Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Game Theory

Yesterday, or in fact last night to be exact, the coalition of conservative parties in our parliament had a meeting at which they have agreed,  by a close margin to support legislation (which includes a cap  and trade system) that might reduce emissions by 5% by 2020.  There are so many levels at which one can criticise this strategy.
First of all,  the cap and trade mechanism allows carbon dioxide production by the biggest polluters to continue as long as there are permits to buy... once they have used up all of their "free" allowances that they have been given, they can buy further permits from others.
The target of a 5% reduction from 2000 levels, is so low that the effect on climate change will be negligible.
The carbon dioxide level is already above 380 parts per million, while 350ppm is thought to be the highest safe level for life on the planet.... for that is what we are risking.

There have been predictions of climate change and global warming for many years.  Since Al Gore's movie, there has been significantly greater awareness of the effect that increased carbon dioxide is having on climate and all of its variables.  Predictions are becoming more and more accurate and with that,  more intimidating.   The "business as usual" graphs now show that we will have a significant increase in global temperature in a relatively few years.  And carbon dioxide levels continue to rise.
The consequences of this have been described by many people...  increasing temperatures and reduced rainfall,  rising sea level and inundation of low-lying land, more storms and bushfires and more chaotic weather, particularly where climate is moderated by ocean currents as these are expected to be disrupted also.
There is considerable evidence to support these hypotheses.  As with any other theory, there is no such thing as "scientific proof" despite advertisements for items that we are encouraged to buy because of their "scientifically proven" benefits and so on.  There is no proof that smoking has any influence on the rates of lung cancer either,  but the evidence is so overwhelming now that most people wouldn't question the relationship.  The evidence for carbon, its compounds and their release into the atmosphere, and its effects on the temperature of the earth and its climate are becoming just as well correlated and less deniable all the time.

Then, of course, there are the climate change sceptics.   I have heard their arguments....  that sunspots are increasing the temperature,  it's a natural cycle,  that the temperature of the earth is actually decreasing and that there is nothing that we can do about this in any case.  Many of these ideas show correlations between particular events and global temperature, and some don't.

And then there is game theory....   much work has been done and many papers published about the risk taking behaviour and how people react in risky situations.  Much of this research has been funded by people who make gaming machines... they need to know just how often people need a "payout" to keep them playing in a "no-win" situation.... and there is much to learn.
There are experiments that show how people behave in risk-taking situations.  One of the most famous is  based on a game called "the prisoner's dilemma."  This describes how people behave when the results of their risk-taking behaviour depend upon the behaviour of another.  And this is where I find some similarities with climate change avoidance.

Australians are among the highest per-capita emitters of carbon pollutants.  The lower population makes the total effect less significant for the same reason that China has now surpassed the United States in emissions, merely because of the greater population.  It  is easy to decide that it isn't worth reducing emissions... that someone else should do it first... or that the costs of doing so (the cost to industry) are too great... why me?

And so,  to the question....  are the costs (to industry and electricity production) so great that we (Australians) should risk our collective future in order to maintain our apparent advantage at the risk of making the planet unlivable.   I presume that people in other countries are considering similar issues.  It is a kind of "prisoner's dilemma."  Apparently the leaders of other countries are having similar difficulties.  How to avoid disrupting the "econonomy"  while appearing to make some changes to emissions....  

Remembering that there is no "scientific proof" of the influence that we are having on our planet,  I have long ago refrained from attempting to convince sceptics of the evidence for the damage that we are doing to our planet.  However,  we are playing a very dangerous game with our planet and our future.
As in other gaming situations, the seriousness of the consequences should influence the level of risk taken.  If the consequences are relatively trivial, then one can afford to take great risks.  However,  when there is much more at stake,  it is prudent to take less risk.
If the climate scientists are correct, then we have much at stake,  for we are risking life as we know it on the planet.  The planet will survive,  but we, our children and our grandchildren may not.
If these scientists are wrong,  we will have reduced our consumption  of energy and resources that are in limited supply.  Industries that are high energy consumers might not make as much money as they would have.

In listening to the debate in our parliament in recent days,  the main emphasis seems to be on negotiating a deal that will suit the large energy users/polluters  while making a minor concession to the possibility of catastrophic climate change... so that one can't accuse these people of "fiddling while Rome burns"  ie doing nothing.   The climate change that is happening is dependent upon the chemistry of energy production and the laws of physics as they apply ot our atmosphere, and in the words of David Spratt, "you can't negotiate with the laws of physics."  
I hope that the debate in Copenhagen in a couple of weeks is not just as irrelevent.
I don't believe that politicians are going to make the necessary changes.  The rest of us will make the necessary changes, either voluntarily or when the world changes around us.

Meanwhile,  I reduce, re-use and recycle,  use as little of the available resources as I can and "live simply that others might simply live."  
Some evenings, listening to my neighbour's air-conditioner (because my window is open to let in the cooler air)  I wonder which game we are playing and what the payout will be.

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