Should we care about the world after 2100?

25438869_1662238943841032_1081912425639291177_o I think it is obvious we should care, in the sense of being benignly interested; but should we care in the sense of changing our actions in order to design changes in the world post 2100? I don't think I've written on this directly (as I say in reply to DB). Morality and economics discusses mt's The Seventieth Generation, which would be relevant, but sadly I'm looking at a different perspective. I say don't think more than 100 years ahead in reply to NB in 2014 in Meesc, and the discussion continues for a while there.

Update: 2021/02: I find an early post from 2007: World Doesn’t End in 2100.

There are two valid reasons why you might not care about post-2100 (or post-2117; or some other arbitrary but distant time. But not a time as close as 2050). One is that you like to use a conventional-economic discount rate of X% and that reduces future concerns so that mathematically and economically you're convinced those concerns are so deflated by discounting as to be uninteresting. And two is that you think our ignorance of those far-off times is so deep that we cannot possibly usefully design our behaviour to helpfully shape their world. Those two reasons aren't totally separate, but for various reasons I'll talk explicitly only about the second.

Not to ruin the tension, but my answer is a qualified no; we should not care-as-change.

And why would I think a thing so manifestly absurd? Because our ability to foresee the future is so weak. An easy recent example that comes to hand is the IEA (and everyone else's) inability to predict solar PV growth even a year ahead, let alone a decade or a century. You could plausibly say that case is hard, and that broader trends are easier to forseee, but meh. Would we have thanked people in the past for trying to see 100 years ahead? When I asked that before, Gavin replied "Central Park" but I wasn't convinced; and I'd add that on the scale of GW, that's trivia. Dunc did better with "the London sewer system" but again; it's a small thing.

And secondly, too much striving to foresee and manage the future leads to too much managing, which is bad, in my opinion. This of course leads back to Hayek, but I see I've failed in my duty to provide the promised posts on him; Hayek and Climate provides a reasonable sample. I don't mean the comparatively minor parasitic class that flies off to the various political climate conferences around the world. I mean more the encouragement of the very concept that it would be a good idea if the state did more planning, when it should be doing less.

"Not caring" doesn't include not doing sensible and obvious things. One of which is to Do Science, which apart from anything else is cheap. The science we've done so far leads us to conclude that Sea Level Rise will be about +1m by 2100. You can make a case for only 50 cm and you can make a case for 2m. But - barring some major revision - it won't be as much as 10m (which would be disastrous) and it won't be as little 10cm (which would be too little to notice). So that's a happy co-incidence in a way; there's no obvious reason why SLR out to "about as far as we can usefully look" should sit just around the "irritating but manageable" level. You'll notice I've spoken only of SLR, because it kinda fits my narrative. But I could spin similar words around temperature change I suspect. Ecological response as usual I leave to others. To get with certainty to clearly disastrous levels of SLR you have to go out ~500 years; and that's too long. Can you help the case by replacing certainty by "at least Y% probability of"? Doubtful.


Fresh in December 2022 I come across Long-term-ism, "What We Owe the Future", and William MacAskill (who went to SEH). Wiki identifies the Key Flaw, which is the same as my objection. ACX points to a review by KP which isn't terrible; SA's own review doesn't really go anywhere.

See-also: Utilitarianism, impartially consider'd.


* So What Climate Change Stories Would Sir Philip Sidney Tell asks Eli. Somewhat disappointingly, it isn't about predictions from that era. I prefer the Python version.
Freeman Essays #4: “Capitalism: Who Are Its Friends and Who Are Its Foes?” - old stuff from CH
Dangers Lurk in Timid Defenses of Free Trade - sort of more old stuff, from CH


crandles said...

Nuclear power plants getting flooded? Presumably that is also one of those little things? Begging the question are there any big things?

>"too much striving to foresee and manage the future leads to too much managing, which is bad, in my opinion"

How much of this do you think is going on? Perhaps some climate change stuff if you don't take the cynical view that pols are just trying to appear as if they are doing stuff to appease the environmentalists. But besides science and this? And even if you can come up with some examples, why isn't the answer that it is cheap like science?


Why so vague on the arbitrary date?

Clearly some plant and infrastructure have lifetimes of more than 50 years. Sewers (in general not just London) and nuclear plant decommissioning have quite long lifetimes. Maybe new plastic fresh water distribution pipes will also be in use quite far into the future. However siting of these seems like it will make them pretty safe over their lifetimes.

If there are many building where there is expected use for 50 years the arbitrary date should not be before 2067. Should it be as soon as 2067 with marginal exceptions for some of the above? I don't feel comfortable with that but would feel comfortable suggesting after 2150 we shouldn't care due to change.

So out to 2067 seems justifiable on investment return reasons, but that seems too soon. So what is driving the date to later? I can only really suggest concern for grandchildren who may still be alive. Why grandchildren and not great-grandchildren? Well I guess at some point the descendants have to manage on their own.

William M. Connolley said...

> Nuclear power plants getting flooded?

NPP are fairly small. Building a 1m high(er) wall around them must be pretty small. But is that relevant? 100 y is beyond their design lifetime anyway.

> Why so vague on the arbitrary date?

I can't see the point in trying to nail down an exact date. It will be inevitably be a case of feel. IPCC type folk have a quasi-default range out to 2100. My main aim was to "justify" not caring out to 200 years.

crandles said...

Up to 50 years operation, 30 years SAFSTOR, 10 years deconstruction, (20 years planning and 10? years building), yes perhaps I am struggling to get over 100 years. But I was trying to get to over 50 for my why not 2067 discussion.

Yes it will be a case of feel, but I thought it interesting to pursue to try to give hint of driving factors behind date.

David B. Benson said...

Canterbury cathedral has an altitude of 11 meters. The Tower of London has an altitude of 14 meters. In about 500 years both will be collapsing from winter sea waves unless Something Is Done.

While monster seawalls could be installed around those cultural artifacts, the prospect of defending the entire coast of England seems daunting.

Might be better to start now to remove the excess carbon dioxide to avoid such constructions in the future; not to mention the effect of too much carbonate upon sea life.

Anonymous said...

The answer, if only to challenge Betteridge, is trivially yes.

A small thought experiment shows it; if we had detected an asteroid that would destroy all human life in an impact in 2101, should we invest everything we can to avoid such a cataclysm? Obviously yes.

The answer to the more detailed implicit question of should we care about the impacts of GW post 2100 is obviously more nuanced: it depends on the costs, the impacts and the certainty.

Again, trivially, humans often invest substantially in things with a lot longer than 80 years payback. Just for instance, as we seem to be on the subject of Gothic Cathedrals, note that the construction of York Minster took about 250 years.

Practically, I might suggest that as well as the change by 2100, we should also look at the rate of change at 2100 in deciding policy.

William M. Connolley said...

We did cathedrals in mt's post. The "conclusion" - or at least, the suggestion put forward, which no-one even attempted to refute - was that the cathedrals were better interpreted as of-value-in-their-day. *We* look at them as glorious monuments that we're grateful for, but the people building them had other ideas: they were for the glory of god and the glory, in their lifetime, of those who paid for and built them.

Asteroid: agree. And that's the point of my comment about 10m of SLR: if we thought that would happen, we should do more. But that isn't the case for SLR: instead, we've thought about it and decided it won't happen.

Consider a thought experiment: there are precisely two existential threats to the earth over the next 100 years: an asteroid impact, and SLR of 10m. Due to [resource constrains], we can only afford to address one of these, and due to [stuff] doing something has a [multi-decade] lead time. Which one should we spend our resources on? Bearing in mind that we'll look very silly, before looking dead, if we pick the wrong one. At the moment, the answer is clearly "neither", we should instead spend a [moderate, but by comparison tiny] sum on investigating the two threats.

verytallguy said...

Your claims about the purpose of cathedral building don't seem backed up by current experience.


I'd not seen the MT post.

Anyway, ecclesiastical architecture apart, we seem to be in agreement that we should care somewhat about the world beyond 2100 but how much is hard to quantify. Perhaps impossible.

Personally, I think there's a big difference between bequeathing a world in 2100 with a modest (2C?) temperature increase and stable CO2 compared with a large (4C?) and rising CO2.

The latter scenario, I think, is sufficiently concerning to merit action to move it to the former.

[I was the earlier, accidentally, anonymous]

crandles said...



should be allowed throughout National Parks?

I would say obviously not. I suspect you would say this is just 'sensible and obvious things'. Maybe this just means you cram everything into your exceptions of 'small things' or 'cheap' or 'sensible and obvious things'.

I wouldn't say science is cheap but it is obviously worth it despite high price tag.

Phil said...

"A small thought experiment shows it; if we had detected an asteroid that would destroy all human life in an impact in 2101,"

I'm interested in hearing about the market based solution to this problem.

crandles said...

> the market based solution
We don't choose a cure that is worse than the disease, so we don't starve ourselves to death to put more resources into deflecting the asteroid. Is that the sort of thing you wanted to hear?

William M. Connolley said...

> https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hydraulic_mining

I'm confused. Things like that have present-day impacts; so what has that got to do with 100-y timescales?

> I wouldn't say science is cheap

I think it is cheap: e.g. https://mustelid.blogspot.co.uk/2006/02/cost-of-climate-research.html

verytallguy said...

"Things like that have present-day impacts"

Sure, but that's not the fundamental objection. If we could perform such activities and then restore landscapes, people likely wouldn't object too much (at least not anywhere near as much)

The point is that these landscapes are destroyed forever* by these activities, not that we are denied their use for a few years.

*please don't quibble on the definition of forever!

William M. Connolley said...

Hold on. The point this post is trying to address is the problem of us taking present-day benefits (the advantages of fossil fuel use) while leaving the tab for externalities and costs of such use (future GW) to future generations.

But *present-day* costs don't come into such an argument. Such costs bear on us *today* just as much as they bear on the future, indeed perhaps more so. You can (if you like) argue that they (for example, mountain-top-removal-mining) are external to the mining companies costs; but they aren't external to societies costs.

crandles said...

Huh, does this really need to be explained?

At the time the mountain is pretty near valueless, unless 'developed' by mining. The clear economic decision, if you don't care about future, is to develop with mining. If you go with that decision then scroll forward 150+ years and (not so suddenly) there are lots more people with lots more spare time who like to go hill walking in beautiful natural places, only there aren't many such left so they are all badly overcrowded. The mountain has value it didn't have at the time of the decision.

Alternately, we can decide actually although the current value is near negligible, this isn't something we should allow to be done just anywhere companies want, instead we shall set up national parks and make development of any kind within them quite a bit more difficult. Even outside national parks we will have onerous planning consent requirements and hefty land reinstatement projects being required as part of getting planning. The values are significantly different (not just inflation) at time of decision and 150+ years later.

Should we be grateful that this far sighted policy was set up?

crandles said...

Science cheap/expensive:

But just think, if all these clever people devoted their efforts to making manufacturing more efficient and marketing more effective. Think of all the tat we could own :P

William M. Connolley said...

> The mountain has value it didn't have at the time of the decision.

I maintain my previous comment; indeed, I'm not at all sure I understand your point. But attempting to predict the change in the perceived value of a mountain for recreational use 150 years into the future definitely comes into the class of "far too hard, don't even try it" problems. This is not an argument for dismantling national parks, because they are valuable *now*.

crandles said...

>"Value ... 150 years into the future ... "far too hard, don't even try it" "

But they did do it (create national parks and made planning permission for such things much more onerous), so it obviously wasn't too hard to figure out. The aesthetic value will obviously be destroyed for a very long time. Once it is allowed you can't go back and this makes a case for planners to resist development. It clearly isn't far too hard, when it can only go one way.

I will concede that the future from 1850s was more predictable than from now.

Are you saying you would prefer to live in a world without national parks and many fewer mountains because hydraulic mining was allowed to continue to widespread usage but was perhaps a bit more developed?

The mining companies would have to pay to buy the land and this is the sensible value at that time for all future uses discounted back. With this cost taken into account, the future uses are supposedly accounted for, and economically it makes sense to allow it (companies wanted to do more of it). But planners do care for the future and laws were brought in to prevent or significantly restrict it.

Not sure what you are not understanding, so sorry if parts of my replies seem irrelevant.

Verytallguy said...

"This is not an argument for dismantling national parks, because they are valuable *now*."

Au contraire, it is exactly an argument for dismantling. They would be much, much more valuable now if more development were allowed. That's *why* regulation is necessary to protect them. Surely this is obvious?

William M. Connolley said...

> But they did do it (create national parks

Errm, but that's the same as saying "Central Park" which Gavin did last time, and which I didn't believe last time. These things have value *now*. Just as, in the past, building cathedrals had value *at the time*, not only in the future.

> wasn't too hard to figure out

Sorry, I've no idea how you get that. AFAIK no-one attempted any kind of calculation as to the future value of NPs.

> Are you saying you would prefer to live in a world without national parks

Again, this seems totally irrelevant. National parks currently have value to me and to others, *now*. So no, I wouldn't want them destroyed.

Please re-read my comment beginning "Hold on". This is the bit you've missed.

> They would be much, much more valuable now if more development were allowed

How do you know? No-one has attempted to translate their "value" in terms of how-much-people-like-them into "value" in terms of $.

Tom said...

Economics is a useful servant but a terrible master. I think serious thinking about the problems you pose would be best informed by a multi-disciplinary approach.

Personally, it seems clear that erecting defenses against either asteroid impacts and worse than we thought climate change bring ancillary benefits as well as costs. Those ancillary benefits (easily imagined for asteroid defenses) might be considered as adequate justification for the expense in the event that the asteroid doesn't arrive on schedule.

The cartoon floating around five years ago showed someone asking 'What if we make the world cleaner, better and without dental caries and it turns out to be for nothing?' I haven't seen someone make a more systematic review of ancillary benefits of addressing climate change. That is quite possibly because the consensus view is challenged so frequently and vigorously on the price tag of mitigation. Nonetheless, if there are ancillary benefits to mitigation, it would be nice to know about them.

What if we create a carbon free world defending against climate change that is not as bad as we feared? Is it worth $23 trillion?

The only case I could see worth pursuing is that future generations will need/desire/make better use of fossil fuels than we currently do.

verytallguy said...

US National Parks Mission

"...to promote and regulate the use of the...national parks...which purpose is to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations."

My bold.

You do seem rather determined to have an argument for the sake of it.

crandles said...

>had value *at the time*, not only in the future.
You are being silly. There is current value to extraction of materials and there is loss of value over a very very long period of time. If we don't care for future, we just discount far future losses to nothing. The decision to create regulations 150ish years ago says no that is not correct to discount future losses back to zero, we should assign more value.

>AFAIK no-one attempted any kind of calculation as to the future value of NPs.

If you don't care about future, then the way to do the calculations is to say the sensible value to use is the current value of the land as a proxy for all future uses discounted back to present.

However, if you care about the future, then there is some additional value to keeping it pristine for future generations.

If you believe in 'don't care for the future' you let the economics sort themselves out. No-one has to do the calculations other than the mining/developing company and no regulations are needed. The mining company has to pay for the land if it wants to use it. If it makes sense to the mining company to do it if they have to pay for the land, you let the development go ahead.

People saw what was happening, decided it was wrong, campaigned for change, and got laws changed. Why they did this is perhaps open to interpretation. Maybe religion, maybe stewardship arguments, maybe we should care for future generations... I am also playing fast and loose with not providing a trail from banning hydraulic mining through to creation of National Parks. If there was a calculation perhaps this would provide clues as to their motivation. In absence of such a calculation, they have effectively decided that there was additional value to protect regardless of the specific motivation.

>National parks currently have value to me and to others, *now*
I wasn't asking if you would destroy them now, I was asking if you would prefer the laws and regulations implemented 150ish years ago had not been implemented.

> re-read my comment beginning "Hold on"
I saw that and thought you are completely missing point of my replies about land value being proxy for all future uses discounted back to present. I.e. there is a time dimension to the issue that goes well beyond 100 years.

Re Cathedrals: Why stone? Why not impressive wooden structures? I think the answer is they wanted them to last.

>How do you know? No-one has attempted to translate their "value" in terms of how-much-people-like-them into "value" in terms of $.

You are kidding, right? You think national park land with planning permission isn't any more valuable than similar land without planning permission?

Yes, it does increasingly seems like determined to argue a crazy position for sake of it.

John Bowles said...

All must be forced (draconian measures) to live humble low carbon lifestyles, as I do, no phone no lights no motor car, not a single luxury, like Mister William Connolley, it's as primitive as can be.

Don Gisselbeck said...

What is the long term value in not hunting blue whales to extinction? Is there any way the free market (bless its holy name) can prevent such extinction?

William M. Connolley said...

Commercial whaling has largely been abandoned. The Japanese govt props up Japanese whaling. I'm pretty sure that if it were left to the free market, commercial whaling would be dead.

CapitalistImperialistPig said...

WC - "... if it were left to the free market, commercial whaling would be dead."

Indeed, but mostly because all the whales would have been dead for a while.

It's true that our ability to see 100 years ahead, or even 1 year ahead, is very limited, but that's a lousy reason not to plan for it. The exact range for which we can make meaningful plans is also uncertain, but there are a few principles of general applicability: If we value something, like a National Park, and know that the alternative to preservation is irretrievable loss, they it makes sense to plan ahead. That's what the founders of the US National Parks did more than 100 years ago. That's what Jefferson did when he made the Louisiana purchase.

What annoys me, and probably some of your other commenters, is your presumption that the choices of unregulated markets are likely to be beneficial. We know a lot about their time horizons, and it's short. Free markets gave us many useful benefits, and also Enron, the 2007 economic collapse and the Atlantic Slave trade. Britain's decision to end it was another almost 100 year decision.

Don Gisselbeck said...

Put another way, if the free market (in its infinite goodness and wisdom and what not) is given a choice between 8% ROR indefinitely and 10% ending civilization in 50 years, it will take 10% every time.

David B. Benson said...

The stave churches of Norway are wooden and certainly built to last. About 8 centuries so far.

Stone structures can span a greater distance. Does require flying buttresses.

David B. Benson said...

As far as I know Iceland continues to profit from whaling.

William M. Connolley said...

> the free market (in its infinite goodness and wisdom and what not)

I don't know why you say that. AFAIK no-one claims that the FM possesses "goodness" in any Platonic sense; quite the reverse. It is only good in the sense that it isn't a restraint on people. Ditto wisdom.

> it will take 10% every time

I think you've made that up.

> that's a lousy reason not to plan for it

But that's where we disagree.

> a National Park, and know that the alternative to preservation is irretrievable loss, they it makes sense to plan ahead

And that's different. In the case of the NP, we can see far enough ahead to decide we'd like to preserve it (although that is far from the full story).

But we need to combine those two thoughts. Deciding exactly how to deal with excessive CO2 is *not* like the case of the NPs. It is much harder to see what is the best thing to do, in terms of actual actions. Which is why I'd prefer a carbon tax. Which carbon tax should be set largely on the basis of damage over the next hundredish years, is one of the points of this post, both because doing otherwise forces you to argue for implausible discount rates, and also because it obliges you to factor in almost impossible to measure damages.

> Britain's decision to end it was another almost 100 year decision

I think that's nonsense. They were thinking of their (then present day) morality; not the future at all.

Don Gisselbeck said...

Of course I made up 8 and 10%. It was to point out that the free market as it is could not care less about the long term health of civilization. As to the sarcastic characterization of the free market, there are many people in power who clearly think that it is all wise and all good.

William M. Connolley said...

> the free market as it is could not care less about

You, and so many others, forget that the free market is just people making choices. Perhaps you think that people will take no care for the future without a government of infinite goodness and wisdom and what not forcing them to do so; I disagree.

crandles said...

> Perhaps you think that people will take no care for the future without a government of infinite goodness and wisdom and what not forcing them to do so; I disagree.

Are you trying to distinguish 'people' from 'evil companies' wanting to do more hydraulic mining? Or are you disputing that hydraulic mining companies wanted to do more hydraulic mining? Or are you brushing this aside as uninteresting or perhaps an obvious exception to what you believe? Or....?

>In the case of the NP, we can see far enough ahead to decide we'd like to preserve it

But when it comes to 1or2-10m SLR which is only going to happen after 100 years, we can also see we want to prevent it. You say "harder to see what is the best thing to do, in terms of actual actions" but the actions are obvious enough e.g. drive less with ICE cars until renewables run electric cars are available. Do people take such actions or do they carry on driving ICE cars because it is more convenient/would impair their lives/everyone else has to to make a difference/...

So how do you justify your belief that 'people will take care for the future without a government of infinite ...'? Surely the evidence is that it is not happening?

Tom said...

Sigh. Class, repeat after me: Price is not the only signal in a market.

William M. Connolley said...

> distinguish 'people' from 'evil companies'

People are different from companies and yet companies are made up of people. The same is true of govts.

> wanting to do more hydraulic mining?

Sometimes, companies want to do bad things. Sometimes, people want to do bad things. Sometimes, govts want to do bad things. If <an entity> wants to do <bad things> then <right thinking people> want them to stop. And yet, not all <bad things> can or should be stopped. It is an error that many people make to say "here is a <bad thing> that I wish stopped, therefore it *must* be stopped". They need to apply more discretion; make it clear why this thing in particular should be banned; and what trade-offs might occur.

As to HM in particular, I know little about it. wiki says "Hydraulic mining is the principal way that kaolinite clay is mined in Cornwall and Devon, in South-West England". You are, I take it from your comments, very strongly opposed to this. Why?

William M. Connolley said...

> when it comes to 1or2-10m SLR which is only going to happen after 100 years, we can also see we want to prevent it

I don't know how to parse "1or2-10m SLR which is only going to happen after 100 years".

crandles said...

Also says
"in the 1850s during the California Gold Rush in the United States. Though successful in extracting gold-rich minerals, the widespread use of the process resulted in extensive environmental damage, such as increased flooding and erosion, and sediment blocking waterways and covering over farm fields. These problems led to its legal regulation."

If the legal regulation is adequate, I am not really opposed to it at all. However, unregulated such that it (over time) levels entire mountain ranges then we see a long term issues above and beyond short term issues.

Perhaps I am attacking a straw man parody of HM and the real problem was not removal of mountains but flooding down river which the mining companies weren't buying? In that case it is just a current externality problem that was being addressed.


We could get 1 to 2 m of SLR within 100 years. This discussion is about whether to plan for what happens after that. Hence 1-2m SLR occurring within 100 years is not relevant, it is what happens after that that is relevant to this discussion. Was it really that hard to parse?

William M. Connolley said...

> Was it really that hard to parse?

From my viewpoint, if we're talking about what happens *after* 100 years - 2+m SLR - then we shouldn't be worrying about it, because it is 100+ years in the future, and I've pretty well convinced myself not to worry about that. If you're trying to say there's something about 2+m SLR (2+ is pushing it; 1+ would be more reasonable) that is so (obviously) serious that it makes it obvious we should care about it in 100+ years, then you're not saying it clearly.

rconnor said...

General Point #1: The impacts of climate change get worse the more we emit.
General Point #2: Even if we stop all emissions today, the global temperature will continue to rise to a new equilibrium temperature.
General Point #2: To keep global temperatures below a given point, the cost and severity of required emission reductions increases over time.

Given these general points, I believe it is fair to conclude that if we start getting serious about emission reduction future people will “[thank] people in the past for trying to see 100 years ahead”. We needn’t know nor guess at the specifics of these future societies. All we need to know is the basic facts surrounding global warming now and the general direction going forward to know it’s a good idea (and to the benefit of future people) to start emission reductions now (well, 50 years ago). You’re also forgetting that, global warming aside, focusing on a more sustainable way of living (which is a co-benefit of focusing on emission reductions) is going to become increasingly important for a rising population, wanting a rising standard of living, living on a planet with a finite amount of resources. So I think future people will be thankful in more ways than one.

While we certainly should be cautious about trying to foresee and manage very specific future problems with very specific solutions, we can (and I argue, should) aim to address future general problems. Global Warming is such an example. As another example, should we enact regulations to protect against over fishing? Certainly there is a short-term gain for the current generation to fish like there’s no tomorrow, making it cheaper and more readily available (not to mention MORRREEEE FREEDOMMMMM!). Or should we care that we may deplete or disrupt the food supply for future generations? WWHD (What Would Hayek Do)?

Oh, we can read Conservation of Natural Resources in The Constitution of Liberty, you say. Meh, it’s the same “individuals know better than the collective”…except in reality when the collective has to step in to enforce conservation efforts because the local individuals are not as infinitely wise as free-marketeers would have you think. (Frankly that’s my big issue with Hayek. He makes good points on the epistemology of large groups and has a well-developed (and under read) theory of mind which, together, outline the limits of human rationalism but then he throws that all out the window when he falls victim to the free-market dogma that individuals are these (near-)perfect economic actors.)

William M. Connolley said...

#1 and #2 are true. #3 (I assume you meant to label your third point #3) is only quasi true.

It's not really true for a number of reasons. But the main one is "the world gets richer over time" issue. And so even if the cost in absolute terms goes up, you haven't demonstrated or even made plausible that the relative cost goes up.


If you want a knockabout discussion, write that kind of stuff, but please do it elsewhere. If you want a serious discussion, don't write that kind of stuff.

> he falls victim to the free-market dogma that individuals are these (near-)perfect economic actors

You made that up. Your life would be more interesting if you actually read or understood Hayek, instead of creating strawmen, which amounts to arguing with yourself.

Phil said...

I don't see how the world always gets richer over time.

It has in the past few hundred years.

The future doesn't have to be the same as the past few hundred years. Some periods in the past clearly didn't follow that pattern.

It all depends on... are we near the end of the exponent?

William M. Connolley said...

> I don't see how the world always gets richer over time

Observationally, it has. And the IPCC emission scenarios are built on the assumption that this continues. We've done this before, BTW, but where... ah, in the comments at Weasels ripped my flesh, again

Phil said...

The world having something resembling a single economy for perhaps the past 300 years at most, that is a very small observation.

If we look at independent local economies over time, both richer and poorer are evident. A much larger set of observations.

The exponent will end.

David B. Benson said...

As the population and the so-called standard of living continue to increase the economy is far past Terra's carrying capacity. So a statement to the effect of 'richer over time' is simply measuring the wrong things.

William M. Connolley said...

> 300 years at most, that is a very small observation.

That seems like a strange thing to say, in the current context. Firstly, in that attempting to look 100 years ahead, 300 years is not small. Second, in the context of looking more than 100 years ahead, asserting uncertainty helps my argument. Third, I think it likely that the world economy will grow more interlinked in future.

> The exponent will end.

Really; how soon? If in more than 100 years, then see "Second", above.

> far past Terra's carrying capacity

It might be. But is it actually, other than in terms of CO2 emission?

EliRabett said...

Stephen Gardiner had you nailed https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/in-theory/wp/2016/01/09/why-climate-change-is-an-ethical-problem/?utm_term=.9700abb5ca5c

David B. Benson said...

See, as an example, the recent TNYT article on Jakarta.

Phil said...

There are lots of examples, why focus on just one? And even while looking at the past 300 years, growth hasn't been constant, examples include the panics of the 1800's, the Depression of the 1930's, wars and so on. The settlement of Iceland might be a better example. Hundreds of years of rapid growth followed by hundreds of years of increasing poverty as the land was degraded.

When will the current exponential growth in human population and human wealth end? A very interesting question. I'm sure that population growth will end before humanity is one big ball of people expanding at the speed of light. This is a sure limit, not a meaningful limit.

With Brexit and "America First", why is the world going to be more "interlinked in future"?

William M. Connolley said...

> Stephen Gardiner:

Well, he's trying to address the problem. But he's a philosopher, so his economics is incompetent, and he doesn't even realise it. So, he suggests that cutting emissions to zero tomorrow would be to give absolute priority to the future. But as he notes, that would cause chaos and disaster; as he notes, for the current generation; as he fails to note, for the future too. And he regards that as an ethical judgement. But it isn't; such a policy is a failure on it's own terms, there is no need to bring ethics into it.

> at some point the risks imposed on future generations are severe enough to outweigh them. Where is this point? That is an ethical question

Again, no, it isn't; at least not purely. Because working out where that point is involves a lot of physical science; and trying to do any balancing will involve economics. Pretending that it is purely ethical is shallow.

The only other framing he can think of is in terms of immeadiate national self interest. And that's it. It is a very poor quality article (or, perhaps, just a very introductory one for early-stage folk that don't want to consider complications) that fails to explore the actual real problem at all.

> the recent TNYT article on Jakarta.

But you can't swap from (global) carrying capacity to one-local-problem. There are any number of local problems, there always are.

That article, as so many others, is misleading. It begins by leading with GW, before admitting that isn't actually the problem. But it still can't stop itself picking at the GW scab, and keeps swinging back to that, even though as it says the actual problem is groundwater extraction, as it often is. They definitely have a problem; the interesting question is how will they solve it: stop and reverse the extraction, or move?

> why focus on just one?

Sorry, but I don't know what you mean by that.

> growth hasn't been constant

I'm afraid you win no points for the bleedin' obvious. Things have been uneven but over a reasonable span (30 years, whatever) are upwards. Do you seriously doubt that will continue? I can think of scenarios in which it doesn't, but the more probable ones (Syrian-style failed revolution in China that grows tired of oppression) don't come from resource constraints.

> the current exponential growth in human population... end?

Hasn't it already? e.g. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Population_growth

> With Brexit and "America First", why

That seems terribly short-term and parochial of you. And you're failing to see all the reactions. Despite the biarre support my readers seem to give it, protectionism is not popular with big business and is likely to decline, I think. And on the world scale Brexit is trivia, however many column inches it may take up in the UK.

Phil said...

Why don't we focus on a different economic history?

Say like Iceland's history from discovery in 870AD to say 1900?

Settled by rich people. Yes, and the slaves of the rich people. Hundreds of years of rapid growth followed by hundreds of years of increasing poverty as the land was degraded.

An island that was once "wooded from the mountains down to the sea". And most of the Icelanders in 1900 had never seen a tree. Pastures overgrazed for centuries. Catastrophic soil erosion.

Tom said...

You might consider the natural history of England as well. From pristine to degraded to restored to renewed. Quite interesting actually.

EliRabett said...

As Phil points out economics, like weather forecasts, has a limited time horizon when it is any use, like about 20 years on a good day. OTOH, climate, like the environment and ethics tend to extend beyond the turn of the century.

Given an isolated planet, help is not coming.

David B. Benson said...

Following on recently from the Club of Rome "Limits to Growth" there is a even longer list of why nothing may matter by 2100 anyway:
Phil Torres will have a whole book on this soon. Sort of adding up all the Jakartas.

William M. Connolley said...

> discovery in 870AD to say 1900?

But... why would we artificially stop in 1900? How would that differ from the denialists who insist on starting all their temperature records in 1998? The only reason to stop in 1900 would be to provide a narrative of increasing poverty, which would be falsified by continuing for another 100 years.

> From pristine to degraded to restored to renewed

Not entirely renewed. There's plenty of concrete and there's plenty of monoculture as well as some nice bits.

> limited time horizon

That's kinda my point. And of course you're neglecting the dependence of the climate forecasts on the economic ones, since you need CO2 levels as input.

> Salon... There is not a single point here that is inaccurate or hyperbolic

I'm not convinced. I doubt the bit about epidemic disease is sustainable. As to the rest, yes there are many problems but predicting the end of the world is cheap, perhaps we'll die of web pages so overloaded with late-loading averts and eye candy that we run out of power before Bitcoin takes it all.

Phil said...

Sure, don't stop in 1900. The story of the settlement and economic prosperity followed by overgrazing, cutting almost all of the forests and catastrophic soil erosion remains. Sure the last hundred years was different, and we could discuss why it was different, but that is sort of off topic. Fossil fuels and freezing/refrigeration allowing for vastly more catch and export of cod, and low cost hydro allowing for production of aluminum cheaply. The overgrazed and eroding pastures mattered much less.

Don't stop with Iceland. History is full of booms lasting from a few years to a few hundred years followed by disasters caused by the same process that caused the boom. In the case of Greenland's Viking settlement, the degradation ended with the death of everyone in the colony. There are also examples of long term sustained communities.

So what does this mean for the future? The future might be wealthier, or poorer. It probably depends on our actions in the near future. Climate change and other types of environmental degradation might degrade the economy of the future so that the future might be a little poorer, or a lot poorer. Like the early settlers of Iceland, we could chose to maximize current wealth. Or we could chose to maintain the conditions that make us wealthy now and in the future.

William M. Connolley said...

> The overgrazed and eroding pastures mattered much less.

Yes, and that's sorta my point, too. It's the "the streets will be full of horse manure!" problem. Perhaps, someone in 1900 concerned for Iceland's future well-being might have prescribed a programme of tree-planting and soil conservation. But in terms of the economic well-being, that's not what has saved them; something totally different - technological change - has.

> we could chose to maintain the conditions that make us wealthy now and in the future

Yes, indeed. And thinking purely in "wealth" terms, that is what we should do. But does maximising time-integrated wealth involve drastically cutting GHG emissions now? Not obviously.

Phil said...

As Eli has already pointed out, Iceland recovered economically with imported technology and materials, and it is unlikely that the planet could do the same.

David B. Benson said...

Norse, not Vikings. They picked up and left Greenland for Norway after the Black Death provided deserted farms for them to occupy.

Phil said...

What would be the proper rate to cut GHG to maximize "time-integrated wealth"?

And how to add correctly add all of the uncertainty into that rate calculation?

An impressive problem.

I'm sure that there are lots of simple answers. Perhaps wrong, but simple.

Such as "the future will be so much richer than us, so they can solve the climate problem and we don't have do do anything". Perhaps wrong as the future may be poorer than us because of the climate problem or other issues.

Actually, I'm not even sure that is the correct formulation of the problem. The concept of utility points out that not every unit of wealth has the same actual value to a person. The first Dollar/Euro or whatever is far more valuable than the millionth. Perhaps we should be maximizing for utility, not wealth. Also, some of the economic concept of utility isn't actually tradeable goods. Clean air can't reasonably be bought or sold, but is clearly of actual value to a person.

crandles said...

>"But does maximising time-integrated wealth involve drastically cutting GHG emissions now? Not obviously."

Does drastically mean much faster than rate at which we can add cheap renewables power? What proportion of people would think that that sounds like a cure that is worse than the disease?

1) Without uncertainty, we could go right up to the point where we can just about avoid going over a severe tipping point. (Meaning possible drawn down of atmospheric carbon would not be fast enough to stop the run away effects.)

2) The greater the uncertainty about where such tipping points might occur, the more caution that should be applied.

3) If we are confident that there aren't any such severe tipping points then the future will be richer and can cope or correct anything nature is likely to throw at us seems a likely solution.

1) is certainly not the current position nor can we expect to get there. While we might want to hope for situation 3, there seems enough stubborn uncertainties to make assume situation 3 too dangerous. That leaves cautiously prepare for situation 2 as the sensible approach.

What does 'cautiously prepare' mean? Maybe what has been happening to make renewables cheaper than ff is exactly the preparation we should and have been following. Now ff use will dwindle as ff burning assets reach the end of their economic lives. The question of whether we have done and will do that fast enough remains to be answered.

Even if we did assume situation 3, the switch from ff to renewables would still happen anyway and make us better off as they are cheaper.

So may as well get on with the ff to renewables transition at a fairly fast rate, as it is coming anyway and will make us better off. What is to argue about with that? What is 'not obviously'?

rconnor said...

> “the main one is "the world gets richer over time" issue.”

Firstly, that’s an assumption. But more importantly, as the required rate (to stay below a target) of emission reductions increases, there becomes a point where the problem is no longer economic but political and social. As an example, a 2%/year reduction in emissions starting today is not only less expensive but also more politically and socially tenable than a 10%/year reduction in emissions if we wait until 2050 [1]. Even if we ignore the economic and technologic problems, a 25%/year reduction in emissions is likely politically or socially improbable.

[1] http://science.sciencemag.org/content/339/6117/280

> “Your life would be more interesting if you actually read or understood Hayek”

Please understand that two different people can read Hayek and come to two different conclusions. I’m not the only one that sees a contradiction in Hayek’s work[1]. I will acknowledge that I was hyperbolic in my “(near-)perfect” term. However, if you change “(near-)perfect” to “highly rational”, then I stand by my point.

Frankly, I like lots of Hayek's work; I just use his ground work on theory of mind, epistemology, evolution and economics to come to a different conclusion than he does. I’d (again) seriously suggest reading Sensory Order and then trying to reconcile his closet determinism and his views on epistemology with his views on individuals being highly rational economic actors. I stumbled across an article from Soros (of all people) that nicely outlines my thinking on Hayek[2].

[1] http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/08913811.2013.857466
[2] https://www.politico.com/story/2011/04/why-i-agree-with-some-of-hayek-053885

> “Despite the biarre support my readers seem to give it, protectionism is not popular”

Can you give an example of where your readership supported protectionism? The only thing I can think of is when you confused the importance a nation has on the identity of people with Nationalism (particularly, of the Trumpian variety).

> “If you want a knockabout discussion, write that kind of stuff, but please do it elsewhere”

Noted. I mistakenly thought there was a bit of give and take when it came to the tongue-in-cheek jabs based on content and language of your posts. I’ll try and clean it up.

William M. Connolley said...

> the proper rate

I don't know. And I don't think anyone else does. Indeed, it is likely that the optiumum rate varies from nation to national and time to time; indeed, more finely than that. Which sounds like a call for... Hayek-Man! Which is why I'd rather have a carbon tax and see how we get on than the planned disaster of the ETS.

> Perhaps we should be maximizing for

Again, Hayek-man can help: "we" should not be maximising anything; we should leave people free as far as possible to maximise what they like. You will argue that they might make stupid choices; this is indeed a problem.

>Does drastically mean

I originally wrote the sentence without the word "drastic" in it, before realising that was too precise and it needed vague-ifying; that's what the D-word is for.

> a cure that is worse than the disease?

A good question; when phrased baldly the answer must be obvious, and yet the problem is generally presented so as to obscure it in order to get agreement to the idea of drastic cuts.

As for tipping points, I was never terribly impressed, and when I last looked in 2008 they weren't meaningful. Are they still in vogue? Are they necessary? I'm quite happy with the idea that we don't know CS accurately, and that (coupled with the airborne fraction and various other things) seems to provide enough uncertainty.

> get on with the ff to renewables transition

Sounds good.

>> "the world gets richer over time" issue.”
> Firstly, that’s an assumption

As to the future, more of a belief; but one based on past experience.

> to stay below a target... no longer economic but political and social

I think as soon as you've phrased it as "to stay below a target" you've made it political.

> http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/08913811.2013.857466

Paywalled. The abstract doesn't inspire belief, though.

> “(near-)perfect” to “highly rational”, then I stand by my point

Really? I'm dubious.

> https://www.politico.com/story/2011/04/why-i-agree-with-some-of-hayek-053885

That article is irritatingly vague about what it is actually trying to say (perhaps deliberately); but when it ventures as far as "a scientific theory that proved that market participants pursuing their self-interest assure the optimum allocation of resources" as one of Hayek's beliefs, then I think he's making the same mistake as you with your "highly rational" stuff.

> your readership supported protectionism

Anytime it gets discussed I see more support than for free trade. E.g. https://wmconnolley.wordpress.com/2016/02/25/the-wto-just-ruled-against-indias-booming-solar-program/comment-page-1/#comments Indeed I thik I'd be hard pressed to think of anyone here who supported FT (other than me or Timmy of course).

Phil said...

"Which is why I'd rather have a carbon tax"

Which is a reasonable partial answer.

"Hayek-Man!", "we" should not be maximising anything; we should leave people free as far as possible to maximise what they like. You will argue that they might make stupid choices; this is indeed a problem."

A simple, wrong answer.

Local optimization only is a poor method of solving a complex problem. Complex problems have local maximums that are far from the global maximum. Local optimization usually finds a local maximum, not the global maximum. Once a local maximum is found, local optimization is stuck.

"He who refuses to do arithmetic is doomed to talk nonsense." John McCarthy

William M. Connolley said...

JMC's comment is as true today as it was when he used it; but it is more subtle than you think. He is not insisting that people do arithmetic in all circumstances, but that people who refuse to do it where it is required will talk rubbish. In the present situation neither of us is doing arithmetic, because it would be inappropriate.

You make the assumption (or, I think you do) that without the state we can find only local maxima, and that with the state we can find global. The second is obviously false: the state, or the patchwork of states, that we have is far from any global maximum. The former is dubious, too. Would you care to lay out your logic more clearly?

Phil said...


I'm viewing this from mathematics. Solving complex problems requires an understanding of the mathematical underpinnings of the methods chosen. While "local optimization only" tends to not work very well, local optimization is an important tool for getting a better answer to a complex problem.

A free market with individuals making completely rational decisions only on the details their own circumstances is a textbook example of local optimization. Or as Wiki says, "local search optimization".


Notice that individuals making less than optimal decisions based on the details of their own circumstances, if they learn from their errors, has a component of simulated annealing.


Even more so if groups of individuals do so, due to scale factors in economics.

Any very complex problem's global maximum is unlikely to be found. We can always hope to find a better local maximum, however.

Slightly off topic: An interesting paper on Iceland's history.