What We Learn About Climate and Public Policy from Y2K

Remember Y2K?  If you took the media and politicians seriously, this sure did seem like it was going to big a big apocalyptic deal (see survey in the postscript about economic depression and civil insurrection).  Until it wasn't.

Odd Citizen points to an interesting study on this topic.  The author links this
Australian study
looking retrospectively at the Y2K scare, trying to understand
why an irrational collective hysteria developed that allowed for no skepticism
(seem familiar).  The whole thing is interesting, but here is the money

From the perspective of public administration, the two most
compelling observations relate to conformity and collective amnesia. The
response to Y2K shows how relatively subtle characteristics of a policy problem
may produce a conformist response in which no policy actors have any incentive
to oppose, or even to critically assess, the dominant view. Moreover, in a
situation where a policy has been adopted and implemented with unanimous
support, or at least without any opposition, there is likely to be little
interest in critical evaluation when it appears that the costs of the policy
have outweighed the benefits.

The article is written without any reference to current
climate issues, but wow, does this sound familiar?  It is a dead-on description of what is occurring with global warming. 

The author also goes on to discuss public choice theory and why it is not necessarily a good explanatory model for the Y2K scare.  He argues that a better explanation was the asymmetry of blame:

Individuals and groups who argued for a 'fix on failure' approach stood to benefit only modestly if this approach avoided unnecessary costs, but faced the risk of blame in the event of significant system failures attributable (accurately or otherwise) to Y2K related problems. Conversely, it was evident in advance that there was little risk of loss to individuals who advocated comprehensive remediation. The absence of any serious Y2K problems could always be attributed to the success of the remediation program.

The asymmetry of incentives was amplified by the possibility of litigation, particularly in the United States and, to a lesser extent, in other English-speaking countries. The reliance of the United States on tort litigation as a method of compensating those experiencing adverse outcomes of various kinds produces a strong bias in favour of 'defensive' expenditures. In particular, jurors have been highly unsympathetic to individuals and organisations that have chosen to disregard known low-probability risks.

The special characteristics of the Y2K problem were ideally suited to produce this kind of reaction. On the one hand, the problem was both widespread and comprehensible to non-experts, such as potential jurors. On the other hand, if 'embedded systems' are disregarded, the Y2K problem differed from most other computer 'bugs' in that a complete solution was feasible, though very expensive.

In these circumstances, litigation against organisations that had failed to undertake comprehensive Y2K remediation, and experienced any form of system breakdown in early 2000, was virtually guaranteed of success. By contrast, the risk of blame being allocated to organisations that overspent on Y2K remediation was perceived to be minimal. The absence of litigation or other processes for the allocation of blame in the aftermath of the Y2K non-event shows that this perception was accurate.

A rough parallel to this in the global warming world is the apparent ease of assigning blame for CO2 emissions to energy producers and car manufacturers (despite the fact that it is all of us who uses this energy and buys these cars) vs. the reluctance of media and others to quantify and assign blame for reductions in wealth and economic prosperity that might result from CO2 limitations.

Postscript:  One other thing that is interesting to me as a libertarian:  I often point out that the political parties are a joke, a mish-mash of shifting political positions that has little to do with deeply held theories of government and more to do with branding and populist electioneering.  The Y2K-Climate comparison caused me to find a good example.  In 1999, it was the Republicans using the Y2K issue as a club on the Democrats, arguing that the Clinton Administration, and Al Gore in particular, were ignoring this critical end-of-the-world crisis and that the government needed to be doing more.  Really.  Just check this out from Dec, 1999:

Last year, The National Journal devoted an entire issue to the subject, with headlines such as "The Big Glitch" and "Sorry, Al, This Bug's for You." In the special issue, Neil Munro cites a survey of industry and government executives and
programmers concerning potential fallout from the millennium bug, showing that 70 percent
anticipated a negative effect on the economy, with 10 percent of respondents not ruling
out the possibility of economic depression and civil insurrection.   

With a technology problem of this magnitude on the national horizon, where was the leadership of the nation's No. 1 techno-nerd and self-proclaimed creator of the "information superhighway," Vice President Al Gore?   

Gore's familiarity with and personal interest in technology, specifically computer technology, makes suspect his long silence on the Y2K issue.   

In his biography, "Gore: A Political Life," Bob Zelnick writes that Gore "had nothing to say during the first five-and-a-half years of his vice presidency
about the biggest problem in the history of high-tech America."

Let the record show that I was a Y2K skeptic before I was a climate skeptic.

I may be making common cause with some Republicans on the climate issue at the moment, but I don't trust them.  In fact, already we see McCain jumping on the climate bandwagon (as he does with every populist issue -- he believes in nothing) and I have a strong sense GWB may dive into the climate fray quite soon.


  1. jaycee:

    not sure this is a good example for you, comparing climate change to Y2K IT work.

    I spent 2 years 1998-1999 working on information technology Y2K projects. In that time my teams found and fixed thousands of date related defects whose consequences would have ranged from minor through to critical failures. If we hadn't done that work critical systems such as billing would have failed and companies would probably have failed : these were enterprises totally reliant on functioning computer systems.

    I know there was a lot of media hysteria about Y2K, but there was also a *lot* of maintenance and correction work being done in companies all over the planet. This is the real reason that there were no apocalyptic failures : companies either fixed their problems, or made contingency plans, or both.

    In the final 6 months before Dec 31, all normal maintenance and development projects at the company I was at then were stopped : all IT development and testing resources were applied to fixing date related problems.

    So, yes, there was a lot of media hysteria about Y2K, but the problem didn't go away by ignoring it or because the underlying problem didn't actually exist, it went away because a lot of hard work was done to rectify problems which really truly did exist.


  2. Chris H:

    From a software development perspective, there was a genuine Y2K problem. I was working for a major software company at the time and we set up a task force to examine our software around 97 or so. We identified 1,000s of bugs and we had to work through them all and fix them. None of these bugs would have caused catastrophes but they could have caused a lot of inconvenience and expense for our customers.. Some sectors like banking were naturally more concerned than others.

    Because the bug fixes were extensive, we only provided patches for the latest versions of our software packages forcing customers on older versions to bring forward their upgrades. This is one of the factors that led to the technology bubble: increased sales before 2000 followed by decreased sales in the subsequent few years. Bringing forward upgrades also lead to exaggerated figures for the cost the Y2K problem, where the entire cost of an upgrade was costed against Y2K, even thought the upgrade would have been paid for anyway in a couple of years.

  3. Chris H:

    Ha! Jaycee beat me to it by 4 minutes!

    Jaycee is right that this is a bad example for AGW as well. Y2K was a quantifiable, well understood problem with a known solution, while GW is poorly understood, unquantifiable and has no known solution, it not even being clear that we need one. Hence for Y2K those involved quietly got on and fixed the problem while the press and politicians jumped up and down hysterically, whereas with AGW those involved jump up and down along with the press and politicians!

  4. Rick Caird:

    I don't think it is such a bad example. There was tremendous fear mongering and the average citizen was of the firm belief the apocalypse would occur at precisely midnight on 1/1/2000. While there was a lot of technical work going on to mitigate the problem, no one was suggesting industries shut down, many lose their jobs, we all trade out cars for Y2K compliant ones, or that we invoke some massive government infrastructure to advise and consent to solutions to the problem. In essence, Y2K understates the comparison with Global Warming. Y2K ended up being managed quite well by the interested parties. Somehow, I don't expect a similar result if the GW folks get their way.


  5. Jim:

    "I have a strong sense GWB may dive into the climate fray quite soon."

    According to http://www.breitbart.com/article.php?id=D902G26G1&show_article=1, "President Bush is giving a Rose Garden speech on Wednesday on climate change to lay out the way he thinks the U.S. can reduce greenhouse gas emissions."

    Into the fray he dives, at the same time a Nobel Peace Prize recipient writes a letter (co-signed by other scientists) asking the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to admit that there is no observational evidence that CO2 is causing the earth to warm: http://newsbusters.org/blogs/noel-sheppard/2008/04/14/nobel-prize-winning-peacekeeper-asks-un-admit-climate-change-errors

  6. Steve:

    I think the really salient comment in the report was this solution to the problem, a solution which has very much not been implemented in GW:

    "the Y2K failure suggests that, in situations where there is strong pressure to conform with a consensus arises, some form of institutionally sanctioned skepticism is necessary. The generic term for somone willing to argue against such a position is ‘devil's advocate’, and the history of this term reflects the fact that the canonisation process in the Catholic church is one which naturally generates enthusiastic support. The office of the Promotor Fidei, popularly referred to as the ‘Devil's Advocate’, was instituted to provide a skeptical check on such enthusiasm by collecting and presenting evidence against candidates for canonisation. In the criminal legal system, skepticism is institutionalized through rules that ensure legal representation, even for criminal defendants who are viewed by the community as ‘obviously guilty’."

    If you're interested in the truth, institutionalized skepticism is a key tool. If you're interested in promoting a particular world view or action, you're going to try and do away with as many skeptics as possible.

  7. Craig:

    One more programmer here who worked on the Y2K project for a local utility company: Rochester Electric & Gas. They'd have been in some serious chaos if the remediation project hadn't taken place. Yes, the hype was great (planes falling from the sky) but not all that exaggerated. This story from 2007 shows what lurking date software bugs can do. Just this once, I think we dodged a bullet by being proactive.

    The global warming hysteria is something quite different.

  8. scraphoops:

    Two stories about Y2K: 1. I work on the Air Force GPS program as a contractor. One of the top software engineers on our program spent the holiday/new year in a shack in Oklahoma. He wanted to be "off the grid." I had a friend on the Y2K team and after all was said and done he told me they basically did nothing. All they did was go through millions of lines of code and document any instance of a date being used. They changed almost nothing. Turns out this was because IBM had already told them the mainframe and its code was Y2K compliant; which leads to story 2. 2. What we really needed the money for was the GPS "epoch." GPS time rolls over every 1024 weeks or about 19.5 years. There are also mini-epochs every 256 weeks, but that is a different story. If the GPS epoch and Y2K had not happened close to the same time (Sep 99 vs Y2K) I really believe the government would not have given us enough money to fix the epoch problem. Sorry that was so long.

  9. Mr. Mercy Vetsel:

    This griping about Coke & Pepsi is irrational and childish.

    The two party system has nothing to do with the fact that most Americans are addicted to handouts and don't want the rest of us to have the freedom that the founders established.

    Sure both parties are way more statist than the 5% of us who are about as libertarian as the founding fathers, but that doesn't mean that there aren't serious differences between the parties.

    When you actually look at voting records (rather than the leftist media), it's VERY clear that the libertarians are all Republican. I should keep the following graph on speed dial because it demonstrates so succinctly captures the difference between the parties.


    The upper right triangle is the libertarian triangle and there are NO Democrats there in any year and NO Republicans in the lower-left authoritarian corner. Some years there is almost no overlap.

    80 years ago the Socialists figured out that blathering on about how far they were from the Pepsi and Coke parties wouldn't get them anywhere, so they cast their lots with the Dems.

    Unfortunately, capital L Libertarians aren't as smart and so they've spent the last 30 years kicking themselves in the arse. The net effect of the Libertarian party and the related self-indulgent claim to be apart from the fray has moved this country to the left, that is away from personal and economic freedom.


  10. Scott:

    Michael Crichton linked the two and other scares in his speeches.

    Michael Crichton on Ignorant Alarmism