Monday, June 14, 2010

Placing Bets

I made a post last Wednesday about climate change and got an incredible responses.  My post can be quickly summarized by "I am skeptical about CO2 forced global warming, but I still support dramatic action to cut emissions."  There is a lot of information in the comments and of course the internet is completely chock full of debate, so much so that I don't know that I can even reasonably read a single site dedicated to it.  I did spend a bunch of time since then perusing the internet to try to sift out the information there and the combination of what I read and the comments that were posted did change my mind.  I think I was wrong about the scientific understanding of CO2 effects and was under some false impressions about some of the arguments against AGW (Anthropogenic Global Warming).

I had a conversation with The Philosopher about the subject and he proposed a very good way for me to talk about the subject more clarity.  Specifically, he wanted to know how I would bet on the subject of AGW.  This is a tricky issue because there are many different facts to bet on but I decided to try to break it down a bit to express what I think at the moment.  Firstly I decided to limit my bets to giving a percentage from the list of 0, 10, 30, 50, 70, 90, 100.  Assigning precise percentages to beliefs seems like a stretch so I will just use these ones, and keep in mind that 100 means I would bet all of my possessions against a single shiny penny on the certainty of truth - that isn't something I do lightly.

So, here is a list of things and my current bets on them being True:

CO2 in sufficient quantities increases world temperature:  90
CO2 produced by people significantly increases world CO2 levels:  90
CO2 is responsible for a some of the temp increases over the last 100 years:  90
Human produced CO2 is the *primary* factor behind the temp increases over the last 100 years:  70
Current scientific models of climate can give us reasonable predictions of future temp trends:  50
Scientific models of climate have been reliable and robust through the 20th century:  10
The confidence and robustness of scientific climate models are often overstated or misrepresented:  70
It is warranted and important that we cut back on fossil fuel use and emissions:  90

The Pigeonhole Principle is true:  100
I am better at Barbu than Randrew:  100
The Sun will rise tomorrow:  100
I am invincible:  0
The internet is a convenient place to find the simple truth on complex topics:  0
People are all excellent, especially those that post in forums on the internet:  0

I ordered a bunch of books from the library to try to learn more.  Specifically I wanted to read a book saying AGW is bunk, one saying it is true, and one that talks about the topic but isn't clearly for or against.  I also thought that I should reread The Skeptical Environmentalist.  I read this book a few years ago and fell in love with it because it so much matched my views that things simply aren't as bad as they are often made out to be and that there are better solutions that the ones we often pursue.  I want to find out if I reread it with a more critical eye if I will find that I still agree with what it says - I have poked around online and found points for and against it.

I did find something very interesting by the author of The Skeptical Environmentalist and Cool It - Bjorn Lomborg.  It is an interview with .... Fox.  Basically Bjorn presents the idea that AGW is flat out happening but that we have much better places to spend our dollars to help others than changing our carbon habits.  I am not going to claim that what he says is true, but I am going to say that I absolutely love the position of openly agreeing that AGW is a problem and then asking how best to spend our collective money to improve the happiness and health of all of humanity.  It is worth a view, even though the glee with which the interviewer puts down Al Gore and the whole AGW lobby injects a really sour note.  If you were unimpressed with Fox News before, Fox Business isn't going to change your mind.


  1. The decades long hustle is going to come home... All your possessions against a penny in a brawl for it all with Randrew?

  2. All these years he has been losing money at cards just to take my entire net worth in one fell swoop. What discipline!

  3. A lot of people really don't like Bjorn Lomborg; he really comes out against carbon emission cutting. I really liked the Skeptical Environmentalist myself, and I've seen a few of Lomborg's speaking engagements. He really seems like a guy who's most pronounced interest is getting statistics correct. Then again, if you went back to your post about it making sense to fear the unknown, he would definitely flat out disagree with that. Take your best guess at a cost-benefit analysis and go with it, he would tell you, regardless of how unreliable that guess really is.

    I am what would be denigrated as a "technological utopian" in many discussions, and I like people who present the idea that while we have problems we also have a pretty good track record of solving our problems.

    The major problem I see with Lomborg is that he seems to have no grasp of actual reality. It doesn't occur to him, for instance, that Fox News isn't at all interested in hearing the truth but instead wants to insult Al Gore and will bring anyone on who disagrees with anything Al Gore says. It also doesn't seem to occur to him that if we immediately stopped all environmental progress in its tracks and gathered up every resource would could that we were devoting to that, we wouldn't then spend that money on curing malaria. If this happened in the US it would more likely have gone to a tax cut for the richest 0.1% of the population. If the rich countries in the world wanted to cure malaria, they could very easily do it, and they haven't yet. When governments spend money, it is never either-or, it is always a little bit of everything.

    Plus, I know in the Skeptical Environmentalist he seemed to think that reducing emissions would be hugely expensive, where in reality developing "green" energy technology has the potential to bring with it economic expansion rather than costs. I'm not saying it doesn't cost anything to go down that route, but investments in renewable energy seem likely to pay good dividends. He seems pretty good with numbers and not the best with reality.

  4. It may well occur to Bjorn that Fox News isn't a nonpartisan organization. From what I read on the internet Bjorn is a member of a pretty radical right wing party in his country. That doesn't mean he is right or wrong about anything in particular, but it does make it likely he will see less wrong with Fox News than a random person might.

    Also you have to consider what sort of news organization is going to court him to go on their show. A left leaning outfit might well not be interested because his stance on carbon cutting doesn't fit their agenda or mesh with what their viewers/readers want to hear. As such he may well completely understand what sorts of things Fox News says but he wants to get on the air and get exposure for both himself and his message and I kind of doubt a controversial figure like him can cherrypick major news programs to feature him. If Fox News wanted to interview me I would say yes - I don't exactly have competing offers and even though they are going to say things I don't like I could at least say things that I think people should hear.

  5. My opinion (for what it's worth) on global warming is that if it's true, it'll continue until we get over our cultural insecurity about geoengineering, and just reverse it.

    It's actually not a very hard problem, most estimates put reversing global warming using proven and safe methods at just a few hundred million dollars. Peanuts!

    Of course, I'm pro-anti-global-warming for much the same reason as you: CO2 production is pretty closely tied to a whole bunch of other chemicals which are scary for entirely more immediate reasons (the heavy-metal & toxicity kind), which get concentrated over a 10-20 year process on the top of the food chain (us).

  6. Great, great, great post Sky:)

    A creative way to tackle this topic.

    Personally I clock in closer to 100 than 90 in most of your bets but I admit to being nervous about only getting a shiny penny back.

  7. That is the thing: I didn't want to be trying to figure out whether I was 91% sure or 97% sure so I restricted my bets a little to make it simpler. Either I am 100% absolutely 'shiny penny against my house' certain or I am 90%. Certainly 90% isn't a perfect reflection of my feelings but it gets the broad categories right.