28 Jun 2009

Dangerous Aliens, Please

Sixty-five million years ago, the Earth went through a deep cycle of climate change, extinction and adjustment. The cause (somewhat disputed) was an asteroid impact that blocked sunlight on the Earth.

It now appears that humans are causing the same kind of "climate change," but is it inevitable? On the one hand, we are causing it with our own actions, which implies that we could stop causing it if we wanted to. On the other hand, we appear to have no hope of coordinating a stop to the activities that are causing it. That's mostly because everyone is waiting for everyone else to move first, to blink and reduce their own consumption so that others may follow.*

One reason that countries hesitate to make such a first mover action is that other countries may not move in the same direction, choosing instead to increase their own output. Another reason is that the first mover will face higher costs of adjustment; those who move later will be able to learn from the first mover's mistakes when/if they move. Thus, we can see how the "first-mover disadvantage" has got everyone locked in paralysis.

What we need is a good alien invasion (as in the movies) -- something that will unite all earthlings against a common cause and allow us drop all the strategic hesitation in our haste to work together to save humanity. What if there are no aliens (or no aliens interested in our increasingly-damaged earth)? Well, then, perhaps we need to invent them. Some people may claim that "global warming" is itself an invented bogeyman designed to move us to action. If so, it's a pretty poor invention, since some people still dispute its existence and others think that its effects will be mild to non-existent.

Notice how aliens JUST APPEAR and then do harm IMMEDIATELY. If global warming dropped down (into Central Park, Tienanmen Square, etc.) and started conducting random anal probes of people, you could be sure that Will Smith would be there in no time, saving the earth. And we'd back him up, pitchforks in hand!

Bottom Line: We need an international rallying point if we -- as humans -- are going to reduce and adapt to global warming. The IPCC is trying to create such a rallying point, but their reports are hardly emotional. Does anyone have any better ideas/examples?
The House voted for the Waxman-Markey bill on Friday. It calls for 17 percent reductions of GHG (against 2005 levels) by 2020 and 83 percent reductions by 2050. The agricultural lobby weakened the bill in several ways, and the Senate will weaken it by more. The Economist says that the bill may be worse than nothing at all if other countries see it as a non-commitment. OTOH, Billy Pizer (who represented the US Treasury on the negotiations) told me after his plenary talk yesterday that the bill was a step in the right direction and "wildly successful" in some ways. I'm not sure if this bill will be interpreted as a strike against the aliens or a strategic attempt to look busy while doing nothing.


  1. WaterSource/WaterBank28 Jun 2009, 14:19:00


    Careful what you wish/ask for...

    The world is currently undergoing an economic shock every bit as big as the Great Depression shock of 1929-30.

    If man's industrialization is the problem ... it is coming to a screeching halt!

    A new fresh water Source/system in place for NV & Southern CA with Lake Mead as a back-up WaterBank might have provided some alternatives ...

    Oh well, ... guess not.


  2. Previously, I tried to post a long answer to David's question. The Internet or more likely blogspot ate that answer. So, here is the answer broken into pieces.

    This is piece 1 of 6 (so far).

    Getting people to view climate change or CO2 in the atmosphere as a problem that must be solved immediately involves science, economics, politics, law, immediacy, and human behavior.

    These areas and their traditional not so good interactions make it hard to solve the problem. I have raised many of the issues indirectly with respect to water rights. I will try to raise them more directly.

    I hope that others will correct and expand the discussion.

  3. Science-

    Scientific results will dominate both the discussion and the solution.

    At the moment, many of the presenters of the science come across as talking politics and power instead of talking science.

    As long as the science is not presented, unspun, with the chance for disagreement and questions, the unbelievers will not be convinced.

    I see a number of problems with how the science is presented at the moment.

    1. Al Gore has appointed himself as leader but gets parts of the science wrong, appears to be lobbying for power for himself, and acts, in private, as if the carbon crisis and climate change are not real but are political schemes. Others come across the same way and are also less than credible.
    2. Global Circulation Models are based on parts of physics but do not yet include the effects of clouds or biology. The effects of clouds and biology appear to reverse the most touted conclusions.
    3. The modelers have been wrong in the past and have not proven themselves to be good at predicting the future.
    4. Many of the disagreements on science are presented as 'I am right. You are an idiot.' This presentation is not science but ideology.
    5. There are too many conflicts of interest--scientists who continue to get funding only if they find that climate change is real.

    Bottom line--There needs to be unspun scientific facts presented in a way that allows other scientists and the caring public to come to their own conclusions not demagoguery from 'on high.'

  4. Economics

    Assuming that the science is strong, a next thing to consider could be economics.

    At least to me, the economic picture has to be compelling to the citizens that it effects. I, for my company, would expect a detailed input-output model of how the proposed climate protection approach would affect my business.

    I would not view as having much value political hand waving or gross economic models that come across as 'And then a miracle happens.' I would expect someone who wanted me to change my normal approach to doing business to have a compelling economic case that would show how the proposed changes benefited my business, including taxation, and benefited the businesses of my customers and suppliers.

    Anything that smelled of 'We are the government. We know best. Just give us more power and money.' would be rejected out of hand. The middle statement of those three has seldom been correct, not because the government is not trying to be good but because they do not understand the workings of real markets (go, David).

    Bottom line: The economics must be clear and compelling.

  5. Immediacy - part 6 of 7

    (OK, like the fifth book in Douglass Adams' "Hitchhikers Guide" series, this is getting longer)

    I decided skip parts 4 and 5 and do 6 next because Paul Krugman's column today ( Betraying the Planet ) is about immediacy.

    Krugman wonders why 212 Congressmen voted against Waxman Markey.

    My initial response is that, in terms of how George Lakoff views the world, the argument was incorrectly framed. Where Krugman saw an immediate need to protect the planet, others saw a standard power grab by Democrats in DC and an attempt to reform the America economy by taking money from everyone through high electricity prices and giving this money to liberal Democratic pet projects such as Acorn.

    Krugman saw planetary disaster. Others saw bait and switch, the end of America as a super power, the economic destruction of their constituents. and the end of their career as a politician.

    Bottom line:
    "Its the votes, stupid."--Bill Clinton
    For water issues or broader ones on the climate, voters will only view these issues as immediate (more immediate than being unemployed), if the economic and scientific issues presented in other parts of these comments seem real and are presented in a way that is immediate and honest.
    The only immediacy issue that seems to have any traction is the idea that not dealing with water and other issues now would be wrecking the lives of peoples' kids and grandkids.


  6. Politics

    Part 4 of 7 (David, do I get credit for guest posts for each part? ;-)

    Assume that politicians want to help their constituents initially but then get seduced by the power and by the constant need to raise campaign funds and to campaign. Also assume that, after a while, politicians at state and national level figure out how to play the system so that they stay in office a long time. Finally, assume that politicians live in an echo chamber in which all they hear are the sounds of other polticians, whether it is in Washington or Sacramento.

    Now, what do you do about water policy?

    First you have to recognize that the politicians control water policy. Scientists and economists don't.
    Then you have to recognize that the real day to day control lies with unnamed bureaucrats not the politicians.

    So, as stalking horses, I suggest that politicians will pay attention to water policy if lots of their constituents are pushing for it and if paying attention to water policy raises campaign funds. For politicians in safe districts, districts where constituents' concerns and campaign funds are less important, I would guess that the way to get new good water legislation would be the old fashioned method--get to know the politicians personally, get to know what they care about, present water issues in a Lakoffian frame that the politician cares about, and do some horse trading.

    Bottom line:
    Each politician is a distinct person and needs to be treated that way in order to get water policy changed.

  7. Part 5 of 7


    Thanks to others for the 'use' and 'rights' comments.

    The legal part of water rights, as I understand it, is that the available water has either been oversold so that many people own the same water or not sold at all, such as water in deep brackish aquifers. As has been stated in earlier posts, these conflicting legal rights will eventually be sorted out but are expected to take a lot of court cases to do it.

    With respect to science, I would hope that simple doctrines such as you can't sell the same water more than once and recharging of aquifers from surface waters would influence the legal outcomes. With respect to economics, I would hope that economically crazy approaches do not become law or more dangerously settled case law. With respect to law and politics, I leave this aspect to others.

    As a lay person it seems that even thoughtless laws that cause great damage, in this case water scarcity, take a long time to undo.

    Please add to this section.

  8. Human behavior
    Part 7 of 7

    It appears that human behavior is much more egocentric and short term than is good for establishing clear water policy. Changing human behavior and beliefs is often very difficult. It is difficult for ancient evolutionary reasons.

    On top of the previous sections, manuevering water policy through the human behaviors of millions of stake holders seems very difficult.

  9. Eric -- thanks for the comments. Tell me if you want me to put them into ONE post :)



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