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Jim Armstrong: Climate uncertainty should lead to action

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I followed with interest the recent column in the Daily News written by John Cook, taking columnist Stan Gudmundson to task for misusing Cook’s climate research in a recent article. I would add to that another point, which is the general tendency of climate-denialists to use the wrong standard of evidence in considering the dangers of climate change.

A recent post by energy blogger Kurt Cobb considers this issue in detail (full disclosure: Kurt is a friend of mine). He claims that denialists are using a clever rhetorical trick to “get both the public and policymakers to abandon the preponderance of evidence standard used primarily in civil trials--and which is similar to evidence-based public policymaking--in favor of another judicial standard designed for criminal trials, namely, beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Kurt points out that a “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard is really only designed to be used when considering the guilt of an individual — because, as William Blackstone put it: “It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.” But this same standard would be disaster for public policy. For example, should we wait to build a levee until we are 100 percent sure that a flood is coming?

Climate-change deniers are basically claiming that regulating greenhouse gas emissions should only be undertaken when we are 100 percent certain of their role in global warming. They do so not because this is prudent, but because such a standard means that any evidence they offer which casts even the slightest shadow of a doubt on some obscure corner of climate science can be offered up as a reason for inaction. Since the denial lobby is largely funded by fossil fuel corporations, and fighting climate change hurts their bottom line, this strategy makes logical sense.

But not moral sense. If there is even a fairly remote chance that a catastrophic event will occur, we are often moved to take action (this is why we buy home insurance and health insurance). The greater the severity of possible harm and the greater the odds of it happening, the greater the need for prudence. In the case of climate change, the degree of possible harm is high: predictions include crop failure, catastrophic flooding, severe drought, and killer heat waves, all of which could bring great suffering to vast numbers of people.

The likelihood of occurrence is also high. As Cobb says, “the role of greenhouse gases in causing climate change comes closer to a 100 percent certainty than perhaps any previous scientific finding used to justify public policy action.” When 95 to 97 percent of the scientists tasked with finding out about this issue are in accord that carbon pollution is endangering our future, it is reasonable to do take prudent action — unless of course you are being paid a lot of money to say otherwise, or unless you are an ideologue who believes that government action is always wrong and industry pundits are always right.

What if the shoe were on the other foot? What if climate deniers were held to the same standard of proof they are holding climate scientists to? Cobb’s article states,“There are only a tiny number of bona fide climate scientists who still say that the evidence is inconclusive concerning human contributions to climate change. There are none — so far as I know zero — who say that climate science proves that humans are not causing climate change — which would imply that these skeptics have a comprehensive, evidence-based theory of climate change which does not merely suggest nonhuman causes (which are already accepted by climate science), but which successfully refutes the enormous and growing evidence for human activities as a major cause.” Climate deniers do not have a case: they only have a strategy for blocking action.

This is of course why the other denialist strategy for delaying action is to forbid people from even talking about climate change, as just happened in Wisconsin. As was true in the campaign to keep Americans from knowing about the link between cigarettes and cancer, the fight to keep Americans from knowing about the link between fossil fuels and climate disaster depends on the twin forces of ignorance and doubt.

We should not be fooled by this. In our daily lives we act prudently on the preponderance of evidence to protect our families and communities from harm. We buy insurance, we don’t drive drunk, we tell our kids to fasten their seat belts and their life jackets — all without knowing for certain that bad things are going to happen. As Cobb puts it, “Where uncertainty remains concerning the possible consequences of climate change, that uncertainty — far from supporting inertia — actually cries out for significant and aggressive action in an effort to avert possible catastrophe.”

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