Andrew Dessler on decision making

I thought I would post this video of Andrew Dessler discussing decision making. I think it’s very good, but others have – of course – disagreed. He uses an analogy in which 97% of mechanics say a plane is fine, while 3% say there’s a problem. I ended up in a Twitter debate with some who thought that it was a poor analogy for climate change. Well, it’s not meant to be an analogy for climate change. It’s meant to illustrate how one might make a decision, given the evidence and the risks associated with the possible decisions. In the case of the plane analogy, deciding not to fly, and double checking the plane, will simply mean that everyone is delayed. Not all that unusual an outcome, when flying. Deciding to fly could be fine but, if not, the plane could crash and everyone could die. Most would probably agree that, given these risks, delaying the flight and checking would be the most sensible decision.

When it comes to global warming and climate change, there is extensive evidence that global warming continues and that, by the mid 21st century, we will have locked in at least 2 degrees of warming (probably more). Although there is less certainty about precisely how our climate will change, adding so much energy to the climate system will almost certainly produces changes, many of which will likely be detrimental. So, we have extensive evidence that global warming and climate change are happening, what are the risks? We could decide to do nothing and then discover, sometime in the future, that climate change is serious and that we need to spend immense amounts of money adapting. This strategy can also risk the lives and livelihoods of many people on the planet. The alternative is that we mitigate against climate change now and then discover that, in fact, the scientists were wrong and there was nothing to worry about.

So, as Andrew Dessler points out, the latter strategy has a number of positives. If it turns out that global warming isn’t a problem, you can start using fossil fuels again. It can lead to political stability if countries no longer need to rely on fossil fuels from regions that are politically unstable. It can provide energy security as more of your energy can be supplied locally (this can also create jobs and boost the local economy). The real risk is that it costs much more to switch to a carbon-free economy than to do nothing. I often hear people suggesting that it will cost billions or trillions to change from fossil fuels to renewables. Well, as far as I an tell, at least 10% of the world economy is associated with providing energy, so whatever energy source we choose to use, we’re going to be spending trillions every year on energy. So, the issue is not that it will cost trillions, it’s how much more it will cost to change to a carbon-free (or low-carbon) economy than doing nothing. In my opinion, the difference would have to be quite substantial for the risks associated with acting to be greater than the risks associated with doing nothing.

Anyway, I wasn’t quite meaning to write this much. I think Andrew Dessler’s video is very good and well worth watching. It’s also surprised me that people don’t simply agree that acting to mitigate against climate change is the obvious decision. Of course, what seems obvious to me isn’t necessarily obvious to others.

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17 Responses to Andrew Dessler on decision making

  1. Rachel says:

    Really great video. I’m convinced! Bring on renewables!

  2. Haven’t watched the vid, but reading your post reminded me of the environmental economics course I took during my Masters. The idea of cost of not doing anything today vs cost of adaptation tomorrow I think underpins this economic thinking, and the debate is around the value we prescribe to future events eg the Stern report. So do we sacrifice something today to improve our lives tomorrow? The problem (one of, I suppose) it’s that in the case of human induced climate change, if you don’t agree with it then there’s little incentive to sacrifice today (i.e. pay more taxes, reduce consumption) to ease tomorrow. Also, although I can’t substantiate this at all, I believe that many who won’t accept AGW are an older generation who don’t want to make sacrifices because they won’t be around long enough to see the benefits, and don’t like being forced to change life-long habits. That’s my tuppence on the way to work anyway.

  3. Rachel says:

    I’ve also suspected that many who want to continue with business as usual are older and will be dead and gone by the time many of the impacts will be felt. It’s a very selfish view in my opinion.

  4. Tom Curtis says:

    It is not a selfish view, or more correctly the relevant fact is not selfish. Many people of an older generation have worked hard all their lives, and one of the things they have worked for is to leave a legacy for their children and grandchildren. The problem is that AGW suggests that in addition to the positive legacy of economic growth they are leaving behind, they have also left a legacy of fossil fuel dependence which may significantly reduce, or entirely undo the positive legacy. That is a hard belief to accept, particularly as it strikes at a key part of the self image of many elder people (IMO).

    That, at least, is my understanding of the situation. It is, of course, pop psychology and not based on any studies, so accept it or dismiss it as you will. I do, however, think it is far more probable than the idea that a large proportion of older people are so cynical as to accept AGW, but to publicly dismiss it because action on climate change will limit their retirement savings and they have no concern for future generations. Indeed, the later view is also based only on pop psychology, and is both implausible and repugnant.

  5. The views could very well be influenced by people’s selfishness. What I find confusing from a country perspective though is that (in the UK for example) we’re spending 10s of billions importing oil and gas. This is money that leaves the country. If we could spend the same locally and provide the same level of energy, that would seem obviously better for us. Also, even if we spent more, if the money remained here, that might also be better. I don’t know how much more we should be willing to spend, but if the money is remaining in the country, the impact of the extra spending should be smaller than a simple arithmetic calculation would suggest.

  6. Tom, our comments crossed. Your assessment may well be correct. It does seem that one reason people are unwilling to accept AGW is because it is “inconvenient” or because it implies that we’ve done something that will harm future generations. They may well simply be hoping that it is wrong because that is a much better outcome than it being right. To be fair, I hope it’s wrong too because if it’s not (and the evidence suggests that it isn’t) the future is not going to be pleasant for many people on the planet.

  7. Indeed, I agree. Apart from people saying “it’s going to cost lots of money” without actually quantifying how much or how it differs from doing nothing, I haven’t really seen a good argument as to why we shouldn’t go ahead and adapt our economies. If anything, change can often do good and unexpected things. Stagnation is normally not a sensible ecnomic strategy.

  8. FrankD says:

    The problem with the plane crash analogy is that it is not the 3% of experts tellling us its going to crash. Its the 97%. And if 97% of experts told me the plane I was boarding was going to crash, I’d be back in the terminal faster than you can say “Spruce Moose” and demanding my money back.

  9. No, I thought the same as you when I first heard of this analogy and hadn’t seen Andrew Dessler’s video. In the video, however, the analogy is 97% say its fine, 3% say its not (it’s at about 3min if you don’t want to watch it all). So most say don’t worry, and a few say you should worry, what do you do? So the analogy is not meant to be specifically about climate change, it’s simply meant to illustrate how you combine the uncertainty associated with an event (a small chance the plane might crash) with the risks associated with whatever decision is made (delayed versus maybe dying).

  10. plg says:

    Reminds me of an excellent comic by Joel Pett:

    (click here to view)Joel PettLexington Herald-LeaderDec 7, 2009

  11. plg says:

    Oops, expecting the cartoon to show up in the comment, not sure how to include graphics.

  12. Hmmm, not quite sure how to do that myself. Links seem to work though.

  13. Pingback: If 97% of planes believe 3% of terrorists are experts… » The Portal - Saren Calvert

  14. toby52 says:

    The peculiar thing in the American scene, and with conservatives everywhere, is that many opponents of action are also committed Deficit Hawks, and “leaving a massive public debt for our children to repay” is one of their favourite arguments.

    But they persistently defend a lifestyle based on an energy regime with serious negative consequences that their children and grandchildren will also have to pay for.

  15. toby52 says:

    Before being taken over McDonnell-Douglas passenger aeroplanes acquired a bad reputation. I knew one engineer (well-known and respected, author of a few books on reliability testing, now deceased) who absolutely refused to fly on an MD plane. He would always demand to be put on a flight with a Boeing or an alternative. Now as an individual he was far less than 3%, and I never was faced with the decision myself, but I wonder how much of the demise of MD was caused by its declining safety reputation. Sometimes these decisions accrete slowly over time and not in one fell swoop.

    Such will be the case with climate change, I think, like tobacco. Someday, imperceptibly, it will be almost impossible for the vast majority to think otherwise than that human atmospheric CO2 is causing climate change and that unless action is taken temperature rise will reach the 2C danger threshold.

  16. I’m with Tom! I think he quite nailed it. People refuse to accept that all they’ve been striving for their whole life is now increasingly called into question. Accepting that part of your life led to harm for future generations is sth many people simply can’t accept. So they look for opinions which are in agreement with their world view. This demand for alternative opinions is nicely accomodated by the merchants of doubt. Without this demand, they wouldn’t have been so successful. Just my 50 additional Cent …

  17. P.S.: … and of course, I’m with Andy ;-). Great video!

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