In light of the release of the IPCC’s “Summary for Policymakers” today, we recommend reading (or re-reading) E3G’s “Degrees of Risk” report, which was released in 2011, but increases in timeliness with each passing year.
Brad Plumer’s article this morning had a great headline: The science of global warming has changed a lot in 25 years. The basic conclusions haven’t. The basic conclusions have not changed, but what does that mean for policymakers? Degrees of Risk offers an appropriate “risk management” framework for guiding policymakers towards a better understanding of the extent of the climate risks we face, as well as steps we can take to mitigate those risks. The report notes:
Current responses to climate change are failing to manage effectively the full range of climate security risks. There is a mismatch between the analysis of the severity of climate security threats and the political, diplomatic, policy and financial investment countries expend to avoid the attendant risks. E3G’s report Degrees of Risk: Defining a Risk Management Framework for Climate Security, proposes taking some hard won lessons from the security community and adopting a rigorous risk management approach to climate security.
Worth a read (or a re-read).
Humans are very bad at risk. We’re not biologically predisposed to think in terms of probability. We’re wired to think in terms of threat. That’s different, and the fundamental challenge of climate change.
It’s hard to imagine the catastrophe that CO2 accumulation is likely to bring about. One feels a bit like a crackpot to say that weather and agriculture are very likely to be profoundly and permanently disrupted unless we do something dramatic, even if one is clear on the physics.
People need a demonstration of the outcome, something concrete for their emotions to latch onto. It’s easy to imagine the consequences of running a stop sign because most people have seen or been in a car wreck. Climate change is unprecedented.
Similarly, it’s easy to imagine the consequences of a Hitler. We can see what’s been done. The threat is clear. If a guy with a bad haircut and a funny mustache were pumping massive amounts of CO2 into the air, we’d know exactly what to do.
The problem is even more profound: our disinclination to think in terms of abstract risk is a vestigial survival mechanism from our paleolithic days. Fight-or-flight makes a lot of sense from a Darwinian POV when you’re trying to survive on the veldt. Fretting about abstract things like whether the long-term atmospheric flows are going to shift on you is maladaptive in that primitive environment.