Bruce Maiman: In climate debate, what are costs of being wrong?

Published: Tuesday, Mar. 5, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 9A

I just don't get our debate over climate change. This one says it's a hoax, that one's a denier, somebody manipulated data, blame it on Al Gore … oy!

I'm not a climatologist, geologist, geochronologist or any other kind of -ologist, but the scientific community – the national science academies of all major industrialized nations – consistently and overwhelmingly recognizes that our planet is warming, and the primary cause is the exponential increase of greenhouse gases produced by human activity.

Save for very few outliers, there's no controversy in the scientific literature. It exists only in popular media, and then only in media targeting a particular population. Or, it's the media feeling like, "We have to be balanced and give both sides." Is that true if one of those sides has no credibility?

For those cemented in their views, no amount of scientific data will matter. I get it. You're not interested in the science. You don't trust it.

You don't believe it. Someone's lying or maybe not telling you what you want to hear.

So let's try this: Take your belief – I don't care what it is – and ask yourself this question: What's the worst possible consequence if you're wrong? There are two opinions and two possible courses of action for each opinion: (1) Climate change is a hoax; do nothing (2) Climate change is a hoax; take action (3) Climate change is real; take action (4) Climate change is real; do nothing. In each course of action, what's the worst thing that could happen?

(1) If climate change is false, doing nothing would be correct. Our usual problems would exist but climate change wouldn't be one of them.

(2) If climate change is false and we take action, the worst-case scenario would be its imposition on global citizens: increased taxation, burdensome regulation, bloated government, a potential global economic crisis. But the air would be cleaner, the water less foul, and the pursuit of alternative energy sources, from solar to nuclear, would create new economic opportunities.

(3) If climate change is real and we take action, we'd have made the right decision. The cost associated with that decision would remain, but it would be money well spent. The climate may still change some, making it a different world, but livable because our preventive measures would've averted an ecological calamity.

(4) If climate change is real and we do nothing, the consequences are cataclysmic: economic upheaval, environmental ruin, public health disasters, political and social pandemonium – on a global scale. Millions of displaced people would be at odds with others, fighting over scarce resources; breadbaskets in Canada, here and Russia would become dust bowls; coastal population centers, the nerve centers of most nations, would be devastated; famine and disease would be rampant.

"The world would be unrecognizable," says Dr. John J. Berger, an energy and environmental policy specialist and author of "Climate Myths: The Campaign Against Climate Science."

"The precautionary principle makes a great deal of sense," Berger said.

"However, I'm not one of those people who thinks altering our path of energy use is an inexpensive, easy or trivial pursuit. It will be an extraordinary challenge."

How do you measure the cost of catastrophic destruction that may not happen in the near term compared to the precautionary cost needed to protect us from it? By weighing whether the risk to act is greater than the risk not to.

Take the Natomas levees. We could save money now and refuse to reinforce the rest of the system. But if those levees fail, what will be the cost of washing out 100,000 people, property and infrastructure?

True, some are of the view, "not my problem." Then they live in the wrong country. America has always come to the aid of those affected by natural disasters. That's not changing. Similarly, vast resources will be expended if we do nothing about climate change and the worst-case scenario ensues.

Think about it in terms of buying car insurance. You may never need it, but what price do you pay if you do need it and don't have it? My guess is, those decrying the cost of "climate insurance" would be the very same people declaring the motorist a fool for not buying auto insurance.

The difference, of course: far fewer people are affected by a motorist's imprudent choice. Is that the sort of game we want to play with the lives of 7 billion inhabitants?

"No payment will be adequate enough to compensate for the loss," Berger says.

Ultimately, it's the old "ounce of prevention" lesson our mothers used to give us. When it comes to the future of our planet, following Mom's advice seems like a pretty good idea. What's the worst that could possibly happen?

Bruce Maiman is a former radio show host who lives in Rocklin. Reach him at brucemaiman@gmail.com.

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