The time has come to think differently about climate change

For too long the debate about climate change has been monopolized by two parties.

One has got religion, fervently believing in man-made climate change, and that only large changes in human behaviour can stave off disaster. Their opponents argue that the science is uncertain, unsettled and inconclusive, and therefore that no action is warranted until we possess that missing certainty.

I don’t agree with either camp. In most areas there is only ever certainty of uncertainty. In other words, both those who believe certainty has been achieved and those who say it has not share the same assumption: that certainty is what we are after and we can get it.

The reality is that long-range future energy, climate, economic, and other carbon-related environmental conditions are and will remain uncertain, variable, and unpredictable. Scientists and mathematicians know that the systems involved in the various dimensions of climate change policy are, in fact, complex and often chaotic, fraught with considerable uncertainty.

But contrary to the so-called skeptics, this uncertainty does not license inaction. Most human decisions are made in conditions of imperfect uncertain information. We have to act even though we don’t know everything.

While we may not have established that man-made climate change is a certainty, it is a serious risk. And rational people act so as to manage risks, even when they cannot say with confidence exactly how great the risk is. The risk that any particular house will burn down is rather small. And yet fire insurance is almost universal. Most people believe that large risks, even if the probability they will occur is small, are still worth protecting themselves against.

The discussion, then, is not about whether climate change is occurring, but how great we think the risk is, and how big the insurance premium is we are willing to pay to mitigate the potential damage.

Another thread in the conversation would concern the climate itself. The earth’s climate has changed frequently throughout its four-billion-year history and will continue to do so for hundreds of millions of years to come. Moreover, natural forces have caused the climate to change drastically many times in the past and are certain to do so again. Human activities may indeed be contributing to climate change now. But more powerful, uncontrollable natural forces continue to operate. So policies that promise to prevent climate change are destined to fail and can only waste resources which can better be applied to improving human security and welfare, especially via strategies that will permit humanity to be more adaptable in the face of the potential impacts of climate change.

Yet a further thread would be a cold hard look at what we know about the greatest variable in climate change policy, which is not the climate, but the behaviour of people. Any climate change policy that depends on transforming human nature is not a solution, because it will not work. Too much wishful thinking goes on that ‘science’ should inform all our decisions, and yet we somehow think the findings of the physical sciences can and will trump what we know about how real people think and act. As a result, the policy ‘solutions’ utopians promote assume a malleability of human attitudes and behaviour that has little or no basis in social science or historical precedent. We must plan on the basis of how people actually behave, rather than how we wish they would behave.

We would also dispense with the widely accepted but quite mistaken idea that small-scale experiments can always and easily be massively scaled up. This presumption confounds one of the broadest and most consistent scientific principles: that forces and phenomena observed at a small scale usually work quite differently at a larger scale.

The climate policy we need, therefore, is the one that hardly anyone is talking about. It would accept the risk of manmade climate change, but reject utopian and unworkable schemes to ‘stop’ it or assume that human nature can be abolished. We would concentrate our scarce resources where they would maximize human well-being on policies, technologies and infrastructure that allow humanity to adapt to uncertain climate conditions in the future.

Brian Lee Crowley is the managing director of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, an independent non-partisan public policy think tank in Ottawa. Check out www.macdonaldlaurier.ca. His column is distributed through Troy Media – www.troymedia.com.

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