Climate Change, stupidity and ridiculous argument

West Australian Coastline

West Australian Coastline

Apparently there remain people unconvinced about the reality of ‘climate change’. Apparently, they are stupid, ignorant, Republican or old, uneducated, uninformed and quite possibly uncouth. They have a title, graciously bestowed on them by the patronising ‘Believers’ in climate change – “Denialists”. Yes, it seems that refusal to accept whatever is meant by the term ‘climate change’ now delegates an individual to the status of a ‘Flat Earther’ or some other such discredited belief system.

Any time you see such categorising, start peeking under the skirts of the Labellers and into the actual process going on – there is sure to be much more at work than is immediately apparent from the discussion at hand.

Maybe we should take a moment to ponder just what is happening here…

My Interest in the ‘Economic Problem’… it’s universal, baby!

By way of background, my day is spent reading far and wide on all matters financial, and in our capitalist society, that encompasses just about anything. ‘Climate change’ is a debate that enters the realm of finance predominantly because any changes to lifestyles or systems that occur inevitably have a financial aspect to them. If we go back to Economics 101 then we learn that our world is governed by the ‘Economic Problem’, and as human beings we will always be confronted with a tension between our unlimited needs and wants, and the limited resources available to satisfy them – no matter which society we are part of. In any given field of endeavour, at any given point in time, there are likley to be a few key issues that hold the limelight, attracting all of the attention. Climate change was once the reserve of a few low-profile, highly technical specialists and as such, very rarely a topic of conversation in the average roadside cafe. That American fellow, Al Gore, was at the forefront of changes to that mindset when he fronted the movie ‘An Inconvenient Truth’. Suddenly ‘climate change’ was a coffee-table  issue, and one that folk could direct a lot of energy to and become very emotional about. And we all know how much spare energy and emotion there is in the populations of the developed world. As Maslow suggested, once society takes away the need to put in very much effort to obtain food, shelter and clothing then the next step is to get out there and find some issue with meaning – and go for it! And so the issue of climate change now has a major role in not only mainstream media but also in financial commentary.

Climate Change – It’s ‘Them’ versus ‘Us’!

If we put aside for a moment flippant thoughts of latent energy in a bored society being a prime contributor to the debate on climate change then we can see that debate about whatever constitutes ‘climate change’ has morphed into a debate about just about anything you want it to be about. In other words, some see this in the context of the traditional power struggle between the powers-that-be and the great unwashed (although that is usually expressed in the quaintly Franco-Roman terms of the ruling bourgeoisie and the proletariat underclass). Others see it as a simple matter of economics. Others again may see climate change through the lens of environmental awareness. Some move on to discuss the ‘developed world’ vs the ‘underdeveloped world’ or ‘Western’ vs ‘Eastern’ ideas. i have even seen the issue used as a pitchfork to poke meat-eaters into becoming vegetarians. Everyone seems to have a take on this issue of climate change and yet there is so very little basic discussion available to help the average person come to grips with the in’s and out’s, the vested interests and the ideological claptrap.

Of course, this is my arrogant take on things, defaulting to my standard position of calling for logical discussion in a world ruled by emotion. It is quite possible that the discussion is logical and it is i who is failing to see the logic because of an embedded emotion i am blissfully unaware of. But if we were all to be that self-critical then there would never be a word written in the blog world at all, would there? So, personal inabilities aside, here is my take on the issue of climate change.

The starting point for me is to ponder a suitable basis for any deliberations. Not in a committee-meeting kinda way, where a group of people sit down to thrash out an agenda for punishing the Romans for bringing aqueducts and peace to the Middle East – but a central tenet that can be used as a guiding basis when confronted by the very wide range of claims that this debate triggers.

Deciding what is ‘fair’

My immediate choice is to look for universal approaches, as the issues are (and it is a repetitive theme), universal. Even if the basic premise of climate change turns out to be false, actions will be taken across the globe in one way or another, impacting cultures, environments and the entire range of human activities. In such a case, my preference is to look for philosophically strong cencepts. To some extent, that philosophical standard of seeking a way of leading a good life is a reflection of the key economic argument. That is, if resources are limited and wants are unlimited then there will always be a tussle for those resources. In determining how to live a good life, we must take into account our approach to this tussle – whether it be competition between species or simply within our own precious species.

These thoughts lead me to seek a clarification of the role of syllogism versus ‘first-order logic’. In my words, this is a choice between a if/then process over a mathematical formula. i completely understand that this flies in the face of a long period of academic evolution by brilliant minds but over time, i have come to find a more robust form of deductive strength in the syllogistic approach. Once mathematics moved into the field (in the form of first-order logic), methinks we began to enter a stage whereby it became possible to prove that blue is red and a twinkle in the eye was nothing more than a reflection of light. In other words, when we move too far into analysis when trying to make decisions, we begin to lose control of the variables, with the result that decisions become the equivalent of a piece of US Senate legislation – a massive tome of imlementation rules that hides inumerable pork-barrel trades. Even though the world is based on compromise (and let’s face it, my supposition is that we are going to tackle this issue from a starting point of compromise), there needs to be a less maleable basis for decisions so that the implementation does not vary too far from the intent.

An example of ‘First-Order Logic’ being all too human…

Shortly after writing the note above, i had an opportunity to look through the academically focussed book “Economic Theory & Global Warming”, by Hirofumi Uzawa. The book is very well written, especially when you consider that it is brimming with economic forumulae, theory and validity testing. ‘First-order logic’ of the first order. The book points out the fundamental problems as they apply to the issue of climate change. ie,

  1. The issue spans generations, with the bulk of the cause being current generations, while the bulk of the worst outcomes are potentially visited on future generations;
  2. The issue spans countries and cultures, with the countries predominantly contributing to the problem likely to be less ‘hit’ than countries that contribute relatively little to the problem;
  3. The cost of preventative measures will almost certainly mean prohibitive change – while the outcomes are far from certain.

This is my (rough) precis of the key problems, and the book goes on to propose various (extremely well thought-out) measures and processes that can be used to obtain fair outcomes for all. It tests each proposition for validity, and attempts to build these into a model that can cope with the fluidity of the inputs that are being dealt with. Before moving on to just where this book fits into my issue of syllogism versus first-order logic, please understand that i am in awe of Hirofumi Uzawa’s capacity for logic and his ability to present such material coherently. i will also profess to a comparatively miniscule level of ability in this type of economic forum (ie, i am not remotely qualified to query form or process). However, the point that jarred on me immediately i read it does not involve any need for a degree in higher economics. Tucked away on page 175 is a reference to the carbon sequestration rates of temperate versus tropical forests. These are important, as the differentials are going to be used as a basis for determining costs/credits as they relate to forests existing in different countries. i am going to quote from the full paragraph,

“Numerous studies have been made to estimate the carbon sequester rates for various terrestrial forests. According to Dyson and Marland (1979), the carbon sequester rate for temperate forests is estimated at around 7.5 tC/ha/yr. For tropical rain forests, it is estimated at 9.6-10.0 tC/ha/yr according to Marland (1988) and Myers (1988). Our analysis is carried out on the assumed rate of 5 tC/ha/yr for temperate forests and 15 tC/ha/yr for tropical rain forests.”

This is not taken out of context, as the next paragraph goes on to look at how various activities can be measured/dealt with. In other words, no further mention is made of what is a glaring element of bias that has been inserted with no stated reason or basis. This is important for an economic textbook, as the heresy of faulty logic or inaccurate formulae cannot be avoided – other than through changes to the assumptions underlying such work. So, the actual rates found in studies are changed – on a whim – such that the magnitude of variance between temperate and tropical forest carbon sucking-up rates moves from around 30% to around 150% and it is ‘ok’ because these are merely assumptions.

Why is this important? It is important because human beings are inherently lazy, and ‘modern’ human beings living in a developed society are inevitably devoid of ‘spare’ time. In other words, the only part of this book that most non-academics are going to read is the summary chapter. If you move to page 252 you will find no reference to the move away from sequestration rates found in the texts cited as reference works. Again, this means that the average person will not have any basis for querying an imputed land price for the USA of $32,000 p/ha against $1,800 for Indonesia and $3,150 for the Phillipines. Let’s make it clear that i have no interest in who pays what in such circumstances, so long as the basis for determining such figures is fair and reasonable.

Changing assumptions to suit an outcome (ie, reducing the sequestration rate of temperate forests – which are predominantly in developed countries – and increasing the sequestration rates of tropical forests – which are predominantly in developing countries, thereby reducing the costs for ‘poorer’ countries and increasing it for ‘richer’ countries) is neither fair nor reasonable. All it would take is a simple statement to the effect that a further adjustment should be made which recognises the relative ‘wealth’ of different countries when coming up with any imputed price mechanisms.

And so we return from a rather circuitous trip through prove-the-point land, to the original idea that sometimes allowing too much maths to operate before agreeing on core principles, can lead to inappropriate outcomes. And we need to remember here that any implementation of imputed prices is an attempt to put a value on something that doesn’t actually have a value, and so there is a lot of room for disagreement. Hence the need for rather clear thinking.

At the risk of making it sound as though i am picking on this book (when in fact that is defintely NOT what is happening here, as i think the book is brilliant), Uzawa does make the point in summary (p256) that ‘Malleability Theory’ makes the assumption of no cost of change. This is clearly something that needs further work (a point that Uzawa highlights), as a move away from existing infrastructure will involve massive costs for change. A billion dollar power station cannot be altered to “low carbon” for small change. Such costs and who will pay for them are the key issue debated in many coffee-shop discussions. However, the basis of this discussion tends to be them-vs-us (add your own teams to either label) and we are again forced to move back to more fundamental ideas before arguing any particular position.

Emmanuel Kant’s categorical imperative –

“Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.”

As imperfectly applied as this very tidy piece of philosophical reasoning has been, it remains a damn fine contender for the role of Adjudicator in the great climate change debate and more importantly, in the actions that are taken to deal with climate change. An alternative would be to look at Bentham’s utility theories – very roughly translated as “the greatest good for the greatest number” – and its various forms.

The utilitarian approach is faulty from the start, even if only because of human demographics. By definition, the greatest good would be achieved rather simply by allowing China and India to meet and agree on an outcome that best suits their populations, as between them they old around 2.4bn of the roughly 6 bn people on earth.

beep-deep, debeep, deep…..

We interrupt this newscast to point out that the idea behind this site is the accumulation of thoughts for recording ideas, clarifying assumptions and to eventually build stronger foundations for basic thinking, along with more flexibility towards alternate or unexpected outcomes… so that’s as far as this thought process is going for the moment. The day-to-day of living (what we do while we are planning bigger and better things) requires that this particular post be accomplished in instalments… So… let’s consider this one the introduction of a series of thoughts on this Climate Change issue…


1. “The Economic Problem”.

2. “Unlimited needs & wants vs limited resources”. i like this reference, as it considers the traditional Western concept from an Islamic point of view.

3. “Maslow”. i am being a bit naughty here. i’m potentially suggesting that folk misunderstand ‘esteem’ and ‘self actualisation’ and embark on a crusade to identify a worthy cause instead.’s_hierarchy_of_needs

4. “Bourgeoisie”.

5. “Proletariat”.

6. “syllogism”. I’ve tinkered with convention here… by simplifying what is a relatively simple form to something simpler again (i,e “if/then”). For a more precise look at syllogism go to Good ol’ Wiki have a page on syllogism, which is probably easier to read.

7. “first-order logic”.

8. Uzawa, Hirofumi. 2003. Press Syndicate of the Cambridge University Press, UK.

9. Immanuel Kant.

10. Jeremy Bentham.

11. Population statistics.


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