How It All Ends

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Here’s something I bet you haven’t thought of. . .

You know that whole shouting match about global warming?

[Foil {wearing Viking-type hat}: Yeah! And I’m sick of it! {Explosion with smoke—BOOM!}]

What’s with the hat and smoke?

[Foil (aside): I’ll be playing devil’s advocate. Lay off—it’s the best I could do for horns and brimstone.]

Okay. I know it seems like such a noisy mess that it’s easy to tune out. But here’s a thought for you: while we debate whether humans can really change the climate or not, we are at the same time running the experiment. The kicker is, no matter what the outcome of the experiment, we’re in the test tube! So it seems clear that we’d better get to the bottom of the controversy as quick as possible.

[Foil: But how do you know which side to believe?]

Well, what if I told you I’ve got a way to look at it where you don’t need to believe anyone, but can still decide with confidence what we should do?

[Foil: What’re you smokin’? That sound impossible.]

Yeah, I thought so too, so I put it out there in a video, and after being critiqued by thousands of people, I think I’ve now got a conclusion that is pretty much undeniable.

[Foil: We’ll see about that. FLASH]

So here’s the reasoning in a nutshell. If you want more detail, watch for the index at the end of the video:

[At board, with “You can never be 100% certain, so EVERY CHOICE CARRIES A RISK. Activists warn: Upheaval and destruction. Skeptics warn: severe economic harm.”]

First off, no one’s perfect. So any choice you make brings with it a risk if your choice turns out to be a mistake. Given that, which risk would you rather take: listen to the activists and take big action now, risking the possible harm to the economy that the skeptics warn us about, or listen to the skeptics and don’t take big action now, risking the possible destruction and upheaval that the activists warn us about. Bottom line is, which is the more acceptable risk: the risk of taking action, or the risk of not taking action?

[Foil: Um, geez—when you put it that way. . .{starts to take horns off}]

Hey, don’t just accept what I say! I’m just some guy. Think it through for yourself!

[Foil: Okay, okay. {Puts hat back on.} Wait a minute—global warming isn’t caused by humans in the first place—I’ve seen lots of evidence for that. So you’re presenting a false choice!]

Are you infallible?

[Foil: No.]

Could you be wrong?

[Foil: Yes.]

So the question “which is the more acceptable risk” still applies doesn’t it?

[Foil: {acidly} Fine. But it’s still a loaded question.]

Well, take a look at where the question came from, and see if you agree that it’s a valid one.

If you need to make a decision when things are unclear—like we do with global warming—it’s useful to look at the different possibilities for the future.

The first possibility is whether human-caused global warming is real or not. We’ll put F for the future where it turned out to be false, and T for true.

The other possibility is what action we end up taking. Let’s make column A action, and column B no action.

So that gives us a grid that sketches out four basic possibilities for our future.

What might each of these futures look like?

First is the future where we did take action, and global warming turned out not to be real after all. Let’s take the most pessimistic view and say there’s significant harm to the economy, with no positive benefits.

What about this box? We didn’t take action, and we didn’t need to. Everybody celebrates: the skeptics because they were right, and the activists because it wasn’t the end of the world after all.

How about this box? We took action, and it was a good thing, too, because here the doomsayers were right. We’ve still got the economic costs, but everyone’s okay with that, because we saved our cookies.

Now how about this box? The doomsayers were right, but we listened to the skeptics, and didn’t act. If we took a pessimistic view up here, let’s do the same thing down here. Well, you’ve heard this story before: disasters—environmental, political, social, public health, and economic—on a global scale.

Obviously, this is grossly simplified. The smiley faces should give that away. But we can say the future will fall roughly into one of these four boxes.

Most of the shouting match is about trying to predict which row the future will fall into, which we can’t know for certain until we get there.

What we can know, because we control it, is which column the future will not fall into. Because by taking action or not, we are choosing a column, and that eliminates the risk in the other column.

It’s a bit like buying a lottery ticket—we choose ticket A or ticket B with its risk, and wait to see what the laws of physics dish out as our result.

One way or the other, we’re taking a risk: so which risk is more acceptable, the risk of taking action, or the risk of not taking action?

[Foil: Hey. . . that sounds good, but the logic is bogus. Wouldn’t that grid argue for action on any possible threat? No matter how costly the action, or how ridiculous the threat, like Giant Mutant Space Hamsters? Because according to that it’s better to go broke making giant rodent traps than to even risk the possibility of becoming Hamster Chow, right? So that grid is useless. FLASH!]

Yeah, I totally agree with you.

[Foil: What??]

The grid by itself isn’t a silver bullet. But what it does do is it allows us to make a decision using uncertain knowledge by changing the question from “Are humans affecting the climate?” to the real question “What’s the wisest thing to do, given the uncertainties and the risks?” Really, it’s just basic risk management. So to get around your hamster argument, we need to get a sense of how likely each row is.

[Foil: Why can’t we just wait until the science is finished, and then we’ll know what to do?]

Well for one thing, that doesn’t avoid risk, because that’s the same as just choosing column B, which is where we sit right now. And for another thing, science is never finished—we’re still studying the law of gravity for Pete’s sake! As a science teacher, I can tell you that science—that most precise and geeky of all human endeavors—is surprisingly never certain! Every single scientific statement carries with it some sort of estimate of how big the uncertainty is. Which is part of why there will almost always be some disagreement on any scientific question.

[Foil: But where does that leave us, if anything any scientist says is accompanied by a sort of “but I could be wrong”?]

The trick is to not look at what individual scientists are saying, but instead look at what the professional organizations are saying. The more prestigious they are, the more weight you can give to their statements, because they’ve got huge reputations to uphold, and don’t want to ever say something that later makes them look foolish.

Probably the two most well-respected of these in the world are NAS [hold up whiteboard reading “the U.S. National Academy of Sciences”], and AAAS [hold up whiteboard reading “the American Association for the Advancement of Science”]. These are not advocacy groups, but both recently issued unprecedented statements calling for big action now on global warming. This isn’t a bunch of hippies. These are the nerdiest people on the planet.

[Foil: So trust the eggheads, huh? Basically you’re saying “If NAS and AAAS said so, who the heck are you to argue?”]

No. Well, sorta. I mean, who else are you going to believe on a scientific issue? But remember, you still don’t have to believe them. You’re just using the fact that two such stodgy institutions staked their reputations on this, to get a sense that this row must be way more likely than this row, pushing this line up.

Even companies such as these [pull off sheet on board to reveal the words “USCAP agrees that the world must preserve the possibility of stabilizing the climate at a level that would avert the most dangerous impacts of climate change” with list of companies beneath] are calling for emissions caps—on their own industries!—pushing the line up even further. Now the conclusion is clear, since we’ve got solid reasons to believe on our own that this is a much more threatening risk than this—not only in potential damage, but in likelihood as well.

[Foil: Okay, I can see that. But if the statements from those groups are such a slam dunk, then why do we still hear so much debate?]

Well, there is a handful of dissenting scientists—like there always is—and a media that knows that controversy sells. But I found a couple polls that suggest it’s the lack of absolute certainty that’s holding people back, which is a little odd to me. We buy car insurance without being certain that we’ll get into an accident, because we want make sure that if it does happen, we don’t end up broke.

And during WWII, just the possibility that Hitler might be developing an atomic bomb was enough of a threat to justify all-out action. If you were a voter back then and it was public knowledge, would you have insisted that every scientist interviewed thought such a bomb was possible before supporting the Manhattan Project? Would you have held out until you understood the physics? No. So why are Joe Schmoes like you and me still debating the finer points of climate science instead of talking about risk management?

[Foil: Well, there’s a gajillion causes out there already screaming for my attention and money. “Save the Planet” and stuff.]

Look, it’s not the planet that I care about. It’ll do fine on its own. What I care about is saving our bacon. And I understand how overwhelming it is when you hear cries about {places placards on the table, while speaking increasingly quickly}
save the whales, or the rainforests, or the children,
or air pollution, water pollution, light pollution,
toxic waste, nuclear waste, government waste, corporate waste,
Peak Oil, Snake Oil,
flag burning, wire-tapping, gay marrying, immigrating,
ANWR, Anbar,
gun rights, human rights, water rights, right to life, abortion rights.

Whew! Where do you start?

Well, let me suggest a way to prioritize. All of these [sweep off desk with a CRASH] will be peanuts, if the worst of this [place placard reading “global warming”] comes to pass.

[Foil: Oooo, way to go, Mr. Smarty-Pants. {points to floor} You just managed to tick off pretty much everybody. How come your pet crusade trumps everyone else’s?]

Because on the outside chance that the worst of global warming does happen {place placards reading “floods, droughts, hurricanes, wildfires, dustbowls, famine, epidemics, refugees, wars, economic collapse” while talking}, we’ll be so busy dealing with the fallout that most all other human concerns may seem like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. I mean who’s really going to care if some protester wants to burn the flag on the courthouse lawn when the whole city’s flooded?

[Foil: But why the hysteria? What’s the big deal about a degree or two?]

Yeah. Turns out it’s not the warming that gets ya. It’s the way that such a quick change throws a monkey wrench in the whole system. That’s why global “warming” is a misleading name, and global “climate change” is only a little better. Really, what we’re talking about is “global climate destabilization.” And it gets worse. Because just in the last 5 years we’ve learned that this may happen very abruptly, like within the span of a decade. It may turn out to be like pushing a light switch: small pushes in the past have created only small results, until you hit an unexpected tipping point.

[Foil: Man, we’re totally hosed. We’re going back to the Dark Ages, aren’t we?]

Disturbing, isn’t it? Actually, there’s a lot of reason to believe we can fix this—maybe even without reducing our standard of living. If we’re quick about it.

[Foil: But what difference can I make? I’m just one guy. . . with a stupid hat.]

What you do is—spread the word! Because the only way we really get into column A. . . is by policy changes. And those only happen when enough people demand it. So you forward this video to others. If they forward it to ten others, and so on, in just 4 steps, that’s over ten thousand people that may have their opinions influenced. That’s power. Use it.

This is likely to be the greatest threat that humanity has ever faced. Think that’s overblown? Maybe. But can you be so certain that you’re willing to bet everything? Because we only get to run this experiment once.

Hopefully this idea of risk management will end the debate. How the world ends up? Well, that depends in part on you. And what you do next.

We have greatness within us—innovative, giving, determined. It’s time for the best in us to come out.


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