Adolescence is a difficult period for boys and girls. And perhaps, on a different scale, for nations — and even for a species gifted with sentience (of a sort). We learn that the world is a dangerous place, and that death is a reality — for nations and species as well as individuals.
Perhaps that is the explanation for the almost overwhelming tide of grim reports sweeping through the media. It’s not that I consider these expert reports — like the two cited below — to be wrong. It’s just that there are so many of them, about so many things. Social disintegration, climate change, terrorism, earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanoes, pollution, mental health, plagues, peak oil, peak water, peak food, overpopulation, fertility crashing, asteroid and comet impacts, atomic warfare … The list goes on and on.
Each expert report recommends broad and sweeping programs to prevent one particular damage. I have seen none that puts its particular threat in any broader context, relative to the many others. Plus, we cannot ignore the facts of life — one of which is that in our society fame and fortune often reward finding threats to life on earth. Proving the non-existence of a threat means obscurity.
(1) “Homeland Security forecasts 5-year terror threats“, Ellen Sullivan, AP, 26 December 2008 — Senior folks at Homeland Security leak grim holiday tidings to chill our new year celebrations.
(2) “Abrupt Climate Change”, Final Report, Synthesis and Assessment Product 3.4″, U.S. Climate Change Science Program and the Subcommittee on Global Change Research. Lead Agency: U. S. Geological Survey. Contributing Agencies: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Science Foundation. December 2008. Home page is here.
My recommendation appears at the end of this post.
(1) “Homeland Security forecasts 5-year terror threats“, Ellen Sullivan, AP, 26 December 2008 — Senior folks at Homeland Security leak grim holiday tidings to chill our new year celebrations. Excerpt:
The terrorism threat to the United States over the next five years will be driven by instability in the Middle East and Africa, persistent challenges to border security and increasing Internet savvy, says a new intelligence assessment obtained by the Associated Press.
Chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear attacks are considered the most dangerous threats that could be carried out against the U.S. But those threats also are the most unlikely because it is difficult for al Qaeda and similar groups to acquire the materials needed to carry out such plots, according to the internal Homeland Security Threat Assessment for 2008-2013. The al Qaeda terrorist network continues to focus on U.S. targets vulnerable to massive economic losses, casualties and political “turmoil,” the assessment said.
… Marked “for official use only,” the report does not specify its audience, but the assessments typically go to law enforcement, intelligence officials and the private sector. When determining threats, intelligence officials consider loss of life, economic and psychological consequences.
Intelligence officials also predict that in the next five years, terrorists will try to conduct a destructive biological attack. Officials are concerned about the possibility of infections to thousands of U.S. citizens, overwhelming regional health care systems. There also could be dire economic impacts caused by workers’ illnesses and deaths. Officials are most concerned about biological agents, such as anthrax, stolen from labs or other storage facilities.
These high-consequence threats are not the only kind of challenges that will confront the U.S. over the next five years.
Terrorists will continue to try to evade U.S. border security measures and place operatives inside the mainland to carry out attacks, the 38-page assessment said. It also said they may pose as refugees or asylum seekers or try to exploit foreign travel channels such as the visa waiver program, which allows citizens of 34 countries to enter the U.S. without visas.
Long waits for immigration and more restrictive European refugee and asylum programs will cause more foreigners to try to enter the U.S. illegally. Increasing numbers of Iraqis are expected to migrate to the U.S. in the next five years, and refugees from Somalia and Sudan could increase because of conflicts in those countries, the assessment said. Because there is a proposed cap of 12,000 refugees from Africa, officials expect more will try to enter the U.S. illegally as well. Officials predict the same scenario for refugees from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan.
Intelligence officials predict the pool of radical Islamists within the U.S. will increase over the next five years due partly to the ease of online recruiting means. Officials foresee “a wave of young, self-identified Muslim ‘terrorist wannabes’ who aspire to carry out violent acts.”
(2) “Abrupt Climate Change”, Final Report, Synthesis and Assessment Product 3.4″, U.S. Climate Change Science Program and the Subcommittee on Global Change Research. Lead Agency: U. S. Geological Survey. Contributing Agencies: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Science Foundation. December 2008. Home page is here. From the report’s synopsis:
For this Synthesis and Assessment Report, abrupt climate change is defined as:
A large-scale change in the climate system that takes place over a few decades or less, persists (or is anticipated to persist) for at least a few decades, and causes substantial disruptions in human and natural systems.
This report considers progress in understanding four types of abrupt change in the paleoclimatic record that stand out as being so rapid and large in their impact that if they were to recur, they would pose clear risks to society in terms of our ability to adapt:
- rapid change in glaciers, ice sheets, and hence sea level;
- widespread and sustained changes to the hydrologic cycle;
- abrupt change in the northward flow of warm, salty water in the upper layers of the Atlantic Ocean associated with the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC); and
- rapid release to the atmosphere of methane trapped in permafrost and on continental margins.
From the press release:
The United States faces the potential for abrupt climate change in the 21st century that could pose clear risks to society in terms of our ability to adapt. … A new report, based on an assessment of published science literature, makes the following conclusions about the potential for abrupt climate changes from global warming during this century.
- Climate model simulations and observations suggest that rapid and sustained September arctic sea ice loss is likely in the 21st century.
- The southwestern United States may be beginning an abrupt period of increased drought.
- It is very likely that the northward flow of warm water in the upper layers of the Atlantic Ocean, which has an important impact on the global climate system, will decrease by approximately 25–30 percent. However, it is very unlikely that this circulation will collapse or that the weakening will occur abruptly during the 21st century and beyond.
- An abrupt change in sea level is possible, but predictions are highly uncertain due to shortcomings in existing climate models.
- There is unlikely to be an abrupt release of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, to the atmosphere from deposits in the earth. However, it is very likely that the pace of methane emissions will increase.
How to apply the precautionary principle to prepare for shockwaves
The precautionary principle is usually applied in an irrationalmanner to individual threats, such as climate change. There are many high impact – low probability threats, which I call “shockwaves”. Also, the US and world have many vitalif more mundane needs that deserve funding. Since resources are finite, we must access their relative importance — which few of these special interest groups around each shockwave bother to do. I discuss this in greater length at this post; here is my suggestion:
Commission a group to collect as many shockwave scenarios as possible, with a brief analysis of each. Fortunately there are thousands of interest groups willing to pitch in and help! Then apply a common analytical framework to rate them on both dimensions: probability and impact. The results would prove quite interesting, and allow more rational public policy discussion about which to act upon.
Update — similar thoughts in USA Today
“‘The end’ as a weapon“, Tom Krattenmaker, op-ed in USA Today, 15 December 2008 — “Some environmentalists have their own fixation with the apocalypse – just not the biblical one. This involves the wrath of nature and the ecological end times. But fear is an ineffective tool for any cause.”
For more information from the FM site
To read other articles about these things, see the FM reference page on the right side menu bar. Of esp relevance to this topic:
- Posts about Science, Nature, and Geopolitics– this lists not only posts on the FM site, but also a wide range of other online sources.
- About Peak Oil and Energy – my articles
- About Peak oil and energy – studies and reports
Posts on the FM site about shockwaves other than energy:
- There is no “peak water” crisis, 19 June 2008
Some of the posts on the FM site about shockwaves:
- Spreading the news: the end is nigh!, 8 May 2008
- The most dangerous form of Peak Oil, 8 April 2008
- The “Oil Shockwave” project: well-funded analysis of the obvious, 10 April 2008
- Peak Oil Doomsters debunked, end of civilization called off, 8 May 2008
- What does $120 oil mean for the global economy?, 15 May 2008
- There is no “peak water” crisis, 19 June 2008
- A reply to comments on FM site about Global Warming, 17 November 2008
- Comment: warnings about a reversal of Earth’s magnetic field, 30 December 2008
- High school science facts prove global warming! Skeptical scientists humiliated by this revelation!, 31 December 2008
- More shockwave events to worry about, in addition to peak oil and global warming, 15 January 2009
30 thoughts on “We are so vulnerable to so many things. What is the best response?”
I prefer these models: “Bank robber tackled“, Sydney Morning Herals, 29 December 2008 — Excerpt:
Or the great Glasgow terrorism issue, the idiot who ran his car into Glasgow airport and tried to blow it up .. people ran towards it, not away.
Fear is a funny thing. I lived in London through the height of the IRA bombings (and you think AQ is scary, ameteurs) and was terrifed for a long time, but fear goes away and anger takes over, worse, if you are of a certain mindset a coldness takes over. And if I’d seen someone trying to kill an innocent ….. Even now, in a very safe place called Australia, I cannot walk away.
Because there is nothing more evil, more cowardly, more .., than killing an innocent person
A wee issue recently, a bunch of kids going a bit crazy outside. The dogs went wild and I looked outside and saw a bunch of kids growling at each other .. and then I saw one with a big stick. So I called the police, walked to the shed and got my big shovel out. And then walked outside, carefully, and watched where they were going and told the police exactly where they were.
Eventually the police turned up and took care of things (Aussie police, not perfect by any means are pretty good and could teach the US ones a lot).
My wife asked me about the shovel. I answered: “this is a busy street, a lot of people, say a young lassie, could be coming home from the pub .. these people may give her trouble .. the only one to worry about was the guy with a stick .. so I made sure I had a bigger stick .. just in case I could not have talked my way out of it”.
My old Grandfather, welder in the Glasgow shipyards (fought in Finland against the Russians and fought in the Somme in WW1), was a hard man, massively fair but hard. A wee lassie hassled on the street .. not on his watch.
And maybe we can all aspire to his model.
Fabius Maximus replies: Good thing you are not in the UK. Wielding a shovel in self-defense could earn you a long term in the slammer. Longer than any of the kids (in the unlikely case they were arrested).
FM, these ‘shockwaves’ might be a different word for Taleb’s ‘Black Swans.’ Highly improbable events, hard to predict, and bringing massive change.
It’s an interesting concept you propose here, and a good one.
Fabius Maximus replies: A black swan event is a class of (or type of ) shockwave events. A “black swan” event is a surprise (“unpredicted”); other shockwaves are over-predicted. That is, they have advocates who hype the danger and likelyhood of “their” scenario.
Agreed. A second level of the analysis would be to evaluate the impact of multiple scenarios occurring simultaneously, rated for their synergistic effects and ability to cause system failure by snapping related links. Of course, given the exponential size of such analysis it would have to be done initially on the set of the most likely events, or those judged a priori to be particularly synergistic.
The lack of coherent, systematic big-picture analysis is a disturbing blind spot for a society that aspires to rational decision-making.
FM — great idea on probability times impact. I think it’s already got a name, even: Expected Value.
But c’mon — probability as a ‘law of large numbers’ property is not really possible with most human based events. Yes, for asteroids, super-volcanoes (under Yellowstone!), floods, and other fairly human-indifferent problems, probability might be useful. But the difference between 1 in 1000 (years) and 1 in 100 000 (years) is extremely difficult to measure.
On terrorism, while its a reasonable intellectual exercise to set up the probability of various attacks (small boat dirty suitcase nuke into New York or Miami would be my preferred attack method, were I a terrorist), like you say there are huge numbers of them.
It’s an excellent idea to use special interest groups for each shockwave/ black swan event. (I kind of like ‘black swan’, which is becoming popular now thru the economic collapse)
Fabius Maximus replies: What do you suggest that we use instead of estimated probabilies to compare various threats? Consult the Urim and Thummim?
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We (the world) will continue to be threatened by terrorist until the world (we) decide to fight terrorism on a truely world wide stage. No safe haven. No secure base of operation. AND a mandate to strike first when we can and where we can.
I would think we should have a greater concern with a pole flip than any methane gas release (or global warming ice melt for that matter. Think phyics and the dynamics of frozen H2O…)
Fabius Maximus replies: Why should we be concerned about a “flip” of the magnetic poles? That is, what can we do about it? Prevent it? Mitigate its effects?
Scares are plentiful, disasters rare. Each of us will certainly die, however, so why worry about possibilities?
“Why should we be concerned about a “flip” of the magnetic poles? That is, what can we do about it?”
Easy. We encircle the globe along the equator with thousands of copper strands drawing current from millions of solar cells, windmills, and ocean wave generators to induce a magnetic moment which will realign the ferromagnetic materials in the Earth’s core in whatever direction we prefer. We could even eliminate that pesky displacement between the polar axis and the magnetic poles – you’ll never have to recalibrate your compass again!
Fabius Maximus replies: More proof that critics are wrong when they say that the FM site is humorless!
In re: environmental extremist warnings
I love the recent, um, rhetorical change from Global Warming to ‘Climate Change’ alarmism. If we’re now in for a bit of global cooling (never mind, you AGW-fans, the lack of sunspots in the current solar cycle, mmmK?) then wouldn’t increased carbon dioxide production be just the thing to ‘balance’ the cooling? As if.
What’s the world government and eco-nazi consensus to demand? More or less carbon dioxide? At 0.004 levels how much one way or the other effects ANY change, anyway? Brake or gas pedal?
The arrogance is breathtaking.
Change is coming, to be sure. But which kind?
Probabilities alone do NOT suffice as the basis for decisions of this sort. At a minimum, probability times a measure of the impact of the event. Locate that value on a utility curve – which will almost certainly not be linear.
More fundamentally, hard decisions are often hard because there is more than one objective we need the decision to support. Multiple decision analysis techniques are useful in these cases. That means developing an additive value model that lays out the objectives we care about, how we will measure the expected outcome of a given solution WRT that objective and proportionally how much priority this objective should carry vs. the others.
That forms the basis for evaluating alternative courses of action. There’s good literature on this approach … Keeney’s book Value-Focused Thinking is a good place to start.
Fabius Maximus replies: Agreed, since that is what I said. You describe what to do with the estimated probablility (I did not discuss methodologies). I asked (in reply to Grey’s comment) what was the alternative to using probabilities.
Thanks for mentioning the literature on evaluating alternative scenarios! For more on the literature rkb mentions, see the Wikipedia entry on Decision Analysis:
The earth’s magnetic field creates the magnetosphere, which protects the earth from the solar wind. Take away the earth’s magnetic field and suddenly direct solar radiation would start pouring down on the earth and start stripping away the atmosphere.
Fabius Maximus replies: This is another in the long list of things that are low-probability in any given year — but certain to occur over geologic timescales. Here are a few references. Note the flurry in 2003-2004, which seems to have since died down.
* Why does the Earth’s magnetic field flip over the course of history? What attempts have been made to model this phenomenon mathematically?“, Scientific American, 13 April 1998
* “See a Reversal“, NOVA, October 2003 — Great graphic!
* “Why Does Earth’s Magnetic Field Flip?“, National Geographic, 27 September 2004
* “How Long Does It Take for Earth’s Magnetic Field to Reverse?“, National Science Foundation, 7 October 2004
* “Earth’s Magnetic Field Is Fading“, National Geographic, 9 September 2004
FM, probabilities are useless in addressing complex decisions unless they are linked to utility curves and a value model that calls out the multiple objectives that must be balanced. That’s where the hard part lies.
We can guess at probabilities. We can do sensitivity analysis to see how much it matters if our guess is off by a little or a lot. But without those other elements we are highly unlikely to come to any conclusions about what if anything we should do.
Fabius Maximus replies: As I said previously, I agree. I did not say that estimating probabilities was sufficient; I said doing so was necessary. What is your point?
Update: warning of a great peril!
Just in time for the publication of this post, we have alerts about a new deadly threat: eruption of the Yellowstone supervolcano! We go to our often unreliable reporter for US News and World Report — James Pethokoukis:
Note: Pethokoukis is famous for his soothing words to Americans during the past year, mocking those who would have them prepare for a recession: “Dude, Where’s my recession”. See here for more on this.
“Yellowstone Earthquakes Under Supervolcano Caldera“, 30 December 2008 — Excerpt:
* “Multiple tiny earthquakes rattle Yellowstone. Could the big one be far behind?“, Scientific American, 30 December 2008
* “The Secrets of Supervolcanoes“, Scientific American, May 2006
Well, our solar system is making its run through the most treacherous part of our galaxy. Pick your poison: supervolcano or massive impacts.
What does a supervolcanic eruption of Yellowstone do to the AGW computer models? Since I live within the 600 mile kill zone, I can be entirely objective on the AGW issue.
Actually, I’m thinking we might want to begin constructing a fleet of three space ships capable of transporting the human race to a new home among the stars. Because of their expertise in planetary science, I recommend that the first ship be manned by environmentalists and AGW researchers, along with the bureaucracies of the Earth’s nations, who are most qualified to organize a government and regulatory structures ready for the rest of us when we arrive.
Wow, fifteen billion years of existence, five billion years of life on earth, and in my three score and ten allotment I have a chance of seeing all this? Do I feel lucky or what?
Update: Folks posting comments are not sufficiently terrorized by these predictions of doom.
So here is another one, for our friends in the southern hemisphere.
“Australian cities facing ‘Big Dry’ water shortages“, AFP — Excerpt (bold emphasis added):
… and the rest of the story: this was published 30 April 2007. Here is another perspective on Australia’s water situation: a series of articles by Warwich Hughes posted at Errors in IPCC climate science.
Update: the situation is worse than your worst fears!
“The war on carbon“, lead editorial in The Times, 27 December 2008 — “Arguments of 2009: Can Copenhagen save the planet?” Excerpt:
Comment on this editorial by Roger Pielke Sr, posted at his blog on 30 December 2008 — Hat tip for this to Anthony Watts.
Background of Prof Pielke Sr from Wikipedia: He has served as Chairman of the American Meteorological Society Committee on Weather Forecasting and Analysis, as Chief Editor of Monthly Weather Review, … has served as Editor-in-Chief of the US National Science Report to the International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics, as Co-Chief Editor of the Journal of the Atmospheric Sciences, and as Editor of Scientific Online Letters on the Atmosphere.
Why worry? Nobody knows with exactitude what’s gonna happen in the next decade. Or even tomorrow. Or even the next hour or two. Que sera, sera. Ain’t no use worryin’ too much ’bout anythin’. Just enjoy the PRESENT. You white dudes worry too much!
FM : Here’s wishin’ ya great tidings & fortune for the comin’ 2009!
As I wrote in the comments of the Newsweek hyperbole on the Yellowstone mega-volcano:
The irrational (& Dark Age style) paranoia sweeping the world today is far more of a threat to civilization than asteroids, global warming (a hoax). earthquakes, super-tsunamis, mega-volcanoes, mass influenze epidemics and giant, man eating rabbits.
I’ll add: It’s a sign of nihilism. The worship of fear–a fear borne not of these potential (but highly unlikely disasters) but of something no one wishes to face, a far greater disaster: The collapse of Western epistemology, i.e., the growing inability of people to reason (and here I am speaking of Aristotilean logic).
The result is that people are becoming emotionalists, turning to anything–especially saviors–except reason to try to “figure out the world.” Plutarach has some words for those who seek answers in the supernatural. As for those who seek it in secular messiahs, history has provided answers enough.
“He who fears god fears everything — earth and sea, air and sky, darkness and light, sound, silence and dreams” – Plutarch
1. You may want to add the following to your reference library:
Gutzman: “The Politically Incorrect Guide to the U.S. Constitution”
Klocek: “The Heartland Plan; federal government for the taxpayer, by the taxpayer and of the taxpayer”
Gordon: “An Empire of Wealth”
Solomon: “The Deniers”
Safire: “Political Dictionary”
Ketcham: “The Anti-Federalist Papers”
Leffler: “Petrochemicals in Nontechnical Language”
They’ll help you clarify your position and place it within the context of the 1787 US Constitution as well as helping you to understand the market economy.
2. For more of interest, visit Just Plain Bill’s Weblog.
“[H]ighly uncertain due to shortcomings in existing climate models.”
Amen, brother. No climate model now in existence can even map past climate history. Does anyone really think they can predict the future? Or, ever will be able to predict the future, particularly when they choose to leave out consequential factors such as water vapor and solar activity. That this blog takes the CAGW fanatics seriously puts the rest of what is written here in servious question.
So, like Al Gore, you’re totally servious?
Well, FM, of course I believe we should be using probabilities — but only after agreeing to use them in a Bayesian prior-probability distribution sort of fashion, which includes both a prior-probability and a measure about how much you think your ‘prior’ is correct.
For instance, if you believe heads & tails are both 50% likely in a coin toss, how many tails in a row have to come up before you want to test whether or not both sides have tails?
The fact is, most important decisions are one-time only. Thus, I’m happy to claim my prior probability of Iran getting a nuke in the next 4 years was 20% under Obama, but only 10% under McCain. I’ve been pleasantly surprised, already, by Obama’s choice of war-hawk Hillary for Sec. State, and continuing with Gates as Sec. Def, so now think it’s down to 15%. But these are probability ‘guestimates’, which would be better used to discuss why two people who disagree about something might disagree.
There are both huge AND UNTESTABLE probability estimates involved in such Obama/ McCain decisions; and there are huge differences in values.
In the prior post about legalizing drugs, a parent with kids might think that, with drugs illegal, their kid has only a 10% chance of trying pot.
What the real statistic is for all kids may not be relevant, because the parent is concerned about their OWN kid. To claim that, since 40% of kids try pot, the chance for all kids is 40%, is not necessarily true.
But in any case, even those like myself who favor legalization, pretty much all admit that legalization increases the chances of all kids to try pot. Let’s say it’s by 10% for the low risk kids. One like my wife against legalization can rationally claim to say the higher risk of any of our kids using legal pot is worse than all the problems of the drug war.
This is a value tradeoff. It’s in making the value tradeoffs that most disagreements occur.
Somehow it reminds me of the joke about recession — when your neighbor loses his job, as compared to depression — when YOU lose your job.
I notice, FM, that you fail to actually use probabilities for almost any of your predictions. It would be interesting to read any of your own probabilities for best case, middle case, worst case, for any outcomes of decisions to be made.
On Iraq, I give Bush a B: less than 5000 Americans killed (A would be less than 2500; C would be less than 10 000). What is your criteria and evaluation?
It would probably cool down global terrorism if US gov told Israel to stop, now, demonstating what they learnt from the Nazis. Reading the BBC Have Your Say column, looking at UK-generated posts, there are 50% totally solid pro Israel, 50% totally solid pro Palestine, and seems nothing will change the views of either camp. (See my bias from the first line.) If that is the situation here in UK, goodness knows what level of anger smoulders in Arab countries . Lets hope most of them regard Islam to be a religion of non aggression.
Update: Media mis-represents findings of the USGS report (as usual)
“Faster Climate Change Feared“, Washington Post, 25 December 2008 — “New Report Points to Accelerated Melting, Longer Drought”
“Climate Report Downgrades Ice Loss; Media Reports Opposite“, Michael Asher, DailyTech, 29 December 2008 — Excerpt:
Update — similar thoughts in this USA Today op-ed
““‘The end’ as a weapon“, Tom Krattenmaker, op-ed in USA Today, 15 December 2008 — Excerpt:
FM note: I have been too lax about the Comment Policy — which is stated at the end of every post and on the Comment Policy page. The author of this thinks I am kidding about the 250 word max and no commercial speech, posting a 4800 word promo for his book. He’s wrong.
AND, HERE’S A SOLUTION THAT’LL WORK: The Manifesto of the Whig Party, Section IV of The Heartland Plan; Federal government for the taxpayer, by the taxpayer and of the taxpayer
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