I hope everyone had an enjoyable and pleasant New Year’s eve, and I hope everyone has a great 2015. The more I get involved in the whole climate debate, the more I start to realise that things I thought were obvious, are not obvious to everyone. This may explain why it is so difficult to discuss this topic with some; you’re not even working from the same basic assumptions. I don’t expect much will change, but I thought I might highlight some of those things that I thought were obvious, but that may not actually be obvious to others.
- The destruction of ecosystems and the extinction of species is something we should be aiming to avoid or minimise.
I had assumed that the above was something that most would agree was relatively obvious. The natural world is both amazing and also a crucial part of our own survival on this planet. Unnecessarily risking damage to ecosystems on which we rely seems incredibly foolish and would seem to be something we should be avoiding. After discussions with Richard Tol on my previous post, it would seem that some (maybe even many) do not agree. It appears as though some think that we can adapt to virtually anything. I find it hard to believe that this is true, and I would really like to know if scientists who study the natural world agree.
- The climate change issue is really about risk, not about certainty
Something else I had thought was self-evidently true, was that climate change is really about risks that we might face, not about showing that we will definitely do so. It is possible that we might warm less than we expect. It might even be possible that the changes will be beneficial, rather than damaging. However, this doesn’t change that we might warm even more than we expect and that the changes could be extremely damaging. Therefore, it seems obvious to me that the real discussion should be about what we might face through climate change and the risks/costs associated with minimising these climate change risks. However, it does appear that there are some who think that we need to show that climate change will definitely be detrimental before we should consider doing anything about it. Not only is this not how one does a risk assessment, it also sets a virtually impossible target. We cannot know with certainty what will happen in the future. The best we can do is consider what might happen under different possible scenarios and consider, given that, how we should proceed. One could be generous and assume that some just don’t realise how one should undertake a risk analysis. The more likely alternative is that some are just setting impossible targets so as to make it difficult (virtually impossible) to act to address the risks associated with climate change.
- Better estimates for climate sensitivity are not necessarily all that relevant.
This comes from reading what Matt Ridley writes and from brief (rather pointless) discussions with Nic Lewis. It appears as though they are amongst a group who seem to think that what we need to do is find the best possible estimate for climate sensitivity and then base policy on that estimate. The problem here (as I had thought was obvious) is that if the analysis does not rule out – with high confidence – climate sensitivities that might lead to damaging impacts under future emission scenarios, then you can’t simply ignore this possibility. This is related to the whole risk assessment issue discussed above; one doesn’t ignore a possible risk simply because things will probably be fine. As I understand it, you need to consider the chance that things will not be fine and balance that with what would be required to minimise that possibility.
- This isn’t about survival of the species, but survival of our civilisations
This may be obvious to all, but sometimes it’s not clear that it actually is. Climate change probably does not present a true existential threat. Whatever happens, there will probably still be life, and humans, on this planet in the coming centuries. The real issue is whether or not the planet can continue to support a human population in excess of 7 billion people with a general standard of living that is – ideally – better than it is today. If all we were worried about was the survival of the species, then climate change doesn’t present much of a risk. If, however, we would like to maintain – and improve – the lives of the descendants of those on the planet today, then an increased risk of heatwaves, significant changes to the water cycle, ocean acidification, and other possible changes, do present a real risk.
I’m not an expert on risk analysis, so maybe I have got some of this wrong. The above are just things that I had thought were relatively obvious and yet have found that many seem to think otherwise. I may well be biased. I’ve lived for more than a year on 4 different continents, and have seen many amazing places and environments. I really appreciate the natural world, and see it has having both intrinsic value as well as being crucial for our own survival. However, maybe others have experienced the same as me but, for reasons known only to them, don’t see it the same way. My understanding of the evidence is that climate change presents real risks and that this suggests that we should be acting to minimise those risks. Others seem to disagree.
So, maybe everyone has the best of intentions and just see different ways to achieve the same basic goals. Sometimes I do think that there might actually be multiple ways of achieving the same thing. We don’t know what will be best, or most effective, and – hence – there may be more than one plausible way forward. However, this would seem to require that none of the options actually violates, or ignores, physical reality. Given that, it’s hard to see how those – for example – who are arguing for the increased use of coal, are not doing essentially this (well, unless their goal is to increase the risk of climate change doing extreme damage). I do think the whole climate change discussion would benefit from people clearly defining their underlying assumptions, their goals, and illustrating that they understand the possible consequences of their preferred way forward. Sadly, it seems obvious that this is not what is going to happen, and maybe this is something obvious on which we can all agree.