The Key Realization

I think us climate folk have been trying to say this for decades, but it’s nice to see it from new quarters. Judge Richard Posner, also a member of the University of Chicago law faculty (now where have I heard of them before…) discusses the policy failures behind catastrophic risks:

It would not be surprising, however, if as seems to be the case Japan failed to take cost-justified measures to minimize the damage from a 9.0 or greater earthquake. Politicians have limited time horizons. If the annual probability of some catastrophe is 1 percent, and a politician’s horizon is 5 years, he will be reluctant to support significant expenditures to reduce the likelihood or magnitude of the catastrophe, because to do so would involve supporting either higher taxes or a reallocation of government expenditures from services that provide immediate benefits to constituents. In principle, it is true, politicians would take a long view if their constituents did out of concern for their children and grandchildren. But considering how the elderly cling to their social benefits, paid for by the young including their own young, I doubt the strength of that factor, although I do not know enough about Japanese politics to venture a guess on whether politicians’ truncated policy horizons was indeed a factor in Japan’s surprising lack of preparations for responding promptly and effectively to the kind of disaster that has occurred.

Now, my present understanding of the nuclear issue in Japan is simply that the ample backup systems weren’t sufficiently tsunami-hardened; thus it was (on my current understanding) a design failure rather than an expenditure failure that accrues the risks, such as they were. But the question raised by Posner stands.

The motivations for long-range thinking and planning are structurally missing from our institutions. Indeed, they are not easy to build in, but one could at least imagine doing better somehow. As things stand, our obligation to future generations is entirely imposed by ethics, and this in an era in which cold calculation reduces ethics to brand reputation and little else.

Fixing this is not a matter of a tax on carbon; it goes much deeper than that. But how can we imagine a tax on carbon otherwise? Any policy which takes us away from disaster imposes almost pure and certain costs in the short term in exchange for (as it happens, highly likely, but even this is not universally recognized) benefits in the future, essentially beyond the political careers of present day politicians.

And it always will! No matter how bad climate impacts get, policy implemented in a given year will impose immediate costs at the expense of benefits delayed by decades.

This is why there is so much focus on secondary benefits of “green economy” etc. But this comes down to an argument about public sector investment vs pure market-based employment. It’s really secondary whether the public sector investments are “green” or not. So in the end, however compelling the need for a green economy, it fails on purely economic grounds, because the future is systematically discounted.

Whenever calculations are reduced to money, long term prudence fails. And this, not the fundamental truth of the Malthusian argument, but its conditional truth in contemporary institutional settings, is what is driving us off the cliff.

Who speaks for the future?


17 thoughts on “The Key Realization

  1. EliRabett says:

    More to the point they kept old systems running rather than replacing them.

  2. James Annan says:

    Um, but you already accepted that the key premise was contradicted by the story that it was based on…the planning was structurally built in, they just got it a bit wrong.

  3. Fair enough.If I wanted to quibble, I night argue that if appropriate weight had been given to the tsunami scenario the design flaw would have been spotted, but that's not a very interesting quibble.Rather, I'm saying that though though the problems in Fukushima are not a great example, the underlying phenomenon is real enough.

  4. Steve L says:

    The underlying problem is real enough and has been known for a long time, so your quotation was boring (though depressing, at least). You added some interesting novelty, however (I think), by talking about money.The thing about money is, it works in a couple of ways with respect to motivation. If some rich dude thinks he can outcompete everyone in 30 years by investing in something now (and leave a legacy, bla, bla), he might make the required investment. If you promise a bit of benefit, shared across people unimaginatively, with a cost distributed in a way nobody gets excited about, then a majority is going to be pretty hard to convince. (A small minority could be easier to convince, as long as they do well relative to others — maybe they won't give a crap if everybody benefits.)Of course, I dunno what I'm talking about (as usual), but it seems to me this is congruent with the hope that there will be investment, but not until there is some confidence that the tax/subsidy structure will provide a profitable environment for that investment.

  5. steven says:

    What makes it worse MT is that the climate "response" to the policy "input" will always look wrong in the short term. It will always look like we either over controlled C02 or under controlled it. That lack of immediate feedback that you got the policy "right" has the potential to lead to PIO.elaborate metaphor

  6. Peter T says:

    Two points – I understand that a level 9 earthquake involves around 100 times more energy that a level 7 one. My casual exposure to engineering suggests that building to resist this would raise costs a great deal (and might not even be possible), given that these things don't scale linearly. Military things, for example, typically cost at least twice as much as civil equivalents because they are engineered to higher standards. You have to set the standard somewhere – was 7.2 reasonable? Was 8? Was 9? What about 10?Your point about money is spot on, but this is a feature of the economism that pervades modern public discourse (including Posner's thinking). But I doubt it was the driver behind the reactor design.

  7. frflyer says:

    @Peter T There have been four earthquakes of 9.0 or more since 1960 and also one in 1952.Roughly once every dozen years or so. Earthquakes over magnitude 8.0 happen once per year on average. reactors and site planning for 7.2 quakes only, seems like underestimating the potential for large natural disasters. We are lucky no nuclear power plants were impacted by the 2004 Indian Ocean quake and tsunami. That tsunami produced waves up to 98 feet. (the entire Wiki article on that event makes for interesting reading)After further reading about large earthquakes at Wikipedia, having 5 quakes over 9.0 magnitude in the past 60 years or so, is apparently more than the rate over longer time scales. In fact, all the quakes over 9.0, since 1900 were 1952 or later. If anyone knows differently, please correct me.Of course, as we have seen in New Zealand, magnitude is not the only indicator of how much damage a quake can do.

  8. GRLCowan says:

    We are lucky no nuclear power plants were impacted by the 2004 Indian Ocean quake and tsunami.At least one was, of course. There are CANDU clones on India's west coast.I don't see that anyone did anything wrong. There was a tsunami barrier, and the designers, in deciding how high to make it, had to draw a line somewhere.

  9. Lets do the science the modern way: the Richter scale is no longer in use. Earthquake energy is measured via themoment magnitude scaleand since everybody is assumed to know this, USGS simply reports as "magnitude".Earthquakes of magnitude 7.0 and up are termed major; of magnitude 8.0 and up are termed great.However, to add to confusion, the Japanese have their own scale. Irrespective of that, the GE BWR design used was to withstand a certain amount of acceleration. Depending upon who one reads, that amount of acceleration would result (that many km away from) a moment magnitude 8.0 or 8.2 earthquake.Up until Friday before last, the world's seismologists had thought that a moment magnitude 9.0 earthquake near Japan was not possible. It is a tribute to the engineers and builders that all the reactor units withstood the beyond design basis accelerations that have been measured at Fukushima Dai-ichi.

  10. adelady says:

    I think it's more interesting to look at related issues as well as the direct questions. Firstly, unexpected things do happen. We should plan for that too. If our dam does not hold back an extraordinary flood, we should have contingency plans for evacuating people (and the valuable items in the art galleries and museums). If we lose power generation for any reason, how will we make up the deficit ….. I find this item about Japan being beholden to lack of change and lack of foresight remarkable.

  11. Brian says:

    I'm a director of a local water district with (so far) two earthen dams that are at seismic risk. We've reduced the water storage behind the dam so that even at what I've been told is a "Maximum Credible Earthquake", the resulting slump wouldn't cause dam collapse.So here's the question: should I believe what they say is a MCE, or should I demand that the drawdown be calculated for something even worse? Like another commenter said, you have to draw a line somewhere. Even if I said I wanted a bigger margin of safety than was planned, how much more should I have? It's relevant to this discussion because the magnitude 9 earthquake was worse than anyone expected, but I have trouble thinking they should've planned for something they didn't expect. Should they have planned for a 9.5 earthquake? That's not a cost-free calculation, and I don't know how you avoid considering costs.

  12. Brian — That is an interesting conundrum. Maybe I can help a little bit.There are the small earthquakes, moment magnitude less that 7.0, which are shallow. One cannot use these the predict to number of occurances of major earthquakes, moment magnitude 7.0 and larger. Mjaor earthquakes occur (for the world as a whole) more frequently than a simple extrapolation from small earthquakes would predict. Major earthquakes are also much deeper.The gargantuan earthquakes, moment magnitude 9.0 and larger, apparently cannot ever be larger than magnitude 9.5–9.6; no rock is strong enough to support an eventual large one, I think, but do ask seismologists, please.The maximum credible earthquake which might affect your dams depends highly upon location; in the lower 48 the west coast and the New Madrid regions may have great earthquakes (magnitude 8.0 and larger). Very unlikely elsewhere.But if you want an actual second expert opinion, do ask practising seismologists!

  13. I don't think it's reasonable that Japan and California should be unable to own and operate nuclear facilities. But it would appear arguably in error to have them sited in those places, and clearly unreasonable to have them within 20 meters of sea level.Why California can't site a nuke in Nevada or Utah is an interesting question that has nothing to do with technology.Reservoirs, hmm, another story.

  14. James Annan says:

    It's obviously not politically correct to say it, but it seems quite arguable to me that a one in a thousand year event failure of this magnitude (even one in a hundred year) is an acceptable risk…remember so far not a single life lost, compare that to other forms of power, or indeed heavy industry of any type. Eg 171 people died building a single hydro scheme of a similar vintage in Japan that produces a fraction of the power of the Fukushima plant. Nasty as it seems right now, it is quite plausible that after an admittedly expensive clean-up, life will return to more or less normal even in the area. Unless you will argue that it's better to just not have the power at all, but I think few here would agree with that, at least during the anticipated power cuts over the coming summer!The tsunami itself is a far greater issue, but I don't hear you saying that no buildings should be erected less than 20m above sea level…

  15. James Annan says:

    In that last sentence, I mean the direct impact of the tsunami on the affected communities, of course…

  16. The Fukushima Dasi-ichi reactor buildings withstood a very great earthquake and the resulting tsumnami. The problems have been solely due to the fact that those old designs required active cooling during shutdown. Gen III reactors do not.

  17. Pangolin says:

    The reactor/bridge/dam/tunnel/building/levee design that didn't fail this time is always the perfect design. Everything fails; eventually. The fact that underestimating failure makes certain people more money in the short term while long term risks are socialized continues to be a problem. Perhaps until such time as humanity solves that particular problem we might refrain from concentrating piles of radioactive material.

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