When I argued for treating GW as economics not morality, I didn't trouble myself to say "and I think it is easier to agree on economics than on morality", because it hadn't occurred to me that people might disagree. But of course, this is the internet, so people do disagree. CIP says so, for example. To start off, consider the usual pieties about the intertwining of economics and morality to have been uttered.
This post won't be as brilliantly convincing as most of mine, because I haven't really thought it through; it being so obvious to me, as I said above. It's almost a layers / category type thing: morality is more personal, economics is more public. We have large elements of shared morality, of course, otherwise society would not function, but those shared elements largely cover items we have experience of. Whenever new things arise, we are much less likely to agree. And conversely, there are any number of economic things we disagree about; a good example is the perennial popularity of protectionism on both right and left, despite economists telling us it is a bad idea.
Um. In a sense, that exhausts my coherent thinking on the subject. Doubtless I'll develope my ideas further in reaction to your wise comments.
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Treating GW as an economic problem can work if you can agree on a few preliminary problems. The prime one is at what rate do you discount the future (given that money today is worth more than money tomorrow) Then you can reduce the problem to what amounts to an insurance and mitigation problem how much are you willing to spend today to prevent a problem in the future? But the results of this examination depend greatly on the discount rate. For example even a 2% discount rate in 50 years 100000 has a net present value of 37,115 whereas if you go to 4% it is 14.071.
The choice of a discount rate is subjective since it involves a view of the future.
[Discount rate is certainly important. What the expected damages are is arguably more important. Deciding the appropriate discount rate is difficult. If you don't make one up, but instead use the ordinary commercial-type rates, then your future damages rapidly dwindle into insignificance; most people seem to agree that this is the wrong answer -W]
I don't think an economic outlook would capture a view of any longevity unless you're an econ professor. A moral or ethical outlook can have more legs. Let's make a platitude: "The general public holds values much longer than they hold their pennies." Would the people they elect to do things, such as mitigate CO2, be more effective asking them to tighten their belts, or to think of their children?
[But that's pretty well my point. I'm looking for people to come to agreement. Having deep-seated, build-in, hard-to-change morals makes it hard to agree. So it is better to recast the problem as something people don't feel so strongly about -W]
I'm presupposing that mitigation would not provide an immediate cost benefit to the GP.
Businesses do use pretty high future discount rates, but it seems absurd to apply the same thing to climate change.
[Mentioning the DR was probably a mistake. I'm fully aware that people don't agree what the value should be, and that there's no mechanism for coming to agreement. I don't think that should be a major focus for discussion; I think it is possible to get people to agree that a "social cost of carbon" should be somewhere in the $50 - $100 range, and not to worry too much on the detailed sausage-making that gets you those numbers (obviously one still wants econ / gw people to keep working at the problem, but just like nailing down climate sensitivity, I simply don't expect agreement. Note that amongst the general public or pols the very idea of even thinking about the discount rate will make their eyes glaze over and their heads explode; but the idea that GW does damage is easily got over).
Having said that, it would be a shame to waste a good argument. To state my opinion up front: I don't have a strong opinion, but I'm doubtful about the wishful thinking that gets you a very low rate.
One reason that money now is better than money in the future is that money now can be invested at a profit. But if the climate changes severely, there won't be any more economic growth to ride.
[Mmmm, but try a thought experiment: imagine there's a knob that controls GW damage rate against temperature. We turn that knob down low: GW hardly has any effect, but it still has some. SCC is tiny; perhaps $1 / tonne; or 1 cent. No-one would bother impose carbon taxes, but we can still calculate the discount rate, if we were to do so. Now, we slowly turn up the dial; and at some point we're at "severe" damage. You're suggesting, I think, that the DR we apply depends on the degree of damage. And I'm not sure that's convincing. Are you suggesting a continuous change of DR with damage, or does it suddenly jump to a high value when we get to "won't be any more economic growth to ride"? Because in that latter case, for your argument to be applicable, you'd need to know we were in that case -W]
Money now is better than money many years in the future because your business is not expected to live for centuries, you won't live for centuries, and your family may not last that long either. I'd really like it if a reasonably stable human civilization continues for the next several centuries.
[I'm not convinced by that, either. I expect to live more than 2 years. But I still (weakly; given interest rates, inflation, lifestyle) value money now more than money 1 year in the future, or two -W]
Money now is better than money later because we need to eat today and the future can take care of itself, except that the unrestricted release of CO2 is literally destroying the future's ability to take care of itself.
Steep future discounting cannot be applied to the costs of mitigating climate change, because severe climate change will actually change the conditions that future discounting is based on.
[That is a better argument. Indeed if the damage is non-linear or even discontinuous with warming rate, then the theory is hard to apply -W]
But that the future will have changes has always been happening. Some natural and some man made. For an example just this weekend a meteorite of between 200 and 600 m passed about 8 times the distance to the moon. Sometime one could hit and essentially wipe out modern civilization "1989 VB has an estimated equivalent diameter of 200-620 m (i.e. it is estimated that a spherical object with the same volume would be 200-620 m in diameter), and an object of this size would be predicted to be capable of passing through the Earth's atmosphere relatively intact, impacting the ground directly with an explosion that would be 15 000-600 000 times as powerful as the Hiroshima bomb. Such an impact would result in an impact crater 3-8 km in diameter and devastation on a global scale, as well as climatic effects that would last decades or even centuries." Or Yellowstone could explode or Toba ...
So many things could wipe modern civilization out but not the human race or the biosphere. It is this sort of thing that suggests building both terrestrial and space based archives of human activity. (that impact could cause the nuclear winter talked about years ago, and one might be glad to have the co2 in the atmosphere to keep it a bit warmer.) For example assume that asteroid impacted mid pacific, it could wipe out in short order most of the population around the pacific ocean.
Okay, I'll grant a small future discount rate based on the possibility that civilization is severely reduced by a disaster unrelated to AGW within the next century. But going off the last 10,000 years or so, the probability of any such event in any given year (other than perhaps nuclear war) is pretty low.
Which leads me to the logical but incredibly disturbing conclusion that the appropriate future discount rate for the cost of global warming mitigation should be based on the likelihood of a nuclear war starting before global warming gets out of control.
What Young CC said.
Also, William, you may be coherent here, but I don't see how you are pertinent. In particular, what economics do you imagine people agree on that applies and is persuasive? Even if you could exhibit it, and I don't really believe that you can, the crucial question remains is what sacrifices are a majority of persons willing to make today for the benefit of others 50 or 100 years hence? That question is essentially a moral question.
[The econ I think people could agree on is that GW causes damage, and those damages should be "paid for" (actually that's kinda not quite right, and I keep getting it wrong; should be "taken into account" is much better). That points you towards a carbon tax. The chief objection (at least in the US) appears to be "tax! gummint!") so the obvious solution is to make it revenue-neutral, and use it to simplify your broken tax code (and others). And I think that could be sold, too -W]
Well, there's your problem... You really need to think through "the usual pieties about the intertwining of economics and morality".
At its root, what is economics concerned with? "Utility" is the stock answer. But what is "utility", and how could you possibly separate any meaningful definition of this concept from questions of morality? Boil it right down, and economics is nothing but morality. The only reason that this isn't blindingly obvious is that most people "haven’t really thought it through".
It is no easier to agree on economics than on morality because they're the same thing. The core ideas of classical economics arise directly from the Protestant ethics of the people who defined the discipline in the first place.
Basically, economics is what you get when you define your ideas of morality in such a way as to render them amenable to algebra.
[No; I don't think that's true. Or, just possibly, true in the sense that all chemistry is really a detail of physics, and all biology a detail of chemistry. Which are possibly-justifiable "when you boil it down" views, but really not of any use in practice. Ricardo on comparative advantage is in no useful sense boilable down to morality -W]
Well, you can always add questions of morality to any topic for which you are trying to define an ideal solution to follow, but I would disagree with the idea that "economics is nothing but morality".
I would think that, generally speaking, economics would tend to favor solutions following the paths of less expenditures (less input needed, less waste produced), whereas morality may usually favor more complex paths.
Doing nothing in face of injustice costs nothing to most people involved, except for the victims, who support all the costs, and they usually stop quickly being vocal about the issue.
An example which came to my mind is the use of slavery in Ancient Rome. The Roman economy certainly thrived using this system. The practice of slave labor actually survived the fall of the Roman Empire and kept being a successful economical model at least until Charlemagne.
Yet, ethically, slavery is not exactly a good model.
Invading another country to get its resources is a meta-example. Economically sound, ethically dubious.
Now, if you do economics on the scale of the whole world, taking into account the price paid by all ecosystems, and reason on the long term, over dozen of centuries at least...
Well, I'm willing to accept that it raises usability problems, but that's a fundamental flaw in the field of economics, not my argument.
We can normally afford to ignore the fact that all chemistry is really a detail of physics only because physics is observer-invariant - it doesn't matter what anybody believes about it, it will continue to work in the same way.
However, if you grant that it's "possibly-justifiable" that all economics is a subset of morality, then suddenly the entire field turns out to be built on quicksand. Obviously people who are deeply invested in the idea that the abstractions of classical economics offer useful insights into the real world (beyond the sphere that shares your fundamental moral precepts) are going to be resistant to this idea, but that's really not my problem.
Sure, "Ricardo on comparative advantage is in no useful sense boilable down to morality" - but the underlying meta-concepts that the idea of comparative advantage relies on (property, utility, and so forth) ultimately derive from moral precepts and social conventions rather than physical reality. I'm sorry if this is inconvenient for you.
[I think you're reduced the question to meaninglessness; it is better to say that your morality-economics equivalence assertion is just wrong -W]
Basically, the problem is that you're considering the entire debate in terms that only make sense within a specific cultural / ethical frame of reference, and are now apparently shocked and dismayed to find that not everybody shares that frame. Indeed, even amongst people who mostly share your frame, there is sufficient disagreement about the fine details as to cause significant problems, as you note here. What chance do you think you have of even communicating with people who operate in fundamentally different frames?
[Again, this is part of my point; see my reply at #2. Talking about something more shared, like economics, is better than talking about morality, which is perhaps less shared -W]
(Of course, the traditional answer to this is "who cares?", followed by genocide and / or cultural imperialism on a massive scale, frequently justified by appeals to economics of the "they weren't doing anything productive with all those natural resources anyway" variety...)
[But that’s pretty well my point. I’m looking for people to come to agreement. Having deep-seated, build-in, hard-to-change morals makes it hard to agree. So it is better to recast the problem as something people don’t feel so strongly about -W]
Our points are different. Yours is about finding an argument for mitigation that is less likely to make people dig in in opposition. Mine is about finding an argument for mitigation that can be sustained across election cycles.
Why would people keep voting for something they didn't feel strongly about?
When I said "think of their children," I was being only a little glib. That's an ethic that doesn't have a political or moral opposite of any significance. It's intrinsic. Why not base arguments for mitigation on things most people already feel strongly about, or could feel strongly about, that don't have numerically significant opposition?
My take is that you need longevity of purpose. I don't see how appealing to lightly held values facilitates that.
My history is a little spotty, so maybe there's more than meets my eye, but are there not examples of successful sociopolitical change that came from an ethical vision (racial and gender equality)? There are also examples, I suppose of change argued on economic lines, like The New Deal - but that was against a backdrop of great deprivation. We don't have that kind of impetus here. Maybe I'm wrong. The history buffs will be able to duke that out.
Of course, you can argue both. 'Securing the economic future of the nation is important for the future well-being of your children.' But if you want to move people and keep them moved, I'd say the latter part of that equation is more likely to hit them where it counts.
To my mind, the obstacle to mitigation is transient attention to the problem. With that in mind I'd say the pollies, generally, are doing better than the general public.
Helianthus, @#8: You're making the classic mistake of applying your own ethical views to other people. In the ethical systems of ancient Rome, there was (to their minds) absolutely nothing wrong with slavery. That's why they didn't stop using it, or even consider stopping using it. It was just obviously the way the world worked, no more to be questioned that the notion that you can extract value by clear-cutting forests, or that you can apply some discount rate to tell you how to value the hopes and dreams of people who haven't even been born yet.
Reiterating your error does not make it any more correct. Economics is not fundamentally more shared than morality, and merely asserting that it is does not make it so. It only appears to be so because you don't normally discuss these issues with anybody who disagrees with you in a fundamental way on any of the bits of morality that underpin your concepts of economics. Try discussing economics with somebody from a culture that doesn't have the concept of private property and see how you get on... Oh, wait, you can't, because we killed them all.
[For the purposes of this discussion it doesn't matter if we killed them all, or if they have no share in the global discussion due to irrelevance, perhaps because their contributions are so small. So why are you throwing up squid ink mentioning them? -W]
In short, you only think economics is shared because your experience is limited to people who (largely) share your ideas of economics. (And you frequently resort to curt dismissal of anybody who doesn't...) However, even there, it turns out that there's more disagreement than you expected - hence this very post.
[Err, no. I've no idea why you think "there's more disagreement than you expected" over economics -W]
The smart move, on making that discovery, would be to re-evaluate your preconceptions about the degree to which economics is shared.
[I've now lost track of what your point is. Your opinion is that economics is essentially the same as morality. I disagree; and the more I think about it, the more silly your point appears to be. You also think "there's more disagreement than you expected" about economics, but I've no idea why you think that. Could it be that you're not communicating very well? -W]
From your OP:
If there isn't more disagreement about economics than you expected then I'm afraid I don't even know what this post is about, so it may be that I'm not the only person not communicating very well.
[There is the degree of disagreement over economics that I expected. I'm talking about "out in the world", not "in this blog", in case that wasn't clear. This post isn't about disagreement over economics. If you think it is, try reading it -W]
Slavery didn't fail to be an economically viable economic system. Slavery failed at Shiloh, Vicksburg and Gettysburg.
The failing of slavery was political, religious and moral, not economic.
[Quite possibly. I take it you're saying that in support of my view that morality and economics are not equivalent, and in opposition to Dunc -W]
Well, true. A number of Roman slaves - or even some free men - may have been of the opinion that slavery was not fair, but as a whole, if was part of the culture.
Except that now, you are going into relative morality, which is a quagmire of a debate.
Does the Earth stop being (mostly) round because enough people think it is flat?
But that's beside the point. Even with relative morality, you are no closer to equate economics and morality. Unless your point is that economics are subjective, like your definition of morality.
Yes, that is my point. I thought that was obvious, but apparently not.
The econ I think people could agree on is that GW causes damage
"People", in this sentence, as regards the United States, appears to include Californians but exclude most GOP Senators and Congresspeople and the President of the US.
[The Prez is an idiot, but he'll be gone "soon" so ignore him. As to the rest: yes, carbon taxes clearly don't command majority support (but there is some, e.g. http://scienceblogs.com/stoat/2017/02/15/the-conservative-case-for-carb…). However that is part of my point: I think it is being sold to them badly. It is being sold as a moral system they don't agree with; no wonder they're opposed. Given that, you can't even tell whether they agree that carbon-casues-damages; they're not prepared to talk about it (you can tell that a few nutters / denialists don't accept even that, but I don't care about them; it's the common muck of pols with voting weight I'm talking about) -W]
Then define "economics", please, and in which manner it could be subjective.
(I'm not saying it isn't; I'm looking for some definitions)
>"[The econ I think people could agree on is that GW causes damage, and those damages should be “taken into account”]"
GW causes damage seems a science question rather than economics or morality, so that doesn't seem relevant.
[I don't think so. Physical science will tell you that it gets hotter, or rainier, or drier. It won't tell you how much damage that causes -W]
'Taken into account' seems unduly vague. The economics question is in what way should it be taken into account.
Suppose we try to abstract the cc problem: Imagine an exoplanet with a fishing community
1. Some fishing is needed for the community to survive so the answer isn't to ban fishing.
2. To some extent, more fishing will help to develop the economy.
3. Too much fishing and bad things happen eg dwindling fish stocks....
Something other than a ban has to be introduced to prevent bad things.
I think most people would agree that some sort of tax or quota system should be introduced. But once you get into details of is it per fish or weight of fish or on profits of commercial fishing or only on fish of reproductive age or .... and when and how much..... Do we very quickly get to the stage of asking 10 economists and getting 11 different answers? Does this matter? Perhaps there is more agreement amongst the 11 answers than having to conclude we are not getting anywhere deciding on the optimal answer so lets give up and not do anything? To such a problem it seems easy to conclude the optimal may be the enemy of the good. Just do something, but ensure it is easy to tweak in different ways in case a variety of different problems arise.
Hmm, is William going to object to me suggesting ETS might have more ways of tweaking it than a carbon tax and is therefore better?
[I agree, we should not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. That's one reason I was vague about what "taken into account" might mean. I disagree that the ETS is "good". But NLTPBTEOTG is part of me thinking that trying to do this via morality is trying to be too perfect. A lot of people don't just want GW solved, they want to convince the bad people that the good people are morally right, too -W]
>"trying to do this via morality is trying to be too perfect"
Huh?, where does that come from? To me as soon as you invoke morality, the answer is not going to be precise or perfect.
[I didn't say the results from morality would be either precise, or perfect. What I'm trying to say is that a number of people do not want to use economics for this discussion, they want to use morality. For their own reasons. And this is essentially a counsel of perfection. It should be abandoned, and the discussion moved to economics -W]
>"Physical science will tell you that it gets hotter, or rainier, or drier. It won’t tell you how much damage that causes"
Yes, you are right to split it into GW causes changes (earth science) and changes cause both benefits and detrimental impacts ( science (non earth) or economic? not too sure and don't care much as the important part is in the valuation). The question seems to be does economics help us value the benefits and detrimental impacts objectively or does it come down to a subjective matter of judgement of how important these changes will be in future?
[It seems to me that it would be odd to label "valu[ing] the benefits and detrimental impacts objectively" as anything other than economics. And that it would be pointless if entirely subjective and unrealistic to expect it to be entirely objective, one would wish to stay as close to objective as possible -W]
"Does the Earth stop being (mostly) round because enough people think it is flat?"
Does natural variation stop because enough people think AGW?
Yes to both questions.
If the consensus is that the world is flat then flat it is.
Same for AGW unfortunately.
"When I argued for treating GW as economics not morality,"
I offended a lot of upright moral women and men all capable of casting the first stone.
And they do.
The problem with arguing that this is an economic rather than moral (though I'd use the word ethical; perhaps they are near enough to synonymous here) is that for economic analysis over the long term, we need to put values on ethical judgements.
Pretending then that this is an economic problem is hiding what the real ethical issues are.
1. What is the value of future damage vs current benefit?
2. What is the value of ecosystems and species?
3. What is the relative value of human lives in different parts of the world?
4. How much risk should we take with our future?
Depending on your answers to these and many other ethical and moral questions, an economic analysis will pop out radically (orders of magnitude) different answers as to the cost of current emissions.
Which leaves economics entirely useless, other than to pose the question: what ethics do you wish to apply to policy?
[Your 1 is also known as the discount rate; see disagreements above. But it helps (I say) to put it into economic terms - the discount rate - because that provides context (we have other examples of use of the discount rate). Phrasing it as you do tends to make it (or, rather, tends to lead the discussion off towards) more subjective and emotional. 2 is a well-known problem; but again, economics can provide tools to think about it (revealed preferences, for example). 3 has a similar answer, though people usually don't like it. 4 again sounds like a question that economics can help with; we can compare how we do similar elsewhere.
I get the feeling that people don't want this to be economics, because they fear loss of control. If it's an ethical problem, anyone's opinion is as good as anyone else's. If it is economics, then there are specialists. If that rings any bell, then try thinking: this is how "treat it as a scientific problem" sounds to Repub pols. Or, TBH, any pols -W]
VTG 3. What is the relative value of human lives in different parts of the world?
An interesting answer might be what the individual insures their life for.
Now a lot of people do not have life insurance, some have it foisted on them as part of their Super or Job description and others buy the policies.
I have had an 8000 dollar US policy taken out 50 years ago So I was worth 8000 US in 1967.
None now so my value has certainly tanked on getting older
Of course some lives are worth 10's of millions..
[For value of a life, see-also https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/IPCC_Second_Assessment_Report#Debate_over… -W]
I agree that economics can inform the discussion. But for climate change it can obscure the real issues. The reality is that for something like the discount rate, the range of what is a "reasonable" number economically is such that the economics is just qualitative.
[I'm not sure why you think that obscures anything. As to the range: you might as well say the same about climate sensitivity. But instead, people use that information. And just like CS, the range-of-numbers-spoken-of includes some outliers on the "alarmist" and "denialist" wings, why it is the same with DR -W]
Obscures because the economics can be used to provide an answer "temperature changes up to 1.5 degrees are net beneficial" or similar. This can easily obscure the ethical judgements that have de facto gone into the analysis, but are hidden in the numbers: "If we disregard impacts beyond two generations then changes up to 1.5 degrees are beneficial, if we also disregard potential societal shocks from disruptive events". Once thus caveated, of course, then the emphasis is back on the ethics.
Note, I'm not arguing that economics isn't useful, merely that itbecomes a codification of ethics for analysis of issues such as climate change, and as such the ethical issues need to be clearly defined in the economics.
The econ I think people could agree on is that GW causes damage, and those damages should be “paid for”...WC
You live on a different planet than I. Those are precisely the points most at issue, and even if we could agree on them, the question of who should pay is left open.
[I disagree. I think that even the Repubs would, at least in private, agree. Persuading to agree in public requires that you not upset too many other things. Or, you can go for Pure Victory instead -W]
I think that your study of economics should forget everything you have heard about discount rates and start by reading this year's Nobel Memorial Winner, Richard Thaler.
About revenue neutral carbon taxes. Such taxes are of course transfer payments. I've got no problem with transfer payments, but in this case they are often payments from the working poor (pickup truck drivers) to the relatively well off (Prius drivers). Using the money to finance universal health care would be more sensible.
[Fixing your broken health care system may be harder than GW -W]
I agree that economic arguments for doing something about GW have more widespread appeal than moral ones.
Some people believe that hurting nature or damaging the environment is a moral wrong and we should take action if we are doing this. Other people don't see this as a problem because nature or the environment is something different and apart from there lives. We could tell these people about ecology principles show that people and the natural world are not separate and if we hurt the environment we hurt ourselves.
A more direct and probably more effective approach would be to explain that doing nothing about GW is going to hurt the economy and cost us money. Even people who normally couldn't care less about environmental problems could be convinced to support action.
So how would you figure the economics on this plan?
... The findings are changing the timetable for a potential eruption from thousands of years to as early as the 2030's. "It's shocking how little time is required to take a volcanic system from being quiet and sitting there to the edge of an eruption" ...
"According to reports, NASA is looking to drill down into the great volcano to open a path for water to be pumped in. The plan may also unlock a new source of geothermal energy for use.
"Through drilling in this way, it could be used to create a geothermal plant, which generates electric power at extremely competitive prices," NASA's Brian Wilcox said, via the BBC. "The long-term benefit is that you prevent a future supervolcano eruption which would devastate humanity."
Would that latter bit be counted a cost or a benefit?
I thought we were supposed to consider disruption a good thing, these days? Blow it up for profit ...
But seriously, I'm asking -- how does the economics calculation work for the idea of preventing a mega-volcano explosion by building a profitable geothermal power plant on top of it?
There are a few dozen likely sites, Yellowstone prominent in the discussion.
If you can do something profitable that also has a longterm result of preventing planetwide damage -- how's that work financially?
[It seems an odd question. If the geothermal energy is profitable, then the prevention of a mega-volcano is a bonus - but probably not a financial one, because who would give you money for it? And of course you'd risk being sued to death if some volcano did happen. And the effort of getting permits to do anything in Yellowstone is probably prohibitive. So a trade-off might be: govt agrees to assume the benefit and risk of the volcano, and to give the permits, and someone builds a geothermal plant. But it won't happen -W]
Obviously not as quickly profitable as house-flipping:
"Extract! Extract! Extract!"