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?
Continue reading Alone in the Wilderness
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Continue reading Links for the week of November 20th, 2009
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Continue reading Links for the week of September 4th, 2009
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- Christian high school discussion of climate change – Kurt Klein's AP Environmental Science class is reading Richard B. Alley's Two Mile Time Machine, about paleoclimate, ice cores, and abrupt climate change events. (tagged: climate ice science greenland education religion )
- Prefabricated Passive Houses in the USA – Bau Technologies is attempting to bring pre-fabricated (or rather off-site constructed) passive houses to the US. Looks awesome. (tagged: architecture sustainability energy efficiency passivhaus design )
- Yogurt making tips – Detailed instructions on how to make yogurt, and also a source for equipment and cultures. (tagged: food yogurt homemade cooking recipe )
- Climate Wars – A Canadian radio show exploring some of the climate change scenarios which have been studied by the US Dept. of Defense in a personal, "War of the Worlds" kind of way. Be forewarned, this is apocalypse porn, and probably not productive unless you need to get yourself riled up. (tagged: politics climate sustainability future war )
- Our Passive House — the first passive house in Utah. – A Utah couple chronicles the design and construction of their passive house, with blog posts and photos. Great to see these things going up on this side of the Atlantic finally! (tagged: passivhaus sustainability design architecture buildings )
- Will Allen: Street Farmer – A long profile of Will Allen and his intensive urban farming project in Milwaukee: "Growing Power". Aquaponics and vermicomposting of donated food wastes. This is realistic urban farming at a moderate scale. (tagged: sustainability urban food agriculture compost )
- Gini coefficient | Wikipedia – A wonderfully simple and general mathematical measure of the non-uniformity of a distribution, mostly used in economics, but applicable elsewhere just as well. (tagged: economics math wikipedia research science finance )
- Here comes the data: OECD Factbook eXplorer – There are terabytes of interesting data out there that nobody can actually understand, because we don't have good interfaces for playing with it, and poking around. This is the OECD's attempt to offer a window into its own demographic treasure trove. Obviously inspired by the gapminder, from Google and Hans Rosling. (tagged: data maps statistics visualization demographics oecd economics )
- The Choice of Cities – I'm not convinced we really know why the humans are coming to the cities. Whether it's a pull, or a push. How the migrants feel about their lot. Is it, globally, the same as the push we had in this country a hundred years ago? Or was it a pull? What happened when the frontier closed, when all the land was spoken for, and the factories and mines and mills were opened for business.
And what will cities look like once everyone has arrived? If we actually reach that day, when the countryside is emptied, and the flow staunched, then how will cities develop going forward? What will their margins look like? Will the slums filled with newcomers vanish? What will they be replaced with? (tagged: technologie urban design economics history technology poverty )
- Bike Among the Ruins – Detroit is half abandoned. The houses are almost free. The streets are empty and the people are poor. It's also flat. Could a cyclone of bicycles wipe clean the slate, even within the sight of our beloved, bankrupted, and now employee owned husk of an industrial titan… GM? (tagged: bicycle transportation urban design economy )
- Behind the Veil by Eve Arnold – A series of photographs of women, from Afghanistan and the middle east from 1969. Very different from our "Summer of Love"… (tagged: photos islam afghanistan women )
- The Revolution Will Not Be Digitized – Iran is one of the first places we get to see old school blood in the streets mixed with the new age of instantaneous, ubiquitous communication. We've tended to focus on the positive aspects, while briefly forgetting the potential powers of an electronic police state, which is to some degree what Iran has built. No massive army of eavesdroppers and informants is needed in such a regime. A few deep packet inspection boxes from Siemens sitting on the fiber backbone, and a few on the microwave towers from Nokia. Technology is largely neutral. (tagged: technology politics internet privacy government twitter web2.0 iran )
- 55 km to Amsterdam – A day of inter-city transportation by bicycle in the Netherlands. Can it really be that idyllic? (tagged: bicycle transportation netherlands infrastructure )
- 1993 Y Hike Pictures – Wow, pictures of myself from 1993 on the Y Hike. I still remember just about everyone in that group. I look so… young! (tagged: caltech yhike backpacking wilderness sierras )
- Traitor Joe's | Greenpeace – Trader Joe's doesn't make any effort to source sustainably caught fish. Unfortunately, with 70-80% of global commercial fisheries in collapse, it's virtually impossible to sell (or buy) most tasty fish species ethically. (tagged: sustainability fish traderjoes ocean food )
- Organic Farms as Subdivision Amenities – Housing developments that incorporate small organic farms, CSAs even, instead of the usual golf-course crap. How would one adapt this for denser living I wonder? (tagged: design agriculture urban csa food architecture )
- Enphase Energy System Monitoring – Another real-time and historical solar power monitoring system. This one is installed on the roof of one of the Boulder Housing Coalition Co-ops in Boulder. Pretty awesome! Smart grid indeed. (tagged: solar energy technology transparency electricity )
- Caltech Building Dashboard – A near real time view of the power being generated by Caltech's 200 kW PV installation on the Holliston parking structure. Also shows historical data and weather information. Pretty cool. Would be great to just have the raw datastream available via an API too… and be able to see all the Caltech's per-building consumption too. (tagged: energy solar caltech pasadena technology transparency data internet )
- How To Destroy Half the Planet for the Low, Low Price of 5% of Global GDP – Never mind the possibility of unforseen climatic consequences. Even if the pessimistic IPCC scenarios are right, and even if they "only" reduce global GDP by 5% over the next 100 years, that purely economic metric is not sufficient, because it turns out you can wipe 2.5 billion people and their nations off the face of the Earth, mainly in the tropics, and only reduce global GDP by 5%. Cold comfort, that. (tagged: climate economics gdp )
- Walter Mebane's statistical analysis of Iran's election results – Walter Mebane at UW Madison has done several statistical analyses of the Iranian election results, and finds significant irregularities in the Ahmedinejad results. (tagged: election iran statistics democracy fraud system:filetype:pdf system:media:document )
- Carbon Cap and Trade Debate – Ralph Cavanagh (legislative council for NRDC) and Jim Lazar, an economist, debate the merits of Cap and Trade, for an hour and a half. Looks interesting, but don't have time to watch it at the moment (tagged: video towatch climate policy economics )
- Property Assessed Clean Energy Bonds – PACE bonds are a way of overcoming the capital intensivity of many energy efficiency retrofits which make sense in the mid to long-term, but not on the typical short term investors time horizon. They also allow homeowners who may move before their investment in efficiency has paid for itself to pass on the obligation to future owners, instead of losing the investment. They also shift the costs of doing energy efficiency from capital expenses to debt servicing, which is advantageous in many jurisdictions for tax purposes. Berkeley, CA and Boulder, CO pioneered them for municipalities, but they can also work in a commercial context. (tagged: energy efficiency sustainability finance green debt investing bonds )
- It’s Now Legal to Catch a Raindrop in Colorado – Colorado has taken its first tentative steps down the road to legalizing… rainwater harvesting. I hope they go all the way. I'd hate to have to end up breaking yet another immoral law. (tagged: environment colorado water law sustainability rain green architecture design )
- Welcome to Tällberg – A "conference" analogous to the WEF in Davos, but held in Sweden, in the woods, and with sustainability as the given goal, instead of economic growth. Would be an interesting stop on the Green Cities Bike Tour. (tagged: green economics technology politics policy design conference )
- Power Struggle – A commentary on Steven Chu's position that we need major basic scientific and technological breakthroughs to successfully tackle our energy problems in the context of global warming. The hope is that in the short term, the vast array of incremental changes we have available is enough to get us started, and that by mid-century, the major breakthroughs will have been forthcoming. Ah, non-linear dynamics. (tagged: technology science energy climate non-linear sustainability policy )
- The Great American Bubble Machine – An article from Rolling Stone, by Matt Taibbi, on the endless bubble building shenanigans that Goldman Sachs has engaged in over the years, and their supposed current machinations to engineer a bubble in the as-of-yet uncreated market for greenhouse gas emissions. Markets, I like. Markets run by some Great American Gangster Kingpin, not so much. Especially not this particular market. Remember: Nature doesn't do bailouts. (tagged: economics finance goldmansachs capitalism climate bailout )
- The Economics of Ideas – An article about Paul Romer by Kevin Kelly, musing on the problems and benefits of having an economy which is primarily driven by informational goods. (tagged: economics technology non-linear )
- Paul Romer: A Theory of History, with an Application – Paul Romer talks about two different kinds of informational goods: "technology" and "rules". The former being knowledge about how to re-arrange the material world to increase its value to humans, and the latter being constraints on the ways we interact with each other. His "new/endogenous growth" theory suggests that overwhelmingly, wealth creation throughout history has been due to these two kinds of goods, and that they are virtually infinite resources. What he does not explicitly admit in the talk though, is that much of our increased apparent wealth has come at the cost of virtual liquidation of material resources. Truly sustainable growth absolutely must close the materials loop somehow. Better sooner than later. The rest of his idea is wonderful: we need a system which enables rule set entrepreneurs, or we aren't going to get sufficient innovation in the field. He suggests myriad autonomous city states, and I agree emphatically. (tagged: economics urban society non-linear politics longnow )
- The Swimming Cities of Serenissima – Improvised and chaotic houseboats built from found bits, floating down the Mississippi (2006-2007), or the Hudson (2008), or sailing the Adriatic from Slovenia to Venice (2009). Like a tiny maritime Burning Man. Only a couple of boats today… What if it were an armada? (tagged: art boat performance sailing )
Michelle and I just finished reading The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan. It was good. He can get a little rambling at times, but overall it was entertaining and enjoyable. The book follows the relationships between people and four plants, through history. The four plants are: apples, tulips, cannabis, and potatoes. It pairs with them four desires, respectively: sweetness, beauty, intoxication, and control. The connections are more than a little tenuous, but the histories are certainly worth examining. The apple chapter in particular has inspired me to learn more about hard cider (since it turns out that’s largely what Johnny “Appleseed” Chapman’s apples were used for, all across 19th century America). And who can resist an examination of cannabis’s relationship with humans, written at least partially while stoned?
One theme Pollan has touched on repeatedly, in this book and his others, is the competition between Apollonian and Dionysian impulses in nature and society. Apollo representing order and control, Dionysus wildness and chaos, both being utterly necessary for civilization to be dynamic and persistent, for knowledge to increase and broaden through time. E.g. our Apollonian monocultures of Russet Burbank potatoes are vulnerable because of their uniformity, but are also productive and economically efficient. The Andean potato farmers of antiquity grew dozens of different varieties in different micro climates, all the while allowing the plants to hybridize with the local wild potatoes, maintaining a possibly less productive, but certainly more diverse and robust system of potato cultivation, in which new biological innovation was constantly taking place, and in which the farmers were well protected against catastrophic collapse in any one year… unlike the potato farmers of Ireland in the 1840s. The potato chapter in particular focuses largely on a very recent interaction with the potato: the introduction of a genetically engineered variety called the “New Leaf” by Monsanto, that produces Bt toxin to guard the plant against the Colorado potato beetle and other insect pests. Continue reading We need more Dionysian Science