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?
Anthropocene — the Age of Man. First coined in irony, the International Commission on Stratigraphy is now debating whether to officially end the Holocene geological epoch. We humans are leaving home, in time if not in space.
I am now in this place where you should never come. We call it Onkalo. Onkalo means hiding place. In my time it is still unfinished, though work began in the 20th century when I was just a child. Work will be completed in the 22nd century, long after my death. Onkalo must last 100,000 years. Nothing built by man has lasted even a tenth of that time span. But we consider ourselves a very potent civilization.
If we succeed, Onkalo will most likely be the longest lasting remains of our civilization. If you, some time far into the future find this, what will it tell you about us?
It isn’t often that you find people seriously thinking about deep time in a concrete way. Usually it’s abstract, just a thought experiment, not an engineering problem or a gut wrenching moral quandry. But this is apparently not the case for the Scandinavians who have taken on the task of storing their spent nuclear fuel. Finland has decided to go forward with permanent storage, in a typically responsible, deliberate, earnest Nordic way.
I’m a little bit of an information pack rat. I started blogging before there were blogs, from UGCS. It seemed mildly neurotic and self involved and exhibitionist at the time. I mostly did it for my mom as a way to keep in touch without having to e-mail all the time. I’ve lost information here and there, even digital information (which seems kind of unforgivable), but analog too. Actually, I think more I just didn’t create much analog information. Five intense months of life, bicycling across Europe in 1994. Maybe 2 rolls of film total? Almost no photos from my summer in Russia. Both my parents were avid photographers. My dad professionally (though eventually he tired of the weddings and quinceañeras, and retreated to a steady stream of passport and similar photos… para las micas rosas, y para amnestia…) and my mom (so far as I can tell) more personally. Family pictures, documentarian style, wildflowers, and some prizes in the Fresno County Fair. But I never got into it, until I got a digital camera in 1999. My first piece of digital film was a 64 MB compact-flash card (incredibly, several times larger than the 20 MB hard disk in my first computer, which I got in 1993). It cost about $100. The camera was a Nikon Coolpix 700, with 2.1 MP sensor and no zoom. I bought it in an online auction (at Yahoo!) for $425, but had the seller leave me feedback at eBay (you could leave anyone feedback for anything back then). I mailed the check, and he mailed the camera, simultaneously, trusting each other. I still have our e-mails. The pictures could go directly to the web… via the web server I had running in my bedroom in Santa Cruz. I still have those pictures. No developing. No cost-per-click of the shutter. Kayaking through Southeast Alaska with Becky in the summer of 2000 I had to limit the resolution to 640 x 480 to avoid running out of space over 3 months, and I couldn’t use the LCD lest I run out of batteries, but at least I took the pictures, and kept them.
To plan long term we need time lapse eyes. We need to sense the world on geologic and evolutionary timescales. This is outside of our visceral experience. Astronomers and biologists and geologists get some sense of deep time, but it’s still not an experience. We need to build these eyes for ourselves.