It’s time for other arguments about climate change

The “debate” about climate change is so poisoned it has brought down at least two Australian prime ministers, and the very term is redacted from US government websites.

So maybe it’s time to retire, or at least rein in, this line of argument. The externalities produced by burning coal and oil, from factory farming etc., have many facets that can be tackled. Notably, health.

Take this recent study on air pollution from researchers at Arizona State:

“We find that a 1 microgram-per-cubic-meter increase in average decadal exposure (9.1% of the mean) increases the probability of receiving a dementia diagnosis by 1.3 percentage points (6.7% of the mean). This finding is consistent with hypotheses from the medical literature.”

“Burgeoning medical literature provides reason to suspect that long-term exposure to elevated pollution levels may permanently impair older adults’ cognition, especially in the case of particulates smaller than 2.5 microns in diameter, commonly known as “fine particulate matter” or “PM2.5”. The small size of PM2.5 allows it to remain airborne for long periods, to penetrate buildings, to be inhaled easily, and to reach and accumulate within brain tissue. The accumulation of particulates in the brain can cause neuroinflammation, which is asso-ciated with symptoms of dementia…”

So, emissions are not just harmful to the environment, but human health as well. The suffering isn’t only in the long term, evident only in a computer model, but in the health of real people living right now.

It’s also worthwhile thinking about who bears the brunt of this. The workers in industries like mining, obviously. But as a recent hurricane in North Carolina showed, polluting industries are also often situated in poorer areas:

“Even after adjusting for socioeconomic factors — and even without a hurricane — life expectancy in southeastern North Carolina communities near industrial meat growers is lower than in places without these hog operations. A recent study published in North Carolina Medical Journal found that residents near the industrial animal operations had higher rates of all-cause mortality, infant mortality, mortality from anemia, kidney disease, tuberculosis, and septicemia, and higher rates of emergency room visits than the residents in the control group.”

As Ketan Joshi has noted, denying climate science is now akin to being an anti-vaxxer both in the scientific illiteracy required as well as the harm being wrought. But we can’t expect to win this fight, especially in the short time we have to take action. Instead, we should change the subject. There are plenty of other arguments to make.

What makes a good shot?

When we observe a success or a failure, we are observing one data point, a sample from under the bell curve that represents the potentialities that previously existed. We cannot know whether our single observation represents the mean or an outlier, an event to be on or a rare happening that is not likely to be reproduced.

This is another passage from The Drunkards Walk by Leonard Mlodinow. It highlights a common bias, especially in the public space; that we judge actions purely by their results.

We readily assign praise for success and blame for failure, despite not knowing the probabilities and tradeoffs, or how the decision was made.

Take basketball for instance. The NBA regular season is just about to start and so we can expect plenty of ooing and aahing. But a shot going in is not what makes it good. Just as a missed shot is not necessarily bad.

A good basketball shot is one that maximises the expected value – taking into account both the probability of scoring (the player’s skill, whether they are guarded etc.) and the value of the shot (one, two or three points). A good shot is one that you can take again and again, regardless of whether you miss one or even a sequence, leaving you ahead in the long run.

A good shot is unlikely to be the one that makes you gasp, or that you remember later. A high degree of difficulty isn’t what we are looking for. Hitting an off-balance shot with time running out should be the exception.

Politicians are the reason there is uncertainty

“At least 14 years ago, our political leaders were told that there was an urgent need to address the crisis in business confidence, in the energy and energy-intensive manufacturing sectors, due to the absence of credible long-term policies to address carbon abatement.

This is Ken Henry, quoted in an extraordinary story in the Australian Financial Review today.

Since then the center-left Labor party enacted a carbon tax, which was then repealed almost immediately upon the center-right Liberal party taking power.

The Liberal government then failed to enact another scheme that was designed to give “confidence” after the party balked. They did not attempt to enlist support from the Labor party.

What’s missing is the realisation that uncertainty is not some exogenous factor, but stems from the fact that there are many points of view. As a result, merely barrelling over political opponents isn’t going to solve anything.

When the Liberals are in power the uncertainty stems from the fact Labor will eventually get in and do something, and when Labor are in power the fear is that it will all eventually be undone. Barring a switch to one party rule, the only way to end political uncertainty is to work together.

Or, as it appears businesses are now doing, cut out politicians altogether:

…They have been talking among themselves about establishing an industry-led, self-regulating set of measures which would reduce emissions, ensure energy reliability and provide investor stability, all of which politics has failed to deliver.

Primed for determinism

…the human mind is built to identify for each event a definite cause and can therefore have a hard time accepting the influence of unrelated or random factors. And so the first step is to realize that success or failure sometimes arises neither from great skill nor from great incompetence but from, as the economist Armen Alchian wrote, “fortuitous circumstances.”

This from The Drunkards Walk by Leonard Mlodinow. You can see this phenomena everywhere from politics to sports. We are quick to assign cause and effect, blame and praise, without considering the probability of it having taken place.

It reminds me of the brilliant Thinking In Bets, which I might break out again for another read.

…When we look at extraordinary accomplishments in sport – or elsewhere – we should keep in mind that extraordinary events can happen without extraordinary causes. Random events often look like nonrandom events, and in interpreting human affairs we must take care not to confuse the two.

More proof Trump isn’t interested in learning anything

I’m not quite sure what to make of The Fifth Risk by Michael Lewis, and, to be honest, I’m not sure that he does either.

It’s the story of the Trump transition. Or, rather, the lack of one. The book isn’t particularly long. More like a Vanity Fair column that got out of hand. Some of the vignettes of public service meander, too many are hagiographic, and there are more than necessary.

Lewis also explicitly repeats themes – that most of the problems with government are practical rather than political, for example.

But Fifth Risk is a brilliant portrait of what happens when the people in charge are thoroughly unconcerned with learning anything new. Either because they think they know better, tribalism stops them recognising anyone else’s competence, or they just don’t want to know.

…A month after the election, Pyle arrived for a meeting with Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, Deputy Secretary Sherwood-Randall, and Knobloch…“He did not seem motivated to spend a lot of time understanding the place,” says Sherwood-Randall. “He didn’t bring a pencil or a piece of paper. He didn’t ask questions. He spent an hour. That was it. He never asked to meet with us again.”

…Pyle eventually sent over a list of seventy-four questions he wanted answers to. His list addressed some of the subjects covered in the briefing materials, but also a few not: Can you provide a list of all Department of Energy employees or contractors who have attended any Interagency Working Group on the Social Cost of Carbon meetings? Can you provide a list of Department employees or contractors who attended any of the Conference of the Parties (under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) in the last five years? That, in a nutshell, was the spirit of the Trump enterprise. “It reminded me of McCarthyism,” says Sherwood-Randall.

…Pyle vanished from the scene. According to a former Obama official, he was replaced by a handful of young ideologues who called themselves “the Beachhead Team.” “They mainly ran around the building insulting people,” says a former Obama official. “There was a mentality that everything that government does is stupid and bad and the people in it are stupid and bad,” says another.

Then again, I’m not sure we didn’t already know this about the Trump organisation. So far I’ve read every book Lewis has written, and I will probably buy the next as well. But this one may be safe to miss.

The writing is pretty good though.


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