Davis Merritt: Bet your life on climate change? Deniers are

03/25/2014 12:00 AM

03/24/2014 6:33 PM

Can almost all of the world’s climate scientists be wrong?

Of course.

But what are you willing to bet that they are?

You’d best decide what your answer is, because others are already wagering your life that the scientists are wrong and are pouring millions of dollars into a disinformation campaign to get you to decide there’s no problem. Led by the fossil-fuel industry, they are trying to keep public discussion at the margins so that serious discussion of remedies and their cost to them does not occur.

Science arrives at correct answers only by being wrong a lot. Through a rigorous process of hypothesis, research, testing and replication of results, theories become firm enough, through consensus, to warrant action. Science can suggest what action is needed, but its influence ends there and the less rigorous – that is, messier – political process must take over.

The road to scientific agreement about the cause and extent of climate change has been the normal winding one as thousands of climatologists explored their individual hunches, theories and concerns. They argued among themselves, occasionally in public, and, naturally, fought over resources and recognition, unnecessarily hurting their cause and creating niches for deniers to exploit.

Last week, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, with almost 125,000 members worldwide, sought to clear some of the clutter. An easily understandable 28-page paper (“What We Know” at AAAS.org) makes it undeniably clear that human-caused climate change is real and “puts the well-being of people of all nations at risk.”

The paper is the first step in an AAAS effort to spur the discussion that climate-change deniers and the fossil-fuel industry don’t want to happen. The scientists want the discussion to be about risk management.

“We are at risk of pushing our climate system toward abrupt, unpredictable and potentially irreversible changes with highly damaging impacts,” the report says, and “the sooner we act, the lower the risk and cost.”

There’s a great deal that cannot be known. That’s the point of risk management in other parts of our lives. We insure our homes against unpredictable but possible events. We require people to buy liability insurance to drive. Companies routinely assess and insure against unlikely events of all sorts, from lawsuits to catastrophic physical losses to employee treachery.

But we do know two things:

•  The accumulation of carbon dioxide greenhouse gas in our atmosphere continues to accelerate from burning of fossil fuels, and it will not go away without deliberate and prudent action to change the fuel mix.
•  The atmosphere that sustains all life on Earth is finite. Think of the Earth as a basketball. On that scale, our “endless ocean of air” is the equivalent of two coats of shellac.

In narrower contexts, we’ve been here before: DDT, the lethal effect of chlorofluorocarbons on the ozone layer, and acid rain leap to mind. Public judgment finally caught up to science, and we acted. In each case, professional confusers, to borrow a phrase, delayed public resolve for a while with threats of huge price increases for crops and power, declines in the economy, damage to vital industries. None of that occurred, and we are far better off.

But we’ve never been at the verge of risking our entire ecosystem. So what are you willing to bet?

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