We had some of that golden evening light tonight just after house meeting. The kind that makes you think maybe an apocalypse is just over the horizon. That the mountains are on fire. That the gods are angry. This Saturday I went for a long bike ride up to the Peak to Peak highway with Amy from Picklebric. At the Sunshine Saddle she pointed out the cheat grass — an invasive species that she works on. Studying disturbed ecosystems, and how to assemble new approximations of the originals from the parts at hand. You can’t get rid of the invasives, but maybe you can influence which ones thrive. Just beyond the divide above us, the mountains covered with red trees, a forest being transformed in a lifetime. 500 years from now will they be the Aspen mountains? Tim applied for a job at the Nature Conservancy as a landscape ecologist in a similar vein — understanding and managing wild and semi-wild lands for their own sake. Like the Colorado river pulse. All this made me think of the ecopoesis that Kim Stanley Robinson portrayed in his Mars books, especially Green Mars. Humans as gardeners of the no longer quite wild. From here on out, it’s all gardening. Mandatory gardening. It’s just what kind of garden do we want? What will grow in this climate?
I’ve been thinking a lot about risk tolerance and discount rates lately, and how they profoundly shape our perception of the economic costs associated with minimizing climate change. Basically… if you’re willing to vary your preference for the present over the future or the level of uncertainty you’re willing to accept, then you can make mitigation cost whatever you want. All else being equal, low discount rates and low risk tolerance make taking action cheap, while high discount rates and high risk tolerance make it expensive.
Unfortunately, we live in a society with high discount rates and high risk tolerance. Or at least, that’s what you’d infer from our collective behavior. It’s also what you’d gather from a lot of the rhetoric around climate action, and our obsession with trying to make it “economically efficient”, to the point of maybe not doing it at all. Our risk tolerances and discount rates aren’t really objectively measurable. They are fluid, and context sensitive. The same person in different situations will not behave consistently. Different people in the same situation may come to different conclusions. How we deal with uncertainty and the value of the future is a personal as well as cultural decision.
For some reason, I find myself with a low pure time preference, and an aversion to many kinds of risk. This is part of why I find our unwillingness to act on climate infuriating, and why I’m working on climate policy. I got to wondering, how did I end up this way? Why isn’t it more common?
Discount rates determine time horizons. How quickly does the future fade away? I spent a huge part of my education studying astronomy and geology and planetary science. I was obsessed with the Pleistocene as a kid. These are my timelines. Four and a half billion years since the Earth was shattered and the moon coalesced. 700 million years since the first charismatic megafauna arrived on the scene. 65 million years since the dinosaurs vacated the premises and our warm fuzzies took over. 73,000 years since Mt. Toba erupted in Indonesia nearly wiped the humans out. The Long Now stretches forward too — into deep civilizational time, if we’re both wise and lucky. To work on robotic space exploration and dream of our sentience drifting between the stars requires a long view, a hope or expectation of indeterminate future. With that hope comes a pure time preference that’s close to zero, at least for species-scale decisions. The value of this enterprise is not cut in half every 7 years, or even every 70. You cannot invest a generation out, let alone a thousand years out, if you are constrained by your weighted average cost of capital. In some kinds of enterprise, our markets fail utterly.
My risk aversion I chalk up to time spent traveling under my own power in the wilderness, far from any hope of rescue. When you know you will not see another human being for weeks, and you are truly on your own, in an environment that is not benign, risk looms large. The penalty for a minor screw up can be death. Kayaking in the Sea of Cortez, at the whim of the winds and waves, pinned down for days on the beach by the crashing surf. In a desert by the sea with no roads and no communication. We started running out of water when the storms kept us from reaching our destination on time. A stubbed toe got infected. My boat was damaged and began to leak. But we had the parts to make a still, we had soap and antibiotics, fiberglass and resin. Because we were prepared, we could just wait out the storms. We were never forced to paddle in dangerous weather.
It’s interesting that my risk aversion doesn’t keep me from traveling in the wilderness. There’s something about that kind of experience, where the risk is real and self-reliance is mandatory, that I find invigorating. To some degree it’s the awareness of the risk that makes the experience feel hyperreal. The joy of the challenge isn’t in the elimination of risk, but in its thoughtful mitigation. Successfully thinking through many possible failures, and how to make them graceful instead of catastrophic. How to keep them from cascading.
As social animals, I think we’re naturally a little insulated from the risk that comes from isolation. There’s usually someone there to help in an emergency. Certainly in the modern society of the global north, it’s quite rare to experience that kind of mandatory self-reliance. I think this dulls our sense of risk. Instead we suppose that we’ll muddle through somehow. That we can play it by ear. That there will probably be someone to lean on if need be.
Unfortunately, we are alone in our own wilderness as a civilization. As a species. As a biosphere. We are trapped here on Earth, surrounded by the unfathomably vast and hostile depths of space. There is no help for us. There is nobody to lean on or learn from. The penalty for even a minor alteration of our atmosphere’s chemical composition and optical properties might just be extinction. Aversion to risk under these circumstances doesn’t seem so unreasonable.
Our task isn’t to optimize and run our civilization as efficiently as possible. Our task is to ensure that come hell and high water, we make it through alive. If you agree, then minimizing climate change isn’t expensive but worthwhile — those values actually mean that climate action is cheap!
In May of 2013 I gave a talk at Clean Energy Action’s Global Warming Solutions Speaker Series in Boulder, on how we might structure a carbon pricing scheme in Colorado. You can also download a PDF of the slides and watch an edited version of that presentation via YouTube:
What follows is a more structured written exploration of the same ideas.
Last night seven Boulder city council candidates visited the Rad-ish Collective, an activist co-op that does a lot of volunteering behind the scenes of Boulder Food Rescue.
The candidates had some motley seating, including one stool made out of the back half of an old bike frame (Andrew Shoemaker) and a chair upholstered in what appeared to be a faux Yeti pelt (Sam Weaver). Half the walls were covered with murals, and the other half with event flyers, political literature, and all the daily household bookkeeping that goes into making a co-op run smoothly.
The crowd’s median age was probably under 25, and most of us sat on the floor. As the event progressed, more and more people filtered in, and those sitting shoulder to shoulder in the front slowly scooted forward until we were within reach of the candidates’ feet. Sam Weaver remarked at some point that it was probably the largest or second largest audience of any forum they’d attended, even though it was being held in a living room!
It’s easy to see pictures of toxic eWaste dumps outside of Accra, Ghana (like the ones below by Michael Ciaglo) and be led into a rich-world guilt trip (like this one on Gizmodo). These are obviously horrible, toxic working conditions, but what exactly leads to them is much less straightforward than the “West dumps toxic waste on Africa” narrative. The majority of the electronics being “recycled” here came most recently from Africa (yes, they were imported used goods from the developed world, but if you’re running an internet cafe in Accra, and getting Ghanians reading the Wikipedia… you’re probably not going to buy fancy new stuff.) Furthermore, the overwhelming majority of western eWaste does apparently end up being recycled within the OECD. See this article by Adam Minter for an overview (and also his global scrap trade blog: Shanghai Scrap). And for vastly more detail, the Basel Convention’s reports on African eWaste.
A good seminar by Kevin Anderson (former head of the Tyndall Center for Climate Research in the UK), exploring the conflicts between our stated goal of keeping global warming under 2°C, and the actual energy and emissions policies that the developed world adopts:
The same basic information, in a peer-reviewed format Beyond “Dangerous” Climate Change: Emissions Scenarios for a New World, in the Transactions of the Royal Society. Also in a Nature Commentary (paywall).
The basic point he’s making is, the assumptions that are currently going into climate policy discussions are unrealistic, with respect to what’s required to meet a 2°C goal, even 50% of the time. They require global emissions peaks in 2015 and eventually negative emissions, in order to be able to accommodate the 3-4% annual emissions declines that the economists (which he likes to call astrologers) say is compatible with continued economic growth. But a global peak in 2015 is at this point outlandish from China or India or Brazil or South Africa’s point of view. To give them even a tiny bit of breathing room, and treat our historical emissions even somewhat equitably, the developed world has to peak roughly now, and decline at more like 10% per year for decades, and the developing world has to follow our lead shortly thereafter (maybe 2025).
None of this is compatible with exploitation of any unconventional fuels (tar sands, shale gas, etc.). And, he argues, it also isn’t likely to be compatible with reliance on market based instruments, given that we need to implement drastically non-marginal changes to the economy.
There are a lot of voices in the climate and sustainability discussion. I’ve been thinking about where in the spectrum I fall, and why. Who are the people I’m trying to convince? What camp do opponents imagine I’m in? Even amongst those of us who agree that the energy and climate problem is enormous, there’s disagreement about whether change in our daily lives is necessary, desirable, or acceptable.
Below is a list of people I’ve personally been influenced by. Everyone here agrees that the current system has to change, that the magnitude of the required change is large, and that the direction of the change is unequivocally away from fossil energy sources. Where we differ is on what part of the system needs to change, and why. In particular, there seems to be a range of positions taken on the issue of social change. The Pessimists think that no technical solution comes close to being adequate, that large social changes are thus obligatory, and that they will be interpreted negatively by most people. The Optimists think that the best solutions include both technical and social components, and that the required social changes are relatively modest, and not necessarily negative at all. Some Optimists advocate for social change overtly, while others imply that purely technical options look implausible without it. The Cornucopians discount the need for social change, and are thus left with the technical task of supplying virtually unlimited carbon-free energy.