For more than six days Earth has been our friend in the lunar skies. That fragile piece of blue with its ancient rafts of life will continue to be man's home as he journeys ever farther in the solar system. Apollo 17, December 14, 1972

Monday, March 24, 2008

3. Should we do something about Climate Change?

I'm indebted to.....
the author of for this analysis which he demonstrated on white boards in his lab with a video camera running. 'CD' is climate destabilisation - he uses this term and I also tend to use it rather than 'CC' as it conveys a future picture of unpredictable results, rather than everywhere just getting a degree or two warmer but otherwise everything carrying on as normal.

The slide, when it isn't a picture on a blog, is animated and the smiley faces come in afterwards. I will therefore have to fill in the few words you can't read.

The basic argument....
goes as follows. Is mankind confronted with a looming climatic disaster of its own making or not?
The orthodox approach is to ascertain scientifically whether we are the authors of our own climate change problem or whether it is caused by Nature. Having done that we can then decide whether there is any point in changing how we are conducting ourselves right now. He says that there will always be debate about that, because science can never be 100% sure about anything and therefore we will never decide whether to act or not.

He therefore suggests looking at it from the other end of the telescope, as it were. Let's look at the possible outcomes based upon the best advice available around at the moment and perhaps that will help us decide what the best way to act would be. Hence the use of the matrix on the slide - the choices down the left hand side represent the two possible answers to the first question is CD man-made or not? The two choices across the top represent the two ways to act - do something, or do nothing.

  1. Top left: We act, only to find that CD is not man-made. We've therefore wasted a lot of money and caused a lot of economic upheaval achieving nothing more than nature would have resolved - bad news.

  2. Bottom left: We act, and it turns out to be a good job we did, as the problem was caused by human beings. So we did what we had to do and bequeathed a sustainable planet to our children, which is great news although it did cause a lot of economic hardship along the way.

  3. Top right: Now, we decide not to act and because CD is not do with our effect on the planet we save a lot of money and the problem goes away - the perfect scenario - everyone happy, the planet safe.

  4. Bottom right: We ignore the doom mongers, decide not to act and find out we're wrong. CD kicks in and we have continual climatic disasters, inundation by the sea, potable water supplies polluted causing epidemics, mass deprivation, economic turmoil etc etc.

Now imagine you were running the world....
and needed to make a decision about what to do. How would you decide? Wondering Mind42's argument follows basic risk management. How can we avoid the 'red risk' in the bottom right hand corner? There are two ways: one is a bet against unknown odds, and the other is a near certainty.

  • the former is to put your faith in the judgement of some of the scientists and do nothing.

  • the latter is to decide to take action and thereby keep out of the right hand column. Yes it will be painful but avoids the ultimate pain. of the bottom right corner.

Most people....
I've spoken to would act - wouldn't you? Wondering Mind42 then goes on to cite recent opinion from eminent scientific bodies which is tending to the view that CD is man-made. So the odds of being caught out by taking the right hand column are increasing. If anything the political debate, thanks to Al Gore and others, is virtually won. Wondering Mind42 then expresses considerable optimism that Mankind's creativity will find a solution, but he does not give any. Herein lies the next problem area - deciding what to do. The framework, which I keep referring to has helped several of us come to an appreciation of some approaches that are likely to be most efficacious, and certainly some current practices which when scrutinised carefully seem worse than useless. I mean that seriously - to make people feel good, that they are making a real difference to the environment / CC by throwing and smashing perfectly good glass bottles into a bottlebank is worse than useless. There will be a post on the waste hierachy in due course. However there are a few steps I'd like to take with you before building up the framework.

Look out for the next post which describes the current big picture.........


Anonymous said...

From the 4 options, scenario 1 is described as 'bad news' because of unnecessary economic upheaval. There are factors that come to mind that don't seem to have been considered as part of the equation. Discounting carbon emissions, there are other reasons to clean up our act:

- improved air quality?
- lower risk/incidence of respiratory illness?
- fossil fuels are finite so change to alternative technology is inevitable anyway?
- lower noise pollution?
- less congestion?
- others?

It seems to me that the 'losers' in scenario 1 are the oil, coal, automotive(?) and allied industries and yes, probably the consumer is going to have to pay more for alt. technology, certainly in the short term. This is probably the only reasoning behind reluctance - powerful 'interests' and that sector of public opinion that doesn't care too much beyond their own immediate personal gain.

Another point about the notion of economic hardship: I am sure capitalist entrepreneurs would be just as much at home making money from clean technologies as polluting ones so why is this change going to result in some huge crisis for business? Of course, there is greater profit in finite fossil fuels as demand increasingly outstrips supply? But here again, there must come a limit where alt. technologies become more economically feasible in comparison? Therefore someone, somewhere will create (and are creating) something to compete. I'm not advocating that we can leave this to market forces, only that any of the arguments for doing nothing don't seem to add up at all. It's act now or act later and as suggested above, there are many 'quality of life' advantages like cleaner air to breath.

Best regards,


Jeremy said...


Thanks for your post. You are quite right and the equation is pretty 'rough and ready' and is there to serve one purpose - to get people to think in terms of risk management and look at the diagram as to columns rather than two rows, which is what happens a lot of the time now. If they do that - they have to act. As you suggest, if looked at this way, even (using your words) "that sector of public opinion that doesn't care too much beyond their own immediate will personal gain" could be persuaded to see that taking action is good for them too.

Your second point is a good one also. I'm not sure we can wait for the market to produce the right conditions for oil entrepeneurs to invest heavily in alternatives.
Have a look at my comments on post 7. There is an enormous fund of wealth being created from the oil business simply because the increase in the price of oil is being demand led, rather than cost driven. I think mankind, rather than a small number of pleutocrats, has a right to some if not all of that wealth. I'm not sure how do make this happen yet but it could make a 'world of difference'.