Uncertainty and Climate Models

Fred Pearce has a useful post on the uncertainties of climate predictions, including speculation that the next IPCC report may report greater uncertainty than in the past:

We are all — authors and readers of IPCC reports alike — going to have to get used to greater caution in IPCC reports and greater uncertainty in imagining exactly how climate change will play out. This is probably healthy. It is certainly more honest. But it in no way undermines the case that we are already observing ample evidence that the world is on the threshold of profound and potentially catastrophic warming. And it in no way undermines the urgent need to do something to halt the forces behind the warming.

Some argue that scientific uncertainty should make us refrain from action to slow climate change. The more rational response, given the scale of what we could face, is the precise opposite.

So far, I have had no luck in getting climate skeptics to grasp why uncertainty is not a reason for inaction.   Let  me try just one more time.  Suppose you have some symptoms that could be a fatal disease or could be something minor.  You’re not certain which it is.  Is that a good reason for ignoring the problem?  Really?

Reader Comments

One Reply to “Uncertainty and Climate Models”

  1. The hard-to-explain leap from skepticism to inaction is a good observation. For some reason the relatively easy-to-estimate economic costs of climate policy are viewed as much more compelling than the unknown (but possibly large) costs of doing nothing. I’ve written a little about it here:

    http://www.progressivefix.com/the-mcclellan-principle

    The best way I’ve come up to deal with this argument is to ask the person making it how they would vote on a parole board. There, costs of keeping someone in jail are known, while costs of releasing the prisoner are unknown but potentially large. Does the uncertainty mean we should always release prisoners?

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Dan Farber

Dan Farber has written and taught on environmental and constitutional law as well as about contracts, jurisprudence and legislation. Currently at Berkeley Law, he has al…

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