Thursday, December 17, 2009

Climate Change: The One Percent Rule

In my last post I accused global warming deniers of reckless endangerment if they use the argument that we should do nothing until we have "proof" of the harms that are caused by human emissions of greenhouse gasses and our ability to prevent those harms. I compared them to a ship's captain who demands that the ship proceed at full speed unless and until he has absolute proof of an iceberg dead ahead. Even is no iceberg shows up, that captain is guilty of reckless endangerment. If an iceberg does show up, the moral crime of reckless endangerment becomes the moral crime of negligent homicide.

If sea level rise does show up, the moral crime or reckless endangerment assigned to those who use the "Must Have Proof" argument will also (or, actually, has already) turned into the moral crime of negligent homicide.

However, this particular coin has a flip side. On the other side of the debate, some people have started to advocate that the One Percent Doctrine should be applied to climate change.

The One Percent Doctrine says that if a particular threat has a 1% chance of causing significant harm, then we should treat it as if it is certain and act accordingly.

Former Vice President Dick Cheney itterated the One Percent Doctrine with respect to America's war on terror.

If there's a 1% chance that Pakistani scientists are helping al-Qaeda build or develop a nuclear weapon, we have to treat it as a certainty in terms of our response. It's not about our analysis ... It's about our response.

(See: Wikipedia, The One Percent Doctrine.

So, on this doctrine:

If there's a 1% chance that human greenhouse gas emissions will destroy cities and cause whole populations to suffer, we have to treat it as a certainty in terms of our response. It's not about our analysis ... It's about our response.

However, this is an absolutely absurd and irrational doctrine that will all but guarantee that we do far more harm than we prevent. Those who follow the One Percent Doctrine become a far worse threat than the "harms" they claim to be preventing us from.

Let us assume that we apply the One Percent Doctrine 100 times. In each case, we face a 1% chance of suffering $25 trillion worth of destruction. In each case, we treat the 1% chance of destruction as equal to 100% chance of destruction (as 'certainty'). Now, if we are facing a 100% chance of $25 trillion in destruction, it is rational for us to spend, say, $20 trillion avoiding that destruction. Let us now do that 100 times against each of these threats. We have now spent $2,000 trillion to avoid what would have been on average $25 trillion in losses.

In other words, by following the One Percent Doctrine, we have made things 80 times worse than they would have been if we had done nothing at all. We have, in effect, made ourselves eighty times more dangerous than any of the threats we faced - making ourselves, as I said, our own worse enemy.

The One Percent Doctrine is moral and rational rubbish.

It is just as stupid to treat a 1% chance that something is happening as if it were 100% certain to happen as it is to treat a 99% chance that something is happening as if it were 0% certain. Whereas it is reasonable in the latter case to conclude that the agent is guilty of gross negligence and, where people die as a result, negligent homicide. The same is true in the first case as well. People who follow the One Percent Doctrine are equally guilty of gross negligence (in my example above, making themselves a threat eighty times worse than any they claim to be protecting us against). And, where death results, they, too, are guilty of negligent homicide.

And death can result.

For one thing, the $2,000 trillion wasted in my example above is money that could have gone into medical research and other programs where it could have been used to save lives. If, in this example, we had done nothing, we would have likely suffered $25 trillion in harm from one of the threats, but had $1,975 trillion to spend on medical research, hunger relief, disease prevention, education, and countless other programs each of which would have saved lives. As a matter of fact, the follower of the One Percent Doctrine has said, "All of you we could have saved with this wealth will have to suffer and die so that we can waste the resources over here instead."

Let us not forget the fact that the One Percent Doctrine has already been used to justify a war that has, in fact, resulted in the destruction of trillions of dollars worth of property, the diversion of trillions of dollars more, the deaths of over a hundred thousand people, the suffering of tens of millions, and, so far, six years of horror in the lives of children who did not acquire the education resources they will need to be successful adults. This is just one case where the One Percent Doctrine slipped from reckless endangerment to negligent homicide.

Next, we need to ask why certain people in the Climate Change Debate find this morally and rationally absurd principle attractive. Are they motivated by a sincere desire to prevent harm?

Hardly. Somebody motivated by a sincere desire to prevent harm would easily notice that this doctrine leads to far more harm than it prevents. The only principle that actually prevents harm is one that says we should live in the real world and use real world facts. We treat a 1% chance that something will happen as a 1% chance - we do not argue that 1% = 100%. We treat a 50% chance that something will happen as being as likely as not. And we treat a 99% chance that something will happen as a 99% chance - we do not argue that 99% = 0%.

What has happened is that these agents have fallen in love with a policy to the point that they are driven to pursue the policy regardless of whether or not it makes sense. Their love for the policy means that they will seek out any excuse - no matter how stupid or irrational - that gives that policy a cloak of legitimacy.

They need to remind themselves that the morally responsible goal is not to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The morally responsible goal is to prevent harm - and we cannot prevent harm with the One Percent Rule. We cause harm that could otherwise be prevented with that rule. So it is not a rule that a morally responsible person would adopt.


anton said...

re: your comments on "Climate change: the One Percent Rule"

As they say in tennis, Alonzo . . . "point, set and match!"

Tennis anyone?

Rex said...

Can I get a mulligan for the last couple of my comments?

I assumed, incorrectly, that you were advocating for us to immediately set ourselves on a course of ceasing use of fossil fuels, without clear enough evidence, no matter the cost.


Efrique said...

While I agree with the proposition that "we should treat a 1% chance as certainty" is wrong, the outcome of your analysis depends heavily on the two sets of costs you assign.

So the questions that should be asked are "What are the two sets of costs, as best as we can figure?" and "What percentage chance should be enough to get us to regard acting as more prudent"

It seems that by the reasoning used in your argument, nobody should ever buy insurance, because it costs more than the expected cost (in present value terms) of the event you're insuring against (it has to, or insurers would all go broke).

Is insurance irrational?

So, anyway, while I agree that the 1% doctrine is wrong, I think there's a point at which the relative costs and relative probabilities do need to be weighed up, and the higher relative cost of not acting means that rationally one should act when the probability goes above some fairly modest figure.

Eneasz said...

Efrique -

Admittedly, I don't know a lot about the insurance industry. However it is my understanding that they make their profit by investing the money they receive and paying out claims from the profits of those investments, thus earning money even while paying out (on average) slightly more than what it costs one to buy the insurance. If I understand correctly.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


Insurance involves the selling of risk.

An individual might prefer a guaranteed $11,000 loss to a 10% chance of a $100,000 loss because he is averse to risk, or, because the guaranteed loss is guaranteed, it is easier to plan for and around.

This is true in the same way that an investor might prefer to lend his brother $10,000 at 5% to buying a CD from a bank at 6% - because the value of helping somebody in the family is worth the cost of 1% interest.

(Eneasz: The insurance company does make money from investing, but the person paying the insurance premium had the option of investing as well. The foregone return on investment is part of the cost of insurance.)

There is always the possibility of other values complicating these types of considerations.

However, insurance companies make their money by averaging out the risk of a large number of policy holders. Each of 1000 people pay their $11,000 in insurance, and the company pays the 10 claims that actually come in.

Nobody is in a position to buy the risk of global catastrophe. There is no super-race collecting the premiums from 1000 planetary civilizations with the promise that it will repair the planet where disaster actually strikes.

In this case, the government is better off paying the $25 billion for the catastrophe that happens (or the cost of preventing it if less than $25 billion), then spending $30 billion on insurance.

Efrique said...

I was talking about insurance from the point of view of the purchaser, not the insurance industry;

My point was, acting on global warming is like BUYING insurance, not selling it.

The argument against acting on a even a low probability event with large consequences is an argument against anyone ever purchasing insurance. You argument would seem to suggest such an act is irrational.

So why do they do it?

Joe The Juggler said...

I think a slightly better analogy than insurance is gambling. If you have a 1% chance of winning a bet, it is utterly foolish and absurd to treat it as if you are certain to win.

If you were certain to win, you'd bet as much as you could. Since you're actually 99% certain to lose, it would be more prudent to make a very small bet or pass up the chance to bet altogether unless there were a payoff commensurate with the high risk of losing (like a 100 to 1 payoff on such a bet).

Joe The Juggler said...

Actually it's probably better to make the 1% the negative outcome.

It would be stupid to fold every poker hand that wasn't a sure winner (or at least better than 99% probable of winning).

That's what one would do if he applied the 1% Rule in poker (treat a 1% chance of losing as if it were certain to lose).