How risky is climate change?

Milan’s watch and iBook

On his blog, Lee Jones posted a link to this book review. Basically, the argument is that people are (a) exaggerating the dangers of climate change and (b) using climate change as an excuse to pursue other ends. I would not deny either claim. The Intuitor review of The Day After Tomorrow is evidence of the first, and more can be found in many places. Of course, their review of An Inconvenient Truth suggests that not everyone is guilty of misrepresentation. As for smuggling your own agenda into discussions about climate change, I suspect that is equally inevitable. The question of how to behave justly in response to climate change is fundamentally connected to the history of economic development.

In an unprecedented move, I feel compelled to quote my own thesis:

While the IPCC has generated some highly educated guesses, the ultimate scale of the climate change problem remains unknown. On account of the singular nature of the earth, it is also somewhat unknowable. Even with improvements to science, the full character of alternative historical progressions remains outside the possible boundaries of knowledge. As such, in a century or so humanity will find itself in one of the following situations:

  1. Knowing that climate change was a severe problem, about which we have done too little
  2. Believing that climate change was a potentially severe problem, about which we seem to have done enough
  3. Believing that climate change was a fairly modest problem, to which we probably responded overly aggressively
  4. Observing that, having done very little about climate change, we have nonetheless suffered no serious consequences.

Without assigning probabilities to these outcomes, we can nonetheless rank them by desirability. A plausible sequence would be 4 (gamble and win), 2 (caution rewarded), and then 1 and 3 (each a variety of gamble and lose). Naturally, given the probable variation in experiences with climate change in different states, differing conclusions may well be reached by different groups.

As such, what it means to make informed choices about climate change has as much to do with our patterns of risk assessment as it does with the quality of our science. Exactly how it will all be hashed out is one of the great contemporary problems of global politics.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

16 thoughts on “How risky is climate change?”

  1. I would definitely agree with you that the outcome will be determined by risk assessment (an apolitical, technocratic process requiring no democratic input), but this stands in opposition to politics (i.e., a process whereby representatives of substantive interests clash and are authoritatively resolved into policy). So although I would agree with you that climate change presents a political problem, a major challenge that true progressives face in dealing with the issue is that most environmentalists and policymakers seek to present the issue as a non-political, scientific issue over which there can be no debate. Climate change exists – fact; the way to deal with it is to cut emissions – fact; consumption must be reduced – fact. No discussion may be entered into, or you are labelled a “climate change denier”. To challenge the current trend towards eco-fascism is the heresy of the 21st century.

  2. Lee,

    The dominant position among influential people (Gore, Stern, etc) is that climate change can be addressed at a modest cost. They tend to focus on top-down initiatives, recognizing that people don’t care enormously where the power coming from their sockets is originating.

    The personal contributions suggested at the end of An Inconvenient Truth are much more symbolic than actual. The ability of individuals to have a major environmental impact is highly limited. The important factors to consider are generally systemic ones.

    I doubt this will be the last time I refer to Maniates.

  3. Irksomely, Oxford doesn’t subscribe to Global Environmental Politics as an e-journal. As such, I can arrange for people who have a particular interest to see my copy.

    The article is called: “Individualization: Plant a Tree, Buy a Bike,Save the World?”

  4. Oh, and risk assessment is anything but “an apolitical, technocratic process requiring no democratic input.” Risk assessment is a big part of what politics is, fundamentally. This concerns everything from standards of proof in criminal law to the nature of bankruptcy law. Representing risk assessment as something objective and apolitical is a major distortion.

  5. I can see the diffuser you mentioned is still being used. You are losing the plating on the edges, revealing the (brass?) underneath.

  6. “Mark Dowie, a journalist and sometimes historian of the American environmental movement, writes about our “environmental imagination,” by which he means our collective ability to imagine and pursue a variety of productive responses (from individual action to community organization to whole-scale institutional change) to the environmental problems before us. My claim in this is that an accelerating individualization of responsibility in the United States is narrowing, in dangerous ways, our “environmental imagination” and undermining our capacity to react effectively to environmental threats to human well-being. Those troubled by overconsumption, consumerism and commodication should not and cannot ignore this narrowing. Confronting the consumption problem demands, after all, the sort of institutional thinking that the individualization of responsibility patently undermines. It calls too for individuals to understand themselves as citizens in a participatory democracy first, working together to change broader policy and larger social institutions, and as consumers second. By contrast, the individualization of responsibility, because it characterizes environmental problems as the consequence of destructive consumer choice, asks that individuals imagine themselves as consumers first and citizens second. Grappling with the consumption problem, moreover, means engaging in conversation both broad and deep about consumerism and frugality and ways of fostering the capacity for restraint. But when responsibility for environmental ills is individualized, space for such conversation disappears: the individually responsible consumer is encouraged to purchase a vast array of “green” or “eco-friendly” products on the promise that the more such products are purchased and consumed, the healthier the planet’s ecological processes will become. “Living lightly on the planet” and “reducing your environmental impact” becomes, paradoxically, a consumer-product growth industry.”

  7. One of the other good quotes from the Maniates piece: “The relentless ability of contemporary capitalism to commodify dissent and sell it back to dissenters is surely one explanation for the elevation of consumer over citizen.”

  8. Antonia,

    Lots of actuarial risk assessment is political. Insurance companies have expectations about the operation of the court system and political process (not that the two are entirely separate). Also, there is a lot of insurance that includes risks relating to geopolitics. Insuring your oil pipelines is never an apolitical act.

  9. Oxford taskforce brands government policies an ‘incoherent hotch-potch’

    Present UK policy is a hotch-potch of measures unlikely to deliver the government’s vision’, says a report by a high-level taskforce chaired by the Chancellor of the University of Oxford Lord Patten of Barnes, which warns that the government’s current policies on energy security, climate change and development aid need to change. The report, ‘Energy, Politics and Poverty’, published today, argues that all three goals can be simultaneously achieved if they are coherently followed – and spells out how the UK could do that.

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