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Sunday 20 Aug 2017 | 16:04 | SYDNEY
Sunday 20 Aug 2017 | 16:04 | SYDNEY

Reader riposte: Climate and risk

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COMMENTS

7 April 2010 10:02

Thomas Brinsmead comments on an old post of mine, but his thoughts remain relevant:

Sam, you wrote:

The argument that conservatives ought to favour climate change action on risk management grounds is superficially attractive, and in fact I have suggested it myself. But on further reflection, I don't think it withstands much scrutiny. There are an endless number of risks that governments could spend money on to mitigate, but most are dismissed or receive little attention because they are considered too remote or unlikely. A catastrophic asteroid strike on the earth is one example. So ultimately, you have to buy into the science of climate change to a large degree, otherwise why bias that risk over others?

You make a good point that there are an endless number of risks that governments could spend money on to mitigate and choices ultimately need to be made. However, you only have to buy into the science of climate change to SOME degree to favour climate change action on risk management grounds.

It is necessary to buy in only to the degree that you believe that there is a reasonable 'risk' that the popularly understood scientific consensus is correct. You don’t even have to agree that the scientific consensus is LIKELY TO BE correct, only that (given the costs of mitigation and the costs of inaction) it is a REASONABLE POSSIBILITY.

There is (arguably) a much higher risk that the scientific consensus on climate change is probably correct than the risk that there will be a catastrophic asteroid strike on the earth.

In looking at the risks of climate change and the risk of a catastrophic asteroid strike on earth, there are at least two distinct components of the likelihoods. One is the likelihood that a particular class of physical events will occur, given that the scientific models designed to analyse those likelihoods are correct. The second is the likelihood that the scientific models (and their communication) represent a fair view of the underlying reality. But the salience of each type of risk in each case is reversed.

For the asteroid, the physical likelihood is extremely remote, but the likelihood of the reliability of the models is high (assuming, if we may, a high degree of consensus among the relevant scientific community and the confidence we have in the underlying physics). For climate change, the physical likelihood of the undesirable outcome — assuming the reliability of the models — is moderate, but the likelihood of the models being correct is (we shall assume) also only moderate, given the contestability of the scientific consensus and the confidence we might have that the relevant scientific community is not suffering from groupthink cognitive bias.

So the asteroid risk is primarily the physical risk but for climate change the primary risk is a risk about the reliability of a particular social institution. But the salient issue here is that likelihood of the first is (arguably) much, much lower than the latter.

So in order to take climate change seriously it is not necessary to 'buy into the science of climate change to a large degree' but only to 'buy into the social institution of science to some degree'.

Does believing that there is a reasonably non-negligible chance that the predominant scientific consensus on climate change is correct constitute 'buying into the science of climate change'. I'd claim not really. 'Buying into' connotes (to me) a much greater degree of belief in the consensus view than estimating that the risk that the consensus is correct is large enough to take seriously.

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