Anthropogenic CO2 Emissions – Assuming No Risk Without Rational Evidence

This post is a continuation of my last post where I performed my own personal risk analysis of Anthropogenic CO2 Emissions. My conclusion was based on the idea that unless I can be completely assured that there is either no impact, no probability, or nothing I can do about it anyhow, that I should always have a risk mitigation action in place. If I don’t, I’m not doing risk mitigation competently.

I now want to consider what I see as the primary problem with the AGW Denier / Skeptic position. I believe they are starting with an assumption that CO2 Growth is either a zero impact or zero probability risk and so their risk score is coming out to be zero. (Since zero times anything is zero.)

Then, given that the risk score comes out to be zero they deduce “no action” is the appropriate response.

CO2 != Happiness: How to Create a Risk Score of Zero

Eric James Stone, in his comment I included in the last post, is correct about one thing. If CO2 was like happiness – too much is never enough [1] – then the way we’d measure this risk is to assign an impact rating of zero. In other words, we have decided it’s not a risk after all and we’d drop it from the list of risks we’re trying to mitigate.

The same could be true if we assigned a probability of zero. Even if we think the outcome is catastrophic, if we believe there is no chance of a problem whatsoever, then we can ignore the risk.

Truth be told, we can also ignore the risk in one other situation: if there is nothing we can do about it anyhow.

But other than these three circumstances, there is no situation where we should not have a mitigating action in place.

Geoff essentially makes all three of these arguments in this quote here:

But the thing about good project management is that you need correct information and a correct assessment of risk from the beginning. This is where I think you are making your mistake. Your initial data inputs are not complete.

1)CO2 has gone up and down throughout the Earth’s history without human input. Why is this? Why should we be AUTOMATICALLY concerned about it happening now?
2)Is the increase in CO2 bad? Interestingly, botanists are pretty excited about it because plants love CO2. There has been a lot of talk about increased biodiversity these days.
3)What are the chances that anything we humans do to decrease CO2 would be successful in actually decreasing CO2 given that much of the CO2 is not manmade?

Geoff is suggesting the three circumstances that would allow us to eliminate the need for action against the risk of CO2 emissions. Therefore, ‘no action’ is appropriate.

In #1, he suggests that CO2 growth isn’t man made after all and is just a sort of natural cycle, so there is no reason to believe it will keep growing.

In #2, he address that the impact is zero or even positive.

In #3, he suggests that we can’t actually affect is anyhow, so why take action?

I am going to argue in the rest of this post that there is actually no rational way to come up with this result if you make two assumptions: first, that the four incontrovertible points are all true and second, that a scientific consensus isn’t trustworthy. Given these two (five?) assumptions, I believe ‘no risk’ and therefore, ‘no action’ becomes patently impossible to acheive. That is why I will not support a ‘no action’ mitigation plan.

Inside the Skeptical Mind

I actually think this is how conservative AGW Deniers measure the risk of CO2 emissions in real life. I believe they look at CO2 emissions and in their minds they decide that since AGW science is primitive and AGW Believers untrustworthy, that this must mean we can treat this as a non-risk. Therefore, no action should be taken whatsoever. We are wasting good resources even researching it like we do or having public discourse about it.

Measuring the Rationality of Two Arguments

Now I ask the readers to honestly assess Geoff’s arguments. I particularly ask them to assess them as a response to my arguments and to make an honest determination of which set of arguments is more rational.

Bruce’s Original Argument Geoff’s Counter Argument
Steve McIntyre, an elite AGW Skeptic, still admits that CO2 growth is man made.

CO2 has gone up and down throughout the Earth’s history without human input. Why is this? Why should we be AUTOMATICALLY concerned about it happening now?

CO2 is known to be a greenhouse gas. It is known to create acidic oceans. In the short run it’s good for plants, but in the long run it can cause massive problems if left unchecked.

Is the increase in CO2 bad? Interestingly, botanists are pretty excited about it because plants love CO2. There has been a lot of talk about increased biodiversity these days.

CO2 comes from both man made and natural sources. Minus the man made portion, the level of CO2 currently remains stable. Besides, we can only control the man made portion by definition anyhow, so it’s the only portion that should be discussed because it’s the only portion we can discuss.

What are the chances that anything we humans do to decrease CO2 would be successful in actually decreasing CO2 given that much of the CO2 is not manmade?

I assert that this is not merely a matter of opinion that one of these two sets of argument is objectively more rational than the other. In saying this, I do not claim to know which is correct only that one of them interacts with the existent facts better than the other and that this is an objective fact.

How Do AGW Skeptics Come Up With a Zero Risk Score?

Another way to address this question is to ask it like this: how do AGW Deniers come up with a zero risk score in the first place? What is their logic? Is this logic rational? Or is it more of a reaction against AGW Believers?

Merely pointing out that Mann or Gore lied or cheated tells us nothing. Heck, for the sake of argument, let’s pretend that we knew for certain that the entire scientific consensus is totally bogus and based on bad scientific models not worth the paper they are printed on. Given these assumptions, is the rational response to assign a risk score of zero?

Of course not!

The problem with the AGW Skeptic arguments is that they start with the assumption that if the doom can’t be proved to be imminent that it is of necessity never going to happen ever. This is bad logic extraordinaire.

A More Moderate AGW Skeptic Position

What if we decided to not be so extreme in our skepticism? What if, instead, we accept that too much CO2 is bad at some point but also accept that our science is not up to the task of telling us when that point really is.

This still means we don’t have to accept any of the current models as being accurate. But rationally we have to accept that we have no counter model, so we don’t actually know when the real problems will begin. So the onus to take some level of action already exists.

Why Lack of a Counter Model is Important

But what if we did have a counter model? What if we had a peer reviewed atmospheric model in our hands today – and a scientific consensus to boot — that said that the previous (current) scientific consensus is wrong because actually we are 2000 years away from the levels of CO2 growth we are currently experiencing will even begin to impact global warming or acidic oceans.

No wait! Let’s go one further. Let’s pretend that we have in our hands a peer reviewed atmospheric model that proved that even given the current expected levels of CO2 growth that the earth actually has processes we didn’t know about before that will inevitably absorb that CO2 but in such a way that it never will cause a problem with acidic oceans.

Given one of these two assumptions, what would be the correct risk mitigation now? Now the correct mitigation action would be to do nothing and to stop worry about CO2 emissions, right?

No, actually it wouldn’t.

The AGW Skeptics have done a fantastic job convincing me that our science is just too primitive to trust. So I’d have no more reason to accept this counter model as a given then I do with the current ones today. In other words, this is still a risk even if we have a counter model with a new scientific consensus, it’s just a reduced risk. 

The only way I can eliminate this risk enough to take a ‘no action’ is if I first assume that a scientific consensus around scientific peer reviewed models actually is akin to fact. But if I believed that, then I’d be an AGW Believer right here right now. Since I do not have faith in a scientific consensus then I see no way I could ever eliminate the risk of CO2 Emissions unless I can first reject one of the the four incontrovertible points. So for me, even having a sudden shift of scientific consensus would not sufficiently eliminate the risk enough to justify a ‘no action’ stance.

Instead, the correct risk mitigation action would now be that we simply watch to make sure the current CO2 growth does not exceed our growth expectations and to measure the over all heat trends in the world to test that our model is correct and we really have nothing to worry about for 2000 years.

AGW Skeptics often advocate a ‘wait and see’ position. Given one of the two dream scenarios above, now — and only now — would a ‘wait and see’ position make sense. We have positive evidence that we are no where near a problem, but we have reason to be wary that our models might not be accurate because our science is somewhat primitive.

But what do AGW Skeptics mean by ‘wait and see?’ Well, unfortunately they don’t mean what I mean by it.

To me ‘wait and see’ means we spend a lot of money on research of AGW. We take measurements, we create new models, we refine those models, we publicly argue and debate the value of those models. We might even talk about possible future mitigating actions if the (hypothetical) scientific consensus that we are safe suddenly starts to change.

In short, ‘wait and see’ to me means we do what we are currently doing – including spending the millions that AGW Skeptics already complain about ‘being spent on a hoax.’

And this is if I start with the assumption that we have in our hands a peer reviewed counter model that says there is no immediate danger!

Compare this position to how many AGW Skeptics talk about all the wasted money spent on the hoax of AGW. When AGW Skeptics say ‘wait and see’ they seem to mean “stop spending all these funds, stop having a public discourse, stop doing everything and then wait to see if I personally start to notice a problem that impacts my personal life.”

I cannot see this position as anywhere near rational. If we are starting with the facts we currently all agree upon, taking some level of action is the only rationally responsible course.

The “You Can’t Predict That Far Out” Argument Addressed

One argument that almost all AGW Skeptics making posts have brought up is that you can’t predict the future. How do we know (so goes the argument) that we won’t naturally switch over to alternative energy source anyhow so any attempt to do so now is a waste of money? Or how do you know that we won’t invent some CO2 eating technology?

Well, I don’t. And neither do these commenters. That’s the point.

To decide that a risk isn’t a risk because we decide upfront that some unknown thing is going to remove the risk at a future date is incompetent risk mitigation. Any project manager that did such a thing would be fired on the spot.

Our best assumptions right now is that, baring intervention, we are going to be using oil and CO2 heavy energies for the foreseeable future. No other assumption is worthy of considering until we actually have a CO2 eating technology in hand so that it’s no longer just wishful thinking.

The correct risk mitigation approach is to wait for a CO2 eating technology to appear (or to find that we have a strong trend away from CO2 heavy energies) and then do a revised risk assessment at that point. Until one of those things happens, we continue to implement our risk mitigation strategy. I do not buy that anything else is a rational and responsible risk mitigation strategy.

Conclusion

My conclusion is that it is not rationally possible to seriously accept the four incontrovertible points and that a scientific consensus can’t be trusted yet come up with a ‘no risk’ result via a risk mitigation strategy. While I could see a risk level so low that we take no additional action beyond what we are currently doing, even this requires that we accept the logical corollary that CO2 risk is not a hoax and we are not wasting money on it.

Notes

[1] …like happiness – too much is never enough… Actually, I recently read Brave New World. That book makes the case that too much happiness is a very very bad thing. I think Huxley is right about this. But this is besides the point for the current argument, so I’m not going to bother arguing it.  But I have to mention it because I had an up coming post planned to talk about dystopian literature.

8 thoughts on “Anthropogenic CO2 Emissions – Assuming No Risk Without Rational Evidence

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention » Anthropogenic CO2 Emissions – Assuming No Risk Without Rational Evidence The Millennial Star -- Topsy.com

  2. Bruce, I think most of your assumptions are way off, but I will humor you and agree with you that we must consider some mitigation strategies just to see what strategies you come up with. Let’s see where you take this next.

  3. I admit that this topic does not fit in with the reasons I stop by the blog from time to time but I have been aware of the exchange. Perhaps you and Geoff would be interested in Ars’ write-up of how risk assessments affects the public’s assessment of scientific knowledge: http://arstechnica.com/science/news/2010/09/skeptics-discount-science-by-casting-doubts-on-scientist-expertise.ars?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=rss
    It sounds like it misses your focus a bit by dealing with public perception rather than a principle-based this-is what-the-public-_should_-believe/perceive.

    “The cultural cognition thesis predicts that individuals will more readily recall instances of experts taking the position that is consistent with their cultural predisposition than ones taking positions inconsistent with it,” the paper suggests.

  4. quandmeme,

    Very interesting article. I think we see that this is true for both sides on this issue. We select out the evidence that matches our political point of view.

    Geoff,

    I promise, I’ll now work on explaining my ‘solution’ (if you can call it that) better.

  5. Geoff,

    You only generally state that you disagree with my assumptions. But which assumptions do you disagree with? I’d like to know specifically which ones you deny.

    I built my argument solely on the four (supposedly) incontrovertible points plus the idea that our science isn’t trustworthy. The four incontrovertible points are all points that even most deep skeptics agree with and I already know you agree with the fifth of my assumptions. So I’m curious which of the four points you personally disagree with. Is it the assumption that it is in fact possible to seriously harm or even destory human life on earth via something like global warming?

    I did read through your article that supposedly denies one of my assumptions, but I honestly could not see which of my assumptions it nullified.

    The article merely invited us to understand that from the point of view of the earth we living creatures can impact very little long term when we consider geological scales (millions to billions years).

    I have no reason to accept or deny this premise. So for the sake of argument, let’s say it’s true.

    The article even uses an apropos example of the dinosaurs. During their era, massive impacts were made to the earth (the two current theories being either an asteroid impact or massive volcanic activity.) Compared to CO2 emissions, such impacts are massive. Yet given enough years, eventually the earth ‘recovered’ and it was like nothing happened.

    The article even points out that from the dinosaurs very short term perspective, the whole event was massive and rather tragic. But from the earth’s perspective, it was a very short term bump that quickly dissipated.

    Okay, fair enough.

    But I admit I do not see how that point in any way calls into question any of the five assumptions I’ve built my argument on. Indeed, I don’t actually believe the earth is a living thing, so I don’t actually believe it has a point of view worth considering. Therefore, the article seems true but unrelated to global warming. All global warming has to do to be worthy of consideration is cause serious dinosaur-style “short term” harm. It does not have to cause permenant geological change.

  6. Bruce, I was trying to be polite and point out that this series is getting repetitive. I am referring to your three “refutations” of my three points. I have go on at length on those three points, and from my perspective they still stand. In addition, there are a number of arguments, including the unintended consequences of action, that are not mentioned here. You have basically spent about 10 posts now saying that “something” needs to be done. I disagree. But I think your readers are ready for you to get to the “something” that needs to be done.

  7. Ah, you were talking about the specific arguments and counter arguments in the post, not the ‘four (five?) points.’ That makes sense now.

    I apologize. I thought that was an important point to make, but I should have admited in a footnote that you probably have a broader perspective than you could fit into a single comment.

    That’s the problem with a complex issues like this. You really have no choice but to be comprehensive (even at the risk of the accusation that you’re being repetitive) or else it’s easy to show that you didn’t address various concerns and level the charge that you haven’t really thought it through. Perhaps I’ve caught you on that very issue in reverse and the only way to really respond to me would be your own 10 posts addressing all sides of the issue.

    Also, give me some credit on not specifying my solution. It’s true that in my posts I keep refering to the need to do ‘something.’ But I gave you a pretty good summary of my proposal in a comment. Certainly enough to start criticism of it or arguing why it won’t work. So I have not tried to keep my point of view secret.

    The truth is that Agellius and Eric’s comments/questions attacked a ‘hole’ in my argument (though I thought it implicit) that I felt a need to address explicitly. That is to say, they asked good questions and made good comments that required clarification. I admit my point of view makes no sense if you honestly believe CO2 growth has absolutely no potential for harmful effects at any level. If CO2 = Happiness, then there is no need to act on it growing forever.

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