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The Wrong Question

adapted from
Storm Warning:
Gambling with the Climate of Our Planet

Lydia Dotto

When the history of global climate change is finally written, it will show that the debate was badly derailed early in the game by three simple words: proof, uncertainty and risk. More specifically, it was sidetracked by a preoccupation with inappropriate legalistic definitions of proof, a refusal to deal realistically with scientific uncertainty and a failure to address the question of risk.

This was not entirely accidental. The demand for proof that global warming was happening, that human activities were causing it and that it would have negative consequences was a key strategy which the skeptics deployed very effectively. The inevitable and unavoidable existence of scientific uncertainty is the fuel that powers disputes over global warming. It's an effective mechanism for diverting the energies of the scientific community into unproductive wrangling over what is, ultimately, the wrong question.

It also diverts the attention of the media, the public and policymakers from the most important question, which is not whether global warming projections will come true but whether we will be prepared to deal with the consequences if they do.

The real question, therefore, has little to do with proof. It has to do with the precautionary principle-in its simplest terms, "better safe than sorry"-or, more precisely, our willingness and ability to embrace it. This is the question we've barely begun to answer because, thanks largely to fruitless debates over the issue of proof, we've barely begun to ask it.

It may strike many people as strange to suggest that proving the validity of the global warming theory should not be our primary objective as we struggle to come to grips with climate change and its impacts. It seems more than reasonable, even prudent, to demand such proof before taking steps to combat the problem, especially since they may involve substantial up-front costs.

Certainly no one is advocating that we should embark on expensive and draconian efforts to stave off global warming without any evidence that the phenomenon is happening or that it will have adverse impacts. But scientific research to date has provided compelling evidence for the reality of global warming and more than adequate grounds for serious concern about its potential for causing negative social, economic and environmental consequences.

Many skeptics deny that this evidence is strong enough to qualify as proof. In fact, some dismiss virtually every scientific finding that support the global warming theory as "junk science" while citing approvingly, though often selectively, other research that they believe casts doubt on the theory.

What's most ironic about this game of scientific citation is that many research papers that are mentioned approvingly by the skeptics have been conducted using the same scientific methods and published in the same peer-reviewed scientific journals as those that are dismissed as "junk."

What criteria, then, do they use to distinguish junk research from good research? It appears, for many skeptics, there is only one criterion: findings that support global warming are junk and those that don't are not. What's more, this criterion is often selectively applied to different findings within the same paper. In short, among skeptics given to cries of "junk science", it appears there is simply no evidence supporting the theory of global warming that would be accepted as proof.

The debate over scientific proof of climate change involves two important underlying issues: the burden of proof and the standard of proof.

The burden of proof: One of the more interesting aspects of the climate debate is that opponents of greenhouse gases cuts have so successfully placed the burden of proof on the scientific community, environmental activists and politicians who advocate immediate action to curb global warming. This arbitrary assignment of responsibility by one of the combatants in the dispute has gone largely unchallenged. Yet it would be equally reasonable to expect advocates of business-as-usual emissions to prove that such emissions will do no harm.

This alternative is not unprecedented; after all, many businesses are routinely required to demonstrate in advance, at least to some extent, the safety of products they bring to market and to recall products if there's evidence they endanger public safety. Consumers expect this with everything from cars and aircraft to drugs and baby seats and they're angered when companies are perceived to be skimping on safety and using the public as guinea pigs to protect their profits. Is it such a stretch to expect as much for products that we have good reason to believe can seriously harm the earth's climate?

The standard of proof: In the climate debate, as in a legal proceeding, it's important to define what it meant by "proof." Many skeptics appear to demand a standard of proof analogous to that associated with a criminal trial (i.e. "beyond a reasonable doubt") and they have successfully thrust upon the scientific community the burden of proving the global warming "case" to this high legal standard. The "accused" greenhouse gases are to be considered innocent until proven guilty.

In a society that eats up saturation coverage of courtroom spectacles, it's not surprising that environmental debates get tangled up with notions derived from the criminal justice system, but their relevance in the environmental arena is questionable. Applying legal concepts to complex environmental problems is not only inappropriate but actually dangerously misguided because they virtually guarantee a lengthy period of political and social paralysis before we finally come to grips with the irritating but unavoidable reality that with environmental problems, policy decisions must almost always be made in the absence of scientific proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

This is not, however, the same as saying decisions must be made in the absence of scientific evidence. The fact that we don't know everything does not mean we don't know anything. We may not have absolute proof, but there comes a time when we can see the direction in which the evidence is tipping the balance scales. What we should be concerned with is whether the projected impacts of global warming are more likely to occur than not.

If we insist on being legalistic about it, the criterion that should apply is that of the civil case: the preponderance of evidence . It provides the foundation for the precautionary principle, since it's generally considered sensible to take precautions against adverse consequences that are more likely to happen than not.

The concept of scientific uncertainty is a key element in the debate over proof of global warming. The phrase is bandied around a great deal-by scientists and the media as often as by skeptics-and yet it may be one of the most misunderstood elements of the controversy. What many non-scientists do not realize is that when scientists talk about "uncertainty", they're typically referring to findings in which they have a level of confidence below a range of about 90 to 99%. In short, they classify things as "uncertain" at a much higher level than most of us in do in our daily lives; to the average person, saying that something is uncertain generally means it has less than a 50-50 chance of happening.

Disputes among scientists are usually over uncertainties at this extreme end of the scale (there's no need to argue about things they mostly agree on) but the public often concludes from these debates that scientists can't agree on anything. Worse, they generally assume that if scientists can't agree about the problem, the problem must not be that bad after all. What they often fail to realize is that uncertainty goes in both directions-that it's just as likely that the situation will be worse than scientists project as that it will be better.

There are elements of the global warming theory that are more uncertain than others-notably how the climate will change at regional and local levels and the socioeconomic impacts- but this does not negate the high levels of confidence that most climate researchers have concerning the fundamental elements of the global warming problem. They're already giving us better than even odds on many projections and as much as 90 to 99 out of 100 odds on some.

We make decisions every day with levels of uncertainty greater than this. If we insisted on a 90 to 99% probability for everything we do, most economic and political activity would grind to a halt. Does an oil company refuse to search for new deposits unless they're certain of finding oil? Does the business community guarantee positive returns when they exhort us to buy mutual funds?

The simple fact is that most of life involves making choices with incomplete knowledge about what the outcome will be. It's absurd to refuse to deal with global warming because there are no ironclad guarantees about how it's going to turn out. If that were the criterion for living our lives, no one would go to school, get a job, get married, get in a car or on a plane or, for that matter, even get out of bed in the morning.

The message is clear: Uncertainty exists. It won't go away. Deal with it.

The time has come to shift the climate debate from the question of proof to the question of risk . Risk involves two components: the probability that something will happen and the consequences if it does. We've been so preoccupied with the first that we've badly neglected the second.

The concept of protecting against risk is not difficult for the average person to grasp. We already have an excellent example in our daily lives-it's called insurance. The interesting thing about insurance is that we buy it despite the considerable uncertainties that the disasters they protect us against will ever happen. We do not expect proof that our house is going to burn down, that we'll be in a car crash or that we'll die early of a heart attack before we buy insurance.

The reason is simple and it's found in the second part of the risk equation-consequences. We buy insurance not because we're sure something terrible will happen but because we don't want to face a catastrophic loss if it does. It's precisely because the consequences are potentially devastating that we try to protect ourselves against such events even if we believe their probability of happening is very low. In fact, in cases where the probability of severe loss is relatively high, precautionary measures may be deemed mandatory, as in the case of vehicle insurance.

We take anticipatory protective measures in other ways as well. Wearing seat belts is one example. Diversifying an investment portfolio is another. Moreover, we expect governments to take such measures on our behalf-for example, by requiring testing and inspection of prescription drugs or vehicles used for public transportation. Governments don't refuse to do tests on the grounds that no one has proved in advance that these products will harm the public. The potential consequences if they do are large enough to justify a pre-emptive approach.

For most people in most circumstances, uncertainty generally triggers a sense of caution, a retreat to safer ground or at least a slowing down to think things over and scope out the territory before moving ahead. It is a perverse logic that uses uncertainty and ignorance about what lies ahead as the rationale for tearing on full tilt and damn the consequences. There are people who live their lives that way and we call them daredevils or reckless fools. Yet it is precisely this daredevil logic we buy into when we adopt the "waiting for proof" approach to climate change.

There is no proof that global warming will cause adverse, even catastrophic damages around the world. There probably will be no proof unless and until it happens. But the probability that it will do so is very high-certainly at least as high as many of the risks we routinely protect ourselves against every day. The real question we should be asking ourselves is this: if we're willing to invest in precautionary measures against catastrophic loss for the sake of our health, our families, our property, our homes and businesses, why is it so difficult to do the same for our planet, the life support system which sustains everything else?

Ultimately, the decision we make about what to do about climate change will come down to value judgments about how much risk we want to take with the climate. Though science can provide us with some of the tools we need to make a decision, it cannot give us the answer. The decisions are fundamentally social and political in nature.

We must stop deluding ourselves about the nature of the decision that confronts us at this time. Any near-term choices we make about reducing greenhouse gases will have to be made in the absence of absolute proof that the currently projected socioeconomic and environmental impacts of climate change will occur-or, for that matter, proof that they won't occur. Failure to make a choice is a choice in itself-a choice to continue the experiment we're conducting on the earth's climate.

We may think we still have time to make a decision but the longer we wait, the more limited and expensive the options left to us and the harder they'll be to accept. The argument that we're just "waiting for proof" of global warming is the comforting fiction we use to avoid facing up to the hard choices that confront us. It is a cleverly misleading way of presenting an option that does not involve "waiting" at all. It is, in reality, an affirmative decision to allow our experiment on the earth's climate to proceed virtually unchecked.

The consequences-whatever they may be, however poorly we may understand them-are not "waiting" while we make up our minds what to do. Understanding the true nature of this choice is an important step in reframing the global warming question, shifting our perceptions away from the issue of proof and toward the issue of risk.

We must recognize the strategy of "waiting for proof" for what it is: a form of gambling. We're betting that projections about the negative impacts of global warming won't come true. In the end, we're forced to make a judgment-based on the best scientific evidence available, imperfect though it may be-whether to hedge our bets and play it safe or to ignore the odds and play on. But, then, disregarding probability and ignoring the odds is what keeps the casinos full and the lottery tickets selling, so perhaps it's not so surprising that we're willing to throw the global climate system into the pot.

If we're intent on playing this game of chance, however, it's important that we ask ourselves a few hard questions: What are the stakes? What are we risking by continuing to play? What do we stand to lose if the worst does come true? Finally, and most importantly, are we so wedded to the choices that have forced us into this game that we cannot bring ourselves to even think about the stakes or to question the risks? Are we like addicted gamblers who can't walk away no matter what it costs to stay in the game?

Nobel Laureate Sherwood Rowland has said: "After all, what's the use of having developed a science well enough to make predictions, if in the end, all we're willing to do is stand around and wait for them to come true?" It would appear that, in the end, this is all we are willing to do. Diverted by unrealistic, impossible expectations of proof that will come only if and when the worst does, in fact, happen, we are failing to protect ourselves against that eventuality by utterly refusing to consider what we stand to lose if it does.

is based on the book
"Storm Warning -
Gambling with the
Climate of our Planet
The Great Warming web site was designed and developed by Dino Congonidis