The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Climate Change and Game Theory

**This Article Is By Stirling Newberry**
It is certainly true that if you want to know the economic outcome of a situation, it is best to study Game Theory. But it is also true, that if everyone else is bad at game theory you’re even better off. Which is why the New Yorker has a writer whose job is mis-represent game theory.


I suppose that I should talk about Brexit, and I will in due time. But there is a larger game afoot: climate change.


Money is crated in the past, but paid for in the future. Loans are paid off by future earnings. Normally money is created about the same in the future as in the past, so the fact that it’s actually created in the future doesn’t matter. Because this is mostly true, economists usually don’t pay much attention to the fact, even though they know it. As a result, they don’t think about the times when the future will be a lot different than the past.


But 1st people are going to use the false game theory to make a bundle of cash, and then die. Because after all, dying is a way to keep the money and choose who it goes to. But more on that later.


One of the main ways that the future changes from the past is when we change how we get our supply of energy. Think back 300 years, only the most vital industries could use coal, almost all of the rest used either wood, wind, or muscle power. Coal started extremely expensive, but once transportation was run by coal became cheaper. That means that 100 years ago, everybody who could use coal did so.


But on the boundaries there was a new kind of energy: oil. Oil had several advantages over coal, mainly because it was liquid and flowed from place to place rather than solid which meant it had to be shoveled. And do not think the people shoveling did not how hard that was. Coal was mainly for industry, and next for naval (which is the 1st place when Churchill appeared on the scene, he was one who decided that oil was the right way to power ships, rather than coal).


What this has to do with Game Theory? Very occasionally the past is loaded with people who made money from an economy based on one specific power, but the future needs another source. This is why today we are stuck between the people who made money in oil, but whose future is not oil. The problem is that it is not just oil, it is the entire apparatus for distributing power: cars, for example, are actually oil on wheels. So the people who made money in the past want to keep going because they are going to die before the bill comes due. Meanwhile, people who live in the future, that is to say, young people, realize that oil is bad for them. One can draw supply-demand diagrams if one really needs to. All people with oil are rich, and the vast majority of young people are poor and they do not spend as much of their lives on oil-based things and activities.


That means that old people, who run the economy and politics, keep voting for oil ( and to some extent coal.) The problem is that it is not just people, but climate which has a say. Almost everybody reading this will not be alive by 2200, but our children might just make it, and their children almost certainly will. This is a problem with Game Theory if you think about it: the people who have the money are going to die before the bill comes due. If John Maynard Keynes was alive he would propose government as the solution, but the government is now run by same old people. So don’t hold your breath.


 This is why action is coming from below: young people know that they are going to pay the actual bill for the oil based economy, while old people are going to get the money. There are various other problems, such as nuclear power being safe, except because of the people who run it. This is actually also part of game theory: nuclear power requires smart people run it, but the probability says that there are more profitable things than running a nuclear plant, so people with talent go into those rather than supplying nuclear power. Which is a problem because nuclear power is dangerous, and stupid people who run it make mistakes (Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Fukushima Daiichi.) Once every 15 years does not do the job, it has to be 0 tolerance, and that means getting brighter people, but the economics does not allow for that. Thank you for playing have a nice day.


But the general problem of money from the past dictating the future can be solved: because borrowing occurs regularly, and most of the borrowing is rolled over. That means that the currency markets could, by general government agreement, make borrowing for the oil based economy more expensive and make it cheaper for renewables and nuclear power. Proceeds will be split between the 2 currencies, and while there will be graft ( you cannot help that, but you can limit it.) slowly the world’s energy supply will be made cleaner. Gradually as more people become aware of the cost to themselves, the fee will be enlarged to cover the cost.


Thus the result is an N by N matrix with each player determining what is the best use of there time. This means that the government sector, will determine the cost, and the market will determine what should be done.

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Rules of Thumb


Is There Hope For Mitigating Climate Change?


  1. UserFriendly

    Even using the ridiculous overestimate from the linear no threshold model, more people have died, per kW, falling off of roofs installing PV than from nuclear power.

    Anti nuclear power activists (like the Sierra Club, and NRDC) were literally the best thing that could have happened for big oil, and the significant amount of their donors who make their money fracking nat gas.

    And that is why I don’t plan on living past 40. Between the recession, student debt, and climate change I can’t even remember the last time I felt anything besides miserable. A friend mentioned a relative of theirs got cancer, I almost responded “I wish I had cancer.”

  2. Stirling S Newberry

    So you support sending people back to Chernobyl? That should be amusing to watch.

  3. Eric Anderson

    And thus the reason shunning the climate change deniers is effective.
    The actual, flesh and blood, bill comes due in the lifetime of the individual profiting.

  4. Eric Anderson

    User Friendly:

    Where do you fall on the shunning debate?
    You think Yves was right in shunning me from her site because I vehemently defended my position against commenters who were essentially saying the strategy was “cult-like”?

  5. Eric Anderson

    And Stirling, thank you for the post. Good stuff.
    But to be fair, you kinda just straw manned User Friendly.

  6. Stirling S Newberry

    If he wants to play strawman, who am I to stop him?

  7. Eric Anderson

    Yup. Fair enough, too.

    Probably shoulda kept my pie hole shut 😉

  8. Daniel A Lynch

    There is nothing safe about nuclear energy. Do you want a nuclear waste dump in your back yard? Do you want to work in a uranium mine? Nor is it clean — carbon is required at every step of the process, from mining the ore, to building the plant, to decommissioning the plant and dealing with the waste.

    As for moving to clean energy, no such thing exists. Manufacturing solar panels requires carbon, and chemical nasties. Manufacturing wind turbines requires concrete and steel, which require carbon. High speed rail requires concrete and steel. Conducting electricity requires copper — ever seen a copper mine or a copper smelter?

    The bigger picture is that all human activity has an impact on the environment. This has always been true, even for hunter-gatherers. It’s not about the game theory of making choices, it’s about humans having an impact on the environment no matter which choice they make. Maybe some choices are worse than others, but at the end of the day, all human activity impacts the environment.

    I will say one good thing about nuclear power — Chernobyl, by getting rid of people, has been very good for wildlife. Oh, the critters may have tumors and mutations and a shorter life expectancy, but on the whole they’re much better off. They don’t need us.

  9. RobotPliers

    Daniel A Lynch:

    Carbon dioxide emissions are required because we’ve built most of our infrastructure to emit carbon dioxide. We can move away from that. For example, on concrete and other materials:

    Most of what we treat as waste today can be captured and converted and reused. The goal of creating totally closed (or 99.9% closed) material loop systems is within reach. Once you do that, your equation of “more people = bad for the environment” can change. We move from determining how much garbage and poison to dump in the environment to calculating our share of planetary resources. And total planetary resources available to the biosphere can be increased as well…


    Do you believe we’re past the point where the system can be reformed and are now just waiting for revolution? I’m still hopeful that the 2020 Presidential election in the US could kickstart change domestically, and could be translated into a larger global shift, though the odds do seem long.

  10. Eric Anderson

    Uuuuuuser Frieeeeeendly? Where are you? Care to respond to the question?

    Come on User. I know how young you are. And I know how old Yves is.

    Care to take a position, or, is this a:
    “You can’t make a man understand something if his job depends on him not understanding it.” kinda thing?

  11. russell1200

    @ Userfriendly

    Presumably more people have died installing the roofs (sans solar), on houses as well. But still we keep doing it. They also get onto roofs to repair them, install satellite dishes, etc. People do fall from roofs. It is unfortunate. But it doesn’t seem particularly connected to an operational nuclear power plant. Did you factor in how many people fell during the construction of the nuclear power plant?

    Possibly there is a problem with the comparison?

  12. scruff

    I’m not sure that nuclear power would be a net benefit even if the competence of overseers problem were to be solved. What I see throughout history – in very broad strokes – is that there have been a few shifts between different energy sources throughout our evolutionary history. First, we got energy from the food we ate and from lying around in the sun. Then came fire (wood as an energy source), then coal, then oil, and now nuclear. At each stage, the EROEI increased, and the ecological impact of human (or pre-human) societies expanded and caused more environmental problems.

    This puts us on a very undesirable trendline for which a global shift to well-managed nuclear power would almost certainly bring more ecological problems than it would solve. The potential of nuclear – in a cultural sense – is primarily to reward poor social behavior and to thus reinforce its tendency, that behavior being the willingness to consume environmental resources at a greater rate than the rate at which we replenish environmental resources. How could such a technological advancement possibly end well when the cultural tendency is so destructive?

  13. Joan

    Dear User Friendly,

    I think a lot of Millennials feel the same way as you. I have a young friend, I think she’s twenty, who has an associate’s degree and is stalling on transferring up to complete a four-year degree because she would have to go into debt for it. Her associate’s was paid for by her family, but they won’t pay for her bachelor’s. She’s understandably scared to take out loans for a degree she’s not sure will get her a job at graduation. And yet, so far with just her associate’s she’s been stuck in part-time jobs (she’s currently working one that caps her at 39.5 hours with a promise to fire her if she ever goes over) and making just barely above minimum wage.

    Reading your comment got me thinking about youth misery and how those who’ve benefited from the baby boomer world order just don’t get it. I think in some ways my grandparents understood my situation better than my parents. My grandparents grew up in the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl and knew how bad it could get. At the tail-end of college, I received a few thousand dollars of inheritance from my grandmother’s death. That money saved me on multiple levels: my scholarships had run out and I was looking at having to drop out of college because no one would co-sign loans; I was living with an abusive boyfriend but couldn’t afford to move out and all my friends had graduated so I had no help; my car was broken so I couldn’t escape this boyfriend without walking out of the apartment in the middle of the night which was dangerous as well. I was having uncontrolled panic attacks from all the stress and losing functionality in my life. That few thousand dollars allowed me to save myself in a very real way. The attorney told me that my grandmother had made him promise that the money would go directly to me and not through my parents. She must have known it would never reach me otherwise, since my parents kept insisting from their large suburban home that I needed to pull myself up from my bootstraps.

    I received not a penny from my father’s passing, and my mother insists that I am selfish for choosing not to have children, that I’ll never know what true sacrifice is. She hasn’t worked since she started having babies thirty years ago, and still lives in that huge house. To top it off, she’s a mindfulness meditation teacher who talks about forgiveness. How horrible. Indeed, she has taught me that all life is suffering.

    Anyways, as for not wanting to live past forty, I’ve found that sitting in parks helps. Sounds silly, but it’s helped me, the earthy smell, etc. I imagine that the trees cycle my exhalations into their inhalations, and that they cycle out my despair as well, like it’s just another thing to munch on. One reason I got to reading Ian was his Twitter profile comment on telling trees about his dreams. Ultimately, I don’t think there’s an optimistic answer for young people. All I can do is try to do my best and release any expectations of things being better than they were before. Sorry for the long comment.

  14. Willy

    So the pace of scientific answers to population problems hasn’t kept up with population growth. Governments have facilitated major moneymaking opportunities for the private sector in the past. Sadly it’s mostly been by accident. When our worlds top leaders make comments like “Families is where our nation finds hope, where wings take dream” and “We’re going to win at space” the concerned citizen hopes they’re just being cryptic. Sadly again, I don’t think so. I think what I’m saying is they’re proof that the more population increases, the more game theory rewards the stupid (as long as stupid gots the chutzpah).

  15. jeff wegerson

    The problems are neither technical nor are they economic. As always they are political. With the right politics debts can be destroyed with Jubilees and money can be destroyed with taxation. New money can be directed to safeguarding and dismantling nuclear and building clean energies.

  16. Flaser

    I’ll have to side with UserFriendly on this one:

    Nuclear power has produced a lot fewer death – *including* all the disasters so far – than its adversaries would have you believe.

    Is it completely safe? No, but the “mystic” nature of the energy source makes people treat it with more FUD than it deserves, especially since we already have several industrial processes in widespread use that are more deadly, less regulated and continuously cause death & disease.

    You may assume I’ll pull the easy move and point at fossil-fuels, but that’s too easy and too locked into the usual discourse*. I could also point at the potential harm caused by the waste streams of renewables**, but that would be too dogmatic too. Instead, I’ll point to traditional disasters:

    Fukushima is not even on the list and the toll of Chernobyl is nowhere near the values touted by most anti-nuclear pundits. Most of the cancer-related death could’ve been avoided if the local authorities weren’t so busy covering their ass and distributed iodine tablets to the populace.

    However one has to admit that current (Gen II & II+) reactors leave a lot to be desired.

    What’s infuriating though is green’s insistence that all problems related to renewables will be magically overcome, yet they deny even the possibility of improvement to nuclear, even though there have been a number of plants*** and research reactors**** that have already proved this otherwise.

    Renewables, by comparison, have yet to show key technologies that’d gap their inherently problematic qualities*****.

    The key difference of nuclear energy compared to other sources though is energy density. It’s several *magnitudes* greater than any of the alternatives. *This* is why many engineers consider it the only viable option to make a difference in climate change. Renewables may turn out viable if we overhaul our energy grid and storage technology finally catches up to production. Fusion could be the holy grail of power production… but we just don’t have that kind of time anymore! (…or we shouldn’t gamble on this long-shots alone).

    You may ask if it’s so energy dense, why nuclear is so expensive and not *that* much cheaper than fossil sources? The one-word answer is regulation. Nuclear is the *only* producer that actually has to deal (and pay for) its externalities (waste & threat management) and it has to do so with its hands tied (once-through fuel cycle & incredible difficulty of innovation in face of all the Red Tape).

    *People’s built-in “bias-visors” tend to come down fast when that happens
    **E.g. photovoltaics use the same semiconductor technology as computers but by comparison in vast quantities, so the arsenic used to dope the silicon could be a significant problem long term.
    *** – i.e the plant that refused to melt down, even when pushed to it, due the passive safety of the design.
    **** – a working molten salt reactor, an entire branch of nuclear development sidelined due US politics favoring liquid metal cooled breeders.
    ***** Intermittency, low-energy density, harmonic compensation problems that “pollute” the rest of the electric grid

  17. Stirling S Newberry

    To summarize: when nuclear power is a social good rather than a profit instrument, you can have it. The is because of the people making money for it get paid now, whereas then people loose money continue to die for thousands of years. You know you in the winners’ box. Fail the Rawls test, so you may think you right, but you are wrong. Thank you for playing.

  18. Flaser

    Die for thousands of years? That’s an exegaration based on the half-life of plutonium in the spent fuel.

    The inherent danger posed by the waste is also greatly exegarated. The radiation can’t penetrate a proper storage cask to significant enough degree to endanger humans.** Neither will the radiation “Lea h out” of the cask. Neither does nuclear waste doesn’t have the Midas* touch it’s not like a virulent plague that has to be kept under lock & key, lest it escapes.

    The inherent problem would be if we indeed had to store spent fuel for milenia. That’s only true if you don’t extract the plutonium down the road, and why wouldn’t you, it’s perfectly good fuel. (Note: plutonium from spent fuel is so contaminated with heavier plutonium isotopes it’s nigh on impossible to use for bombs)

    *Because neutron induced transmutation happens in reactors that to some degree turns non-radiactive material into radioactive ones, people often erroneously believe that’s how all radioactive materials behave. This isn’t the case, you need a neutron source which usually only an active chain reaction can provide.
    **Another sensationalist claim is that it emmits X-times! the natural radiation… Never mind that said those is still miniscule in that case.

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