When do you know enough?

Media274When do you know enough?

I’ve come out in favor of a tax on carbon in this space before. It hasn’t won me any friends among my oil patch brethren, but you gotta call ‘em the way you see ‘em. I’ve done far more research into the subject of anthropogenic global warming than almost any of my compatriots, and I find the evidence to be compelling.

But that begs the question: Compelling how? What, exactly, do I (and the vast majority of climate researchers) feel compelled about (if that’s even a proper phrase)? I certainly don’t find deterministic forecasts of, say, the rise in sea level by the year 2050 to be compelling. Anyone who thinks they can predict that far into the future with enough accuracy to assign a “best estimate” forecast is kidding themselves.The forecast needs to be a range – and a wide range at that.

Fortunately, it is. The vast majority of the forecasts put out by climate researchers put wide ranges on the predictions. Things might become anywhere from somewhat more unpleasant and difficult to catastrophic (and by “things” I mean climate, extinctions, and the general health of the biosphere).

So I don’t find the forecasts themselves to be compelling. What I find compelling is the need to take action – to do something to decrease the rate at which we are adding to the greenhouse gas content of the atmosphere. I say this fully cognizant of the fact that nobody really knows what’s going to happen as a result of our generating all that CO2. I don’t need to know what’s going to happen; I just need to know what decision to make.

This is a key point which we try to drive home with our clients all the time: You don’t need to eliminate all uncertainty – in fact, you cannot eliminate all uncertainty – before it makes sense to take action. In the course of analyzing any situation, you will usually hit a point where your path forward becomes clear (either that or it becomes clear that the situation isn’t going to get any clearer, regardless of your continued efforts at analysis). When that happens, make your decision.Don’t waste your time with further analysis, don’t waste your time wringing your hands over uncertainty about the future.

This is the case with climate change. In the February 21st edition of the Houston Chronicle, there was an op-ed piece by Charles Krauthammer slamming President Obama for saying, “The debate is settled. Climate change is a fact,” in his State of the Union address. In that same paper was an article by Ryan Holeywell about Bob Inglis, a former Republican Congressman from South Carolina who is now the head of the Energy and Enterprise Institute. Both men have impeccable conservative credentials, but they come at the climate change issue from very different perspectives.

Mr. Krauthammer makes statements like, “…scientists who pretend to know exactly what this will cause in 20, 30, or 50 years are white-coated propagandists.” I would agree with him on this.However, I defy him to cite a single climate researcher who claims to know exactly what will happen in 20, 30, or 50 years. The debate which the President believes to be settled isn’t about what the temperature in Atlanta will be in the year 2100; it’s about whether we should do something to reduce our contributions to global warming.

That’s a very different question, and one on which the President finds himself aligned with the very conservative former congressman from South Carolina (it’s probably the only issue they’re aligned on). Like me, Bob Inglis first began investigating global warming with a strong motivation to disprove it. My motivation came from the fact that I’ve spent my career in the fossil fuels industry, and I would really rather not believe that my life’s work has inadvertently contributed to such a potentially huge problem. Mr. Inglis’s motivation came from his love of country; as he himself has put it, when most Americans hear about man-made climate change, they interpret it to be an indictment of their way of life. Like many of us (me included), the Congressman strongly believes that Western civilization in general and America in particular have been forces for good in the world. Reconciling that with the notion that we may have – again, inadvertently – contributed to an ecological disaster isn’t easy.

So as I delved into the science of global warming, cognitive dissonance built up in my mind (and I’m sure it did in Mr. Inglis’s, too). Many times, when people are presented with evidence that contradicts what they want to believe, they simply deny the evidence. This time at least, we did not.What the Congressman and I both found is that much as we would have loved to dismiss concerns about climate change, the evidence wouldn’t let us. Not because we now know what is going to happen; rather, it is precisely because we do not know what is going to happen, and the range of possibilities includes some very ugly scenarios indeed with – as best as we can tell – very significant probabilities of occurrence.

This is the discussion we need to have. Not whether science can predict with any precision what’s going to happen if we continue to put 27-29 extra gigatons of CO2 into the atmosphere every year, or exactly what the probability of a resulting ecological catastrophe might be, but rather whether it is sensible to be conducting this experiment. Because that’s what it is: an uncontrolled, irreversible experiment on the atmosphere.

I’ve mentioned Judith Curry in previous blog posts. Dr. Curry is a prominent climatologist who has challenged the status quo, pushed for more rigor in the research, and argued that skepticism needs to be a healthy part of the process. For that, she is applauded on all sides (including by me). But my admiration for her dimmed after hearing an interview with her on the radio a while back. She must have repeated, “I don’t know what’s going to happen. We just don’t know,” at least ten times. Her argument was that because we don’t know what’s going to happen, we shouldn’t take any action yet.

This is nonsense. I don’t know that my house will burn down, but I still purchase insurance. GM doesn’t know what the demand for mid-size cars will be in the coming years, but they still invest in new designs for them. People take action all the time in the face of uncertainty – especially if the downside risk associated with the range of outcomes is unacceptably high.
So I stand with Mr. Inglis on this subject. His organization, the Energy and Enterprise Initiative, makes the case for implementing a tax on carbon, and offsetting it with reductions in income taxes.His logic is simple: we want to encourage income, and discourage CO2 emissions. Let’s tax what we don’t like, and reduce taxes on what we like (ironically, some years ago Mr. Krauthammer was a proponent of exactly the same policy for exactly the same reasons). Who can argue with that?

This brings me back to the central point of this blog post: Once you have enough information to be confident that you’re making the right decision, just go ahead and make that decision, regardless of how much uncertainty you might have about the ultimate outcome. It is a waste of time to do as Mr. Krauthammer is doing, parsing the meaning of “settled” and pointing out that there are still huge uncertainties out there. One does not need certainty to make a strong case for action.

We tell our clients this all the time.

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