Sometimes, the best way to solve an intellectual problem is to recast the question. One of my law school professors had a favorite: assuming that any decision includes the possibility for error, in which direction do we want to err? After washing the question through this framework, the result isn’t so much a new starting point, as a new perspective, grounded in the acknowledgment that there are no absolutes and perfect answers.
As the Copenhagen conference begins, amidst worsening warming and an overblown “controversy” over out-of-context stolen e-mails, it’s best to remember what the stakes are. If we consider that scientists could be wrong about warming, but so could the opposition, we’re left with a choice. Where do we want to end up?
Let’s imagine both sides have a 50% chance of being “right.” We grade the possible harms, the risks of being wrong, on a scale from 0-100. At worst, if we take action on climate change, and buy all of the critic’s hyped up conspiracy theories, we could destroy the economy for a decade (I refuse to credit the concern that America would “lose her sovereignty”). Let’s set that at a 50. Alternately, at worst, global warming shall surely kill us all. That’s got to be at 100. Assuming a level playing field, the math works out like this:
Harm for pursuing climate change remediation: p(i) = .25
Harm for taking our chances: p(i) = .50
It’s a simplistic model but it illustrates the point. Where the stakes are this high, and there’s even a modest chance the stated harm could materialize, we deflect error to the outcome that doesn’t end in Armageddon.