Posted by: climatewonk | March 30, 2008

Reality Check — Uncertainty and Risk

This report on climate change and national security is an example of the reality outside of the climate war blogs. 

On uncertainty:

Former U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gordon Sullivan enjoys a good debate. But he also knows there are times when debate must stop and action must begin. With respect to climate change, he says that time has arrived. “We seem to be standing by and, frankly, asking for perfectness in science,” Gen. Sullivan said. “People are saying they want to be convinced, perfectly. They want to know the climate science projections with 100 percent certainty. Well, we know a great deal, and even with that, there is still uncertainty. But the trend line is very clear.”

“We never have 100 percent certainty,” he said. “We never have it. If you wait until you have 100 percent certainty, something bad is going to happen on the battlefield. That’s something we know. You have to act with incomplete information. You have to act based on the trend line. You have to act on your intuition sometimes.”

In discussing how military leaders manage risk, Gen. Sullivan noted that significant attention is often given to the low probability/high consequence events. These events rarely occur but can have devastating consequences if they do. American families are familiar with these calculations. Serious injury in an auto accident is, for most families, a low probability/high consequence event. It may be unlikely, but we do all we can to avoid it.

So, while the rest of the world has moved on to review options to address the risk of warming, some parts of the blogosphere have continued to focus on old battles and tearing open old wounds. As an academic, I can do this because it is important to understand the past and its part in constructing the present, but minds like HB need to focus on what is happening today and solutions. I hope we can see that mind, and the minds of others, turned to that issue rather than focusing on the past.

I suspect that C A won’t because this all the deniers have — the Hockey Stick is their touchstone that proves — to them at least — that they are right.

Evidence shows otherwise and most everyone else knows better.



  1. People always think about low probability high consequence events. That’s why more people fear dying in low probability plane crashes instead of high probability automobile accidents. Is the General a climatologist? Is he a statistician? How does he know that he isn’t being led down the garden path?

    As Carl Sagan said, “I don’t go by my gut. I can wait until the evidence is in.”

  2. I’ve worked in emergency management, planning for all kinds of emergencies, including those very likely and those that are remote. Even if the risk of a particular emergency may be remote, if we don’t plan for it and have a response plan in place, we will be caught with our pants down, so to speak, if the event takes place. Better to know how to respond and have a plan in place beforehand than to flounder around, failing to respond effectively when the unexpected happens. The risk of being unprepared is too high to be acceptable.

    With climate change, the risk is potentially extreme — droughts and floods, extreme heat events, famine, wars, etc. Only fools would fail to plan for it and only a bigger fool would refuse to try to lessen risk.

  3. What would you think of a fool that did his damnedest to maximize risk ?
    Denial is a religious tool – but they are tools themselves. The only thing that makes any sense whatsoever is something that most reject as outrageous – tools of empire involve controlling access to essentials of life, scientific data, and open conversation.
    Media are owned by corporations and politicians need a budget to pay for ads to get elected. We live in a ‘brittle’ society where we depend on articial means to facilitate our lives – especially in regards to food and water.
    I just had myself a rant on the subject – and don’t really feel like posting it twice.

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