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If 97% of planes believe 3% of terrorists are experts…


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.


4 Responses

  1. I agree with you in terms of the complexities and that we should appreciate them. I can’t speak for Andrew Dessler, but I don’t think that he was trying to over-simplify the discussion. I think he was simply trying to illustrate that there are two primary aspects to the discussion. What is the scientific evidence and how strong is it? What should we do, given this evidence and what are the risks? So one aspect of the discussion is simply about the scientific evidence. The other aspect is what we should be considering doing and what are the risks of doing various things. I often find that any attempt to have a discussion about global warming/climate change ends in a convoluted (and rather frustrating) discussion that focuses on neither the scientific evidence nor the risks associated with what we should/could do. So as much as I agree that we should be considering the complexities, I’m not convinced that it’s videos like this by Andrew Dessler that is acting to polarise the debate.

  2. Thanks for the comment wuwtb. On review I do seem to be pretty harsh on Dessler. I agree he isn’t trying to over-simplify the discussion. I think he sees the decision to act on climate change just as simple as he presented it.

    “The other aspect is what we should be considering doing and what are the risks of doing various things.”

    I couldn’t agree more and this is the basis for my criticism of the decision making model presented by Dessler – it doesn’t consider the risk of doing. Somehow preventing terrorism and converting all our energy to renewables are presented without any risks of their own.

    I love analogies, metaphors and allegories that seek to simplify complex issues and certainly don’t object to the attempt to bring clarity to actions on climate change. I just think that by not including any risks of action he made it so simple it no longer elucidates.

  3. Okay, so yes he didn’t present any risks associated with doing something. It’s clear that there would be risks and maybe he should made that clearer. I think I just gave him the benefit of the doubt. It seems like we essentially agree though. There are two aspects to the process. Understand what the science is telling us and how certain we are of the various possible outcomes. Consider what we should or should not do and what are the risks associated with the various options. It’s not a simple process, clearly, but is at least is, in my opinion, the process we should be trying to follow. My issue with the process at the moment is that there are, in my opinion, people who are actively trying to undermine the evidence being presented by climate scientists. Until we can resolve this, I’m not sure how we can move on to the second part of the process which is deciding what our options are and what are the risks associated with the various options.

  4. I think we can start now by demanding corporations compensate climate change victims for the CO2 they emit. Surely there are enough consumers who would respond to this. Imagine a “Fair Climate” certification if you donate $20 (give or take) per ton of CO2.

    This doesn’t have to stop all the other advocacy but be a part of it. It’s also a way to get climate in front of everybody and maybe make them think about it.

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