Degrees of Change: The Good, the Bad and the Blind Spot

There’s been plenty of media coverage of the Degrees of Change report just released by the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy. The report predicts impacts on Canadian regions, with an economic focus.

Climate change: Is this what the future will look like? – National Post

Study seeks silver lining in climate change’s clouds — Globe and Mail

Don’t accentuate the positive on climate change – Globe and Mail

Global warming will vastly change Canada: study – CTV

How a 2-degree climate change would hit Canada — CBC

Both the report and the coverage it has generated are certainly interesting. There’s a little bad and a lot of good. But I think what’s may be most important is what’s been left out.

The Bad

The news media has always struggled with climate change reporting, in part because of the tendency to report both sides of the story, even if one “side” is consensus opinion of the credible components of the scientific institution and the other “side” is a slim minority of tangentially expert corporate-linked reactionaries. Any report that includes positive as well as negative predictions will inevitably play hard into that journalistic norm. So it’s not surprising that some of the coverage is giving as much weight to the potential positives impacts as to the negatives, regardless of their actual proportionality.

The Good

That said, there is so much that is good about this report, and the coverage.

Climate change is a global phenomenon to be sure, but the effects will be felt in highly regionally specific ways. This report gets that aspect very right, and that’s great to see.

By giving the issue a fresh framing, I think it will help nudge folks towards considering climate change as an actual impending event, rather than another political scuffle. Advocating for preparation for both the positive and the negative impacts will motivate people to think about preparation at all, and we’ve been sorely lacking a Canadian focus on the adaptation term of the prevention/mitigation/adaptation equation.

(As a rather lurid example of that, Canada just announced the specific allocation of our $400 million Copenhagen commitment to international climate change aid, and the adaptation portion — arguably the most important, in the context of aid to developing nations — works out to an even 5%.)

Even better, I suspect that people aren’t just going to be scared of the predicted negative impacts, they’re going to be scared of the positive changes as well. I just don’t think people like any kind of large scale lifestyle-affecting change at all. Especially the kind of small-c conservative folks who haven’t been much interested in climate change so far.

But let’s suppose that some people do get excited about the possible benefits to their region. People who want to log spruce trees in the north, or fish more cod, or (yes) golf in places they haven’t before, will see those benefits mostly just as pleasing possibilities. They’ll have relatively few resources to fight for them, given that they aren’t currently making money logging spruce fishing cod or selling tee times. But the people whose lives are currently tied to farming in places that will desertify, or cutting trees in places that are in danger of losing them to beetle kill, have a lot of skin in the game and are relatively likely to get politically involved. So I don’t mind a degree of focus on positive possibilities.

Areas at Risk of Desertification by 2050, National Post adapted from NRTEE

Also, it’s just true: there will be some positive outcomes somewhere. True facts deserve coverage regardless.

The Blind Spot

The problem I have with this report – or at least with the report as I understand it from the media – is that it leaves out some of the most important economic and ecological impacts that climate change will bring. Irregularity, cascades, thresholds, extremes. All the stuff that can’t be specifically predicted, but will happen anyway.

The climate system, and the regional ecologies that exist under it, are the way they are because of millienia of co-adaptive evolution. If the North Atlantic thermohaline circulation conflicted with the south atlantic thermohaline circulation, one or the other would have collapsed long ago. If the conifer forests of interior BC were vulnerable to infestation by beetles that could survive interior BC winters, then the forests (and, in turn, the beetles) would have had their distribution scaled back already.

The danger is that if you start forcing some of the controlling variables — such as average temperature — those cycles start to wobble, degrade, and generally bang around like an unbalanced washing machine.

current conveyor belt
The thermohaline circulation. Adapted from Alexandre Van de Sande.

On the weather side, extreme temperatures will start showing up, both at the high end and the low end. The timing of weather events will get less predictable. The general trend will (in most places) be towards higher temperatures, but the thermometer will probably sawtooth nuttily on the way there. That counts if you’re planting crops, investing in tourist infrastructure, or building your house in a flood plain.

Then there’s the biological side. Sudden species explosions have been rarer in real life than in mathematical models because any given species has evolved in a matrix of other predator and prey relationships, buffering extreme swings and selecting for calmly persistent dynamics. When temperature thresholds shift suddenly and new species move into environments where they don’t have established ecological relationships, those constraints fall away, possibly leading to outbreaks of any number of possible species — benign, nuetral or downright pestilential.

The poster child for that movement has been the colossal arrival of pine beetles in interior BC. Climate change wasn’t sufficient on it’s own to induce an industry-tanking biological outbreak, it also required the presence of single-age stands of trees, among other factors. But it did indeed require warmer winters for the beetles to survive, and when those ducks got in a row, problems happened. With more climate change we can anticipate more aligned ducks, more problems.

Could we possibly have predicted the pine beetle outbreak? Probably not, but it still happened, and it still had (and has) a massive economic impact. The Degrees of Change report, for all that I find good in it, doesn’t pretend to include those unpredictabilities or the economic impacts they would generate, despite that they will impinge directly on it’s stated goal of predicting ecological and economic outcomes. I’m not sure how it could. And yet those unpredictables will be all too real. When contemplating our economic and ecological future, we should be looking for ways to keep that in mind.

Massive Risk Management

Governor Schwarzenegger made an announcement on Monday. He’s withdrawing support for a planned offshore oil project in California state waters. He was very clear: this decision was made specifically because of the Gulf oil leaks.

“I think that we all go through the endless amount of studies and research and everything, and before you make a decision like that, you are convinced that this will be safe,” the governor added. “But then again, you know, you see that, you turn on television and see this enormous disaster and you say to yourself, why would we want to take that risk?”

We have a hard time planning around risks that have low probability but potentially massive impact. Most risk assessment is done intuitively, and our intuition gets fickle around long-tail events. Our gut instincts differ person-to-person, and also perhaps within ourselves. Somehow I can never be bothered to wear a helmet when I get on a bicycle, but when riding a motorcycle in states without a helmet requirement, the idea of taking mine off strikes me as absolutely insane.

Formal cost-benefit analyses can be used to mathematize planning around uncertain outcomes, and they often are. But CBA can lead to especially extreme cases of garbage-in/garbage-out, and usually does. What number do you assign to the “cost” of a species loss, for example. And how would an equation help if you didn’t know what the probability of a species loss was anyway? Laplaces’s insufficient reason criterion can be used to hold together these shaky formalizations, but that criterion states that if you can’t guess the outcome, insert a 50/50 chance of it happening. Which makes intuitive sense I guess, but here we are at intuition again.

Intuition is sensitive to recent circumstances. And so, because of the timing of the “pictures on TV”, California won’t have offshore drilling. I’m sympathetic to the governor; I’m sure he was shown credible evidence that safety standards in oil rigging have been much improved. But how much safety is enough? It depends what’s on TV at the moment.

We seem to collectively deal with a lot of these low-probability/high-impact decisions. I think they’re some of the most important choices societies make (whatever that means). For example, the question “how to deal with the threat of terrorism?”, is premised, often invisibly, on the question “how much of a threat is terrorism?”. Is the attempted Times Square bombing proof that Americans are living under threat? Or is it a reminder that American citizens are remarkably safe from home front terrorism? When the potential consequences are so important, declaring something irrelevant because it’s out-of-the-ordinary doesn’t seem right somehow. And yet, and yet.

Or how about that crazy climate change? Critics suggest that because we have uncertainty in the outcomes — which we absolutely do — we shouldn’t be pouring resources into combatting an unknown. Which isn’t so crazy, if you consider the opportunity costs: the money and time and political capital we spend keeping carbon out of the atmosphere could be going to plenty of other deserving projects. But my intuition tells me that the uncertainty associated with climate change is precisely the reason we should fear it. I worry that we’re going to learn too late the value of a predictable climate. Each specific climate-linked tragedy may be unlikely to the point of absolute unknowability, but somehow that collection of unknowable tragedies sounds like the worst thing in the world to me.

I have a hard time articulating that threat to myself or to others, but the precautionary principle speaks to it. According to wikipedia, the principle states that

“if an action or policy has a suspected risk of causing harm to the public or to the environment, in the absence of scientific consensus that the action or policy is harmful, the burden of proof that it is not harmful falls on those who advocate taking the action.”

Environmental systems are weird. They often seem to be complex in the academic sense, behaving in aggregate in ways which can be either resistant to perturbation or suddenly highly sensistive to it. Formal complex systems theory usually isn’t very good at predicting outcomes in environmental systems (although I think it’s fabulous at helping us to understand why we can’t make those predictions). Ecologies are weird and unknowable, but they are also crucial to our lives, both in big ways and small ways. We will all die if the ecosystem services we rely on are thrown out of wack, but we will all be miserable and grumpy long before those services completely collapse. That combination of complexity and cruciality makes predictions around unlikely but potentially significant environmental dangers especially perplexing.

I’m not usually a small-c conservative, I tend to value experimentation and liberal politics. But because of the particularly fraught nature of environmental choices, I’m a big believer in that precautionary principle.

The Market Wisdom Was Wrong on U.S. Healthcare?

Intrade is a “prediction marketplace“, which is a sort of alternate stock exchange attempting to leverage the ability of markets to rationalize information held by distributed individuals. The idea is to concentrate common sense and/or insider information into an emergent prediction, by letting people put money behind their guesses. There’s an assumption that people will bet money relative to their degree of certainty in a given prediction, thus correcting for haphazard speculation and (maybe) ideology. People argue back and forth about the effectiveness of prediction marketplaces, but it’s certainly a plausible sounding idea, for some kinds of predictions.

Intrade had a running trade on the U.S. health care bill passing by June.

The wisdom of the crowd was against the bill passing for the majority of the run, and as recently as three weeks ago. There wasn’t a clear consensus for passage until practically last week.

So what was it about the U.S. healthcare politics that confounded the prediction marketplace? Was it in fact wishful thinking from the sorts of people who are likely to participate in prediction markets? Were they wrong for the right reasons, and today’s bill-signing was actually a freak event? Was there something fundamentally abnormal about the political dynamics of this bill such that established heuristics failed people who thought they had a money-good grasp of what was going on?

I guess all of those hypotheses presume that the Intrade market has some track record of getting things more or less right. Has anyone checked? Paging Dr. Tetlock?

Climate Science Heretics

Kevin Kelly studies western science from a few different perspectives. He’s got a pretty good feel for it as an institution. For his regular Cool Tools newsletter, he reviewed The Deniers, a book celebrating scientists who dispute the global climate change consensus. If I get a chance I’d like to read it, but regardless of the book, Kelly’s review is worth a read in its own right.

“What should we do with the 1% who dissent about global warming? By logic, we should embrace them, but currently “deniers” of global warming have become demonized, which is a sign that global warming has become slightly religious. Which is a shame because many global warming skeptics are not crackpots or paid shills, but first-class prestigious scientists with a minority view.

Throughout its history, science usually advances from the edges. Heretics should be cherished for forcing edges to the center. The most respected scientific global warming heretics have been rounded up in this very readable book, The Deniers. Significantly, many of the eminent scientists included here don’t call themselves deniers at all. They say, “I believe global warming is evidenced in all these other fields; Except in the field that I am expert in, the evidence is totally bogus.” One by one the field-specific heretics make their case. And a number of them are rather persuasive. But at the moment there is no unified alternative theory of climate change, so the critique of global warming amounts to exposing holes in the current science. Any good scientific theory will have holes.”

I get frustrated when I hear people complain that scientists didn’t do enough to alert the world to the climate change threat. According to received wisdom, scientists aren’t supposed to be involved in the setting of social priorities at all, they’re just supposed to pump objective factual information into the mix and let civil, democratic institutions decide what to do or not do about it. So even if scientists hadn’t become activist around global warming, it wouldn’t seem totally fair to blame them. And the thing is, scientists were activist. For decades, when media and government and even environmental groups seemed to be dropping the ball on global warming, it was a cadre of research professionals who fumbled it along, and if they didn’t do a better job of it, can you really blame them? If you didn’t hear about global warming during the 90’s, it wasn’t because there wasn’t a labcoat who was trying to tell you, they just didn’t know how to do it well.

Perhaps one of the drawbacks of that breaking down of the notional firewall between science and politics is that scientific institutions subsequently aren’t dealing productively with climate change minority views, as Kevin Kelly and apparently the authors of this book think.

The Epistemology of Tasers, Revisited

Parts one and two.

The update:

“Elliott later said that while there’s no evidence that Tasers kill, the fact that deaths have occurred soon after a Taser was used on individuals suggests there is a distinct possibility it may have contributed to death in some circumstances.”
RCMP tightens the rules on Tasers, Toronto Star

We’re making progress here. Very meticulous philosopher scientists, these RCMP. I wonder, just what kind of evidence would it take for them to believe that a thing had caused another thing? Like say, a taser causing the death of someone who had just been shot with a taser? From a more utilitarian perspective, at least they’re going to start acting as though tasers kill people. I suppose that’s what counts.

This snippet is interesting:

“The Mounties have also dropped the term “excited delirium” – a phrase that had no medical foundation, and was criticized earlier by the Commons committee, the RCMP’s public complaints commissioner, independent consultants and civil liberty groups.”

So why, until yesterday, were they using such an odd term to frame their operating protocol? Oh look, it’s a construction that TASER International have long been repeating in their press releases and court cases, despite years of head-scratching perplexity from anyone who has ever tried to figure out just what it might actually mean in a biological context. How does corporate unspeak from Scottsdale, Arizona get embedded in the procedural manuals of the Mounted Police? How does it get embedded in their mouths? I’m glad we’re making progress on getting it out.

Steve Chu: We Don’t Know What Will Happen

Steven Chu, Obama’s pick for Secretary of Energy, hints at what I think is the most important point about climate change: yes we know it’s going to happen, but we don’t know what is going to happen, and that’s not a good thing.

And he just keeps talking about important stuff. Imagine an America where scientifically grounded ideas are sat down in the same room with capable politics.

If Only The Economy Were Allowed to Stop Failing

Greenspan Concedes to `Flaw’ in His Market Ideology — Bloomberg (2nd Term)

‘”If we are right 60 percent of the time in forecasting, we are doing exceptionally well; that means we are wrong 40 percent of the time,” Greenspan said. “Forecasting never gets to the point where it is 100 percent accurate.”‘

Yes, that follows. And when the consequences of bad outcomes are catastrophic and prediction of good outcomes can’t be certain, you have to have policies which are robust to failure. What Greenspan seems to have been suggesting, and what he still seems to be defending, is that when prediction cannot be 100%, it is acceptable or even inevitable to forge ahead as if the outcome was sure to be uniformly positive.

‘Today, the former Fed chairman asked: “What went wrong with global economic policies that had worked so effectively for nearly four decades?”

Greenspan reiterated his “shocked disbelief” that financial companies failed to execute sufficient “surveillance” on their trading counterparties to prevent surging losses.’

So how many catastrophic market failures do we have to have before we get past shocked disbelief when there’s another? Sure, each one is different in specific character than the last, but the insistence that this time we’ve got it all figured out is practically childish when repeated ad infinitum. Marketeers seem capable of convincing themselves that, because they are personally familiar with the mechanisms at play at the level of individuals, they can therefore know what behaviour will emerge at the level of the system. It’s not that neoliberal market theorists don’t believe in emergence, by contrast they are devoted to the elegant efficiencies that they see when markets aggregate information and action. They just don’t seem to want to believe that complex systems (including the ultra-complex systems Wall St. financiers are capable of cooking up) are capable of negative outcomes too.

It comes back to John Kenneth Galbraith’s position that market collapses don’t happen because of unpredictable shocks from somewhere outside of the lines that economists draw around “the economy”, they happen because of the most fundamental rules of capitalist economies. And they will again, particularly if we don’t exercise cautious oversight.

update: See also this interesting and convincing chunk of quotes from the same testimony:

Greenspan: Bad data hurt Wall Street computer models — NYT

‘Business decisions by financial services firms were based on “the best insights of mathematicians and finance experts, supported by major advances in computer and communications technology,” Greenspan told the committee. “The whole intellectual edifice, however, collapsed in the summer of last year because the data inputted into the risk management models generally covered only the past two decades a period of euphoria.”

He added that if the risk models also had been built to include “historic periods of stress, capital requirements would have been much higher and the financial world would be in far better shape today, in my judgment.”‘

We live and learn. Especially about using models to make serious decisions.

Less Idealized Militarism

“Be modest about what military force can accomplish and what technology can accomplish,” Gates said.

He urged his audience to have an “appreciation of limits” of military power, arguing that although the U.S. has achieved huge advances in targeting and intelligence that have made attacks more precise, warfare is “inevitably tragic, inefficient and uncertain.”

The comments amounted to a critique of a military theory called “effects-based operations,” which argues in part that the government can carefully craft military interventions to have a predictable impact.

“Look askance at idealized, triumphalist or ethnocentric notions of future conflict that aspire to upend the immutable principles of war: where the enemy is killed, but our troops and innocent civilians are spared,” he said.

The above from Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

Absolute Joy in Domains of True Uncertainty

After getting irritated at humankind’s inability to accept that some things are genuinely uncertain, I open my podcasting device and hey presto:

Resilience: Adaptation and Transformation in Turbulent Times — A World Of Possibilities, May 6th

It opens with Buzz Holling (who NRE 580 alumnus will remember for panarchy theory) on adaptation, uncertainy, adeterminism, non-equilibrium, and such like in the general world. Then it moves onto Brian Walker talking about much of the same in ecosystem management, plus control fetishism. Then it moves on from there. Recorded at a Stockhlom conference on applying biology-based resilience theory to social systems. The idea of which is now creeping me out. Except that maybe, just maybe, this is a group of people that can be trusted to think rationally across disciplines. Maybe. Anyhow, it’s good listening.

Brian Walker’s talk reminded me of a lecture on conservation management from my undergrad, wherein Thom Nudds announced that if you manage to get an ecosystem to not cycle you’ve flatlined it, so congratulations on that.

Dominoes Made of Dominoes Part II

I have nothing to say about the financial crisis, because I discover that as a heavy news reader who has scraped through classes on law, economics and complex systems, and even read some Galbraith on a bus once, I don’t have even first principles to judge what has just happened in the US financial system. The subject–the impenetrable interplay of financial “instruments”–is so inscrutable that any comprehensible narrative one tries to tease out of it by watching the shadows it casts on the wall seems to have more to do with what goes on in one’s own head than what goes on in the stock markets or boardrooms or policy lairs of the world. I just have no idea about where it came from, or what it means, or what should be done, or where it will go. All I’ve learned is that the people who presumably do have the expertise to deal with this, possibly don’t.

But everyone is telling one story or another about it all the same. And they usually boil down to public versus private, government versus market. Here’s a somehow rather heartening thought from commenter HH at Crooked Timber:

The left-right polarization over and private enterprise is overshadowed by the larger conflict between truth and lies. Both free market and planned economic systems can function with reasonable efficiency when operated with competence and integrity. Neither can function when overrun by thieves and liars.

America’s moon landing program and nuclear submarine projects were masterpieces of centrally planned, government sponsored endeavors. France’s nationally controlled nuclear power program achieved great success, while America’s privately managed nuclear power efforts stumbled. It is the animating vigor and functional integrity of a program that is the best predictor of success, not its ideological grounding.

To which I think I would add that we get a somewhat better chance at choosing thoughtful criteria for what ‘success’ means for public enterprises than for private.

Here’s an old-hand financial technician interviewed by Reason magazine people:

(Just incidentally, I’m tickled to note that the Reason blog linked to this little old website a few days back).

I don’t understand how he gets from some of his premises to some of his conclusions. But his central premise feels about right: nobody knows how to value these derivatives, which seem to have absorbed so much of the nations wealth and now may or may not even particularly exist as real entities in the real universe. The old bosses didn’t know how to value them, and the new bosses won’t either, once they’ve sunk so much more of the country’s treasure into getting a chance to try.

But we won’t admit to ourselves that we’re dealing with an uncertainty, will we? Instead we’ll talk ourselves into believing one thing or the other, and forge ahead on that basis.

A separate but related question: how does a country that can’t afford equitable education or health care keep finding hundreds of billions of dollars lying around when there’s a country to be invaded or a bank to be bought out? Where does all this money come from? And why wasn’t it there before?

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