Precautionary Principle in One Chart

The ultimate argument I get to my climate talk, when all other opposition fails, is that the precautionary principle should rule for CO2.  By their interpretation, this means that we should do everything possible to abate CO2 even if the risk of catastrophe is minor since the magnitude of the potential catastrophe is so great.

The problem is that this presupposes there are no harms, or opportunity costs, on the other end of the scale.  In fact, while CO2 may have only a small chance of catastrophe, Bill McKibben's desire to reduce fossil fuel use by 95% has a near certain probability of gutting the world economy and locking billions into poverty.  Here is one illustration I just crafted for my new presentation.  As usual, click to enlarge:

precautionary-principle

 

A large number of people seem to assume that our use of fossil fuels is an arbitrary choice among essentially comparable options (or worse, a sinister choice forced on us by the evil oil cabal).  In fact, fossil fuels have a number of traits that make them uniquely irreplaceable, at least with current technologies.  For example, gasoline has an absolutely enormous energy content per pound of fuel.  Most vehicles - space shuttles, and more recently electric cars - must dedicate an enormous percentage of their power production just to moving the weight of their fuel.  Not so in gasoline engine cars, something those who are working with electric cars must face every day.

By the way, if you want to see the kick-off of version 3.0 of my climate presentation, it will be at my son's school, Amherst College, this Thursday at 7PM.  More here.

Update: By the way,  I was careful in the chart to say the two " are correlated".  I actually do not think one causes the other.  In this case, I think there are a third, and fourth, and fifth (etc.)  factors that cause both.  For example, economic development leads to (and depends on) increased fossil fuel use and CO2 emissions, and it leads to longer lives.

When I use this slide, my point is to get folks thinking about Bill McKibben's plea to reduce fossil fuel use by 95%.  I was looking for one slide to say, hey, maybe if CO2 emissions go away, some other stuff goes away with it.  Like technology, hospitals, agriculture, development ... and long lives.   McKibben paints this picture of virtually costless energy transformation, which is naive to the point of being malpractice committed against the poor of developing nations.
  • Hooosier Jeff

    Back around 1980, my papaw had a GE total electric riding lawnmower. The mowing deck was at least 42" and mounted in the front of the tractor. He was a farmer with a quite large yard and barnlot. This mower was great in that it was quiet, had no exhaust fumes, and, since it was all electric motors, no belts, air filters or other basic maintenence items. But when the batteries ran down (~2-3 hrs.) it was done until at least 6-10 hrs. recharging. Basically the same problem today. Energy density and replenishment, oil vs. electric batteries. Oil still wins.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Joshua-Vanderberg/100000013695888 Joshua Vanderberg

    The log scale is telling. It means we could significantly cut emissions without much loss of life span, and in fact there are several countries with about half the emissions per capita of the us with the same, or longer lifespan. The log scale obscures this fact.

  • Zachriel

    Coyote Blog: By their interpretation, this means that we should do everything
    possible to abate CO2 even if the risk of catastrophe is minor since
    the magnitude of the potential catastrophe is so great.

    The scientific consensus seems to be that there is a significant risk of significant damage, not a small risk of catastrophe.

    Coyote Blog: In fact, fossil fuels have a number of traits that make them uniquely irreplaceable, at least with current technologies.

    That is correct, but current emissions are clearly unwarranted as some countries emit far less per unit of GDP than others. In addition, addressing the problem now will reduce the long term impact and the long term cost of mitigation.

  • perlhaqr

    Yeah, but you're presuming that the people who want to rid the world of fossil fuel use don't see the reduced lifespan as a benefit.

  • Rick Caird

    What's more, Jeff, is the mower essentially ran on coal because it is likely that is what provided the electricity to recharge the battery.

  • Rick Caird

    Have you not noticed there has been no warming since 1998? Or, has the "scientific consensus" not noticed that.

    Follow the money.

  • http://onthenorthriver.com/ John

    The other side likes to throw the "World we are leaving to the next generation." bit around. So what kind of future world will the next generation inherit? Colder, colder than it's been getting? Will the puny amount of CO2 we might not add to the planetary atmosphere have any effect (just how overdue for the return of the glaciers are we?).

    Will they ever be able to travel to the other side of the continent for a education, or to visit relatives or for a vacation? Will they have access to jobs or products created by high-energy industries? (basket weaving is nice, as a hobby). Will their diet be as rich and varied as ours, with affordable access to out-of-season fruits and vegetables. Will the next round of wars be fought here, after the US military no longer has the ability to strike hammer blows against our enemies anywhere on the globe. When we are at the mercy of those countries that have no intention of giving up fossil fuel.

    That is what I thought about when I read your prediction; "gutting the world economy and locking billions into poverty". You leave out war, malnutrition and the descent of hundreds of millions of middle-class families in North America and Europe into that hopeless poverty.

  • http://devilish-details.blogspot.com/ mesaeconoguy

    Unit per GDP emissions? Excuse me?

    Please explain how there 1) is any standard for that (different countries exist at different economic development stages, some requiring more emissions than others) and 2) should be such a standard (see reasoning for #1).

    Your commentary is nonsensical, and your “unit per GDP” measurement is arbitrary and stupid.

  • Zachriel

    Not sure that's on-topic, but you are choosing a period that starts at the peak of an exceptional El Niño and ends with a double La Niña. If you adjust for ENSO, it shows a rise in mean surface temperature.

  • Zachriel

    mesaeconoguy: Please explain how there 1) is any standard for that (different countries exist at different economic development stages, some requiring more emissions than others

    Your question doesn't quite make sense. In any case, highly developed countries, such as in Europe, produce more per given quantity of greenhouse gas emissions than the U.S.

    mesaeconoguy: your “unit per GDP” measurement is arbitrary and stupid.

    We have two countervailing concerns, development and anthropogenic climate change. Given this, then the goal is to have a lower emission to unit GDP ratio, i.e. higher GDP, lower emissions.

  • Hunt Johnsen

    Zachriel
    said-
    "The scientific consensus seems to be that there is a significant
    risk of significant damage, not a small risk of catastrophe"

    That is the consensus of the AGW believers, not a "Scientific Consensus". Science runs on data and testable hypothesis, not opinion, belief or consensus, and so far there is no hard data indicating serious or catastrophic result from a 5% increase in atmospheric CO2. The map is not the territory and the model is a model, not reality.

  • http://devilish-details.blogspot.com/ mesaeconoguy

    Wrong.

    You seem to be attempting to quantify what economies “should” emit.

    That is nonsense.

    No 2 economies are exactly the same, and the combustive productive processes used in those disparate economies can be vastly different.

    It is beyond foolish to try to assign some arbitrary output number to economic production (and value creation). And the proposed “remedies” will effectively destroy the modern economy.

    By constraining economic growth, you are lowering standard of living, and increasing poverty. That is what you should be worried about, not miniscule CO2 output increases.

  • http://devilish-details.blogspot.com/ mesaeconoguy

    PS, you can shove your "scientific consensus" up your ass.

  • Zachriel

    mesaeconoguy: You seem to be attempting to That is what you should be worried about, not miniscule CO2 output increases.quantify what economies “should” emit.

    Given the problem of anthropogenic climate change, and the desire to continue to have healthy economic growth and development, then yes, it is an important issue.

    mesaeconoguy:

    Yes, if you pretend climate change isn't an issue, then of course, there is no reason to restrain emissions. That doesn't make the original comment "nonsensical", as it was predicated on a significant risk of significant damage due to climate change.

  • nehemiah

    I'm going to flag you for double-speak. There has been almost no increase in worldwide temperature since 1998. It is what it is. Are you saying events like El Niño followed by La Niña are exceptional events in climate history?

  • Zachriel

    nehemiah: Are you saying events like El Niño followed by La Niña are exceptional events in climate history?

    Quite the contrary. Because we know ENSO is a quasiperiodic process, it means that if you choose the start for a range during an El Niño and the end of the range after a La Niña, it will reduce any positive trend. It's called cherry-picking.
    http://www.jimharris.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/skepticsvrealists_500.gif

  • Zachriel

    Hunt Johnsen: Science runs on data and testable hypothesis, not opinion, belief or consensus, and so far there is no hard data indicating serious or catastrophic result from a 5% increase in atmospheric CO2.

    Atmospheric CO2 has already increased by nearly half since preindustrial times. Not sure what "data" you are working from.

    The original post was based on small chance of catastrophic climate change. Whether you acknowledge it or not, there is a scientific consensus that there is a significant chance of significant climate change. Few scientists working in climatology believe there will be runaway climate change, while few believe there will be no substantial climate change.

    Certainly, the consensus could be wrong, but merely saying so it not much of an argument. We know CO2 is a greenhouse gas, so that's not an issue. The question is climate sensitivity, which most studies indicate is between 2-5ºC with 3ºC being the most likely. There is bound to be some feedback, as increased warming due to CO2 will almost certainly increase the water vapor content of the upper atmosphere to some extent. There is also long term feedbacks, such reduced albedo due to melting ice.

    Hunt Johnsen: The map is not the territory and the model is a model, not reality.

    Sure. All scientific theories are models. While all models are wrong, some are useful.

  • Tim

    Is there are way to convert the x axis emissions value to CO2 ppm?

  • http://devilish-details.blogspot.com/ mesaeconoguy

    It absolutely does, moron.

    You’re attempting to assign an arbitrary number which will be used to limit economic growth, without any evidence that there is a problem, much less a catastrophic one. That’s stupid.

    That’s coyote’s point above.

    Are you being intentionally dense, or is this your default configuration?

  • Zachriel

    mesaeconoguy: Are you being intentionally dense, or is this your default configuration?

    That sort of comment merely emphasizes the weakness of your position.As we said, given the problem of anthropogenic climate change, and the desire to continue to have healthy economic growth and development, then yes, it is an important issue.'

  • http://devilish-details.blogspot.com/ mesaeconoguy

    LOL, sure it does.

    Here, let me simplify this for your very small brain even more:

    1) You have no evidence that warming is a problem, and 2) your proposed “remedies” (which won’t work) have enormous cost, which will destroy much of the world economy, and which you ignore.

    This is the exact same ignorant economic mentality of the current administration – we’ve regulated the hell out of everything, and the economy’s doing great! (Except for the 14% unemployment and record number of foodstamp recipients and miniscule growth and rising poverty, but who cares about that?)

    Apparently ignorance is your default configuration.

  • Zachriel

    mesaeconoguy: 1) You have no evidence that warming is a problem,

    That doesn't salvage your claim that our previous comment was nonsensical, as that comment was predicated on the consensus on anthropogenic climate change. Perhaps you just aren't being precise.

    Scientists have been actively working on the problem for several decades now. Indeed, the basics of greenhouse warming and amplification were worked about over a century ago. One line of evidence is the warming surface and lower atmosphere, while the stratosphere cools. This implies a greenhouse effect.

  • http://devilish-details.blogspot.com/ mesaeconoguy

    Sure, whatever Larry Jr. It's total nonsense.

    No one here disputes the greenhouse effect. You can stop with the anti-science drivel there.

    Again, as Warren has stated here (and elsewhere) probably several hundred times, it is the feedback component which is faulty in AGW studies and “models” (such as they are – useless).

    That factor which drives the catastrophic outcomes is almost entirely made up – it is literally constructed out of nothing, and substantiated by nothing. There is no science behind it.

    But it is also the ostensible reason for this “precautionary principle” above. Lowering CO2 output will reduce economic growth. Lowering it 95% will destroy the world economy. No amount of warming “prevention” can justify that.

    I recommend you read up a lot more on both the skeptic position, and the economics behind the proposed remedies. You clearly have no grasp of either.

  • Zachriel

    meseconoguy: Again, as Warren has stated here (and elsewhere) probably several hundred times, it is the feedback component which is faulty in AGW studies and “models” (such as they are – useless).

    Amplification is supported by theory and by empirical studies, including volcanic forcing observations, radiation budget experiments, paleoclimatic studies, and satellite measurements.

    Volcanic forcing
    Wigley et al., Effect of climate sensitivity on the response to volcanic forcing, Journal of Geophysical Research 2005.

    Earth Radiation Budget Experiment
    Forster & Gregory, The Climate Sensitivity and Its Components Diagnosed from Earth Radiation Budget Data, Journal of Climate 2006.

    Paleoclimatic constraints
    Schmittner et al., Climate Sensitivity Estimated from Temperature Reconstructions of the Last Glacial Maximum, Science 2011.

    Soden et al., "The Radiative Signature of Upper Tropospheric Moistening", Science 2005.

    Bayesian probability
    Annan & Hargreaves, On the generation and interpretation of probabilistic estimates of climate sensitivity, Climate Change 2008.

    Review paper
    Knutti & Hegerl, The equilibrium sensitivity of the Earth’s temperature to radiation changes, Nature Geoscience 2008.

  • http://devilish-details.blogspot.com/ mesaeconoguy

    Those do not support the catastrophic AGW proposition, and volcanic forcing is natural, not anthropogenic.

  • Zachriel

    Those are tests of climate sensitivity, including the study of volcanic forcing.