Discussing global warming: why does this have to be so hard?

Climate change long ago joined the topics of politics, religion, and money as something you just can't talk about. It seems that whenever these topics get brought up, previously friendly people get beet-red faces and leave with clenched fists and indigestion. But why?

For people who work in this field, on either side of the issue, we tend to get focused on areas of disagreement and nuances. This leads us to quickly defend our positions with a fervor that would not otherwise be needed. For climate "insiders" (and yes, this includes folks who downplay concerns about climate change in particular), we sometimes need to step back. Let's begin the conversation a different way; perhaps we can come to a different outcome.

To start, we should all recognize that no one wants to injure the planet, the climate, and the future economies and societies that our children will inherit. Even the radicals don't want to pollute the planet. Can you imagine James Inhofe sitting around the dinner table asking his family to find more ways he can pollute the air and water of this planet? I can't; it just doesn't happen.

Next, let's be honest about what is known and what isn't. Starting with what we know:

1. Humans emit a lot of greenhouse gases each year and the amount of such gases in the atmosphere have risen significantly.
2. Greenhouse gas increase should cause climate change. They do so by theory, in experiment, and by computer simulation. The history of the Earth confirms this behavior.
3. The Earth's climate has been observed to change.

None of these items are confrontational or controversial. There really isn't much doubt about them, not even amongst the most ardent contrarians.

So, where does disagreement occur? Well, in my mind, it often occurs over risk. Part of the story about why this topic is toxic is because people handle risk very differently. Some people do not want to take risk when the consequences are severe. Other people are more comfortable with risk and need to have more convincing evidence before they are motivated for action. They really want to be sure before they act.

How does this play out with the climate? Well, first we have to get into what scientists don't know.

1. We don't know exactly how much climate change will occur. It may range from very little to a lot over the next 100 years or longer. If we are lucky, climate change will be a minor inconvenience. If we are unlucky, it will destabilize societies around the world. It is most likely neither of these extremes will occur, the future will be somewhere in the middle, but frankly we just don't know.
2. We don't know how fast it will happen. Will it take a few decades or a few centuries for some of the big changes to occur? We have a pretty good idea but we can't be certain.
3. We don't know exactly how climate change will manifest itself. How will drought/flood patterns change? How will hurricanes change? How will sea levels rise? How fast will the oceans acidify? We have educated guesses but we can't be certain.
4. It isn't clear how much of what we see is due to us and how much is just natural variability.
5. How will climate change affect economies and societies? What regions and people will suffer more? Who will be impacted less?

So, how do we make decisions with uncertainty? That is a value-judgment. Do we play it safe? Do we roll the dice?

Playing it safe would mean quickly reducing emissions
. First, by using energy more wisely so that we get more out of each gallon of fuel and each bag of coal. Second, maximize clean and renewable energy generation. Third, minimize any carbon-emitting energy generation, and finally begin adaptation plans so we can manage the changing climate. The advantage of this approach is we reduce our exposure to climate change impacts. We also will save money in the long run by using our energy more wisely. The disadvantage is we have to pay to develop new energy infrastructure.

Rolling the dice basically means taking a wait and see approach. Let's not develop clean and renewable energy industries. Let's not worry about using energy more wisely. Let's wait and see whether climate change is really happening as fast and as severe as scientists tell us. The advantage of this approach is no work is required on our part. The disadvantage is that by the time it becomes clear to everyone we have a problem, it will be either too late or too expensive to fix. The quicker we take action to halt climate change, the cheaper our options are.

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Posted by John Abraham on Wednesday, 12 February, 2014

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