Climate change: What’s the worst that can happen?
Last week, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt denied that carbon dioxide emissions contribute to rising temperatures. President Trump has stated at least half a dozen times that human-caused climate change is a “hoax.”
Meanwhile, the Pentagon, NASA, most peer nations and the world’s largest oil companies all acknowledge that the Earth is warming and humans are causing it. (If you’re curious, do a quick internet search: “ExxonMobil / Shell / Chevron / BP” + “climate change.”)
The issue of human-caused climate change (“HCCC”) is so divisive that neither side can even agree how to argue it. Skeptics won’t accept the scientific data from environmentalists, environmentalists aren’t swayed by the cost-driven concerns of skeptics. With entrenched positions, we remain locked into endless debate on whether HCCC is “real.” Therefore, inaction prevails.
But there is a way to not just debate the issue, but to actually choose an action plan, without worrying about whether HCCC is “real.” Greg Craven, a science teacher-turned author, created a popular internet video series, and wrote a book, taking such an approach. It goes like this: Because we cannot know, with absolute certainty, what the physical world will do, let’s not debate whether HCCC is real. Let’s instead ask: “What’s the worst that can happen, with either possibility?” and then decide how to react.
Whenever expensive policy responses to HCCC are proposed, citing the potential worse-case scenario, the roadblock always comes out: “What if global warming isn’t real, or it’s not us causing it?” Let’s make that debate — whether HCCC is real — moot. The goal is to make the most hardened skeptic or panicked environmentalist agree on what to do — or not do.
In the grid below, there are two rows of potential truths: (1) HCCC is not real, or (2) HCCC is real. With those two potential truths, we have two columns for our two potential choices: (A) Take environmental action, or (B) Do nothing.
|HCCC||(A) Take Action||(B) Do Nothing|
|(1) HCCC = Not Real||(1)(A)||(1)(B)|
|(2) HCCC = Real||(2)(A)||(2)(B)|
Our future will fall, approximately, in one of the four boxes: (1)(A), (1)(B), (2)(A), or (2)(B). Since we cannot fully know what is true (row (1) or (2)), we can only control whether to take action (column (A) or (B)). What are the outcomes of the four boxes?
(1)(A): We take major action, but HCCC doesn’t turn out to be real. Let’s assume the worst will happen: the energy industry dissolves, mass layoffs, an international economic depression. This is skeptics’ worst-case scenario.
(1)(B): We do nothing, but HCCC isn’t real, so no harm done.
(2)(A): We take major action, and it’s a good thing too, because doomsayers were right: HCCC was real. We have economic challenges, but they are worth it: the devastating effects of HCCC were controlled.
(2)(B): We do nothing, but HCCC is real. We assumed the worst above, so let’s do it again: political, social, economic, and environmental catastrophes on a global scale. Sea levels rise, covering coastal nations and cities. Over a billion people displaced. Drought in some places, flooding elsewhere. Plains areas become dust bowls. Famine. Forests dry out, burn. Warfare over scarce resources. Disaster after disaster. Worldwide economic collapse.
So, again, if we can’t know whether we are in row (1) or (2), then which column, (A) or (B), do we choose? Or: do we buy a lottery ticket on (A) or (B)?
The only rational choice is to eliminate the worst possibility, which, in (2)(B), is essentially the end of society as we know it. Sure, we have economic collapse in (1)(A), but surely that’s a better alternative than the global catastrophes in (2)(B). The only way to eliminate (2)(B) is to choose to be in column A, and take action. It is better to choose an option than be left guessing as to HCCC’s truth.
Whether you believe that HCCC is real (and a threat), or if you are concerned with the potentially dire costs of making changes, you must agree that the worst outcome must be avoided. The two outcomes in (A), no matter the truth of climate change, are objectively better than the outcomes in (B).
I know that this issue is divisive, especially considering the deep ties and loyalty that Western Coloradans have to the energy industry. But when faced with the “four-box” approach to climate change, do we really want to find out “the worst that can happen”?