The Game of Climate Change — Part 3

Start with Part 1 Here

Go Back to Part 2 Here

Mitigating Climate Change

It ain’t the heat, it’s the humility. — Yogi Berra

There are two big problems with the climate “debate”.  One is the tactics and “tricks” that people use, like putting certain “terms” into “quotes,” to imply that they aren’t “really” what the other side “says” they are (wink, wink).

Everyone knows the current “warming” is or isn’t, and that “deniers” and “warmists” aren’t, and that the “climate scientists” have “lost” our “trust.”

Right?  I mean, “right?”

The second problem is that too many people are playing it like a game, even though everyone takes it so seriously that discussions are quickly infused with anger and vitriol.  The problem that I see in the two sides is that each side measures victory by different standards, so they can never find any common ground.

The “anti” crowd would have no problem with mitigating climate change, if it weren’t for the fact that in their view it would completely “destroy” the economy and civilization as we know it.

The “pro” crowd would have no problem waiting and taking things carefully, one step at a time, if they weren’t convinced that there is no time, and that the repercussions of inaction will be “insurmountable.”


CO2So let’s frame it as a game – The Climate Game.  The game is not going to worry about whether or not warming is actually happening, even in terms of probabilities.  The game will be based on what we can or should do as a society in the face of that imperfect knowledge.

The other player is Mother Nature, a nasty, diabolical sort.  She’s tricky, vindictive, and tries to be unpredictable.  Her options are no warming at all, comfortable and inconsistent warming, lots of warming, and the reek and stench of the fires of hell.

Our side is played by all of the people, nations and economies of the world.

We’ll treat this as a zero sum game, where our own gain and loss are what really matter in our appraisal of the outcome.  In reality, Mother Nature always wins, one way or the other, in that life of some sort will go on, and the Earth will continue as a habitable biosphere, no matter how many creatures or entire species die off.  But for this game we’re only concerned with our own standing (that of the human race) when the game ends.

Points are roughly equivalent to dollars, effort, time, resources and lives.  We won’t use dollars, though.  I’ve heard people of late refer to their own personal economic standing as their hard won “treasure,” as in “blood and treasure.”  That phrase is popular among neocons today as an expression of the cost of wars already waged.  It’s used now much as it seemingly was in common use among leaders and politicians in the imperial atmosphere of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine and Benjamin Franklin all used the term, having learned it from their British counterparts across the Atlantic.

So it’s appropriate here because it has that air of human sacrifice tinged with capitalist measure.  It sounds like a strategic term, used to evaluate the cold and realistic moves in a terrible, dangerous game.

It’s perfect – blood and treasure.  Our points represent some amount of blood and treasure.

Blood and TreasureThe moves that Mother Nature can make – moves that she will not reveal until long after we’ve made our own moves – are to leave the climate alone, or to warm it by varying degrees.  Again, we will try to avoid specific numbers, like 2°C or 3°C, since some people will argue that some warming is good, and others will argue about how much warming is good.

We’ll just label the options “No Change”, “Comfortable to Annoying”, “Dangerous”, “Seriously Dangerous” and “Catastrophic”.

Like all of the games that we’ve set forth, probability does not come into this analysis.  It’s becomes a question of payoff versus risk alone.

Our sole move at any time will be to either wait and study the problem for a period, or to begin to invest in renewable resources.  We’ll represent each choice by various periods of waiting.

This game will work from the assumption that if the game (i.e. the actual climate) ever reaches a danger point where the problem is obvious and dangerous, and requires a rapid, frantic, wholesale, and inefficient devotion of energy and resources, then that expense itself is treated as part of the cost of the outcome, and this game is at that point effectively over and a new game of  “Survive in an Altered World” begins.

But that is getting ahead.  For now, we want to phrase the game in today’s terms, in a way that seems realistic to anyone, in a very cold, analytical fashion.

This game also works, and this is very important because it is in fact the case, from the assumption that if we wait until we actually measurably perceive the warming, it is then too late.  The CO2 put into the atmosphere in the past and being added now will not manifest a dangerous temperature change until it is already too late.  The planet takes time to warm, just as it takes a person time to warm up after coming in from the cold.  The ocean itself is huge, as is the atmosphere.  The affects of warming take decades to accumulate, during which time, if we are adding more CO2 to the atmosphere, we are turning the thermostat higher but without immediately seeing that result.

So this game must be played completely blind.  An entirely “wait and see” approach is in effect counting on a particular outcome and simply ignoring other possibilities.

So the matrix (without the payoff values filled in) looks something like this:

Mother Nature
Humanity No Change Comfortable Dangerous Seriously Dangerous Catastrophic
Act Now
Wait 10 Years
Wait 20 Years
Wait 30 Years
Wait 40 Years
No Action

Assigning Values

You better cut the pizza in four pieces because I’m not hungry enough to eat six. — Yogi Berra

The most contentious and challenging part of creating this payoff matrix is the task of assigning values.  The first thing to remember in this process is that the payoff matrix has nothing to do with probabilities.  It’s not about what is likely, or more likely, to happen.  It’s purely a question of possible outcomes, payoffs and penalties.

The second point of contention will be the factors to consider in the costs.  Lives, money, average standard of living, lifespan, and personal security and freedoms all come into play, and all must be weighed on the same scale.  This is difficult, as it has much to do with personal values, but the American ideal of life, liberty and pursuit of happiness will be applied.  It was good enough for Thomas J., after all.

The third point of contention will be the relative benefit of continuing our current lifestyle unchanged, versus the actual future costs of belated mitigation or adaptation.  For example, if we were to needlessly abandon our current lifestyle, many would argue, there is a large price to be paid.  Others might argue that life would be better with a new lifestyle, but that argument will not satisfy most people.  On the other hand, the costs of moving entire cities, or massive continent sized irrigation projects to support entire groups of states with failing farmlands, must also be considered as far worse than the discomfort of driving a smaller, more efficient vehicle, or settling more often for locally grown foods or manufactured products.

The fourth point of contention concerns the size of our oil reserves.  The fact is that they are not unlimited, and we  will have to wean ourselves from fossil fuels eventually.  One could take the approach that the chance for climate change is simply providing an added incentive to address the issue now, before the shock of a shortage harms the economy.  One could also take the opposite approach, that since oil is going to run out eventually then action will naturally be taken through market pressures to move away from fossil fuels anyway, and considerations about climate change are unnecessary.

Either view is really irrelevant, however.  The point is that a cutover must be made, regardless of the “forcing” which causes us to take action.  For this exercise, however, we’ll ignore this.  We’ll focus only on what should or shouldn’t be done in the game of climate change.

The last point of contention will be the degree to which we should or would take action.  To me, this factor is beyond debate.  No nation or society on earth is going to destroy its economy or way of life in a rapid, drastic, single minded effort to eliminate fossil fuels, unless a preponderance of evidence guarantees that things will actually be far worse otherwise.  Human nature and the nature of modern democracies will very simply preclude precipitous action which instantly harms people’s lifestyles.

People will vote out politicians that push that agenda too hard.  They’ll vote with their wallets by buying what they want to buy, no matter what the future, as yet unknown penalty will be.  No one will ever be able to mandate drastic lifestyle changes.  No one, no nation on earth, will ever, ever “destroy” their own economy in an effort to mitigate climate change.  Arguments along those lines are, to put it simply, “alarmist.”  Such an eventuality will only happen if the effects of climate change become so great that the need to mitigate or adapt outweighs the damage to the economy, and that will only happen if proper, controlled mitigation comes too late.

That’s not to say that it can’t be done.  Huge sacrifices were made in World War II, by peoples of all nations.  Even in a nation as remote from the conflict as the United States, people proudly accepted rationing, men enlisted and trained, and women took factory jobs.  The U.S.A. was the only major player in the war to have virtually no civilian casualties, and except for a very brief period after Pearl Harbor, it was not even directly threatened by its enemies, and yet people made great sacrifices.

So it is possible, but that sort of sea change in human perception of events required something like the attack on Pearl Harbor.  Despite years of leadership by F.D.R., WW II required a shock that brought people to their senses, to get America involved, and to demand a sacrifice from them to accomplish a goal.

For the sake of argument, first consider the case where we act immediately with reasoned prudence.  There is no gnashing of teeth and hysterical wailing.  Economies do not collapse under the weight of instantly abandoning fossil fuels.  Countries simply do as economists are advising is wise and effective, such as investing 1% to 3% of each nation’s GDP into building a new energy infrastructure which is not based on fossil fuels.

CostsIt will cost money, and time, and effort that could instead be spent on making more Hollywood blockbusters or copies of DVDs or plastic Barbie jeeps (electric ones!).  It won’t cost jobs, because people will simply spend their time on one task (building a new infrastructure) instead of another (building plastic toys).  But if you want to look at it that way, you can say that your individual life will be less comfortable, because the price of plastic Barbie jeeps will go up, while you personally have nothing to show for the shiny new wind turbines that will ultimately feed your house the juice that would make the Barbie jeep go.

By contrast, if one waits until drastic action is needed, there will be additional, large prices to be paid.  The first will be that adaptation will cost much more than the 1% to 3% of the national GDP that early mitigation would have cost.  The second will be that at that point, adaptation must be accompanied by mitigation, but it would have to be done more quickly and aggressively, and under time pressure.  The third cost will be in then unavoidable human suffering as farms and businesses fail, communities fail, and the like.  In the worst case, there would be war, famine, and untold numbers of refugees.

The final cost will be in permanent losses to unrecoverable damage to the environment.

This last matter, again, is subject to individual values.  Some people care too much, while others flat out don’t care.  It’s very hard to measure that in blood and treasure.

So, given those factors, here’s a stab at a payoff matrix.  I’ve basically set the price of mitigating climate change now at one “blood and treasure” per year.  I have not added in any corresponding payoff for weaning off fossil fuels just because they’ll eventually run out, even though that would in fact be an economic benefit.

I’ve rather randomly added progressively large, additional costs for taking action too late.  Anyone can argue about the size of these additional costs, up or down, since they are as much based on personal values as economic factors, and the specifics of any outcome are in so much doubt.

You can, of course, make your own payoff matrix.  There are no rules here.  Trust yourself.  Just be fair to yourself in how you weight the various factors in each situation.  Dismissively pretending that the costs  for one situation or another will be arbitrarily high or low, without giving the scenarios proper consideration, does yourself, your neighbors, and your children an injustice.

Mother Nature
Humanity No Change Comfortable Dangerous Seriously Dangerous Catastrophic
Act Now -50 -50 -50 -100 -200
Wait 10 Years -40 -40 -100 -200 -500
Wait 20 Years -30 -30 -200 -500 -1000
Wait 30 Years -20 -20 -500 -1000 -5000
Wait 40 Years -10 -10 -1000 -5000 -10000
No Action 0 0 -5000 -10000 -50000

Making a Decision

If you come to a fork in the road, take it. — Yogi Berra

One of the complications of a game like this is that there is no dominant strategy, that there is no course of action which is indisputably better than any other by mere virtue of having a better outcome than any other course of action in any and all eventualities.

The decision here must be made without knowing Mother Nature’s play.

Before you play the game, try an experiment.  Keep the same values, or any that you came up with on your own, but change the column headings.  Instead of dealing with climate change as a planet and a people, let’s deal with heart disease, as an individual.  Your doctor has just looked at you, and all of your physical and lifestyle indicators and your family history, and suggested that you will eventually be at serious risk for heart disease.  You need to start an exercise program, the sooner the better in his eyes.  You could start now, or put it off for a while, but you won’t know how prone your body really is to heart disease until it’s too late to go back in time and reverse its course.  The thing is, your family and career are also very demanding right now, so making the time just isn’t easy.

Heart Disease
You Never Develops Mild Serious Dangerous Fatal
Act Now -50 -50 -50 -100 -200
Wait 2 Years -40 -40 -100 -200 -500
Wait 4 Years -30 -30 -200 -500 -1000
Wait 6 Years -20 -20 -500 -1000 -5000
Wait 8 Years -10 -10 -1000 -5000 -10000
No Action 0 0 -5000 -10000 -50000

The game is now one of making time to exercise, or simply living your life as you do, high in stress and calories.  You can’t know if you’ll ever develop heart disease.  It might never happen.  You might develop a low risk of a heart attack, or you might be ready for one within just a few years.

What choice would you make?

To me, this choice seems pretty easy.  The cost of exercising, even if I’m really not in any danger, is relatively minimal.  In the end, it will even have other benefits, such as having a higher energy level, a better appearance, and better self esteem.  In contrast, waiting even a few years increases the chance that I will die young.

More than that, in the event that I actually have little or nothing to worry about, the difference between waiting for any length of time is minimal, while the difference in waiting even just a few years in the worst case scenarios is dramatic.

Me, I exercise, starting today.

But the game we’re playing isn’t about one individual, it’s about billions.  The costs of mitigating climate change mean sacrificing some luxuries which we enjoy in such seemingly endless, trivial abundance today that they are of almost no true value to us.  Would you really, really care if you had a smaller DVD collection, or drove a car without four zone climate control, or if your TV screen was five inches smaller?

At the same time, the potential costs to both humanity and individuals are huge.  The fatalities, and the damage to society, may be staggering.  Forty to seventy million people are estimated to have died in WW II.  Entire major cities were destroyed, along with countless smaller ones.  Dresden.  Hiroshima.  Nagasaki.  So many people died in Russia and China that there is no accurate count.

WarThe worst effects of climate change will be no better.  Massive starvation due to major changes in precipitation patterns is a worst case possibility.  Man will certainly react to such pressures as he always reacts, with war.  The eventual (centuries from now) loss of many of the major cities of the world, as they almost all exist on a water front, will produce untold numbers of refugees, and demand the energy and resources to build anew, but this time without the benefits of fossil fuels.

Again, if the negative effects of climate change were to be inconsequential, or if modern science were in fact wrong on the entire matter, the difference in the cost of taking action now, versus waiting fifty or even only five years, is minimal.  There’s little distinction between the two courses.

If climate change itself is as dramatic and costly as current science indicates, or even worse, then the distinction between the options is decisively dramatic.  It makes the choice fairly clear.  Moving now, to make small, incremental changes, is far preferable to waiting until only major, expensive, and painful actions can be taken to reduce only a fraction of the probable damage.

Waiting to see what will happen is a decision in itself.  Inaction is action without commitment.  It is a choice.  It’s choosing to do nothing, and leaving one’s own fate to chance, except in this game it’s not only your own fate, but the fate of billions of people that share the planet now, and billions more who will follow and live in the aftermath of our game.

Filing for Divorce

Always go to other people’s funerals, otherwise they won’t come to yours. — Yogi Berra

There are other complications with taking action on climate change, even after making a firm, collective decision to do so.  The first is that action must be taken by society as a whole, and collectively by all nations, as well as individually by both people and corporations.  This is the Tragedy of the Commons again.  If one nation decides to cheat for a while, it hurts the others, but maybe not dramatically so.

But if one nation would cheat, then most might.  It’s human nature, but in so doing the world is by default choosing inaction over action.

The same logic applies to the actual, specific actions taken within a country.  It is in the collective interest to mitigate climate change, but it is in any individual’s or corporation’s interest to maximize one’s own profit, even at the expense of others.  Without an overwhelming sense of shared sacrifice, duty and honor among the populace, as the nations of the world experienced during World War II, there may be cheating to the point of failure.

Given this, it must be recognized that at a minimum, there will be friction.  Individuals, corporations, and whole nations will try as hard as they can to resist change.  Even though it isn’t really in their own best interests, they will put their personal, immediate interests above those of the planet as a whole, and even above their own long term futures.  There will be action, but with friction.  Five steps forward, one step back, more or less, depending on how committed people are, as well as how self serving they are.

Of course, in terms of countries, this will actually be a severe disadvantage.  The point will be reached where a fossil fuel infrastructure is not only dangerous to the planet, but also inefficient and expensive to maintain.  As more and more nations convert to more efficient energy grids, generation and delivery systems, fossil fuels will actually become a lame duck, and those nations that cling too tightly to that particular technology will actually fall behind.

Making it Happen

There are some people who, if they don’t already know, you can’t tell ’em. — Yogi Berra

Of course, saying “we have to do it” and actually doing it are two different things.  Figuring out how to get individuals, corporations and nations to cooperate, and how to find and punish the cheaters, is really the problem that we face today.  There’s no question that we must abandon fossil fuels, and the sooner, the better.  The question is how to do it, how to motivate, how to make the hard choices, and how to most effectively balance our efforts so as to cause the least distress, and to eliminate cheaters.

But giving up a drug habit, especially one that actually appears to be inexpensive, is going to be hard.  Doing it in a fair and consistent manner across the globe, involving different forms of government and different social and economic systems, presents a unique challenge… and would be the subject of another post.

The Desert of Liberty

Summing Up

I just want to thank everyone who made this day necessary. — Yogi Berra

It’s tough to make predictions, particularly about the future.  — Yogi Berra

It ain’t over til it’s over. — Yogi Berra

Unfortunately, this last item, knowing when it’s over, in the climate game, Yogi got wrong.  A lot of people, those that would rather that climate change be a non-problem, see the current warming, around 0.5˚C to date, as insignificant, or at worst not a real problem or anomaly, and at best, maybe even a good thing, with potential benefits like higher crop production and milder winters.

But if the science is correct, then the temperature you will get in the end is not what you feel today.  The CO2 that is in the atmosphere now will take an unknown number of decades to manifest itself as a temperature change and to reveal the final equilibrium temperature of the planet.  Among many other factors, the volume of water on the surface of this planet, and the time it will take to heat that body of water, will hold temperatures down and make the transition to a “brave new future” slow, if steady.

It’s like turning up your thermostat to 90 degrees and then breaking it at that setting.  Your house doesn’t heat to 90 degrees instantly.  It takes quite a while.  But with the thermostat broken, you have no way to stop it.  Adding CO2 to the atmosphere is just like that.  Every bit we add turns the thermostat up, and it can’t be taken out once it’s there – the thermostat can’t be turned back down.  But how hot it will get as a result of this CO2 is not reflected in this year’s, or next year’s, or even the next decade’s temperatures.  It’s going to take a long time to see how far up we’ve pushed the Earth’s thermostat.

Mother Nature doesn’t have to show her cards until long, long after we’ve shown ours, and by then it’s too late to change our moves.

So, with deference to Yogi’s usual wisdom, in this case it’s over long before it’s over.  Going back to baseball for an analogy, we can’t count on a two out, bottom of the ninth rally in this game.

And now the leather-covered sphere came hurtling through the air,
And Casey stood a-watching it in haughty grandeur there.
Close by the sturdy batsman the ball unheeded sped-
“That ain’t my style,” said Casey. “Strike one,” the umpire said.

The Desert of Liberty

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