Thursday, October 15, 2009

Blog Action Day: Climate Change

For Blog Action Day -- thousands of bloggers around the world writing about a single topic, climate change, on a single day.

I believe in science. Not because "scientists are right" but because science is self-correcting over time. And because the whole point of science lies in approaching issues based on available evidence and with an openness to being proven wrong by additional evidence.

Scientists know that weather fluctuates, that true climate change is generally measured in geological time, not human-scale time, and that 140 years of weather records do not constitute geological evidence.

When scientists know those things but find convincing evidence to come to a strong consensus that human activity is affecting climate now, and rapidly, I think we should listen.

When they make a reasoned case that catastrophic atmospheric tipping points are fast approaching, I think we should listen.

When I was studying negligence in law school, we learned about the standard of reasonable care. In one influential approach to determining whether conduct constitutes the reasonable care required of us to avoid being considered legally negligent, factors to be considered include:
  • the foreseeable likelihood that harm will result
  • the foreseeable severity of the harm that may ensue
  • the cost of taking precautions that eliminate or reduce the possibility of harm.
This analysis suggests that when the foreseeable harm is very great, it is more reasonable to expect people to take steps to avoid that harm, even if the probability that the harm will actually occur is not terribly high.

Thus, for example, it is not reasonable to dangle your baby over a balcony even though you are strong and coordinated and you think it is very unlikely you will drop the child, because in the unlikely event that you do drop the child, the harm will be catastrophic. Similarly, people are required to carry liability insurance to protect people they may injure in a car crash, even though it's not all that likely they will cause a crash, and even though they would rather not pay the insurance premiums, because if they do have a crash the injuries that may occur are likely to be serious. The cost of insurance is a reasonable one in light of the risk of uncompensated injuries. Even more important, we need to drive carefully.

Bringing this back to climate change, if the risk to current and future life, health, communities, ecosystems and whole ways of life is potentially severe, we need to act. Better we do what we can to prevent catastrophic changes to our environment and perhaps discover it was unnecessary, than not act and run the risk of discovering that it was necessary -- and that it is now too late.

In climate terms, the weight of scientific opinion is that the harm we risk by not changing our behavior is potentially severe, and that the probability of harm is high. So we need to "drive" carefully. We need to have "insurance." We need to pull that "baby" back in and not let him or her dangle. We need to take reasonable care. Because a planet is a terrible thing to waste.

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