On Global Warming, from the Sunday’s nytimes:
Beyond the specific points of factual dispute, Dyson has said that it all boils down to “a deeper disagreement about values” between those who think “nature knows best” and that “any gross human disruption of the natural environment is evil,” and “humanists,” like himself, who contend that protecting the existing biosphere is not as important as fighting more repugnant evils like war, poverty and unemployment…
Dyson has always been strongly opposed to the idea that there is any such thing as an optimal ecosystem — “life is always changing” — and he abhors the notion that men and women are something apart from nature, that “we must apologize for being human.” Humans, he says, have a duty to restructure nature for their survival…
That said, Dyson sees coal as the interim kindling of progress. In “roughly 50 years,” he predicts, solar energy will become cheap and abundant, and “there are many good reasons for preferring it to coal.”
I’m sure Ed could rock the weird logical error that we can either worry about global warming or worry about poverty and unemployment but not both. But I worry about global warming for two simple reasons that have nothing to do with the philosophy of Man and Nature, and that aren’t assuaged away by the promise of the always forthcoming technological utopia. I think those issues can be interesting, since I think when God told Man that he had dominion over the Earth he meant it as like a shepherd over his flock instead of a conqueror over his enemies. But when I put on my harshest neoliberal glasses, and see Nature as nothing other than materials to be consumed, I still have two worries:
1) Externalities When I drive my SUV to the McDonalds to purchase many large cheeseburgers, the costs from global warming primarily fall on two groups of people – Africans, and your grandchildren. They aren’t borne by me. To the extent that they are, they fall more on everyone else, since there are way more of you, and your grandchildren, than there are of me and mine.
There is a free-rider problem that worries me about the production of carbon more generally and the creation and use of energy saving technologies. I see no reason to assume solar energy will be cheap; and if it is just a little more expensive than coal, since the hidden costs of carbon are borne by everyone else (and not priced at all), people will prefer to use the cheaper one.
I used to drive a Prius, and I always wondered if I was making the environment worse. Picture someone else – he’s worried about the environment, and wants to get an additional 5mpg to his car. However he sees someone drive by with a energy-efficient car, and thinks “well, he’s got my 5mpg. He’s probably got 10mpg more than normal. Perhaps I should go and get 5mpg less, since that driver has my moral obligations covered.” Now picture 100 people doing that mental calculation. That’s the free-rider problem, and I could easily see it with any future wonder energy source.
2) Tail Risk The worry about tail risks and tipping points is a very complicated one. But here’s an interesting question – do you ever think we over-estimate it? Consider that we are coming directly from an era where the smartest physics minds concluded that giving $600,000 mortgages to NINJA crack addicts might cause some problems here or there, but that the tail risk of the whole thing spinning out of control was negligible. How much do we just want to assume that the environment tipping over into a new worse equilibrium is a just something to shrug at?
I have to think a lot about tail risk at my job, and what worries me the most are those cross-interactions that kick in once the ball gets rolling. Those interactions usually either push one back to where they started, or speed one into the spiral faster. What I notice is the same thing that I noticed as the subprime, credit and greater economy collapsed – when people come back to change their original estimates, they are always worse, and worse in a way that indicates a spiraling condition.
These are the things that worry me.