May 14, 2012 - In his latest column for The Hill Times today, MLI's Brian Lee Crowley argues that we need to think differently about climate change. He says, "The climate policy we need...would accept the risk of manmade climate change, but reject utopian and unworkable schemes to 'stop' it or that assume that human nature can be abolished." He concludes, "We would concentrate our scarce resources where they would maximize human well-being: on policies, technologies and infrastructure that allow humanity to adapt successfully to uncertain climate conditions in the future." The column was also republished in the Vancouver Sun, Calgary Herald and the Kingston Whig-Standard. The full column below:


A climate policy hardly anyone talks about

By Brian Lee Crowley, The Hill Times, May 14, 2012

The time has come to think differently about climate change.

For too long the debate has been monopolized by two parties. One has got religion, fervently believing in man-made climate change, and that only large changes in human behaviour can stave off disaster. Their opponents argue that the science is uncertain, unsettled and inconclusive, and therefore that no action is warranted until we possess that missing certainty.

I don't agree with either camp. In most areas there is only ever certainty of uncertainty. In other words, both those who believe certainty has been achieved and those who say it has not share the same assumption: that certainty is what we are after and we can get it.

The reality is that long-range future energy, climate, economic, and other carbon-related environmental conditions are and will remain significantly uncertain, highly variable, and largely unpredictable. Scientists and mathematicians know that the systems involved in the various dimensions of climate change policy are in fact extremely complex and often chaotic, fraught with considerable, irreducible uncertainty.

But contrary to the so-called sceptics, this uncertainty does not licence inaction. Most human decisions are made in conditions of imperfect uncertain information. We have to act even though we don't know everything.

While we may not have established that man-made climate change is an absolute certainty, it is a serious risk. And rational people act so as to manage serious risks, even when they cannot say with confidence exactly how great the risk is. The risk that any particular house will burn down is rather small. And yet fire insurance is almost universal. Most people sensibly believe that large risks, even if the probability they will occur is small, are still worth protecting yourself against.

The key discussion, then, is not about whether climate change is occurring, but how great we think the risk is, and how big the insurance premium is we are willing to pay to mitigate the potential damage. That is a completely different conversation.

Another thread in that conversation will concern the climate itself. The earth's climate has changed continually and frequently throughout its 4-billion-year history and will continue to do so for hundreds of millions of years to come. Moreover, natural forces have caused the climate to change suddenly and drastically many times in the past and are certain to do so again. Human activities may indeed be contributing to climate change now. But more powerful, uncontrollable natural forces continue to operate. So policies that promise to prevent climate change are destined to fail and can only waste resources which can better be applied to improving human security and welfare, especially via strategies that will permit humanity to be more adaptable in the face of the potential impacts of climate change.

Yet a further thread would be a cold hard look at what we know about the greatest variable in climate change policy, which is not the climate, but the behaviour of people. Any climate change policy that depends on transforming human nature is not a solution, because it will not work. Too much wishful thinking goes on that "science" should inform all our decisions, and yet we somehow think the findings of the physical sciences can and will trump what we know about how real people think and act. As a result, the policy "solutions" utopians promote (we will give up cars and use buses and bicycles) assume a malleability of human attitudes and behaviour that has little or no basis in social science or historical precedent. We must plan on the basis of how people actually behave, rather than how we wish they would behave.

We would also dispense with the widely accepted but quite mistaken idea that small scale experiments can always and easily be massively scaled up. This presumption confounds one of the broadest and most consistent scientific principles, that forces and phenomena observed at a small scale usually work quite differently at a larger scale, and vice versa. So, for instance, advocates of carbon cap-and-trade schemes claim that such "market-based" solutions worked to reduce power-plant sulfur oxide emissions and replace ozone-destroying chlorofluorocarbons with more benign products. But those industrial markets are orders of magnitude smaller than the global market for carbon-based fuels and other products. There is little reason to think that such policies would escape this scale effect.

The climate policy we need, therefore, is the one that hardly anyone is talking about. It would accept the risk of manmade climate change, but reject utopian and unworkable schemes to "stop" it or that assume that human nature can be abolished. We would concentrate our scarce resources where they would maximize human well-being: on policies, technologies and infrastructure that allow humanity to adapt successfully to uncertain climate conditions in the future.

Brian Lee Crowley is the Managing Director of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, an independent non-partisan public policy think tank in Ottawa:


One Coment, RSS

  • Ray Ladbury

    says on:
    May 18, 2012 at 9:01 am

    Brian, the biggest problem with your argument is that in order to acccept risk, we must be able to bound risk. We cannot do this with climate change. It is quite possible that climate change could render large portions of the planet's surface infertile deserts even as the human population crests (we hope) at around 10 billion people.

    Also, contrary to your assertion, the reality of anthropogenic climate change is a virtual certainty. We know CO2 is a greenhouse gas. We know greenhouse gasses warm the planet, and we know that we are increasing CO2 concentrations. The only question is how much warming we will see for a given increased CO2 concentration--and with greater than 95% confidence we can say that a doubling of CO2 will raise global temperatures by more than 2 degrees centigrade. I am afraid I don't see much wiggle room here, unless you want to bet the future of humanity on a 20:1 longshot.

    Finally, if you truly believe humans are incapable of modifying their behavior to conform with what science reveals about physical reality, then you are consigning humans--eventually--to the evolutionary dustbin. Any organism whose perceptions cannot reflect physical reality must eventually fail. I do not share your pessimism.

    I agree. We need to look at climate change differently, but that viewpoint must be based on a firm grasp of the science and the risks it poses, and how those risks interact with and exacerbate the other risks to the future success of human civilization.