Why Uncertainty About Climate Change Is What Scares Me Most

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In his inaugural column for the New York Times, Bret Stephens- formerly with the Wall Street Journal- wrote a thoughtful and provocative, if controversial essay on the topic of uncertainty about climate change. He taught me some new vocabulary into the bargain, for which I am always grateful.

I confess an initial temptation to oppose Mr. Stephens’ entire premise on the merits, a temptation to which many others clearly surrendered. In my case, it’s because I hear echoes of the comparable charges about nutrition I encounter just about daily. While I fully embrace the case for uncertainty and humility on both topics, and routinely cite Bertrand Russell’s relevant wisdom, I renounce the false choice in both content domains between absolute certainty about all details and abject cluelessness about the big picture. Such arguments need little prodding to topple into absurdity and an abyss of intellectual nihilism. Are we truly 100% certain the earth isn’t flat? That the sun doesn’t revolve around the earth? I am always impressed that arguments about the importance of uncertainty in what we know are consistently so certain in their assertions about what we don’t know. Goose and gander come immediately to mind.

But I will suppress the temptation just the same, and go the other way. Mr. Stephens is certainly right: there is a lot of uncertainty about climate change projections. I don’t rely on expertise I lack to make that claim; I rely on the many genuine experts in this space with whom I am privileged to rub elbows.

I am not principally scared by the mere existence of climate change uncertainty. I do not think it undoes the weight of evidence or consensus of experts.

I am, of course, much concerned by overt denial, which has forestalled our progress for far too long already. But that’s not what scares me most either, even if it now roosts in places formerly thought high. Most people not frozen into a glacier for the past century know the climate is changing. Those so frozen are all thawing out now, so they know it, too.

Most people not mired in conflict, delusion, or deception also embrace our immanent involvement. If greenhouse gases do what greenhouses do, and if 8 billion Homo sapiens are pumping ever more of them into the atmosphere even as it changes at an alarming pace, what are the odds that we are uninvolved? I would love to play poker with anyone willing to bet on that hand.

I am, nonetheless, scared- or to be less alarmist about it, concerned- that someone with Mr. Stephens’ rarefied access to information and ownership of intellect could write such a column. Not because he is wrong about uncertainty, and not because he’s right either. What scares me most about climate change uncertainty is a simple requirement of logic Mr. Stephens somehow failed to mention.

If projections about the future of climate change are prone to considerable potential error, we must allow for that error to go in both directions. There is nothing necessarily reassuring about climate change uncertainty; those error bars encompass a space in which our worst nightmares find refuge.

The moment we concede the uncertainty about climate change projections- magnitude, pace, impact- that Mr. Stephens asks of us, we are obligated to allow for the entire expanse of that potential error. That’s what scares me most.

Due to the exigencies of politics and economics- public officials are apt to underestimate climate change, not exaggerate it. Due to the perennial triumph of hope over experience, and our frequent recourse to wishful thinking- we individuals are prone to the same. Human nature and the very biology of our native “fight or flight” response may impel us to dismiss any danger not yet upon us in tooth and claw. We are hard-wired for crises measured in seconds to minutes, not years to decades. Before Homo sapien eyes, slow-motion calamity can hide in pain sight.

Most ominously, though, even genuine experts may be disposed to understate the likely toll of climate change. I have had private conversations many times with environmental scientists- sometimes immediately before or after their public presentations- in which they confessed a willful effort to conceal the magnitude of their own worry, and the true scope of the problem for fear of inducing panic and despair. These experts are exploiting the very uncertainty of which Mr. Stephens makes so much not to embellish their warnings, but to attenuate them. They don’t want to make despondent fatalists of us all.

I believe I read Mr. Stephens’ column as he intended it be read, and thus did not find it objectionable in all the ways so many others apparently did. I don’t think he’s wrong.

But his column was fatally flawed just the same because he’s probably right, and failed to follow his own logic all the places it should have led. He failed to consider that we can be wrong about the pace and impact of climate change in either direction.

We all have rather urgent choices to make, our avowed lack of certainty about the future notwithstanding. The simple, salient question before us all, and our imperfect knowledge was left unposed by Mr. Stephens: in which direction are we more willing to guess wrong about this?

-fin

Director, Yale University Prevention Research Center; Griffin Hospital

Immediate Past-President, American College of Lifestyle Medicine

Senior Medical Advisor, Verywell.com