Global Warming Possibilities

091207usatoday global warming.91

OK, this is something that I find myself frequently saying in short form, so I decided to just write it down and post it here so that I can point people to it in the future.

When people are discussing global warming, I feel like a lot of people, particularly everyday folks who are ambivalent or apathetic on the matter, are getting lost in all the details. And politicians, particularly those that are against doing anything about global warming, seem to jump straight to attacking or supporting specific measures, and forget that those measures are means, not the ends themselves.

But before we can even get to the details, we need to see the big picture. I mean the really big picture: global warming either is or is not occurring, and we either are or are not going to do something about it.

To be clear, I’m not saying that the details don’t matter. And, in fact, the first part of that equation needs to be figured out based on details, in the form of facts. But until we decide which of the 4 quadrants we’re in, arguing over whether the best solution is a carbon tax or carbon allotments or biofuels or fusion is putting the cart before the horse, a bit.

But what I’m saying is that there really are only two possibilities, and only one choice.

Global warming 2-factor decision

Now, don’t focus too much on the exact details I put in the boxes. First of all, I grossly simplified. Secondly, there is absolutely room to debate those details–which gets back to exactly that discussion I’m saying we shouldn’t be worrying about just yet. 

The important part is the color coding. Throughout, I’m using light red for a bad or negative outcome, and light blue for an acceptable or positive outcome. [I started with red and green, but quickly realized that the tonalities were too close and red-green colorblindness too common.]

And the important part that that color coding is supposed to draw your attention to is that there’s only one bad possibility. It should be self-evident that we can immediately ignore two possibilities: if global warming is occurring, and we address it, we’re good. If we do nothing, but it’s not occurring, we’re good. But what I hear lots of anti-global warming people worrying about is what happens if we do all this stuff, and it turns out global warming isn’t occurring (whether due to misunderstanding or deceit)? As you can see above, we still come out ahead, maybe even better off than if global warming is occurring. The only way we have a problem is if it’s occurring, but we don’t do anything about it. 

Or, to put it another way: of the two decisions (do something or don’t do something), one of them can’t produce a negative outcome. If we choose to do something, at worst, we improve efficiency and thus our lives. 

“But,” you say, “you’re glossing over the really important question of whether or not humans are causing global warming.” OK, let’s add that into our decision, making it sort of a 3-factor decision. (I’m leaving out the distinction in the “it’s not occurring” category, because it’s a moot point in that case.)

Global warming 3-factor decision

As you can see, it really doesn’t make a lot of difference. Just like if global warming isn’t occurring at all, if it’s not human-caused we still reap all the benefits of efficiency and whatever else we do to address global warming. And, depending on exactly what we do, we might decrease the global warming anyway, if we choose methods to address it that counter whatever the causes are.

Similarly, it doesn’t really matter whether we’re causing it or not–if global warming is occurring and we don’t do something about it, we’re in exactly the same amount of trouble whether it’s anthropogenic or not. So, again, there’s a hugely dangerous decision (not doing anything, if it turns out that global warming is happening), and there’s a decision (doing something) that is safe regardless of the situation that, at worse, leaves us where we already are.

“OK, so you’ve convinced me that if the choice is between drowned in a real-world Waterworld or not, we should do something. But how do we know how bad it will be if we do nothing?”

OK, that’s a good point. Why spend all this effort to address global warming, even if it’s real, if what would happen if we didn’t would be more days for golfing and going to the beach?

Global warming 4-factor decision

Again, no point in including the source options if global warming isn’t occurring. Similarly the magnitude of the effects is also a moot point if global warming isn’t occurring, but I just left the double entries, which are identical.

Now, I’ve colored blue one pair of options that maybe should be a different color: global warming is real/we do something/the climate changes are as predicted. If the results of global warming are as currently predicted, we probably can’t address the problems sufficiently–it’s too late. So, in fairness, maybe they should be striped red & blue. But I didn’t because they’re not an argument against doing something. Because, however bad it is, it’s still better than not doing something in that situation. And, again, it’s important to note that, even if the effects of global warming are relatively minor, we’re still not worse off if we try to prevent global warming than if we don’t.

How do I know this last part? Look around you. The weather of late is increasingly extreme, setting new records for severity and frequency of weather events on a regular basis. If this is all the worse it’s ever going to get, it’s still too bad to simply accept. Just check out the huge projected costs of lost food crops this summer alone.

So, to sum up, these extra factors don’t really change the overall equation. Look back at that original 2-factor decision grid, because that really does sum it up: Either we do something or we don’t, and either global warming is occurring or it’s not. There’s only one way we can go really wrong, and that involves not doing anything to address global warming. 

Oh, to address the other objection I often hear: “global warming is, based on the current info, an extremely unlikely event.” Without even addressing the validity of that claim, let’s apply that to that original 2-factor decision grid. Well, it doesn’t really apply to the “do something” part, because that’s a decision we make. So we’ll apply it to the “global warming is real” part. OK, let’s say that the odds are only 10% that global warming is occurring. That means that if we don’t do anything, we have only a 10% chance of it coming back to bite us. It also means that if we do something, there is only a 10% chance that we correctly address it. And a 90% chance that we reap the benefits of addressing global warming without suffering the problems of global warming. Or, in other words, it’s still a 0% chance that we made the wrong choice. 

Basically, the sort of decision grid I’m talking about here doesn’t care about likelihood–you might factor that in later, when deciding what to do–it’s just looking at the possibilities and whether they tell you anything about one decision versus another. And, in this case, it says that we can forget about the likelihood, because there’s one choice that is “safe”, and works no matter what those odds are.


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