October 28, 2003

Linear Thinking at Its Finest

A piece on global warming in today's WiredNews suggests that we may be looking at an $18 quadrillion price tag to fix the problem. But there's a cheery upside:

Luckily, most estimates of the costs of curbing global warming by the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change run to just hundreds of trillions of dollars over 100 years -- a relative pin prick for a growing world economy.

Um, I'm going to say that hundreds of trillions is quite a nasty little pin prick, even if you put the word "just" in front of it. Later we get some good news:

Even the strictest constraints would brake GDP by only 4.5 percent in 2050. Quadrillions of dollars apparently evaporate because they start in 1990 dollars and get eroded by inflation.

Well, hey, that's a relief. I'm wondering how many times in the past all the nations of the world have come together and put 4.5 percent of the total global GDP to use for some constructive aim?

I'm just asking.

Pardon me if I'm a little skeptical about these cost estimates as well as the dire conclusions that lead to them. Here's some logic to chew on:

A heat wave in Europe this year killed about 15,000 people in France. About 1,300 died in a heat wave in India. There were 562 tornadoes in the United States in May, more than any month on record. Was any of that caused by humans and "dangerous"?

If so, humanity would have to start slashing the use of the fossil fuels, a backbone of the world economy from coal-fired power plants and steel mills to trucks and cars.

The 15,000 deaths in France have definitely been linked to humans. It seems that the French humans leave their elderly untended and their hospitals understaffed in August. Plus they eat a fairly dehydrating diet and have never planned what to do in case of a heat wave. Even neglected by their vacationing offspring, most of the victims would have been okay if they had consumed water and taken a cool soak in their bathtubs. If the heat wave was caused by something other than fossil fuels, slashing their use will do nothing to prevent more deaths if there is another heat wave. On the other hand, even if fossil fuels are the culprit — and there are dozens more of these heat waves in Europe in the years to come — the kinds of measures outlined above actually would be effective in preventing death.

The author of this piece (I just noticed that it came from Reuters) engages in thinking that Arnold Kling would describe as excessively linear. To reiterate a recent Kling quote:

My sense is that environmental radicals tend to be point people. This makes their long-term forecasts particularly suspect. For long-term forecasting, nonlinear thinking is best. Linear approximations may work well for forecasts one or two years ahead. Point-based thinking is rarely accurate for more than a few months in today's dynamic economy.

Oddly enough, the author of the Reuters piece seems to agree:

Even the strictest constraints would brake GDP by only 4.5 percent in 2050. Quadrillions of dollars apparently evaporate because they start in 1990 dollars and get eroded by inflation.

And the scenarios do not gauge benefits of averted climate change -- like the possibility of not having to build Dutch-style dykes -- nor examine short-cut solutions such as sucking carbon dioxide out of the air and burying it.

The trouble with these scenarios isn't just that they fail to gauge solutions; they don't even take all of the climatological risks into consideration. For example, what if over the next century, solar activity causes our planet to cool off substantially? What if human-induced global warming is the only thing that can save us? I know, it would sound silly if it was just me saying. But it isn't just me saying it.

The trouble with the future is that it can be harder to predict than a lot of experts would like to make out, especially when they're committed to a particular conclusion. So maybe we should relax a little, realizing that we don't have a clear picture of

  1. Whether the Earth is actually warming up, and if so whether this is being caused by the use of fossil fuels.
  2. What the world economy will be like in 50 years (or even five).
  3. What new technologies might be developed over that time that can prevent further environmental damage, and even repair the damage that's been done.

We need more nonlinear thinking on global warming. I don't know who's going to do it, but I doubt it will come from Reuters.

Posted by Phil at October 28, 2003 05:28 AM | TrackBack

Are you kidding me? 18 Quadrillion dollars is 18,000 Trillion dollars. You mention inflated dollars. They would have to be...very! The latest BEA figures for the US GDP is only 10.446 Trillion dollars. The 2002 World GDP is estimated by Wall Street View as only 47 Trillion dollars or about .26% of the purported costs of the proposed remedial action. Assuming a real growth of 3% in the World's GDP it would take 86 years to equal the sum proposed (in constant dollars), expending every penny in the process. I think somebody is either pulling your leg or is taking liberties with the figures.

Posted by: Dave Lajaunie at October 28, 2003 07:47 AM

By the way, that's a proposed World GDP real growth of 3% per year.

Posted by: Dave Lajaunie at October 28, 2003 07:52 AM


Thanks. I thought those numbers looked ridiculously high. My guess is that the original figure was 18 trillion (or maybe even 180 trillion) and somebody got so enchanted with those sets of three zeroes that they just couldn't stop themselves.

Posted by: Phil Bowermaster at October 28, 2003 10:11 AM

Let's be honest. Wired is just a touchie-feelie magazine. You don't go there for facts or serious speculation. It does have a way of getting on top of the latest future-oriented propaganda. So it's useful for keeping track of that.

Posted by: Karl Hallowell at November 1, 2003 09:05 PM
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