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The Opinion Pages

My first column, “Climate of Complete Certainty,” was published last week, and drew more than 1,800 comments on the column and on Facebook. I’m answering some of them here, edited lightly for length and clarity...

Len Sherman: You rightfully questioned the ideological rigidity of progressives who sanctimoniously dismiss ANY legitimate questioning of climate change research. But what of the blatant ignorance professed by a president who dog whistles about a hoax perpetrated by Chinese leaders? Or a sizable faction of evangelical voters who reject science as a matter of religious principle?

At the end of the day, based on the scientific evidence I’ve seen, weighed against the credibility of opposing counterarguments, with Pascal’s Wager thrown in as a tiebreaker, the need and urgency for righteous behavior is a no-brainer.

Hi Len,

There’s no need to convince me on your first two points. Our 45th president is a man who seems to regard rumor as fact, opinion as evidence, wishes as truth — and truth as whatever he can get away with. Hence the conspiracy theories about his predecessor’s birthplace, the lies about the size of his Inauguration Day crowds, and so on. As for your reference to some evangelical voters, it’s astonishing that so many in this country seem not to have gotten past the Scopes trial.

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And, lest there be any remaining doubts: I subscribe to the theory of evolution, I vaccinate my kids, I don’t smoke because it causes cancer, the earth is not flat, and the world is warming.

Now to your second paragraph: The human race is forced to confront multiple environmental threats with limited economic resources. We have to make hard choices about how we assess the threats and how we allocate the resources — knowing all the time that information is imperfect and economic and environmental conditions are subject to change over time. Climate change is one of those threats, but not the only one: think of malnutrition, “ordinary” pollution, land mismanagement and so on. We need a serious debate not only about how to allocate those resources, but also about whether we have the tools right now to make a switch to less carbon-intensive energy sources in a way that doesn’t impose its own set of grave and unanticipated economic and environmental problems.

I’ll offer some examples of what I mean in my answer to Susan Fitzwater’s questions below.

Susan Fitzwater: How low do the uncertainties about climate change have to be before we decide to do something about possible adverse effects? What bothers me is, the standards for “doing something about climate change” seem to be so much higher than the standards we use for risk management in other parts of our lives. To put things on scale, if we applied these standards to other parts of our lives, we would be doing things like:

a) dropping fire insurance on our houses,

b) refusing vaccinations for ourselves and our kids,

c) dropping routine medical checkups,

d) taking 50 percent of our retirement portfolios to the casino.

I could go on and on. We might save a lot of money (or even make some at the casino!), but the potential for catastrophe is high enough that most of us would not take these risks.

Hi Susan,

As with my answer to Len, you’ll get no argument from me. Insurance is prudent even when the risks are statistically rather small, such as the possibility of fire in a home. We should continue to invest in fundamental climate research and promising clean-tech, and we should redouble our investments in proven non-carbon energy sources, particularly next-gen nuclear power.

But also as with my previous answer, my question is this: How much? Homeowners will buy fire insurance, but they’ll also weigh the price in light of their overall needs. We need to hedge against prospective risks. We need to provide for current needs. The climate-advocacy community sometimes conveys the impression that all of this is not just necessary, but relatively straightforward and affordable. I wish it were that simple.

A decade ago we were plowing money into ethanol subsidies as one response to climate change. But that turned out to be not just environmentally destructive but was also arguably responsible for the spike in food prices that soon followed, as farmers turned away from cultivating corn for human consumption to cultivating it for ethanol production. Another example: The New York Times recently reported on the massive increase in smog over London. The cause? Let me quote from the story:

“The British government provided financial incentives to encourage a shift to diesel engines because laboratory tests suggested that would cut harmful emissions and combat climate change. Yet, it turned out that diesel cars emit on average five times as much emissions in real-world driving conditions as in the tests, according to a British Department for Transport study.”

In other words, to say we want to take out insurance for climate change is perfectly sensible. But whether we know we’re buying the right insurance, at the right price, is less clear, and it behooves us to look closely at the fine print before we sign on.

Jason: The whole connection to the Clinton campaign is absurd. Polling is not science. Science transcends politics. (Also, for the most part the polls were right, Clinton won the popular vote by about 2 percentage points. She just didn’t win them in the right places.)

Hi Jason,

Of course polling isn’t science! It’s an art, but one that increasingly is based on rigorously tested assumptions, sophisticated mathematical models, computer algorithms, behavioral analysis and so on. It’s an effort to peer into the future under conditions of dynamic uncertainty. And, in that sense, it’s not altogether different from climate modeling. The climate is an intensely complex system. Seemingly tiny differences in terms of inputs can make dramatic differences in terms of results. We should be humble about what we can know a year into the future, never mind a century, and we should be refining our assumptions continuously. That calls for more investment in science, not less.

As for the polls being right, they were right in almost all respects — but the respects in which they were wrong made, alas, all the difference.

nils: ”What if it’s a big hoax and we create a better world for nothing?”

Hi Nils,

Interesting question, because it helps explain why so many people are drawn to the subject of climate change. To wit, it’s not just a matter of pure science. It’s also about morality, or at least a particular version of it. That’s why I’ve always thought there’s a quasi-religious dimension at work in climate-change advocacy, which not only describes the science but offers a catalog of prescribed (or proscribed) behaviors, and which tends to demonize people who aren’t wholly in tune with their assumptions.

Be that as it may, let me turn the question around on you. “What if it’s 100 percent true, but we make the world worse with the wrong response?” My answer to Susan offers two examples in which hasty responses created unanticipated and damaging environmental consequences. After all, even if you’ve diagnosed the cancer correctly doesn’t mean you can’t harm the patient with the wrong prescription. I’m urging sensible readers to be thoughtful about this, to look before we leap, to be aware that “do something!” may be satisfying as a moral reaction to a given problem but rarely makes for smart policy.

Elizabeth Berg: Demanding “abrupt and expensive changes”? We’ve been insisting that something needed to be done for decades now. If we’d acted then, it wouldn’t have been abrupt or expensive, but now we’ve waited to the last minute. Do we have to wait until the coasts are under water?

Hi Elizabeth,

On the contrary, it would have been more abrupt and expensive had we started earlier, because the technologies of the 1980s would have been inadequate for the needs of a modern society. It’s only now that technologies are coming into play that allow us to develop large numbers of reliable, battery-powered cars, to use one example.

For yet another example of what I mean, consider Germany’s “energy revolution,” an incredibly ambitious bid by Angela Merkel’s government to wean itself from fossil fuels. An in-depth report in Der Spiegel (admittedly from 2013) notes some of the effects:

“German consumers already pay the highest electricity prices in Europe. But because the government is failing to get the costs of its new energy policy under control, rising prices are already on the horizon. Electricity is becoming a luxury good in Germany, and one of the country’s most important future-oriented projects is acutely at risk.”

There’s a lot more to this, and all I can suggest is, read the article. Rest assured, also, that Der Spiegel is a reputable news source that, if anything, leans left in its reporting.

All this, again, is to say that we need to stay humble in our approach to large problems. To borrow terms from economist William Easterly, we need to be “searchers” for solutions, not top-down “planners.” Let’s place a lot of small bets in our approach to the problem and find what works, rather than place expensive bets that risk large failures. My column, above all, is a plead to second-guess ourselves. That goes for me, too.

I invite you to follow me on Twitter (@BretStephensNYT) and Facebook.


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