Show me the receipts

A consequence of the last decade-plus of mindless, saturation media is an endless parade of “experts” and “pundits” who have little at stake and pay no price for mistakes.

The very loud people who oppose action on climate change, for instance. Even business lobbies are often add odds with businesses, many of which are already planning for a changed climate.

There’s a brilliant article on VoxEu about the people who do have money on the line:

In our recent paper (Schlenker and Taylor 2019), we look at weather derivatives in financial markets to assess beliefs about climate. We find that traders have been pricing in a warming trend that is closely aligned with the projections of scientific climate models, as well as the observed weather outcomes during that time…

…Futures prices closely follow the predictions of climate scientists, which, on average, appear to have materialised, thus validating the climate models. This close agreement between markets and models implies that traders are taking into consideration the scientific consensus on climate change when making trades. Overall, we find that the market has been accurately pricing in climate change, largely in line with global climate models, and that this began occurring at least since the early 2000s when the weather futures markets were formed.

There are plenty of liquid markets where someone with a contrarian take on climate change or the housing market (etc.) could make a lot of money.

It isn’t enough that you were “right last time”. That could have been a fluke. That might have been one correct prediction after many wrong ones.

In the real world that batting average doesn’t work. So, journalists should ask for receipts.

If an expert or pundit makes a bold claim they need to put their money where their mouth is. Otherwise it’s just hot air.

Climate change is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed

The title is from a tweet by Kate Mackenzie, although I’m unsure if she was referencing someone else.

It highlights a central problem in tackling climate change.

By now most educated people around the world are at least aware of anthropogenic climate change. Even if they refuse to accept it.

So the problem is not really one of education, but salience. Even if most are aware of, and intellectually accept, the phenomena, it’s just not present in their day to day lives.

Climate change is already devastating farmers with increased variability and hammering certain exposed communities. But for most it only really exists in the periodic news report. It’s like a far away war or natural disaster – easy to miss in an increasingly comfortable and abstracted day to day.

Given both the looming catastrophe and what we know of the health impact of pollution, it’s insufficient to simply “inform people” and sit back – the most comfortable mode for the news media.

Accurate reporting and discussion of climate change is more than highlighting the results. We have to engage with the process. The currently invisible must be made unmissable.

The question is – how do you turn something that takes place subtly and slowly, often only visible in the varied probability and intensity of “normal” events, into something that can’t be missed? That affects their day to day?

How do you increase salience?

The slow creep of climate alarmism

For the last several years, Whitham said, he and his colleagues had used a series of experimental gardens to study how plants are being affected by warming temperatures—in near real-time—and how their populations might evolve due to climate change…

…In these gardens, located in various ecosystems and elevations around the Southwest—from deserts to alpine forests—Whitham planted different genotypes of the same species… Preliminary results from his experimental gardens, 10 in total, suggest that species have already shifted their range in response to changing temperatures.

This is from an article that is almost three years old.

I recently wrote a script to surface old articles from the bottom of my Pocket queue. For years I have added more articles than I’ve read, creating a time capsule of sorts.

This is one of the first articles it spat out. But there’s been a pretty clear oeuvre – the variation, unpredictability and changing extremes associated with climate change have been presented to us consistently, over a long period.

We’ve now known about anthropogenic climate change for an entire generation. And yet there is somehow still a debate about the suitability of alarmism.

There will of course be winners and losers to whatever action is taken, making resistance and motivated scepticism completely rational. But the clear lack of panic among those not already directly affected is not.

There is something broken among both our informational environments and our public discourse that we can continue to treat all of these instances as discrete events, rather than as of a whole. We should all be alarmed.

As always my emphasis.

Our climate future lies in the past

The shambolic state of climate change discourse in Australia (and elsewhere) has left us largely focusing on electricity suppliers and technological solutionism.

But as American economist John Cochrane points out, the answer probably lies less in contraptions and arbitrary interventions than old ways of living:

…a carbon tax is the only way to change behavior. The answer to energy savings isn’t as much new technology as in old behaviors. Turn the lights off. Take fewer trips. Turn the heat down. Move nearer your work. Carpool. Without a carbon tax there is no way for the average bleeding heart Palo Alto climate worrier to realize that one trip to Europe is like driving a car for 10,000 miles. (Planes get about 80 passenger miles per gallon — but it’s a lot of miles to Europe.)

In order to incentivise these behavioural changes we need to make the cost of carbon emissions more salient.

Granted, it won’t work in every sector thanks to varying elasticities of demand. But it’s a start.

Whether or not you think the proceeds should be given straight back as a dividend (or some other mechanism to ameliorate compounded inequality), it’s [past] time to tax carbon.

Let’s stop poisoning ourselves

A horrifying working paper looks at the impact of traffic pollution on students in schools downwind of a major US highway:

We find that attending school where prevailing winds place it downwind of a nearby highway more than 60% of the time is associated with 0.040 of a standard deviation lower test scores, a 4.1 percentage point increase in behavioral incidents, and a 0.5 percentage point increase in the rate of absences over the school year, compared to attending a school upwind of a highway the same distance away

6.4 million American children attend a school within 250m of a highway, according to the researchers.

Children may be particularly susceptible to the carbon monoxide etc. that comes out of exhaust pipes, but really any of us who work or live near traffic should be worried.

If climate change is too abstract, far away or big for us to tackle, this shouldn’t be. The cost-benefit of transport (for starters) is clear and present. At the very least we all need to drive less.

And we’re not just talking about immediate impacts – think of how some of these issues (lower test scores, poor behaviour etc.) compound, as people get labelled troublesome or miss opportunities.

Air pollution, in other words, feeds inequality.

Other papers cited in this study illustrate the breadth of the issue:

…Currie and colleagues found that high levels of carbon monoxide were associated with reduced school attendance… Ransom and Pope (1992) similarly found a relationship between pollution and school attendance, with more small particulate matter in the air associated with more absences… Chang et al. (2016a, 2016b) use hourly variation to show that increased exposure to fine particulate matter decreases productivity per hour of pear packers and call center workers, while Archsmith, Heyes, and Saberian (2018) showed that baseball umpires make more mistakes on days with higher pollution…Herrnstadt and Muehlegger (2015) argue that traffic pollution influences impulse control. They showed that short-term hourly variation in wind direction in Chicago lead to higher crime in areas downwind of highways than on the opposite upwind side…

Also, as an addendum to my last post about randomness and test scores:

Marcotte (2017) used the variation in air quality on different testing days and found that children who took tests on worse days for pollen and fine airborne particulate matter had worse outcomes.

As usual my emphasis.