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Are we too stupid?

Posted on 6 April 2010 by Jacob Bock Axelsen

Guest post by Jacob Bock Axelson

In a recent interview, the famous environmentalist James Lovelock bluntly stated that “humans are too stupid” to mitigate global warming. Perhaps a better question is whether or not there is any way that we can cooperate in preventing climate change. This subject has been part of the research performed by the evolutionary biologist Manfred Milinski and co-workers at the Max Planck Institute in Plön, Germany.  The Milinski group have identified that indirect reciprocity, information and perceived risk are important pieces of the puzzle. To better understand these concepts, and the results, we will briefly review the game theory of cooperation. Before we begin I should mention that cooperativity may have very strong switch-like dynamics e.g. whereas an agency with thousands of workers and engineering PhDs can produce low risk manned lunar flights, infinite individual geniuses cannot. Therefore, evolution has favoured cooperativity in biophysical mechanisms such as membrane formation, enzyme kinetics, protein folding, genetic regulation, cellular interaction and flock behavior.

In 1968 Garrett Hardin addressed the issue of misuse of common goods in the famous paper entitled "The Tragedy of the Commons". The paper created enormous controversy and has thus been cited more than 3608 times in the scientific literature (according to ISI Web of Knowledge). Hardin’s idea was based on the premise that the cost of individual use of common goods is distributed to the community. Individuals may then act according to their misguided self-interest and utilize any common resource to depletion – an individually undesirable state. Hardin mentions that psychological denial is evolutionary favorable and states: "The individual benefits (...) from his ability to deny the truth even though society as a whole, of which he is a part, suffers." Thus, one may regard the tragedy-of-the-commons partly as a consequence of individual illusory superiority (also known as the Dunning-Kruger effect). As it were, the ancient greeks had already identified some problems of unlimited freedom, in 1624 the poet John Donne wrote the famous phrase "no man is an island, entire of itself" and in 1882 the playwright Henrik Ibsen wrote the play "An Enemy of the People" on the problems of dealing with pollution. More interestingly, many native peoples are known to have somewhat successfully managed common resources such as the active use of wildfires by native Americans.

In 1971 Robert Trivers coined the term "reciprocal altruism" or "you scratch my back, I scratch yours" as a short description of the mechanism of rewarding someone for their good deeds (Trivers 1971). Major progess was seen when Axelrod and Hamilton let academics write strategies for computer tournaments and subsequently published the results in the famous paper "The Evolution of Cooperation" in 1981. The question was: what is the optimal strategy when a group of generally unrelated individuals play the Prisoner’s Dilemma (see figure below) over and over again?



Figure 1: Top: Prisoner’s dilemma punishment matrix (years in prison per game). ‘Loyal’ means that you do not reveal information about your friend and ‘Betray’ means that you help the police. The colors and sums shows the consequences of the player’s choices. By minimizing the personal average punishment (in italics) the game thus reaches the stable Nash equilibrium of snitching. Contrary to this, the unstable Pareto optimum is that both are loyal because at least one prisoner will be unhappy with exchanging their 1-year sentence with 5 or 3. Bottom: the tit-for-tat (direct reciprocity) strategy.

The superior, strikingly simple, strategy was conceived by the mathematical psychologist Anatol Rapoport, whom had worked on the Prisoner's Dilemma for years. The strategy was that you should initially cooperate and then reciprocate your opponent i.e. start by being nice and then do what your opponent did to you last time - also known as direct reciprocity. The strategy was termed "tit-for-tat", which in the nuclear arms race had an extreme cousin known as "mutual assured destruction" and it bore resemblance to the legal concept "eye-for-an-eye" found in the Torah.

The result seemed to explain the emergence of cooperation if it were not for the fact that the dynamics in this simplified setup is highly unstable and prone to enter a "tragedy of the commons"-like scenario. Say a single one-time misunderstanding occurs: you misunderstand and think you have been cheated so you will cheat in the next round thus spurring more cheating of your partner. The “tit-for-two-tats” strategy proposed by Axelrod partly solved this instability problem. Many other strategies have been proposed amongst which the “win-stay lose-shift” (or Pavlov) strategy by Nowak and Sigmund (1993) performed markedly better in the long run than various tit-for-tat strategies. Put simply, by acting ‘as per reflex’ you could avoid sharp retaliations caused by misunderstandings.

The next major contribution was again made by Nowak and Sigmund (1998) when they studied the aspects of indirect reciprocation in evolutionary learning games. The game is the same as the Prisoner’s dilemma, but some players may now choose to punish, or discriminate against, the defectors. The inclusion of such indirect reciprocity inevitably complicates the understanding of the dynamics (see figure 2 and 3 below).


Figure 2: I) Indirect reciprocity. II) Building a reputation in the population affecting your future. Nowak and Sigmund (2005)


Figure 3: (left) Problems with indirect reciprocity. B has recently not helped anyone i.e. defected for some time. Should C altruistically sacrifice reputation by not helping A if A logically does not help the defector B? (right) The dynamics of a simplified game of “the good, the bad and the discriminator”. The triangle is a phase portrait i.e. the time evolution of the ratios of each type of player. Note that without sufficient discriminators/punishers everybody ends up defecting (the red lower left corner is the final outcome for the lower part of the combinations of player types). Nowak and Sigmund (2005)

All of the above is purely theoretical and somewhat confusing. Therefore there has recently been a strong interest in performing experiments with real test subjects. In 2005 Milinski and co-workers let students play a new kind of common goods game where funds are pooled to invest in mitigating climate change (Milinski 2005). They found that a finite - probably insufficient - level of altruism was always present in a population. If players were also enlightened with expert knowledge on the climate they even cooperated significantly more. Furthermore, allowing participants to take reputation into account and use indirect reciprocity also lead to cooperation comparable to publicly displaying the players’ level of altruism.

In 2008 the Milinski group found that only if disaster was 90% certain, i.e. the individual would suffer irreversible losses, could humans be motivated to reach a given target of total required preventive investments (Milinski 2008).


Figure 4: Results of the climate change game with real humans. Students were initially given an amount and in subsequent rounds asked to invest in a common climate pool. Filled circles were when investments were done publicly and open circles for when the investments were anonymous. The triangles was rounds when players was allowed to see each other’s investment history and decide to help each other. Red is for enlightened participants and blue for unenlightened. Blue open circles then gives a (slowly decreasing) basic level of altruism. Milinski et al. (2005).

In conclusion, theory and experiment indicates that we may be able to cooperate on climate change if a) social punishment is strong and active and b) the population is sufficiently enlightened about the facts and c) everybody knows that they will pay a price if they do not contribute in time. Lovelock probably knows this and simply finds the demands too high. In any case, the minimum 10-20 years it could take to replace the use of fossil carbon is the time it will take to reveal most of the final answer.

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Comments 1 to 50 out of 140:

  1. Very interesting post.

    One great work to be added here is the one by the 2009 Nobel Prize Elinor Ostrom. Her book "Rules, Games and Common-pool Resources" is enlightening on the dilemma "private vs. collective result".

    Some games have a structure that lure agents to a destructive end result. A fisherman won't preserve his much needed tuna only by individually choosing to fish less. Only collective coordination of individual action can provide:

    1) A rule of use of the resource that keeps consumption below its carrying capacity (eg limiting number of users or limiting individual consumption)

    2) Some way of enforcing the above.
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  2. There are so many bad things to say about Lovelock's opinions in that interview that I don't know how you could find it in you to take up one point.
    If I could just restate Humanity does in fact Rule.
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  3. Fascinating post. Maybe your best yet.

    I have been wondering how long it will take for the Deniers and Alarmists to realise that nothing much will be achieved as long as they enjoy debating more than trying to find common ground with their opponents.

    This thread may be venturing into the realm of "solutions", something that John Cook has avoided to date.

    When it comes to solutions I can think of several issues that both sides of the climate debate could support. According to Milinski things have to get pretty bad (90% probability of disaster) before the warring parties will be motivated to make common cause.

    The fly in the ointment is that hard science usually expects predictions to meet a 5 sigma limit (Normal distribution). This corresponds to a very high probability that the result is not random. In matters of life and death, even higher standards may be involved. For example, the probability of remaining alive after taking a scheduled air line flight in the USA exceeds the 6 sigma limit (p>0.99999998).

    When it comes to "Climate Science" it is hard to find any results at the 2 sigma level. Some even argue that a probability at the 1 sigma level (p=0.8413) should be good enough when they are predicting "the end of civilisation as we know it". I call it junk science that brings us real scientists into disrepute.
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  4. I should read this again, but it looks like people can be expected to act more responsibly when they are well-informed and when their actions are not anonymous. Seems pretty obvious, but it's good to be reminded. (This probably applies to behaviour on blogs, too.) I suspect there is more to Figure 4 than just that, though.
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  5. Anyone who believes gallopingcamel's claims about statistical significance should read the professional statistician Tamino's post The Power -- and Perils -- of Statistics. Be sure to read all the comments, too, since many of them are from us "real" scientists.
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  6. HumanityRules

    "If I could just restate Humanity does in fact Rule."

    It does not occur to you that Earth might defect on Humanity?
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  7. "If players were also enlightened with expert knowledge on the climate they even cooperated significantly more."

    I am all for learing to be cooperative, but... these behavioral dynamics are found with overfishing, where cooperation is problematic even in the face of unequivocal observation (i.e. no fish).

    There is no doubt that Earth's resources are limited. Its atmosphere is also a limited resource, and becomes ever more so as population increases. Only with science can this limit be properly determine.

    But population does not only affect warming. And while limiting population solves many problems, it does not solve all problems. The million dollar question is how much is best, and in what manner? And even for that, you need cooperation.
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  8. Tom Dayton (#5) is absolutely right regarding galloping camel's claims. The discussion at Open Mind contains all that needs to be said.

    However, I cannot resist quoting this from "a particle physicist" (Comment 98)

    "Climate science obviously differs [from particle physics] in that we have only one Earth to work with (a “cosmic variance” problem that should be familiar to many physicists in other contexts). Not to mention that global warming from the greenhouse effect is a prediction of well-understood physics; the extraordinary claim that would require huge statistical significance to be convincing would be that it isn’t happening."

    Some of the ideas around the Prisoner's Dilemma and the Tragedy of the Commons are discussed non-mathematically in Matt Ridley's "The Origins of Virtue"
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  9. In many ways the answer to the question 'Are we too stupid' depends on how big the problem is.

    I believe we will be able to make the switch away from fossil fuels for power generation and transport, although how quickly we will do it (as opposed to how quickly we can do it) remains to be seen. These are achievable because they are technical changes in nature, viable, and apart from some economic costs, it does not have any real impact. Power still comes out of the socket, we still drive our cars. This change has no meaningful impact on how the economy works or the basic paradygms of our lives.

    However, if this is all the change we make, we had better hope like hell the Climate Sensitivity ends up being right at the low end of expectations. Otherwise we are in trouble.

    Actually there are a range of threats we face this century and the scale of response we need to make to deal with the sum of all of them is frightening:

    - Climate Sensitivity might be at the high end of expectations.

    - Tackling all the other ways in which humanity causes Greenhouse gas emissions

    - Melting Permafrost and Clathrates releasing Methane.

    - World Population is heading for 9-10 Billion before it is likely to level. And even then any decline after that would be very slow. Even more radical policies such as 1 child per family world wide would only see a decline back to levels similar to today by the end of the century. And any rapid decline in population would result in a demographic bulge for generations. Too many older people and not enough young people to support them.

    - The Green Revolution is in trouble. The Green revolution of the 60's and 70's saw many crop yields double and triple. This required new plant varieties, but it also required resources to allow them to achieve their yields - adequately fertile land, irrigation and chemical farming, particularly artificial fertilisers. And now population has climbed to the level where food shortages and famine are starting to threaten again. We need even more food yet the resource base needed to support its production is under threat:
    ---- around 1/3rd of farming soils are being lost faster than new soil is being created
    ---- The Hydrological Crisis may lead to major water shortages in important growing areas; declining groundwater supplies, declines in Glacial run-off, and AGW induced rainfall changes
    ---- Most of the worlds fertilisers rely on Natural Gas as their main feedstock in production. If we use up the NG before we switch to renewables, we may face a fertiliser shortage.
    ---- Crop Ecologists have a rule of thumb that a 1 DegC temperature rise results in a 10% decline in productivity for most major grain crops.

    So we face the possibility of a world with 9-10 billion people with even less food production than now. Maybe only enough for 4 billion

    - Then there is Economic Growth. Not only will we have more people who will want higher living standards, our economies are actually dependent on growth to function. Even when we have periods of low growth, but still growth, the economy is still described as sluggish. And much of our economies are dependent on huge waste to function - planned obsolesence, the throw away culture, needless consumption of vast amounts of pointless and contrived products and services. So much so that we are acculturated to call this Consumer Society our 'way of life'.

    We can't afford this level of resource consumption if we are to survive. So if the economy doesn't have increasing population as a driver of demand, if it doesn't have 'rising living standards' as a driver of demand, if it no longer has the wastefulness of the Consumer Society as a driver of demand, what happens to the economy? Vast arrays of industries, businesses and jobs vanish. Permanently. We could produce the basic goods and services we need with a fraction of our current workforce. But there is a problem. A part of humanity might be able to produce every thing that we all need. But the rest would be unemployed. And thus would not be able to afford to purchase the goods & services. And thus all the businesses that are producing them will have no markets. And even more people will have no jobs.

    So how do we create an economy that is low resource consumption, hyper-efficient in its use of resources, able to support everyone adequately yet still fits the economic model that includes things like property, money, that we can only have access to the resources of the world if we have access to money to buy it. And can only get money through work. If the work is available.

    Are our dominant paradigms, that have underpinned our societies and our sense of who we are as individuals, compatible with what we need to do to be able to survive? Personally I think not. But cut us some slack here. The change we need to make to really protect our futures are so profound that it is a huge ask. The technological aspect is trivial by comparison.

    We seem to be apemen who have evolved a huge capacity to change the world around us while being hostage to our inability to evolve comparable changes in our internal mental landscape to allow us to survive in the world we have created.
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  10. gallopingcamel

    "I have been wondering how long it will take for the Deniers and Alarmists to realise that nothing much will be achieved as long as they enjoy debating more than trying to find common ground with their opponents."

    Are the scientists the "Alarmists"? If so, then why do you wonder?
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  11. Glenn Tamblyn

    "The change we need to make to really protect our futures are so profound that it is a huge ask. The technological aspect is trivial by comparison."

    Read Hardin's paper.

    Also, I will kindly ask you if you could keep your comments shorter next time.
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  12. Jacob (#10),
    I realize that attaching labels is not helpful but I am recognizing the fact that it will be hard to find solutions to important environmental problems as long as the war of words continues.

    I hope your comment does not imply that you still believe that all scientists are "Alarmists". That "consensus" fallacy was demolished a while ago.
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  13. "The individual benefits (...) from his ability to deny the truth even though society as a whole, of which he is a part, suffers."
    I think this is one of the single sentences that best describe our societies. It is the result, or maybe the other side of the coin, of our idea of freedom without any ethical and/or social limits.

    @gallopingcamel
    when on earth it has been shown that consesus is a fallacy?

    @thingadonta
    "People are naturally reluctant to major changes unless driven by extreme need. History shows they have good reason to be."
    I agree with the first sentence. As for the second, history also shows that to not take the necessary steps may destroy civilizations and that it happened very frequently with dire consequences.
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  14. Glenn Tamblyn (#9),

    In your very interesting post you mention one of the key issues for climate science, namely "Sensitivity". While there is widespread acceptance of the idea that increasing concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere causes temperatures to rise, scientists have not been able to determine the sensitivity even at the 2 sigma level.

    Published papers suggest climate sensitivity to CO2 from 0.5 to 3.2 Celsius per doubling of CO2. There are probably some outliers that I have missed.

    Let's look for Milinski's "90% certainty of disaster". The IPCC says (AR4) that a 2 degree Celsius rise in temperature would constitute a "Catastrophe". Furthermore they say that there is a probability of 25% that this rise will occur by 2050.

    While Alarmists may be comfortable to base public policy on such a weak foundation many reasonable people would dissent:

    1. Warmer periods in recorded history were times of prosperity rather than "Catastrophe".
    2. The climate sensitivity may be so low that the actual temperature rise due to CO2 will be lost in the natural forcings that are beyond human intervention.

    My main reason for hanging out on this blog is the forlorn hope that there may be some public policy proposals that can be supported by Alarmists and Deniers alike. I am happy to endure abuse and ridicule as the price to be paid in pursuit of good public policy.
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  15. A few thoughts:

    The prisoner's dilemma is based on discrete states, a flipping of a switch. Climate states can switch dramatically, but are not quite as clear-cut as that. There generally is not a discontinuity on a climate graph. To me, this implies that even if not everyone adopts good stewardship behaviors, there is still some benefit to be had in some of the population adopting them. Though, it's hard to see if that can have a long term benefit, unless there are negative feedbacks on the non-cooperative players.

    G.Camel, the best information we have happens to be inherently fuzzy data. No matter what course of action we take, we are deciding to take that course, even if it is deciding to do nothing. So, it seems to me that you are a inclined to advocate for doing nothing (probability of a positive outcome 16%), if the probability of a catastrophic outcome is _only_ 84%.

    I get the we-can-not-wreck-the-economy and we-should-be-spending-more-on-solving-[hunger, water shortage, disease] arguments; I even get the no-world-government-for-me argument. However, I believe we are in the ounce-of-prevention--pound-of-cure state and climate change seems to be the biggest threat to avoiding mass starvation, war, economic collapse, etc.

    I think Lovelock is wrong on a few points; I think we are on the edge of being too stupid. Unfortunately, my views are also largely the same as Tamblyn's; except my fear is that the food production will fall to enough to support maybe 4 billion, and the decline from 6-9 billion will be anything but "very slow". People tend to have a belief that really bad things happen to other people in other places, nothing really bad will happen to them. It's a great defense mechanism, but time will tell if it serves us well in the coming century.
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  16. Galloping Camel:
    You need to check your sources of climate sensitivity. A review article in Nature online (Knutti and Hegerl 2008)summarized climate sensitivy as 2.0-4.5 degrees celcius per doubling with a possibility of much higher numbers not excluded. the IPCC range is 2-4.5 degrees per doubling. Your values are much too low. Lindzen and Choi have been rebutted and their value is not a reliable lower limit. The problem is much worse than you think. Inform yourself.

    You often have these types of claims where you do not cite a source for your numbers. Can you provide a source for your 0.5-3.2??
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  17. re: gallopingcamel at 00:13 AM on 7 April, 2010

    You’re misrepresentation of the scientific understanding on climate sensitivity, gp. Inspection of the science on earth surface temperature sensitivity to raised greenhouse forcing indicates that the range of likelihood is between 2 - 4.5 oC (per doubling of [CO2]), which is quite well constrained at the low end (little likelihood of climate sensitivity below 2 oC[*]), but poorly constrained at the high end (scientifically poor basis for rejecting higher climate sensitivities). See for example Knutti and Hegerl’s recent review.

    R. Knutti and G. C. Hegerl (2008) The equilibrium sensitivity of the Earth's temperature to radiation changes Nature Geoscience 1, 735-743

    It would be foolish indeed to combine policy making with a false representation of the science that impacts that policy! That would be rather like reverting to the state of ignorance which had such a dismal effect on the welfare of societies in the recent (e.g. Lysenkoism, already mentioned, which was similarly based on misrepresentation of scientific knowledge), and more distant past (some examples in Jared Diamond’s book, Collapse, for example).

    ---------------------------------------
    [*] For example, the earth has warmed by around 0.8-0.9 oC since the middle of the 19th century, while [CO2] has risen from around 286 ppm then to 386 ppm now.

    A climate sensitivity of 2 oC should then give an equilibrium warming of:

    ln(386/286)*2/ln(2) = 0.85 oC

    We know that we haven’t had the full warming from this enhancement of greenhouse gases, since it takes the earth many decades to come to equilibrium with the current forcing resulting from raised greenhouse gases. Likewise we know that a significant part of the warming from this enhancement of greenhouse gas levels has been offset by manmade atmospheric aerosols. On the other hand some of the warming is due to non-CO2 sources (man-made methane, nitrous oxides, tropospheric ozone, black carbon). Non greenhouse gas contributions to this warming (solar, volcanic) are known to be small. Overall, it’s rather unlikely, given the warming since the mid-19th century, that climate sensitivity is less than 2 oC. This is expanded on in more detail in Knutti and Hegerl (see above), in Murphy et al. (2009), in Rind and Lean, 2008, in Hansen et al (2005), etc. etc.
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  18. oops, I've repeated what you just said michael...


    ..I hope we're not going to be accused of "consensus science"!
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  19. Can't help myself, got to say:

    Generals that took no action until 5 sigma confidence levels were achieved would loose every time.

    Achieving a 90% certainty amongst the participants in an experimental setting is a lot easier to achieve than it is in the real world. Especially if you are going against defense mechanisms.

    Berényi, I don't see the connection between communism and physics. Though, it may be that the downfall of communism to capitalism is a good indicator that cooperative play on large scales is not inherently in human nature. And, who knows, maybe communism will make a comeback when the conditions are right for it.
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  20. Glenn Tamblyn, your remarks on the erstwhile Green Revolution certainly resonate for me. That was not magic, not a rabbit pulled from a hat, but it was a product of fortuitous circumstances and a trick we'll have a tough time pulling off a second time.

    Our complacent acceptance of an inevitable increase of what we like to think will be a stable population of ~10 billion-- likely preceded by significant overshoot-- boggles my mind. We've proven nothing of our proclivities so far but that we're careless in the extreme with our resources, this very fact is why we've got such a large population right now. We've got no reason to believe we're going to smoothly accommodate yet more unhinged procreation.

    As to our economy, its shape has evolved to fit a burgeoning population following an unbalanced approach to resource exploitation. All of our metrics of economic success point to "growth", a temporary phenomenon. Economic success needs a rethink, something along the lines of paying people to sit quietly at home composing poetry, bestowing honor and prestige on living less large.
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  21. The notion of accountability for public good or ill reminds me that public discussion of climate change is rather distorted at present, without any obvious way to unbend it.

    On the one hand, we have scientists who publish with their identities, characters and reputations attached to their work, with powerful incentives to produce work that consistently interlocks and functions with a plethora of other research findings.

    The work these people perform is inherently transparent in nature, even more so when their private communications in many cases are required to be disclosed upon request.

    Resonance in public discussion of findings these people produce is dependent largely on the acclaim they may receive from fellow researchers; discoveries found to have solid merit make their way into the popular mind via an indirect and organic social process starting in the academy.

    At the same time we have participants in the public discussion of climate change who may remain anonymous, are perfectly free to infect discourse with concepts that are false and inconsistent with observations, and who are completely unaccountable for their actions. In most parts of the world this antisocial behavior is protected by law, for reasons that are well founded.

    Unable to participate in science because their agenda is incompatible with certain research findings that are necessarily intractable, these shadowy forces instead purchase their participation in discussions of climate change as it relates to public policy with money. Again, this is perfectly legal, and what is permissible in the way of public engagement via commercial transactions is essentially boundless. If one has the money, one may assume a large profile in public policy debate concerning climate change regardless of of accuracy or intent.

    So lies are protected speech and the susceptible audience for lies is for sale. The reach and power of lies is limited only by the wealth and determination of those who need to lie.

    Research tells us that in order to optimize the public good, some form of comprehensive accountability is needed in this matter of public policy and climate change. Perhaps it would be a useful thing to continue to allow lies to be told, but not by anonymous interests, but that's an unlikely outcome.
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  22. A couple of comments about the top article:

    (i) The "tragedy of the commons" is a poor phrase, since it connotes a sort of handwringing helplessness which is not terribly helpful. I suspect the evolution of modern human socioeconomics is progressing from something like "the tragedy of the commons" to "the recognition of the commons" (which is where most of us are now at), to something like "the opportunity of the commons", or the "accommodation with the commons", which future societies are going to have to conform to if mankind has any significant long term future.

    (ii) Game theory is not terribly helpful I think. Of course one can formalize the sorts of incentivization combined with inventiveness, entepreneurialism etc. that will hopefully ease the transition to societies based on sustainable energy sources that is the only future for mankind. But it’s not obvious that game theory helps us very much, since the extant realities are increasingly apparent, and we do know how to address them, however difficult (e.g. the collective effort to address the extant realities of CFC-induced destruction of stratospheric ozone, which has been managed without recourse to game theory!).

    (iii) James Lovelock’s comments also aren’t terribly helpful. His reputation allows for a certain consideration of his views, but these should stand or fall in relation to evidence and informed understanding, just like any other future prognosis. I suspect he enjoys being provocative…

    (iv) Not related to the top article (more to a sub-group of comments) but it’s continually intriguing how certain political viewpoints associate with a misrepresentation of the science, as if those politics are simply unable to accommodate the possibility of collective solutions to problems (which must therefore be pretended not to exist). The more robust form of libertarianism in particular is a dismal philosophy in this respect; if we were all libertarians, the tragedy of the commons would indeed be a tragedy!
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  23. "Let's look for Milinski's "90% certainty of disaster"."

    Forget p-values. Global warming due to human activities is already occuring - it has been realized. The 90% certainty was the level of risk needed to induce sufficient cooperation in the experiment.

    The question of 2 degrees by 2050 being 25% certain is not cause for concern unless you are only risk averse to false negatives - that you think it would be disastrous to accept global warming by humans if it were false.
    If that is indeed the case you fit the stunningly accurate characterization offered by Hardin: that conservatives either claim that the flaws in the necessary reforms are too important to ignore (the no concensus nonsense), that status quo is perfect (the 'everything-is-natural' tautology) and therefore we should do nothing - the path to ruin.
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  24. chris

    "The "tragedy of the commons" is a poor phrase, since it connotes a sort of handwringing helplessness which is not terribly helpful."

    I find it highly appropiate. Hardin refers to the poet Whitehead who says:""The essence of dramatic tragedy is not unhappiness. It resides in the solemnity of the remorseless working of things." You will also find that Hardin actually advocates action.


    "... extant realities of CFC-induced destruction of stratospheric ozone, which has been managed without recourse to game theory"

    The Prisoner's Dilemma is solid part of the core curriculum for political scientists. I can understand why - it is such an incredibly rich problem and several Nobel prizes (Nash, Aumann, Ostrom) in economics are related to it.


    "... if we were all libertarians, the tragedy of the commons would indeed be a tragedy!"

    If you dismiss game theory and experiments, then how can you argue that convincingly?
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  25. chris:
    To your remark, "societies based on sustainable energy sources", I would say, "everything is relative", since
    fossil fuels would provide perfect sustainability for a planet inhabited by say 500 million. However, there is absolutely no sustainable solution for a population that is doubling at 6 billion per generation.

    I am not sure what alternative miracle solutions are in the works for preventing future global warming, but they had better factor in this particular reality. What may be considered sustainable for 6 billion may not be acceptable for 12 or 18 billion, etc.
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  26. @gallopingcamel said... "Published papers suggest climate sensitivity to CO2 from 0.5 to 3.2 Celsius per doubling of CO2. There are probably some outliers that I have missed."

    Look back at the papers that John lists on this site. It's more than a little disingenuous not claim 0.5C as an outlier. My review of the published papers would put the normal range between 2C to 3.2C. Outliers being 6-7C and 0.5C. That is also very consistent with normal IPCC statements. They generally publish the most conservative reasonable number.
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  27. Jacob, I'm not dismissing game theory and certainly not dismissing experiments (which I spend much of my life doing!). I'm pointing out that one doesn't need game theory to address the problems that require collective solutions. To give an example, whether or not game theory is studied by political scientists, the fact remains that (with reference to the collective effort to address CFC ozone desruction, for example):

    (i) scientific analysis demonstrated that stratospheric ozone was subject to catalytic destruction by man made chlorofluorocarbons.

    (ii) scientific analysis informed understanding of the consequences of stratospheric ozone depletion.

    (iii) following the US Natl. Acad. Sci. report of 1976, and via the subsequent Vienna Convention and the Montreal Protocol (and aided no doubt by the discovery/invention of non-damaging CFC-alternatives), colective agreements amongst the main CFC-producing countries were made to freeze, and then reduce, CFC production and release.

    I don't really see that game theory had much of an impact on that process.

    I don't think this is a big issue, and it's not really worth arguing over, but I do think one needs to be careful not to lose the bigger picture by focussing on game theories, however interesting (and potentially applicable to other human interactions). The real issue IMO in relation to the politics and policy of collective solutions is education and reliable dissemination of the science.

    On libertarianism..... it's apparent that those forms of libertarianism (especially prevalent in the US) that eschew all forms of government intervention, and/or that consider self-interest the ultimate driver of an ideal society, find it difficult (tending to impossible!) to accommodate the sorts of collective solutions to problems that are required for addressing protection of the most all-pervading elements of "the commons" (i.e. the oceans and especially the atmosphere).

    Again one doesn't need "game theory" to argue that. As I said, I'm speaking of the "more robust" forms of libertarianism as indicated in the paragraph just above. In my understanding, there are forms of libertarianism that embrace collective solutions on a small scale....perhaps we need such a libertarian to let us know whether the extension of this to collective efforts on the national and inter-national scale required to address global warming (say) can be accommodated within a libertarian philosophy!
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  28. RSVP at 03:48 AM on 7 April, 2010

    Yes, fair enough RSVP, there's no question that population increase is a formidable issue in future scenarios.

    However, one cannot put off the issue of the inherent non-sustainability of fossil fuels. Oil has a very short future lifetime, whether or not we manage miraculously to abruptly constrain population levels, gas will last somewhat longer and coal will keep us going for a few hundred years.

    I expect we probably agree that any sustainable human population is unlikely to be greater than current population, and may well be significantly smaller.
    But there's really no question that any long term future for mankind will be based on societies fuelled by sustainable energy supplies. Current fossil fuel use would give us a few hundred years, and mankind would almost certainly be suffering from the effects of extraordinarily high geenhouse gas levels unless we were to find truly effective means of sequestering our emissions.

    Without adressing this problem, at some time in the future fossil fuels will run out. They only scenarios in which they will not run out, are those in which (a) mankind has worked out how to function with sustainable energy sources, or (b) mankind has expired.
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  29. chris #22

    On your (iii): I loved to read Ages of Gaia, and AFAIK the ideas of the Earth being one big ecosystem that is worldwide interdependent and self regulating via negative feedbacks (including biological ones) is well accepted in mainstream science today.

    And I have to agree with you that he seems to like being provocative. I don't like his nihilism.

    One the other hand, if we observe what we have actually done so far to mitigate AGW (as opposed to what we know and say), it looks a lot like we are, indeed, stupid.
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  30. chris

    "I'm pointing out that one doesn't need game theory to address the problems that require collective solutions."

    I wish it was so simple, but then: why did COP15 fail?


    "(i) scientific analysis demonstrated ... "

    Irrefutable science, no doubt. If agreements, where the restrictions are laid out to secure that they are kept, are not necessary then why are they made?


    "I don't think this is a big issue..."

    Milinski et al. (2006) puts it differently: "Maintaining the Earth’s climate within habitable boundaries is
    probably the greatest ‘‘public goods game’’ played by humans." I agree.


    "The real issue IMO in relation to the politics and policy of collective solutions is education and reliable dissemination of the science."

    ... and I have provided you with the game theoretical background to reliably make that statement. How else do you argue that education or science is beneficial unless you argue within the context of survival and competition for resources?

    I recommend that you read both the Hardin and Axelrod papers. It is truly fascinating how game theory percolates nature. Just contemplate that e.g. the fig wasps serves as pollinator for the fig tree, but if the wasp enters an immature fig and destroys too many seeds, the tree simply discards the whole fig and the larvae perish along with it. Tit for tat(!)
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  31. Ah, gallopingcamel is once again trying to perpetuate the "warmth=prosperity" myth to justify the ever increasing profits of the fossil fuel industry. Tell that little fairy tale to the Anasazi, the Mayans or the Khmer Empire. Oops, that's right, you *CAN'T*, because they were all wiped out by the relatively *mild* warming we encountered during the Middle Ages. By contrast, with the exception of the Greenland Colony (which was marginal to begin with) can you point out how many *entire* civilizations died out in the Little Ice Age which followed the Medieval Warm Period? So much for that little fantasy then. As I've said, its actually easier to overcome colder weather through technology than it is warmer weather-especially if that warming occurs in a relatively short time span (as it currently is). Warming will result in reduced access to fresh drinking water & water for crops-which is what caused the Khmer Empire to die out. Warming will also harm the fertility of soils & the growth of crops & forests-which is what caused the Mayan & Anasazi nations to collapse. The main difference was that their populations were smaller & they had more time to react to the changing climate-yet *still* failed to do so. The main reasons were that those in power weren't prepared to give up even a fraction of their extravagant lifestyle for the common good. Sound familiar?
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  32. When I pointed out that the climate sensitivity to CO2 was not known with much precision you folks corrected me. The Knutti & Hegerl, 2008 review paper mentioned a high figure of 4.5 degrees per doubling while Lindzen & Choi, 2009 suggested a low figure of 0.5 degrees. I rest my case.

    Actually the uncertainty surrounding the CO2 sensitivity is much worse than these figures would imply. Thus far nobody can prove how much of the temperature changes can be attributed to the rising CO2 concentration and how much is due to other factors.

    chris (#17), you make part of my case very well. As you point out, the rise in CO2 since 1850 can account for the warming without the need to invoke any other process, provided the sensitivity is 2 degrees Celsius/CO2 doubling.

    However, if you apply the same calculation to any other time period over the last 1,000 years there is no fit between temperature and CO2 concentration.

    You Alarmists (correctly in my view) claimed that a 400 year correlation between sunspot activity and temperature broke down ~30 years ago. This was put forward as strong evidence against the idea that solar activity has an influence on climate. Surely you can see that the same logic casts doubt on your sensitivity estimates. Just by cherry picking start and finish dates you can "prove" a wide range of sensitivities.

    Before we spend a trillion here and a trillion there (soon we will be talking real money) climate science needs to improve its ability to make convincing predictions.

    In order to establish even a 95% probability of "disaster" much better estimates of climate sensitivity are needed.
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  33. GC you are misrepresenting the range of sensitivities that is actually present in the litterature. L&C is not even a real outlier, it's got flaws big enough to prevent taking into consideration at all.

    Funny how we just spent around a trillion (just in the US) on bad risk management by the financial establishment but no "skeptic" ever protested loudly against that. How many sigmas did they have in their schemes, I wonder.
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  34. Oh dear, I see GC is off in fantasy land *again*. First of all, the sensitivity predictions of Lindzen & Choi are based on the disputed Iris Effect-which has now been shown to allow more energy *in* than it lets *out*, thus acting as a positive, rather than negative, feedback.
    Secondly, one doesn't expect to see a correlation between CO2 & delta T over decades or centuries, because its *usually* a lagging contributor-i.e. its usually solar activity that drives initial delta T which, in turn, *eventually* drives up atmospheric CO2 (from carbon sinks). This excess CO2 then drives delta T long after solar activity has leveled off. Over geological time (millenia & up) there is a strong correlation between CO2 & delta T. What is so strange this time around is how CO2 appears to be a *leading*, rather than *lagging* contributor to warming over the last 60 years. My point, then, is that looking for correlation over the last 1,000 years is pointless because there's not been sufficient increases in solar irradiance to raise natural levels of CO2 above 280ppm within that time frame-i.e. you're cherry picking *again*.
    Lastly, you talk of the trillions of trillions of dollars we'll need to spend to reduce CO2 emissions. First of all, several European countries have been able to achieve significant reductions in CO2 emissions without spending vast sums of money-largely through improving energy & fuel efficiency. However, even if it did cost trillions of dollars-globally-to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, then it will yield numerous side benefits irrespective of how dangerous global warming is. Coal & petrol are non-renewable resources which simply cannot be relied on into the future, & doing so will lead to eventual economic disaster. These fossil fuels are also a major source of vast numbers of harmful pollutants, such as mercury, heavy metals, benzene & particulate emissions. The reduction of these pollutants in our air, water & soils will be beneficial.
    So, in fact GC, you've not said a single thing-in your post-which is accurate!
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  35. re: gallopingcamel at 10:11 AM on 7 April, 2010

    Nope, you're just blustering gallopingcamel. You haven't bothered to address my post at all.

    (i) Lindzen and Choi is a nonsense paper. It's been thoroughly debunked (see, for example, here, or for the published rebuttal:
    here).

    There a couple of other flawed papers that also attempt to insinuate a small climate sensitivity. These have either been retracted or shown to be fatally flawed .

    The fact that you ignore the well established and verified science on this subject (see citations in mine and other’s posts here and elsewhere on this thread), and attempt to insinuate flawed attempts to down-play the effects of greenhouse enhanced radiative forcing, suggests that you are less interested in the science than in a “political” “position”.

    Contrary to your assertion, there is no period in the last 1000 years that cannot be understood in terms of known forcings (solar, volcanic and greenhouse).

    Your equation of “scientist” with “alarmist” is ignorant, and indicates an unwillingness to engage with straightforward science:

    for example, there is no “400 year correlation between sunspot activity and temperature”. There is a 1000 or more year correlation between temperature and known forcings involving greenhouse gas, solar and volcanic forcings (see e.g. here, and here)

    You're epitomising an essential point of this thread, namely that education and reliable dissemination of the science are key to addressing mature and rational policy. If one just makes stuff up according to one's political opinions, that the prognosis for the future is hopeless. Happily, I don't believe policymakers are "too stupid", even if some fanatical science misrepresenters might be!
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  36. chris (#36),
    The correlation between sunspots and climate over the last 1,000 years is much more impressive than the correlation with CO2 concentrations. Even on this blog you can find a (biased) admission of that:

    http://www.skepticalscience.com/solar-activity-sunspots-global-warming.htm

    Check out Usoskin and Friis-Christensen

    http://www.skepticalscience.com/solar-cycle-length.htm
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    Response: The close correlation between sun and climate over the past 1000 years makes the break down in correlation over the last 40 years all the more significant. This 'divergence problem' is a serious flaw in the "sun is causing global warming" theory.

    Global Temperature vs Solar Activity (Total Solar Irradiance)
  37. Further to Phillipe's remark, globally we currently spend a bit north of $4 trillion per year buying peace of mind and necessary protection against bad things that in all likelihood will not happen.

    So against a global GDP of ~$60 trillion, we're spending some 6% on insurance, most of us necessarily deriving no benefit from that expenditure. The idea that we can't spare much less per year over the space of some 20 years to fix this C02 problem is rather silly.

    "Oh, but the poor people, we can't leave them in the mud!" Well, true, but we could increase the per capita income of the poorest 3 billion persons on the planet by 10 times right now and continue to do so annually if we chose, for far less than C02 mitigation will cost. This notion that by doing one we can't do the other is a false choice, the two things are not mutually exclusive. If we were sincere about ending poverty we could do it with our checkbooks today simply by moving wealth from the top 500 million income earners down to the lowest 3 billion.

    "A trillion here, a billion there" and our intuitive grasp of numbers fails abysmally.
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  38. chris (#36),
    The trouble with Alarmists is that they swallow all sorts of nonsense if it agrees with their beliefs. Yet their critical faculties are razor sharp when reviewing papers that challenge their beliefs.

    The scathing critiques of Lindzen & Choi have come from Kevin Trenberth and associates. If you still believe in "Hockey Sticks" the rebuttals may impress you but I suspect Lindzen will have the last laugh.

    We are starting to get argumentative here. In the spirit of co-operation, even if we disagree on what the science is telling us we can still agree that it makes sense to reduce CO2 emissions. Put another way, in spite of their differences, Russians and Americans fought against Fascism.
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  39. GC, would you care to name any "Alarmists"?
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  40. Sorry, GC, but criticism of Lindzen & Choi have come about as a result of direct observation. The entire premise of the Iris Effect is that increased warming will lead to an increase in the Iris Effect over the tropics which-in turn-will allow more heat to escape into the upper atmosphere. This model was found to be flawed because satellite observations showed that more energy was allowed in by an increase in the Iris Effect than was allowed out-thus resulting in an overall *positive* forcing. Funny, though, how skeptics are quick to point to papers which back their views even when said papers use methods they usually disparage-like climate modeling!
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  41. "In the spirit of co-operation, even if we disagree on what the science is telling us we can still agree that it makes sense to reduce CO2 emissions."

    There's the problem though-powerful vested interests have done their level best to ensure *no* co-operation on this issue-& have done their best to make it seem than reducing CO2 emissions makes no sense at all. They don't do it for the benefit of the First World or Developing World's economies-they do it because it will cut into *their* bottom line. By pushing the arguments you do-GC-you're actually advancing the agenda of the Fossil Fuel sector-to the detriment of *all* of us!
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  42. Marcus (#35),
    You mention CO2 "lagging". I think that fact alone destroys the idea that CO2 provides dominant forcing for global temperatures. When temperatures are rising, CO2 gets released into the atmosphere ~600 years later, nudging temperatures higher still. Yikes, positive feedback!

    I have no objection to spending trillions to do something useful, such as boosting food and timber production. What makes no sense is spending trillions to do something that later turns out to be ineffective. We won't be able to ask the IPCC to return our money!

    As you point out, CO2 emissions can be reduced without spending extra dollars. For example, we will continue to build electric power stations regardless of the "Climate Wars". If we choose coal or natural gas the emissions will go up. If we build nukes they won't. Naturally, I am for nukes but not today's dangerous and expensive LWRs.

    James Lovelock and James Hansen are right on the nuclear power issue although I don't agree with Lovelock's tolerance for higher levels of nuclear radiation. My training in "Radiation Safety" convinces me that we can expand nuclear electrical generation and reduce the inventory of high level nuclear waste at the same time.
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  43. Marcus (#42),
    Please don't think that I would carry water for big business. I don't like being pushed around by big business or big government. Nevertheless, roads would not get built without governments or businesses, so we have to tolerate them while resisting their efforts to ride rough shod over us.

    Now we are now back to the "Prisoner's Dilemma". How do you work with others to minimise the punishments that the establishment will exact?
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  44. GC, may I remind you that while you do not own private enterprise, you and the rest of us own our respective governments? The two do not equate, this is easily apparent when one compares the transparency of, for instance, NASA versus that of Boeing.

    Benefit to the public is the central mission of our government, or at least for most of us able to read and participate on this site. The public good is the business of government.

    Private enterprise is a different animal, operating under different rules and with entirely different objectives, not in opposition to our needs but divorced from them. Most notably, the notion of public good is absent from the operational constraints of most private enterprise and indeed is often at cross purposes with the stated mission of such entities. The benefit they yield us is entirely incidental.

    Alienating ourselves from our own governments by confusing them with private enterprise is not a good way to achieve our objective of government that is responsive to our needs. Rather, we must embrace our governments closely if we wish them to faithfully follow us.
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  45. GC, the reason why you are taking some heat here is because you stoop down to the level of stupid right wing talking points as seen or heard on some radio and TV talk shows. You have given indication that you know better.

    You cite L&C but you ignore the fact that it was rebutted in the litterature. It's a cheap rethorical shot to point to who the rebuttal's author is and say "well of course he wouldn't say anything else." It so happens that he's saying in the litterature, where L&C were published in the first place. It means that there is objective validity to the rebuttal. In that sense, there is not that much wiggle room where we can "disagree" on what the science tells us. Science is a powerful thing because it enables us to establish what is not a matter of opinion.

    This: "The trouble with Alarmists is that they swallow all sorts of nonsense if it agrees with their beliefs. Yet their critical faculties are razor sharp when reviewing papers that challenge their beliefs." How are you immune to the same effect? Is ignoring the L&C published rebuttal an indication that you, or other skeptics, do better? Were you equally critical of L&C than of, say, a Mann paper?

    Why was there no "skeptic" to point out, in the litterature, the shortcomings of McLean & al? Was there any "skeptic" to challenge the ridiculous Soon&Baliunas piece? No there wasn't, even though it was so egregious that the all editorial board resigned. So, how skeptical really are the skeptics? How skeptical was the crowd at WUWT during the carbonic snow incident?

    Should we engage in that exercise that consists of reviewing how few papers agree with the "skeptics"' beliefs? Ah, but it has already been done by Oreskes. Skeptics regularly cite "papers" published in E&E. That publication has an openly acknowledged goal of providing a voice only for one kind of opinion, and an all but lacking review process. Would you take seriously a paper published in a similar publication (open bias, no real review) professing for the "opposite side"?

    -"We won't be able to ask the IPCC to return our money!" What is that about? Who's talking about paying money to the IPCC for emissions reduction? This is the kind of talk-show type strawman that should have no place in any of your arguments. Let's put things in perspective: can homeowners whose house lost 40% of its value ask for their money back from Wall Street? If social security goes down the drain before I retire, can I have for my money back? Please...

    - "When temperatures are rising, CO2 gets released into the atmosphere ~600 years later, nudging temperatures higher still. Yikes, positive feedback!" Yep, that's what the science says. Do you have any scientific analysis offering a convincing alternate argument? Is there a scientifically credible way for the low orbital forcing to generate the temperature variations seen in the paleo record? If not, then what is that yikes about?

    Not everything is a matter of opinion or perception. If you bang your head against a wall, it will damage your skin, bone and eventually brain tissues. There is no alternate view on that. It will. You may silence the indication of the damage (pain) with chemicals, but the damage will happen.
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  46. GC, CO2 is only a *lagging* factor when climate is being driven *naturally*-how many times do you need this explained to you? Also, this has really only been the case in the Quaternary Era, when we've lived in a relatively CO2 constrained environment. Prior to the Quaternary, CO2 levels were roughly 10 times higher than today, & temperatures were about 6 degrees warmer than at any point in the last 7.2 million years-even though the sun was 10% cooler. Thus it is abundantly clear that CO2 was the primary driver of the pre-Quaternary climate. In the last 50 years, CO2 & temperature have risen in close correlation-& these temperature changes have bucked the trend one would expect given the actions of the other major drivers of climate (Total Solar Insolation & Volcanic Activity). Even the PDO has been on a downward trend the last 30 years, whilst global temperatures have been rising-at the fastest rates in at least the last 8,000 years. That you refuse to accept these facts, & instead keep repeating fossil fuel industry propaganda, highlights that you're all too willing to "carry water" for big business-in spite of your protestations of innocence.
    Seriously, if you've got nothing useful to add, it makes me wonder why you even bother coming here?!
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  47. GC. if we go nuclear you will *still* raise CO2 emissions. After all, its not like you can just pull uranium out of the ground & chuck it in a reactor-it requires significant amounts of downstream & upstream processing-which in turn requires energy investment (usually from fossil fuel sources). Also, as we have only 100 years worth of economically viable uranium at current levels of use, a major expansion of nuclear power use could see all the readily available uranium consumed before the middle of this century-& the rest depleted by the end of the century. We'll also have mountains of nuclear waste which most countries *still* don't know what to do with.
    On the other hand, most households & businesses waste as much as 30%-50% of their energy through inefficiency. Removing these inefficiencies is the low-hanging fruit in both reducing CO2 emissions & postponing the need for expensive new power stations. Industry, too, often wastes energy in the form of thermal pollution. If they captured it & fed the resulting electricity into the grid, then it would displace electricity generated directly from non-renewable sources.
    Decentralization of our electricity grids could also reduce electricity waste by 10%-15% through the removal of transmission & distribution losses. Also, given that many of the smaller power stations are usually run on "renewable" sources (micro-hydro, co-generation, landfill gas, Solar & Wind), they also will be a good way of directly reducing both CO2 emissions & the generation of other dangerous waste by-products. Of course, its to be hoped that smaller power stations can be better tailored to local demand, instead of running at nearly full capacity 24/7, as most coal & nuclear power stations have to.
    On our roads, we can significantly reduce CO2 emissions by mandating higher fuel efficiency standards, passing laws to increase car-pooling & public transport use during peak times & by shifting long-distance freight onto rail instead of road. Improving traffic management could also significantly reduce CO2 emissions from unnecessary idling of vehicles-as could a switch to a greater number of hybrid & full electric vehicles.
    So you see, GC, that many opportunities exist for significant reductions in CO2-opportunities which will provide numerous economic, social & environmental side-benefits & which do not require a switch to nuclear power. "Unfortunately" taking these measures will hurt the profit margins of Big Coal & Big Oil, which is why they're so desperate to cast doubt on climate change-by any means necessary. Whether you accept it or not, all you're doing here is parroting their claims.
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  48. #9 Glenn Tamblyn: I’m afraid you’re all too right.

    By the way: Can anyone provide me with the scientific background as to why the world population would ever level out at about 9 to 10 billion (other than by mass starvation)? It seems to me – but I am uninformed – that population growth is mainly regulated by the amount of food (or more generally: resources) available. Which also means that any increase in crop produce will not end world hunger, it will just cause the world population to grow some more.
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  49. Marcus,
    you are kidding yourself, as many AGW people do, if you think that the skepticism is coming from the Big oil. that is a convenient straw-man but not very useful if you want to have a real discussion.

    Concerning the "tragedy of the commons" I think we have a situation where the benefits of "cheating" are high and immediate while the benefits of playing by the rules are a sort of "promised land" in a 100 years. No wonder no one has found a solution to this, except for pious wishes.
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  50. And that's a huge problem, the short temporal horizon. We kind of look at next quarter or next year. This fits well in the framework of the tragedy of the commons, immediate individual benefit but in the long run we all lose. Pious wishes or looking far? Or both.
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