Living Dangerously….Ignoring Climate Risk
Death and taxes, the only sure things. Everything else, you take your chances. It’s all about probabilities. We calculate continuously. It starts first thing in the morning, with something along the lines of “what is the probability that when I get out of bed, I’ll fall, hit my head and die from a concussion?” Pretty low percentage, so I get up. I estimate too there’s a pretty good chance I’ll be lying in a puddle of pee if I wait too long, so there’s actually two probability calculations at work.
Figuring the odds more consciously is part of everyday life. Everything from guessing when a coveted (and expensive) pair of shoes….or power tool, will go on sale to picking an investment return number for the retirement account is a probability calculation.
Insurance is all about probability. Do I buy insurance? How much? What are my odds?
Most of us ultimately decide (correctly) that there’s some chance we’ll be hit by a bus, or lightning will strike our house, or we’ll just get sick and need some expensive medicine. We buy insurance, even though we’re pretty sure there’s only a 5% or 20% chance we’ll ever make a claim. We invest a little bit of money now, the insurance premium, to make sure a future problem doesn’t turn into a future disaster.
The same mindset ought to obtain in dealing with environmental issues, especially carbon in the atmosphere. Exactly how much global warming is going to occur and what the damage will be is a guess. The range of possibility goes from zero (nobody rates that as even remotely likely) to total disaster, destruction of the earth as we know it and total elimination of the human species. Anyone who’s at all attuned to the natural world would place their bets away from the zero damage extreme. Most too think we can and should do what’s necessary to avoid going off the cliff at the other end.
So there is recognition of risk. Everybody knows there’s some probability that the future could get really nasty. Now the hard part, putting a number on it.
There are literally thousands or perhaps tens of thousands of researchers at work gathering data on the carbon record and experimenting to gain understanding of the basic physics and chemistry involved. All this effort is aimed at one goal, refinement of the probability calculation that predicts what the future holds for the biosphere we live in.
All that data and knowledge is gathered and consolidated and made publicly available by The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The IPCC is essentially a clearinghouse (warehouse) for all this information, the database for the entire scientific community’s work toward the best educated guess as to what we should expect.
IPCC’s report? (AR4, released in 2007) Bad news. Warm spells/heat waves with reduced crop yields, increased wildfire danger and increased health risk, very likely….90% probability. Heavy precipitation events with commerce disruptions, flooding and property damage, very likely….90% probability. Increased tropical cyclone activity, likely….66%. Increased incidence of extreme high sea level with seawater intrusion into fresh water supplies and coastal flooding, likely….66%.
These are the consensus numbers that fall out of a very rigorous scientific vetting process. It is the highest quality information available.
Wow, 66% probability, 90% probability! We usually buy insurance if there’s even a 5% chance of disaster. Ignoring climate change risk (not investing in some insurance) is an extraordinary display of contrary thinking or just plain stupidity.
The IPCC full report is available for download.