26 December 2018

Climate change: surrogate surrogate indicators

I've blogged before about surrogate indicators, or surrogate markers: 
A surrogate marker is an event or a laboratory value that researchers hope can serve as a reliable substitute for an actual disease. A common example of this is blood cholesterol levels. Evidence-based medicine in disguise: beware the surrogate, 'MD Whistleblower' (blog by Michael Kirsch), 1 August 2010
And, more broadly, in economic policy:
Instead of targeting anything as meaningful as human well-being, the de facto target of most governments is gross domestic product (or GDP per capita). 26 July 2015
But there are also surrogate surrogate indicators. In climate change, we have agreements primarily aimed at limiting emissions of greenhouse gases:
Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), New York, 1992, including the Kyoto Protocol, 1997, and the Paris Agreement, 2015
I submit that these agreements are surrogate surrogate indicators: they are not targeting climate change; they are not even targeting the many hundreds of hard-working people who strive to achieve consensus over these agreements understandably measure success by the number of signatories to their final agreement texts.They are not, though targeting climate change. And, even assuming that greenhouse gases, as identified by current science, are responsible for climate change, the politicians and bureaucrats who, through considerable effort, get an agreement signed, have done nothing to see that even their surrogate indicator, reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, take place. Michael Le Page tells us where we are at today:
Early in the new year, if not sooner, the world will set a most unwelcome record. Global oil consumption will pass 100 million barrels per day for the first time – and keep climbing. To have any chance of limiting warming to 1.5°C, greenhouse gas emissions need to start falling now, and fast, the latest UN climate report warned in October. But emissions are still increasing. They rose 3 per cent in 2018 and look set to keep rising in 2019. Renewable energy race to ramp up as oil use skyrockets, Michael Le Page, New Scientist, 18 December (my emphasis)
And the climate itself?

Last four years are 'world's hottest'

There's a genuine problem here, despite the good intentions of the characters involved, be they scientists, politicians or bureaucrats. We have little chance of avoiding the climate disruption about which we are being warned while we are committed to the usual way in which policy is made. I don't think it's enough, when faced with a hugely complex and urgent problem, to use the science of 20 years ago as a base for a one-size-fits-all, top-down approach to its solution. We are undertaking multitudes of smaller initiatives to, for example, limit emissions and create carbon sinks. But our intense focus on greenhouse gas emissions is doing nothing to stop outrages like the destruction of the Brazilian rainforest:
Between August 2017 and July 2018, 7,900sq kms were deforested, according to preliminary figures from the environment ministry based on satellite monitoring – a 13.7% rise on the previous year and the biggest area of forest cleared since 2008. Brazil records worst annual deforestation for a decade, Dom Phillips, The Guardian, 24 November
While the goal of limiting the rise in the Earth's temperature to 1.5 degrees C is sound, there are no reasonably upfront financial incentives for people actually to achieve it. There are some, as we have seen, ineffective agreements to try to limit greenhouse gas emissions, or fossil fuel exploitation and consumption. But people react to the incentives on offer, and there are no explicit rewards to anyone contingent on the climate stabilising for a sustained period. We can take expert advice about what sort of 'stabilising' we want to see, but the important thing is that we set in place a meaningful climate stability goal and reward people for achieving it. We are not doing that right now, with the disastrous consequences that we are already seeing and more, many more, to come.

Which is why I suggest adapting the Social Policy Bond idea to deal with climate change. The essentials of Climate Stability Bonds are (1) that they reward the achievement and sustaining of a more stable climate (however defined), and (2) they will encourage the use of market forces to allocate society's scarce resources to meet our goal most efficiently. I have written more about Climate Stability Bonds here, on which page there are links to a range of my other writings on the subject.

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