Andrew Dessler recently posted a video that is intended to describe the decision making process with respect to climate change solutions. It uses a few different examples of decision making to compare with those involved with climate change. These include a jury trial, a potential terrorist attack and a potential plane crash. I believe that none of these examples are comparable to the decisions forced by climate change and that they offer no helpful information in making those decisions.
Dessler analyses the uncertainty between the choices and the potential error for each of these examples. In the jury trail, the error of convicting the innocent is so great we require close to full certainty. In the case of a terrorist attack or plane crash, the error is so great we need little certainty to act. Finally, in the case of climate change, the error of not acting is so great, and the certainty of outcome is so great, we obviously must act – and acting means converting all our energy to renewables.
For these examples to provide helpful information, I believe they need to be analogous to the decisions regarding climate change and perhaps for Dessler they are. All the examples have one very bad error: an innocent person goes to jail; a terrorist attack occurs; a plane crashes; the earth gets too hot – and one very small error: a guilty person goes free; we build an organization that stops all terrorism when we didn’t need to; we miss a flight; we convert all our energy into renewables when we didn’t need to. No big deal!
Perhaps the example most analogous to climate change is that of the terrorist threat. For Dessler it is simple, if there is the slightest threat we need to act. But acting alone doesn’t “solve” terrorism. It’s not a matter of acting or not acting, but to what degree. What is our ideal ratio between cost of action and reduction in terrorist potentiality? Again with climate change, we simply convert all our energy and climate change is solved – but at what rate? The faster we attempt this conversion the more of a hardship it becomes. The slower we act the more we suffer from the impacts of warming. What is the cost-benefit of these two factors, i.e. the ideal rate (if any) of conversion? What about adaptation instead of mitigation?
There are many other problems as well. Do 97% of climate scientists really agree we need to convert all our energy to renewables and are they even able to make such a cost-benefit analysis? Also, Dessler believes the heat we add to the system is essentially permanent when compared to our lifetimes, yet no consideration is given to the rate of warming. If we are considering the quality of life for future people we need to consider CO2 residency time as well as rate of heating and cost of energy conversion.
This over-simplification only acts to polarize the debate. If it’s either acting or not acting, it becomes either for or against, us or them, denier or realist, etc, etc. The only way to get some sort of consensus on climate change is to appreciate its complexities.