Friday, March 16, 2007

Climate Change Certainty = Waiting for Godot

One of the key themes of our recent climate change report is that one must act even in the face of inevitable uncertainty. Part of the reason for the impasse over climate change is that climate change is among the most fiendishly complex scientific subjects, and one that for that very reason is very difficult to make statements about with "scientific certainty." But the standard for policy-makers cannot be the same as the standard for scientists; policy-makers need to act on the basis of the best evidence available, weighing the possible consequences of action against the risks of inaction. Decision-making of this sort is by nature an art, not a science -- hence the tendency of scientists and policy-makers to talk past each other on climate change.

Carl Pope, Executive Director of the Sierra Club, makes exactly this point, referencing our report:

Uncertainty about the details of global warming shouldn't make us feel less alarmed -- the more uncertainty there is about our climactic future the more alarmed we should become.... The less we understand the precise consequences of messing with the concentrations of greenhouse gasses, the more careful we should be to minimize such changes. If we knew exactly what the weather would be like in 50 years, maybe we could get ready for it -- but not knowing anything except that the weather will be less predictable is what's really scary.

Peter Schwartz of the Global Business Network makes exactly this point in his new study for the military, "Impacts of Climate Change." Schwartz points out that it is the unpredictable and non-linear impact of climate change that will "push systems everywhere towards their tipping point." Schwartz's piece is one of the very best I've seen at explaining how policy makers and the public need to respond to the scientific reality. Every public official should have to read it.

Climate scientists might not understand this because they study the climate, not human societies.... We should be ferociously intent on changing our course before we hit the tipping point, precisely because it is hidden in a fog of uncertainty.

Hat tip: DB.

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