Guessing Wrong On Climate Change

We can't buy back the planet if we ruin it irreparably.

My father and I were hiking through the woods yesterday. We have enjoyed hiking together since I was much younger than the youngest of my kids is now. 

Sometimes, we go for miles without saying a word. Partly, I guess, that’s because we are guys. Partly, because we are father and son. Mostly, though, it’s because we love the woods and enjoy enjoying them together, and sometimes- that’s enough.

Other times, though, we talk the whole time. Yesterday, while hiking through woods we hope will still be there for the next generation, and the next; while hiking past rivers and streams running lower than anyone can remember, during a severe drought in New England the likes of which none of us has seen before- we had lots to say. Along with the inevitable medical matters discussed between two doctors, and a bit of this-and-that about assorted family members, we talked about the upcoming election ― and the fate of this heretofore beautiful planet.

The particular theme that spanned the longest portion of the hike was the inattention to climate change in the presidential campaign, and the failure of all concerned to raise the topic during any of three presidential debates. We lamented this together, and then my father posed the question he felt the candidates should have been obligated to answer at some point: what if you are wrong?

The critical question can really be that simple, because the dichotomy between candidates, parties, and ideologies is just that stark. One side acknowledges the reality of climate change, the overwhelming evidence of our direct contributions to it, and the dire consequences. The other side says something along the lines of: “bah, humbug.”

So we really could get at all that matters with my dad’s very simple question: what if you are wrong?

How convenient this inconvenient truth proves to be when it hands us all an excuse to do what we like to do anyway: invent, invest, diversify and profit

Let’s first address the likely attempt at a dodge. There is always the handy: but, I’m not wrong! We can dispatch that readily in several ways. First, the question can be hypothetical ― answer it anyway. What if you WERE wrong? Second, the shape of the earth, heliocentrism, and the harms of tobacco were opposed vehemently as well; history is not on the side of those opposing the weight of evidenceSo, play along.

Third, you are well advised to recall the wit and wisdom of Bertrand Russell. Wise people admit doubts; fools and fanatics do not. So, let us know whether you are a fool, or a fanatic ― or answer the question!

The playing field here really isn’t level. The evidence, and global consensus among experts, is overwhelming. But we can play on even pretending there is a legitimate basis for doubt. We simply need to apply the doubt to both sides, and we wind up back at that deceptively simple question: what if you are wrong?

If “we need to address climate change” is wrong, and we act on it, we will potentially allocate resources somewhat in excess of need. We will invest in a whole array of carbon-neutral, non-polluting, renewable energy sources. We will take steps to protect rain forests, wetlands, and fragile ecosystems. We will revise our agricultural systems to reduce food waste, water consumption, and soil degradation as a safeguard against shortfalls. We will invest in efforts to empower women around the world not just because it’s the right thing to do, but also because it will advance the goal of stabilizing the global human population. We will develop scalable technologies for carbon sequestration and repurposing, and desalinization. And so on.

The “cons” of all this are that money will be spent on doing it, and that money might otherwise remain in somebody’s bank account. On the other hand, spending money on innovation is generally what a capitalist system does, even when the innovation is entirely unnecessary. How convenient this inconvenient truth proves to be when it hands us all an excuse to do what we like to do anyway: invent, invest, diversify and profit. And that’s an accounting of the down side.

The “pros” of guessing wrong in this direction are that we will have somewhat unnecessarily clean and renewable energy sources for all the generations to follow us, more predictable and equitable supplies of water and food for the world’s population, and protections of more wild places and things. 

If “climate change is a hoax and we have nothing to do with it” is wrong, and we act on that, well, then, all the horrifying predictions of those pesky “climate scientists” come true. The “cons” here are that the ice all melts, the islands and coasts sink, and a cascade sets in where we use ever more of the technology that begot climate change to contend with the consequences of it, and heat things up- until we are all cooked. Water shortages alone will suffice to create civil unrest and mass migration, leading to conflict and war. Desertification will cause massive crop failures, which may not matter only because we’ll be too thirsty to care about food. Somewhere in the mix are ever more emerging infections, and ever more violent storms ― which only won’t matter to coastal cities, because they’ll be under water already.

What, then, are the “pros” of guessing wrong in this direction? Well, those making lots of money from the status quo will continue to make money from the status quo for the little while that stands between now, and all going together to hell in the same hand basket. I am genuinely trying to be even-handed about this, but that’s all I’ve got.

If we guess wrong in one direction, we will have mortgaged both the future, and trust, for the sake of short-term profits.

But as noted at the start, I’ve got something else: kids. Most of you do, too. 

It really comes down to this: we can act in one of two directions on climate change, and we can pretend (though it’s certainly not true) that each has an equal chance of being “wrong.” If we guess wrong in one direction, we risk bequeathing our children a future where we fixed more than was truly necessary. Perhaps some few of us, in the short term, will have a bit less in our personal trust funds as a result of making the requisite investments.

If we guess wrong in the other direction, we will have mortgaged both the future, and trust, for the sake of short-term profits. Some few of us, in the short term, might have a bit more cash on hand to pass along to our kids, but they won’t thank us ― because it won’t buy back the planet we ruined irreparably.

We can pretend there are two ways of guessing wrong on climate change. There’s no way to pretend the consequences are comparable. Please consider that before you place your bet.


Director, Yale University Prevention Research Center; Griffin Hospital

Immediate Past-President, American College of Lifestyle Medicine

Senior Medical Advisor,