susman's work identifying that America went through a culture shift from a Culture of Character to a Culture of Personality in the late 1800s and early 1900s).

    And the blunt understanding of the attitude developed by global leaders/winners (in business and politics) as a result of egoism/image over-powering altruism/substance was presented in the 1987 UN Report “Our Common Future”: “... We act as we do because we can get away with it ...”.

    And what is clear to me is that allowing egoism to over-power altruism is a choice. It is not the inevitable nature of humans (based on reading many books including Sean Carroll's “The Big Picture” and Guy P. Harrison's “Think” and “Good Thinking”). But it is easy to see how it can develop. And it is also easy to see how it can ruin anything, including free marketplace competitions, by encouraging the development of unjustified impressions of winning in any sub-set of humanity (any society or organization). It can also tragically ruin or set-back all of humanity in the collective pursuit of a sustainable better future for humanity.

    The 2015 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are a robust emergent truth of what is required for humanity to have a future. All the SDGs need to be achieved for humanity to have a future. And climate action is a major goal; It significantly impacts so many other goals. Less urgent action to achieve the climate goals undeniably creates bigger challenges to be over-come in order to achieve most of the other SDGs. Those climate change impacts are alluded to in many discussions about discount rates used to evaluate climate action. But, of course, they are a complexity that is not included in game theory models (or the thinking of many economists).

    With the above being established, I fully support the potential for the free action of people in an open market to effectively identify and reward deserving winners. But there are restrictions/limits on good results developing in such a system. Those limits are not addressed by using a lower discount rate (or even by using a zero discount rate). Most important is the consequences of any of the participants in the system 'growing up mere children' (John Stuart Mill's warning), and being able to get away with having a competitive advantage by behaving less ethically, less helpful (or actually harmful). Those actions in pursuit of private interests are detrimental to the development of a sustainable better future for humanity (they act as they want to because they expect to get away with it, at least for a little while, for as long as they can get away with).

    The article you linked to was an easy breezy read, helped along by 'breaks for Otter time'. But in spite of its length, the closest it came to saying that 'it is unacceptable for a portion of the current generation to do something that is harmful to the future generations no matter how much benefit they think they will personally get' was near the end with the quote from “... Frank Partnoy, a professor of law and finance at the University of San Diego, [who] makes the right point: “Ultimately, we can’t rely on only numbers — we have to make really hard value judgments,” Dr. Partnoy said. “We should stop pretending this is a science and admit it is an art and talk about this in terms of ethics and fairness, not what we can observe in the markets.””

    For me, that quote would have led to the conclusion I continue to try to seek out the best way to explain: It is simply unacceptable (ethically unfair) for any portion of humanity to benefit by creating negative consequences Others have to deal with. Instead of that conclusion, the author left it as if even a zero discount rate is OK (which I showed to be unacceptable by the simple person-to-person presentation I provided at the end of my comment @1).

    A particularly egregious action is allowing people to get away with passion triggering misleading marketing appeals to selfishness (like greed or intolerance or laziness). Those appeals tempt people to develop harmful egoist attitudes excusing unjustified beliefs in defence and support of unacceptable actions.

    An example of that type of misleading marketing is attempts to claim that it is appropriate to excuse harmful behaviour by doing a 'balanced evaluation' of the perceived lost opportunity if the harmful behaviour is not allowed, with the negative consequences Others will likely suffer if the harmful actions are allowed (all from the likely to be biased perspective of the ones wanting to benefit from the activity - overstating the lost opportunity, understating the negative impacts on others).

    And a more egregious version of that unacceptable type of evaluation is to discount the future costs when performing such an already inexcusable attempt to justify something undeniably unacceptable.
    I admit that 'correcting what has developed is a significant challenge'. But as an engineer I learned that successful problem solving required identifying what the real problem was. And I encountered many people who did not like to hear what the problem was and the actions/corrections required. They wanted to believe that something 'more suited to their interests' would suffice. And some of them actively sought out someone who would tell them what they wanted to hear. And if they thought they found something supporting what they wanted to believe (even though they were wrong because of confirmation bias) they became even more difficult to deal with, more difficult to correct.

    And that comes full circle to the challenges of raising public awareness and understanding regarding climate science. The reality of the way that people develop their thinking and desires in 'competition to appear to be a winner with popularity and profitability as justifications for the acceptability of something' is a major part of why it is so difficult to get broad acceptance of climate science. The understood properly identified problem and the required corrections are contrary to the developed interests of the people who need to be corrected. And the most harmful members of the population are very powerful due to the popularity and profitability of their developed interests. And those harmful people can get support from people who are easily impressed by passion triggering misleading marketing. And the result is unsustainable harmful development of impressions of winning in the competitions for popularity and profitability.

    Ultimately, humanity's only viable future is a robust diversity of humanity fitting as sustainable parts of the robust diversity of life on this, or any other amazing planet. Artificial attempts to correct for unsustainable human activity are destined to fail. Climate science, and the developed resistance to its acceptance and identified corrective action for the benefit of the future of humanity, has exposed how unjustified, deeply flawed and ultimately unsustainable many of the supposedly most advanced aspects of humanity actually are. It has exposed that the games people have been playing have developed unsustainable activities that are creating harmful consequences for the future of humanity.

    The answer appears to be: Activities that are not sustainable developments for the future of humanity must not be allowed to compete. Making that happen is the challenge that needs to be solved for humanity to have a future.

    Climate science needs to carry on improving the awareness and understanding in its field. And it may help to have each summary of climate change impacts to open and conclude with something like: It is simply unacceptable (ethically unfair) for any portion of humanity to benefit by creating negative consequences Others have to deal with.

    The leaders/winners in the games people play need to be held accountable for the results, with climate science helping to expose/explain how the accounting needs to be done, no more excuses, especially not the excuse that harming future generations is OK because: they will develop brilliant solutions to the problems that were created, or they will be super rich - because that is how economics always work out, or they cannot get even with the ones who harmed them. The first two are likely to be poor excuses. The last one is more likely to be the reality.

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  9. Ted Franklin @5

    One might be critical about the political wrongdoings with the story of the tragedy of the commons concerning common lands.

    Besides, Hardin's proposal for pollution seems to be quite sensible and would be good if adapted in case of greenhouse gases. He proposes für pollution:

    "But the air and waters surrounding us cannot readily be fenced, and so the tragedy of the commons as a cesspool must be prevented by different means, by coercive laws or taxing devices that make it cheaper for the polluter to treat his pollutants than to discharge them untreated." (The Tragedy of the Commons by Garrett Hardin, 1968, Science, 1968)

    I hope some conservative thinktanks would think about this and adopt some of these policies.

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  10. OPOF @9,

    I agree most people have some altruism in them. I think whats happened is society has lost faith in the egalitarian 1960's, and swung towards a more self centred economy since the 1980s economic reforms, and  taken this too far. Imho the pendulum will swing back somewhere in the middle.

    Ecomomists are already admitting the Thatcher and Reagon reforms had some problems. I think the challenge is to identify their good points, and the bad points, but having an intelligent debate on it seems elusive.

    Regarding the 'Otter' article on discount rates. I found the link you posted obviously very good, but too technical for me so I hunted out a simplified version and thought it worth posting. It probably didn't go far enough on the philosophical issues we have to face.

    I think the whole matter comes down to a value judgement, or ethical judgement if you prefer. For me it's namely "do we leave the planet in good working order for future generations, or not?" I use simple term like this that hopefully anyone can relate to .

    Hopefully the answer is yes, and discount rates are part of figuring this out, but only go so far. We have to be asking what are the practical things this generation needs to do to give future generations a decent life? For me the main ones are:

    1) Reduce carbon emissions

    2) Reduce rates of population growth

    3) Sustainable farming etc.

    4) More careful and limited use of scarce resources, but without resorting to a 'sack cloth' lifestyle.

    I dont see what else would make sense, or be likely to be acceptable to people.


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  11. nigelj@10,

    I would add the following items to your list:

    • reduce the amount of energy consumption per person and maximize the percentage of the consumed energy that is sustainably sourced and delivered for consumption, with the richest being expected to lead by example toward the most sustainable lowest energy consumption ways of good enjoyable living.
    • Achieve all of the Sustainable Development Goals, not just the Climate Action goal. This is actually Number 1, by a lot. It covers the other points and so much more. It may even be the only required point. Achieving this point would mean that many other corrections of what has developed, including ending the ability of undeserving competitors to win via misleading marketing campaigns, are effectively achieved (no more winners acting as they do because they can get away with it - to paraphrase a quote from "Our Common Future"). It would also mean a dramatic reduction of the number of people who "... grow up mere children, incapable of being acted on by rational consideration of distant motives ..." (a warning quoted from "On Liberty").
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  12. nigelj@10,

    Implied in my comment @11 is that it is not necessary to get acceptance from everyone. In fact, it is harmful to attempt to balance all interests.

    Those who 'grow up mere children' need to be better educated. And should not be allowed to influence important decisions until they change their minds.

    It would be (is undeniably) harmful to compromise the understanding of what needs to be done by balancing it with the developed desires of those who have 'grown up mere children, wanting to unjustifiably get away with what they would like to do - supposedly justified because it is popular or profitable or is not likely to result in legal penalty (because of secrecy, bad laws or bad law enforcement, or having sacrificial lambs to throw under the bus)'.

    That is my engineer experience speaking. Some people will resist being better informed and more correctly understanding something. And they do not get to influence the important decisions I make. They end up being disappointed. And they deserve to be disappointed.

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