The Denial Twist
I don’t get climate change deniers and skeptics. With the Copenhagen conference coming up quickly, there seems to be an upsurge of denial on-line. The skeptics are well-organized — any media post on climate change that allows comments is quickly tarred with their arguments.
I get that we should not just accept the conventional wisdom, I do it all the time. I agree that it is important to be open minded, to entertain other hypotheses, and to not be swayed by claims of scientific certainty and consensus. But to me this is all just a case of probabilities, and what prudent actions should be when confronted with an uncertain future.
Say that there is a 95% chance that the scientific consensus as published by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is correct, meaning really bad things that already are happening will get progressively worse in the years and decades to come. So why hold out for the 5% chance that they are wrong? If the weather forecast tells me there is a 95% chance of rain, I bring an umbrella. So on a society and economy-wide basis it is a no-brainer to take action of climate change given the high likelihood that inaction will undermine economic performance and social cohesion in the future.
A skeptic might argue for a much lower probability that the IPCC scientists are right. But say we flip the stat on its head and make a highly skeptical assumption that there is only a 5% chance the science is right. Should we then do nothing? Put it another way, if there is a one in twenty chance that your house would catch on fire due to faulty wiring, would you get the wiring replaced? Assuming no financial constraint (a big if, sometimes, given the prevalence of low incomes in our society), people would. What if there was a 5% chance that you child would get seriously injured this year, would you act to prevent it if you could? Of course. Any parent would go way out of their way to prevent horrific outcomes to our loved ones at much, much lower odds.
So even if you are a skeptic, and given that the probabilities at play are actually more like the 95% likelihood if not higher â€“ and because of the need to get IPCC consensus, published estimates are inherently conservative, a point made clear by more recent studies that paint an even uglier picture of the future â€“ we should still agree that acting is better than non-acting. Unless, of course, your paycheque depends on propping up vested interests who want to just keep things the way they are. Or if you believe that the bad things will not happen to you and your family but to poor people in other countries.
The only plausible retort from skeptics I can think of is that this is a massive collective action problem, the mother of all prisoner’s dilemmas. BC’s or Canada’s optimal strategy may be to do nothing if no one else (particularly the heavies like the US and China) does. Because our total contribution is a very small slice of the global total, nothing we do independently can change the direction of this freight train. Only if everyone commits to do this together can we pull it off, and be better off. And time is running out for that.