What’s the Worst That Could Happen?

2009-12-08

in Books and literature, Economics, Geek stuff, Politics, Science, The environment, Writing

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Written by a high school science teacher, Greg Craven’s What’s the Worst That Could Happen? A Rational Response to the Climate Change Debate is a worthwhile and unusual addition to the catalogue of books on climate change. Craven’s chosen task is not to determine whether climate scientists are right in their projections of what human activity is and will do to the climate; rather, he is trying to prepare readers to make the best choice, given the uncertainty that will always exist.

This is the same basic message he popularized in a series of viral videos, the first and last of which are especially worth watching:

I do have one slight quibble with both. Craven’s decision grid suggests that we will eventually be able to look back and know if we made the right choice. I don’t think that’s true. If we take aggressive action and stop climate change, we may never know with certainty just how bad it would have been if we had ignored it. No matter how sophisticated they become, simulations can never give us total certainty, and we don’t have another planet with which to run an experiment. Similarly, if we take no action and climate change proves catastrophic, we will never know for sure what level of action would have been sufficient to stop it – or whether doing so was still possible at any particular point in time.

Craven’s approach is based around heuristics: examining the ways in which people make decisions, taking into consideration pitfalls like confirmation bias, and then developing an approach to make an intelligent choice. In this case, it involves developing a way to roughly rank the credibility of sources, look at who is saying what, and complete a decision grid that shows the consequences of climate change either being or not being a major problem and humanity either taking or not taking major action. His own conclusion is that taking action unnecessarily isn’t likely to be exceptionally economically damaging, and can be considered a prudent course for ensuring that the worst does not happen.

On the question of why action has not yet been taken, Craven focuses primarily on human psychology. We respond to threats that are immediate, visible, and have a hostile agent behind them. Since climate change is none of these things, it doesn’t trigger strong responses in us. Cognitive factors also help explain why people are so confused about the state of climate science, though individual failings in information assessment are accompanied by the failure of the media to pass along good information effectively.

Craven concludes that raising political will is the key action that needs to be taken, and that cutting individual emissions is of very secondary importance. Like many others, he draws on the analogy of WWII to show what the United States is capable of achieving when it has the determination.

Some readers may find the book’s informal style and fill-in-the-blanks exercises a bit annoying, or feel that they trivialize the issues at hand. That being said, Craven has produced a very accessible book that recasts the climate change debate in a valuable new way: evaluating what choice to make, under uncertainty, rather than trying to determine authoritatively who is right. For those wishing to grapple with the practical question of what ought to be done about climate change, this book is well worth reading.

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

. December 8, 2009 at 1:44 pm

What’s the Worst that Could Happen?
A Rational Response to the Climate Change Debate by Greg Craven
Simon Singh on a rational look at climate change

I have to admit to being a fan of Greg Craven, the science teacher from Oregon who became a YouTube sensation when his videos about climate change attracted almost ten million viewers. The video entitled “The Most Terrifying Video You’ll Ever See” has now spawned a book which follows exactly the same format – Craven does not tell you what to think about climate change, but rather how to think, and in particular how to think rationally and critically about risk.

The book retains the informality, quirkiness, wit and charm of a homemade YouTube video, because Craven writes as if he is casually chatting to his reader. Those already familiar with Craven’s video will rapidly adjust to his writing style, but for others it may require some time to get used to his convivial tone.

For Craven, the key question is not “Should I believe global warming is true?”, because nobody knows the answer for sure. Instead, the key question is “What should I do right now, given the risks and uncertainties about global warming?” At the end of the book, Craven explains how he personally answers the latter question, but the bulk of the book is aimed at giving us the tools necessary to find our own answer.

The central tool is the decision grid, which consists of two rows and two columns. The rows are marked “global warming is true” and “global warming is false”, and the columns are marked “take significant action now” and “take no action now”. The goal is to then fill in the boxes with various benefits and harms. The first box, “taking no action if global warming is false”, has no benefits as there was no threat to be avoided and there are no costs because we rightly took no evasive action. By contrast, “taking action if global warming is false” has various negatives, because taking action would have harmed our economy for no good reason. The most important boxes in the grid are the “taking action if global warming is real”, which results in some damage to our economy in the short term and major benefits to humanity in the longer term, and “taking no action if global warming is real”, which results in global catastrophe.

. December 18, 2009 at 2:23 pm
. February 26, 2010 at 1:51 pm

“Finally, considering climate change in the context of risk management is also important. I often say: “Okay let’s talk about risk. If I am wrong, then the worst outcome is we spent a bit of money to build a more efficient economy, to design better cities, to advance renewable energy sources, to protect forest habitats and rare natural resources — and in doing so, we also made our air cleaner and ultimately raised our quality of life. However, if you are wrong and we do nothing — what is the scale of impact we leave for our kids and grandkids?” I find this often helps identify the skeptics’ concerns about taking action. In Alberta, the most frequent example raised is carbon capture and storage (CCS) where $2 billion of taxpayer money has been committed. This provides an opportunity to agree with them, as I state — “Yes, I too have concerns with how that money was spent. I do think CCS needs to be part of the portfolio of solutions, but that money could have been much better spent on energy efficiency or renewable energy.” More often than not they agree, we politely exchange “nice discussing this with you” and we go on our way.

Of course, some of the most vocal skeptics simply want to maintain their point of view and cast doubt on the facts — even though they can point to no credible, peer reviewed research that supports their position.

That’s when I say: “Imagine we aren’t talking about climate change. If all of a sudden, on our Blackberrys and iPhones and on the front page of tomorrow’s paper we read the headline: Asteroid On Track to Destroy Earth by 2050 — how would we respond?”

No, this is not a flashback to one of the best Atari games of the 1980s. Let me explain:

Astronomers have detected nearly a thousand large-scale “near Earth asteroids” (NEAs) that could potentially hit Earth, some within the next 50 years. One, known as Apophis, measures thousands of feet across and has a one-in-43,000 chance of striking earth between 2036 and 2069. NASA scientists say a collision with an NEA could result in dramatic climate changes that would threaten global food supply and could lead to the “possible breakdown of society.” Imagine we got news that a collision wasn’t just possible, but the most likely scenario given astronomers’ best predictions — would we attack their credibility and challenge their credentials? Or would we demand that our governments take the threat seriously and engage the best experts we’ve got to develop solutions, if we knew that preventative action might cost a few percentage points of our national GDP but would avoid massive tragedy and economic ruin, while ensuring future quality of life on Earth?

I personally would look to NASA, the National Science Academies and the Pentagon to confirm the risk. And if they provided us with solutions to deal with this threat, I would support them — even if it did cost money. The funny thing is, these are the bodies that are warning us about the threat of climate change — they have indicated humans are a significant part of the problem, and are providing real, tangible solutions that can prevent the worst of the impacts if we act now.

We have a choice to make.”

. March 24, 2010 at 12:06 pm

“Plenty of uncertainty remains; but that argues for, not against, action. If it were known that global warming would be limited to 2°C, the world might decide to live with that. But the range of possible outcomes is huge, with catastrophe one possibility, and the costs of averting climate change are comparatively small. Just as a householder pays a small premium to protect himself against disaster, the world should do the same.

This newspaper sees no reason to alter its views on that. Where there is plainly an urgent need for change is the way in which governments use science to make their case. The IPCC has suffered from the perception that it is a tool of politicians. The greater the distance that can be created between it and them, the better. And rather than feeding voters infantile advertisements peddling childish certainties, politicians should treat voters like grown-ups. With climate change you do not need to invent things; the truth, even with all those uncertainties and caveats, is scary enough.”

Urwah Buin Hamid June 2, 2010 at 8:09 am

The earth will expire by 2050 so i think that now the average age of the world,s people,s is 70,80and the 65 may be.so the people which will living on the earth by 2050 are 50,40and may be 45 .
THANKS !
URWAH

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