Point of View

The cost of gambling on climate change

June 1, 2014 

There are two fundamental questions that frame the ongoing political debate on climate change: Is climate change occurring and, if so, is it caused by human activity? There is an abundance of evidence supporting an answer of “yes” to the first question. The answer to the second requires a more nuanced appreciation of correlations between observations and other data, as well as inferences from mathematical models, that can be difficult for some people to comprehend.

The policy debate on climate change bogs down because there are economic implications for whether, how and to what extent we should undertake efforts to mitigate any human causes. There is an analogy in medicine: It is often obvious when someone’s health has deteriorated, but identifying an underlying cause of the observed symptoms is not always straightforward. Yet when multiple lines of evidence and the collective judgment of experts suggest a course of action, allowing a patient to suffer by doing nothing, even if action is expensive, becomes unconscionable.

For policymakers, the most important question is: What are the consequences of being wrong? If one believes that human activity does not cause climate changeand that mitigation efforts would be an expensive, unnecessary drain on the economy, being wrong means we will have lost an opportunity to reduce or prevent a profound and irreversible change to the planet. It is only through man’s arrogance that we could assume that we could adapt by reversing the forces of nature if we discover that we were wrong. Nature will win.

It is better to ask whether there can be benefits to efforts to mitigate the causes of climate change even if the rationale turns out to have been wrong. Recent studies have documented the benefits of reducing emissions of carbon dioxide and methane because there is a corresponding reduction in air pollution and the associated effects on human health.

Mitigation strategies could also create business opportunities that would have a positive effect on the economy. The costs of reducing greenhouse gas emissions from power plants might affect the cost of electricity and in some regions of the country can influence jobs associated with coal production. But those who express concerns over these costs do not usually consider the simultaneous benefits, both to human health and on the economy. Some businesses will lose, but others will gain.

It is misplaced to argue that increased costs associated with reducing greenhouse gas emissions will put us at a competitive disadvantage with emerging economies, especially China, whose emissions of carbon dioxide recently surpassed ours. The Chinese people are already choking on their own pollution, so it is a matter of when, not if, China will take its own steps to reduce emissions.

Prudent leaders on each side of the climate change debate should analyze the consequences of being wrong. Responsible scientists will not conflate advocacy with science because that can undermine the integrity of the scientific method and the perceived objectivity of the results. Prudent leaders will not allow their decisions to be purchased by advocates. Responsible policy discussions will engage multiple stakeholders, consider worst-case scenarios in multiple directions, conceive options to address negative impacts to people whose jobs might be at stake and focus on developing adaptive strategies that can be adjusted as we learn more.

Some businesses are already planning for climate change and anticipating new opportunities associated with mitigation and adaptation strategies. Many municipalities and communities are already planning for the potential effects of climate change. For those at all levels of government who are not, getting this wrong has the potential to affect not just our children and grandchildren but every subsequent generation and every species on Earth.

There is only one species with the capacity to experience regret and guilt at having gambled on the wrong choices when something could have been done.

Michael D. Aitken is a professor and chairman of the Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering at UNC-Chapel Hill.

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