A High-Stakes Game Against Nature: How to Act on Climate in an Uncertain World

On the last day of the AAAS meeting, I sat in on a fascinating session on hazard prediction and risk mitigation.  What’s fascinating, you ask, about risk mitigation?  It sounds like something you read about on your insurance forms.  But predicting danger—and particularly figuring out the best way to handle the uncertainty in those predictions—is at the heart of discussions over climate change adaptation.  As Seth Stein said on the panel, “society plays a high-stakes game of chance against nature in a very uncertain world.”

Here’s a thing that I learned, not at this year’s AAAS, but many years ago at a psychology conference.  The “right” trade-off for hurricane evacuation decisions, in terms of damage avoided and lives saved, is to order an evacuation when there’s a 20% chance of a direct hit from a strong storm.  Twenty percent.  That means that four out of five evacuations will result in everyone coming back and announcing, “Well, that was a lot of fuss over nothing.”  And unfortunately, the one time that the evacuation really makes a difference, a lot of people will ignore it because of the four times it turned out to be unnecessary.

Getting back to AAAS, climate response is even harder than hurricane response because we don’t get multiple iterations.  The full-on climate change version of Hurricane Katrina isn’t something we can learn from and do better with the next planet.  (Okay, maybe it is, but the Hundred Year Starship seems like a hell of a plan B.)  The one-off nature of climate tipping points means that we ought to be willing to act on small probabilities—and even more willing to act on the very large probabilities that we actually have for most of the really important climate hazards.

What’s really tricky is that we are still uncertain about some important aspects of climate change.  This is very hard to talk about in public, because deniers will leap on any admission of uncertainty and treat it as uncertainty about climate change as a whole.  This makes adaptation more difficult, because many of the real uncertainties take the form of, “We don’t know whether we’re at greater risk of Bad Outcome A or Bad Outcome B.”  Other uncertainties… I was kind of freaked out, at an earlier panel, to learn that agricultural models only predict the effects of climate change for 10 or so of the world’s important crops—we have no idea about hundreds of others that we depend on for food and medicine.

Exploring those possibilities could help save lives—but only if we can learn how to treat uncertainty as something other than all-or-nothing.

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2 Responses to A High-Stakes Game Against Nature: How to Act on Climate in an Uncertain World

  1. Relevant points. I think we need to also add that there is the possibility of a Bad Outcome C, where we really don’t know what the consequences will be if/when we do take “action”. The system in question is a massively nonlinear one (nonlinear in the chaotic sense) and predicting its response to various changes is impossible. There is great risk in that as well, although everyone seems to ignore it and assume we know what we’re doing.

    As a second note, you say “This is very hard to talk about in public, because deniers will leap on any admission of uncertainty and treat it as uncertainty about climate change as a whole”, which is true, but there is another side to that coin where Pro AGW voices often jump on any skepticism of their views and immediately label and lump such skeptics in with full blown Koch brother rejectionism. The extreme views on both sides have, unfortunately, curtailed much discussion of the issue.

    • There are different levels of risk. One of the session’s major points was that we can’t use imperfect prediction as an excuse for not acting. And while some types of action really are risky–there’s a reason so many people shy away from geoengineering–others are not. Lowering emissions, say, carries very little environmental risk. Another point of the session was that “prediction is difficult and has error bars” doesn’t mean “prediction is impossible.” Predicting the earth’s climactic changes is quite possible, and we’ve been doing so successfully for decades.

      “Extreme views on both sides” is a false equivalency. Going along with 99% of the researchers in a field is not “extreme.”

      Since you’re the first commenter on the blog–congratulations and welcome–this seems like a good time for me to set some sort of comment policy. Going to put that on the About page rather than hiding it in the comments section, though.

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