Saturday, May 12, 2007

An Inconvenient Puzzle: Global Warming, Genies and Torture

ABC News has a thoughtful, trenchant article by John Allen Paulos on climate change denialism. Paulos suggests that shaky intuitions about large numbers help stoke the Inhofes and Roves of this world: "Evolution would point to the enhanced survivability of organisms that respond quickly to local or near-term events. This quick response results in a steep temporal and spatial discount rate for distant or future events. The latter are discounted in the same way that money is. Suffering ordained for 25 years from now is, like a $10 million personal debt due in 2032, considerably easier to bear than is suffering, or bankruptcy, scheduled for tomorrow.

"The relevance of this short-sightedness to greenhouse gases and extinct species should be obvious. Environmental despoliation may even be conceived of as a kind of global Ponzi scheme, the early "investors" (that is, us) doing well, the later ones losing everything.

"Nevertheless, the "right" discount rates are not so easy to determine and vary from case to case. It's not that we shouldn't prize the here and now, but, as residents of a global village whose actions can reverberate for a long time, we may need a global reserve board to help decide on more rational discount rates to keep us from being our own Ponzis...."

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