Cartoon: the climate contrarian guide to managing risk
Posted on 4 March 2014 by dana1981, John Cook
Climate change is fundamentally a risk management problem. Whether or not you agree with the 97 percent expert consensus on human-caused global warming, there is an undeniable risk that the consensus is correct and that we're causing dangerously rapid climate change.
Frequently, climate contrarians argue against taking action to mitigate that risk by claiming the uncertainties are too large. One of the most visible figures to make this argument is climate scientist Judith Curry, who said in 2013,
"I can't say myself that [doing nothing] isn't the best solution."
This argument represents a failure to grasp the principles of basic risk management, as illustrated in the following cartoon.
When it comes to managing risk, uncertainty is not our friend. Uncertainty means it's possible the outcome will be better than we expect, but it's also possible it will be much worse than we expect. In fact, continuing with business-as-usual would only be a reasonable option in the absolute best case scenario.
Doing nothing is betting the farm on a very low probability scenario. It's an incredibly high-risk path that fails to reduce the threats posed by the worst case or even most likely case scenarios. This is a concept Judith Curry understood in 2007, when she wrote,
"The rationale for reducing emissions of carbon dioxide is to reduce the risk of the possibility of catastrophic outcomes. Making the transition to cleaner fuels has the added benefit of reducing the impact on public health and ecosystems and improving energy security ... I have yet to see any option that is worse than ignoring the risk of global warming and doing nothing."
Judith Curry of 2007 got it exactly right. Unfortunately she and her fellow climate contrarians no longer seem to grasp these fundamental principles of risk management.
Failing to mitigate global warming by significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions is fundamentally equivalent to continuing to smoke cigarettes, driving without a seat belt, or refusing to buy homeowner's insurance. Each situation represents the failure to take action to reduce the risks of a very dangerous outcome.
Even if you personally have doubts about the 97 percent expert consensus on human-caused global warming and the threats it represents, there's a good chance you're wrong. You may also doubt the medical science consensus that smoking causes lung cancer, but acting on that doubt by continuing to smoke is a risky decision. The difference is that in the latter case, you're only risking the health of yourself and those in your proximity. In the case of global warming, you're risking the health of entire ecosystems and future generations.
From a risk management perspective, mitigating the undeniable threat of catastrophic climate change is a no-brainer. So let's stop delaying and denying and get to it.