Let's look at probability rather than proof

Posted in: Comment, New Publications, News and Updates

A recent Economist ran a piece on Hurricane Sandy, and the costs to come from it.  It was typically thoughtful (if you like the Economist's thinking on economics and society, as I tend to do.  If you don't, it will just be provocative).  I thought it made sage comments on climate change, and what Americans might begin to do about that – or about the likelihood of it.  Basically, it's to wake up to increasing probabilities.  The article said, ...

Many scientists and journalists are cautious in listing climate change as a causal factor behind a storm like Sandy. Understandably so: weather emerges as part of a complex system, and it would be impossible to say whether a storm would or would not have materialised without global warming. But scientists are becoming ever less shy [ this is a Scientific American link ] in drawing a line between a higher frequency of "extreme" weather events and a warming climate. Climate shifts the probability distribution of such events, and so global warming may not have "caused" Sandy, but it makes Sandy-like storms more probable. As the ever-less-funny joke goes, 500-year weather events seem to pop up every one or two years these days. Frequency and intensity of storms aside, future hurricanes that hit the east coast will do so atop rising sea levels. Contemplate the images of seawater rushing over Manhattan streets and into subway and highway tunnels. Then consider that sea levels are rising. And then reflect on the fact that New York is very much like a typical megacity in being located on the water; tracing a finger around America's coastlines leads one past most of the country's largest and richest cities.

Americans may absorb all of this and decide that the smart choice continues to be a course of inaction. They may continue to believe that the storms—and droughts and heat waves and blizzards and floods—to come will be manageable because they'll be richer and well-equipped to adapt. Hopefully, there will at least be a better sense of what that is likely to mean and the trade-offs [sic] it will involve. Adaptation will be an ongoing, costly slog, with a side order of substantial human suffering. It will be one American icon after another threatened. Adaptation is not going to be easy. Hopefully Americans will ask themselves whether it's so much worse than the alternatives—high carbon taxes or large public investments or both—after all.

All this applies here as well, so what a pity the UK government hasn't a clear and coherent policy on all this.  See this link for a reflection on how hard all this can be in relation to, say, the energy market).

I wonder if our schools give enough time to this probability argument.  I suspect I know the answer.

Posted in: Comment, New Publications, News and Updates


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