Thursday, May 04, 2017

Why Uncertainty About Climate Change Is What Scares Me Most

David L. Katz, M.D., M.P.H., Contributor Founder, True Health Initiative


I am, nonetheless, scared- or to be less alarmist about it, concerned- that someone with Mr. Stephens’ rarefied access to information and ownership of intellect could write such a column. Not because he is wrong about uncertainty, and not because he’s right either. What scares me most about climate change uncertainty is a simple requirement of logic Mr. Stephens somehow failed to mention.

If projections about the future of climate change are prone to considerable potential error, we must allow for that error to go in both directions. There is nothing necessarily reassuring about climate change uncertainty; those error bars encompass a space in which our worst nightmares find refuge.

The moment we concede the uncertainty about climate change projections- magnitude, pace, impact- that Mr. Stephens asks of us, we are obligated to allow for the entire expanse of that potential error. That’s what scares me most.

Due to the exigencies of politics and economics- public officials are apt to underestimate climate change, not exaggerate it. Due to the perennial triumph of hope over experience, and our frequent recourse to wishful thinking- we individuals are prone to the same. Human nature and the very biology of our native “fight or flight” response may impel us to dismiss any danger not yet upon us in tooth and claw. We are hard-wired for crises measured in seconds to minutes, not years to decades. Before Homo sapien eyes, slow-motion calamity can hide in pain sight.

Most ominously, though, even genuine experts may be disposed to understate the likely toll of climate change. I have had private conversations many times with environmental scientists- sometimes immediately before or after their public presentations- in which they confessed a willful effort to conceal the magnitude of their own worry, and the true scope of the problem for fear of inducing panic and despair. These experts are exploiting the very uncertainty of which Mr. Stephens makes so much not to embellish their warnings, but to attenuate them. They don’t want to make despondent fatalists of us all.


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