Global warming: The folly of certainty

Scientific American
Global warming: The folly of certainty
.

View photo

Global warming: The folly of certainty
Larry Jones is driving the minivan across the Utah desert on Highway 163, with Sally in the passenger seat and the two kids dozing in the back. According to the map they are approaching the town of Pawoopsie. The radio is on, tuned to a Pawoopsie station that plays country music, but the reception isn't very good. Suddenly the music cuts off and an announcer's voice comes in: "static--one sixty-three--static--Pawoopsie--static--bridge collapsed--static--highway patrol says--static", and then nothing but static.

Sally sits up. "Did he say that the highway bridge in Pawoopsie collapsed?"

Larry shrugs. "I don't know."

"It sounded like that's what he was saying."

"I don't know; too much static."

"Aren't we getting close to Pawoopsie?"

"Yeah, should be a couple more miles."

Larry, don't you think you should slow down?"

"Why?"

"Well, if the bridge has collapsed . . ."

"Are you sure that the bridge has collapsed?"

"No, but . . ."

"Then why should I slow down?"

Here's the thing about that story: it's not at all hard to understand. You can tell it to 100 people, and 99 of them will realize that Larry Jones is being stupid. It doesn't take a brilliant mind to figure out that when you're hurtling toward possible catastrophe, only a fool would refuse to slow down and start paying attention.

Unfortunately, when it comes to the current debate about climate change, the scientific community has somehow worked itself into the position of implicitly assuming that the public are too stupid to understand that story. We have been treating the public as though they are a large mass of Larry Joneses. That's a blunder, and one that has cost us big time.

The debate about climate change, as it is currently conducted, focuses mainly on this question: Are we certain that the Earth is going to warm to a dangerous degree in the near future? Climate scientists have been struggling very hard to convince us all that they are certain, or at least nearly certain, but haven't succeeded all that well.

But that's really not the right question at all. To think that is the right question is to behave like Larry Jones. The right question is: Are we confident that the Earth is *not* going to warm to a dangerous degree in the near future?

If we're not confident of that, we'd be idiots not to at least slow down and start making serious plans.

I don't believe that people are too stupid to understand that logic.

And the thing is, this is a much stronger basis for argument. Certainty is inherently hard to achieve when it comes to climate predictions. Climate depends on lots of variables in complicated ways, and many of them have not been measured with much precision. But if we stop talking about certainty and simply focus on the odds, then the situation clears greatly. There may be a few semi-plausible models that fail to predict serious warming, but the majority of models -- and the models that have the greatest acceptance in the community -- certainly do. Even if a skeptic prefers the models that don't predict warming, can the skeptic really be *sure* that they are the correct ones?

If one isn't sure, then to argue against any action at all is to behave like Larry Jones. A skeptic need not believe that we must immediately destroy the world's economy by shutting down our use of fossil fuels -- it would be just as stupid for Larry Jones to jam down the brakes in the middle of the freeway as to do nothing -- but even a skeptic must see that prudence calls for slowing down, getting as much information as we can, and making contingency plans.

Image: Modified from photo by Marc Averette

Follow Scientific American on Twitter @SciAm and @SciamBlogs.

Visit ScientificAmerican.com for the latest in science, health and technology news.

© 2013 ScientificAmerican.com. All rights reserved.

View Comments (514)

Recommended for You

  • Hurricane-strength winds pummel Europe, three killed in Germany

    By Michael Hogan HAMBURG (Reuters) - At least three people in Germany were killed on Tuesday when hurricane-force winds lashed across northern Europe in one of the most severe storms in years that also canceled flights, disrupted road and train traffic, and hit port operations. The Dutch…

    Reuters18 mins ago
  • United States sets official strategy for Paris climate talks

    By Valerie Volcovici WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Obama administration on Tuesday published plans to cut greenhouse gas emissions up to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025, part of a strategy to generate momentum for a global agreement later this year on combating climate change. The formal…

    Reuters35 mins ago
  • Air and sea traffic disrupted as 120 km winds batter Netherlands

    Spring storms battered the Netherlands with gusts of up to 120 kilometers an hour on Tuesday, causing Amsterdam's Schiphol airport to cancel flights and the closure of two container terminals at the port of Rotterdam. Gale force winds sweeping in from the North Sea disrupted land and marine…

    Reuters
  • Heavy rains trigger flood fears in Kashmir; 17 dead

    By Fayaz Bukhari SRINAGAR, India (Reuters) - Heavy rains and a landslide in the Himalayan region of Kashmir killed 17 people, police said on Tuesday, as Indian authorities continued working to rescue stranded villagers, with unseasonal rains raising fears of flash floods in the mountainous north. …

    Reuters
  • Ocean warming suggests 50 percent chance of El Nino-Australia

    By Colin Packham SYDNEY (Reuters) - Recent warming of the Pacific Ocean may signal an El Nino weather event is forming, the Australian Bureau of Meteorology said on Tuesday. Climate models indicate the central tropical Pacific Ocean is likely to continue to warm, with El Nino thresholds to be…

    Reuters
  • Vanuatu risks long-term food insecurity after monster cyclone: U.N.

    By Alisa Tang BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The monster cyclone that hit Vanuatu earlier this month wiped out more than 90 percent of the archipelago's crops, putting its people at risk of a secondary emergency and long-term food insecurity, the United Nations warned on Monday. Tropical…

    Reuters
  • Heavy rains trigger flood fears in Kashmir; six dead

    By Fayaz Bukhari SRINAGAR, India (Reuters) - A landslide in the Himalayan region of Kashmir killed six people and left 10 missing, police said on Monday, as unseasonal rains swept India, damaging crops and raising fears of flash floods in the mountainous north. Hundreds of people fled their homes…

    Reuters
  • Harsh weather cripples fishing and tourism on Cameroon's coast

    By Elias Ntungwe Ngalame KRIBI, Cameroon (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - For over 15 years, Raoul Meno has been fishing the waters off the coastal town of Kribi in southern Cameroon. A bout of persistent heavy rains and surging tides this year has made fishing in Kribi increasingly difficult and…

    Reuters
  • Air Canada plane landed short, hit antennas in Halifax accident

    By Mark Blinch HALIFAX, Nova Scotia (Reuters) - An Air Canada plane that suffered heavy damage in an accident in the east coast city of Halifax on Sunday landed short of the runway and hit an antenna array, losing its landing gear, safety officials said. "They touched down 1,100 feet (335 meters)…

    Reuters
  • U.S. to submit plans to fight global warming; most others delay

    By Alister Doyle and Valerie Volcovici OSLO/WASHINGTON - The United States will submit plans for slowing global warming to the United Nations early this week but most governments will miss an informal March 31 deadline, complicating work on a global climate deal due in December. The U.S.…

    Reuters
  • Modi's popularity in rural India punctured by discontent, suicides

    By Mayank Bhardwaj VAIDI, India (Reuters) - Over a dozen debt-laden farmers have committed suicide in recent weeks in India, and discontent in many rural areas against government policies is turning into anger against Prime Minister Narendra Modi less than a year after he swept into office. …

    Reuters
  • Chile desert rains sign of climate change: chief weather scientist

    By Rosalba O'Brien SANTIAGO (Reuters) - The heavy rainfall that battered Chile's usually arid north this week happened because of climate change, a senior meteorologist said, as the region gradually returns to normal after rivers broke banks and villages were cut off. "For Chile, this particular…

    Reuters
  • Mexico unveils national strategy for Paris climate talks

    By Valerie Volcovici WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Mexico on Friday said it will cap its greenhouse gas emissions by 2026, becoming one of the first countries to formally submit its national climate plan to the United Nations ahead of a climate summit in Paris in December. Mexico's Foreign and…

    Reuters
  • Fed must take account of global economy in U.S. outlook: Yellen

    SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - The Federal Reserve must take the global economy into account when judging the U.S. domestic outlook, Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen said on Friday, noting that a stronger dollar buoyed by weakness abroad may restrain U.S. exports Still, she added, U.S. consumer…

    Reuters
  • In reversal, crash-hit Lufthansa agrees to two-crew in cockpit rule

    Lufthansa said on Friday it would introduce new rules requiring two crew members in cockpits at all times, a swift reversal after its CEO said such a change was not needed despite the crash at its Germanwings subsidiary. The European Union said it would now advise all EU airlines to require two…

    Reuters
  • Sierra Leone capital 'eerily quiet' amid Ebola lockdown

    By Umaru Fofana FREETOWN (Reuters) - The capital of Sierra Leone was "eerily quiet" on Friday at the start of a three-day national lockdown aimed at accelerating the end of an Ebola epidemic in the worst affected country. Liberia has just one known case left and the three countries have set a…

    Reuters
  • Lufthansa to toughen up cockpit rules

    Lufthansa said it will introduce new rules requiring two crew members to be in the cockpit at all times after one of the pilots at its Germanwings unit crashed a plane in the French Alps. Prosecutors believe Andreas Lubitz, 27, locked himself alone in the cockpit of the Airbus A320 on Tuesday and…

    Reuters
  • Poland to charge two Russian officials over Kaczynski plane crash

    Poland said on Friday it would bring charges against two Russian air traffic controllers over a 2010 plane crash which killed then Polish president Lech Kaczynski, a move likely to damage bilateral relations already strained by the Ukraine crisis. Prosecutor Ireneusz Szelag from the District…

    Reuters
  • Drought, warm weather bring 'smog day' memories in California

    By Sharon Bernstein KINGS COUNTY, Calif. (Reuters) - The brown haze over California's San Joaquin Valley breadbasket on some winter days has been an unwelcome reminder of the bad old days, when pollution hung so thickly that people were warned to stay inside. Years of tight environmental rules…

    Reuters
  • India turns to 'satellite god' for crop mapping

    By Ratnajyoti Dutta NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Sher Singh, a farmer from India's desert state of Rajasthan, prays to Varuna, the Hindu god of water, for a bountiful harvest. Prime Minister Narendra Modi wants to promote a "per drop, more crop" approach to farming to make better use of scarce water,…

    Reuters