I was trying to get a copy of Stephan Lewandowsky’s latest papers on Scientific uncertainty and climate change: Part I. Uncertainty and unabated emissions and Scientific uncertainty and climate change: Part II. Uncertainty and mitigation. Unfortunately, my university library doesn’t seem to have a subscription to the Journal, so I haven’t been able to access them. They are discussed briefly in this article. There is a related article by Kerry Emmanuel on Tail Risk vs Alarmism.
The issue of uncertainty is, I think, a very interesting topic and is not particularly well understood. It may be partly semantic. People perceive the term uncertainty as implying that we aren’t sure, when – in some sense – it’s the other way around. The uncertainties define our level of certainty and should maybe – more correctly – be referred to as confidence intervals. I sometimes come across people who argue that because we’re still uncertain, we shouldn’t do anything yet. One thing that I find ironic is how certain some can be about how we should proceed, given these uncertainties.
Another aspect of this argument that I don’t fully understand, is that it is often accompanied by a suggestion that we’re innovative and therefore will come up with a solution. What confuses me then, is what such people mean by do nothing? I don’t know how we can solve anything, if we don’t do something. To me, it comes across as a “closing down the debate” type of suggestion. Somehow, magically, our future selves will solve whatever problems our future selves will face, despite our current selves deciding that it’s not worth discussing, or considering, in any detail. It may be true that waiting will allow us to constrain the uncertainties, but it also means that we might discover that climate sensitivity is indeed high and that we’ve now got to the point where acting is much more difficult than it would have been had we acted sooner.
Additionally there are people who seem to think that because a low climate sensitivity is about as likely as a high climate sensitivity (and, I know that this isn’t strictly true) that we should just bank on it being low. They seem to be arguing that there is a risk associated with doing something, and hence – given this risk – we should gamble on climate sensitivity being low. The problem with this, in my view, is that it’s the wrong comparison. What we should really be doing is comparing the risks of continuing as we are if climate sensitivity is high, with the risks of making significant changes to our economies if climate sensitivity turns out to be low. Those, as far as I’m aware, are the two extremes. Of course, it’s not a simple issue and, of course, changes will likely have to ultimately be global, not local. However, given that some of the extreme risks we face include significant damage to ecosystems and extinction of a significant fraction of the species on the planet, the risks associated with changing our economies would seem to have to be quite severe if we were to conclude that doing nothing yet, is the right approach. Rachel has a recent post discussing some of the risks we face.
There’s also the possibility of positive benefits from the technology development that will almost certainly be needed. It seems ironic that there are those who argue that we are sufficiently innovative that we will find ways to adapt, but don’t seem to accept that the same applies to our ability to find ways to mitigate.
To be clear, I’m not trying to make any kind of policy specific argument here. I’m simply suggesting that how we consider the uncertainties and risks is non-trivial and we should not only be willing to discuss and consider the various options, but we should also be doing the risk analysis properly. Just because we aren’t certain of what risks we face, doesn’t mean that we are incapable of making sensible decisions that minimise the future risks. Of course, it’s not going to be easy and not every policy decision is going to be optimal or sensible. On that note, I also think it’s time that we stop blaming silly policy decisions that have happened in the past on climate alarmism. I might think that our policy makers should be starting to act, but that doesn’t mean that I’m wanting them to make decisions that aren’t sensible and that aren’t going to be effective.