As I’ve noted before, almost all human beings desire certainty, except for the adrenaline-junkies and thrill-seekers, and yet, as more than a few savants have noted, nothing in life is certain except death, and, usually, taxes. In terms of personal and political action, the problem with waiting for absolute certainly is that the price for that certainty is too often astronomical. At the same time, acting precipitately on too little information may be unnecessary or also costly with no positive results.

That’s the dilemma that politicians face today. Given that any action by government is costly, and given that it’s difficult, if not impossible, to throw a senator or representative out of office for failing to act, it’s no wonder that most elected officials are loathe to act on anything that doesn’t either approach a certainty in the minds of their constituents, or that has any significant cost. When I was the legislative director for a congressman, he said that the problem most elected officials had was that they addressed problems that hadn’t really proved to be problems. Needless to say, he was very conservative, and he wanted certainty before committing himself. In fact, however,the only things that approach a certainty in politics are the views of the extremists of either party, which is likely one reason why the Republicans in the House of Representatives have voted over fifty times to repeal the Affordable Care Act, even though it is just as certain that the Senate Democrats will block any vote on repealing the ACA in the Senate.

Despite an overwhelming majority of climate scientists declaring that global warming exists and that it is man-made, those who oppose the actions necessary to address global warming insist that there is not enough certainty in the existing evidence. This is tantamount to declaring that they have no intention of changing their minds until there is no possible doubt that global warming exists and is anthropogenic. Given that the rate at which global warming is proceeding – which is, by the way, without any doubt, the fastest rate in the history of the planet – it will likely be a minimum of twenty to fifty years, if not longer, before there’s enough evidence to convince a significant fraction of the doubters… and at that point, we’ll most likely have locked in a sea-level rise of at least fifteen feet over the next two centuries, with even greater increases in sea-levels, tremendous long-term damages, and remediation costs in the trillions of dollars.

Now… if global warming does not proceed that quickly, exactly what will be the effects of earlier remediation efforts? First, they will reduce the amount of greenhouse gases and atmospheric pollutants. Second, greater use of cleaner and renewable energy sources will extend the life of all energy sources needed for a technological society. Third, reforestation and sensible land use will benefit people across the globe. Fourth, better management of industrial, corporate, and personal wastes will result in cleaner land, rivers, and oceans. And most important, since global warming will proceed, the overall costs will be lower. None of these are exactly undesirable for either the United States or the rest of the world… or our children or grandchildren.

Can we really afford the cost of waiting for “absolute” certainty?

8 thoughts on “Certainty”

  1. D Archerd says:

    One of the most significant drawbacks to a democracy is that it is virtually impossible such a government to act decisively under any circumstances short of a crisis, at which time any solution will cost several orders of magnitude more in terms of money – and often lives – than it would have had they been willing to act earlier. We saw this in the buildup to WWII, where most Americans clearly understood the evils of fascism and Nazism, but were unwilling to act decisively until galvanized by Pearl Harbor. But the problem with global warming is even more difficult because of the slow speed of the change. People are easy to motivate to act when the crisis is upon them, and even when it is visible a year or less in the future. But for something that has been building for centuries and may yet take decades before the effects will be recognized by a majority as having reached crisis proportions, it is going to be nearly impossible to get people to agree to inconvenience themselves in any fashion to address it. I’m not sure what it will actually take: all the forests of the American West being engulfed in flames in a single, drought-ridden summer; perhaps New Orleans, Houston, and Miami all suffering catastrophic flood from tropical storms with the loss of hundreds or thousands of lives?

    The extremely apt analogy is that of the boiling frog, who slowly cooks to death without jumping out of the pot because it was initially put into water that was comfortable and the heat increased so gradually that by the time it felt uncomfortable, it was too damaged to save itself.

    I wish I could be more optimistic, but I don’t see our country even beginning to seriously address the issues until there has been such serious losses of lives and property that folks demand that our government “do something”.

    And while there is legitimate debate about the amount of contribution to global warming is due to man’s activities vs. the other factors at work, ultimately, does it matter? That global temperatures are rapidly rising, as are sea levels is not up for debate – those are documentable facts (except to those whose view of scientific evidence is delusional, which unfortunately describes a disturbingly large proportion of the American population). If one chooses to insist that man’s activities have nothing to do with those effects, we still have to address them in some fashion, and it seems like it would be a lot easier to impose a carbon tax than to simply accept global warming as completely beyond our control and thus having to relocate the populations of all low-lying cities, and abandon the cities of the Southwest to revert to desert.

  2. Plovdiv says:

    Here, Here. By the way, coming from the UK with the NHS, why is it so bad to help those who cannot afford health care? Surely, for those libertarians who say that people should help themselves, while professing to be devout Christians, it goes against their supposed faith to not help other people? In this case, they are being hypocritical and have not a leg to stand on.

  3. alecia says:

    I think there’s another factor in ‘our’ House of Representatives, and that is most of the GOP are loathe to do anything that this president wants. I do agree that they apparently find inaction effective, but it also happens to be a political tactic. As for dealing with the climate issues, to paraphrase what Pascal said about religion, if climate change is not true, we haven’t caused any harm by acting as though it is.

  4. Bob Walters says:

    There does not appear to be a “legitimate debate” the only scientists who seem to opposed to countering climate change are the one bought by the energy industry.

    1. Bob Walters says:

      I did not proof read that very well. It should have read “the only scientists who seem opposed to climate change.” Sorry for any confusion this might have caused.

  5. Bob Walters says:

    I should also mention that the “frog boiling” parable is actually a myth. Note: no frogs were harmed when I typed this reply. 🙂

  6. R. Hamilton says:

    The cost of waiting is touted with all sorts of drama about cataclysm; but the cost of NOT waiting is trillions of dollars.

    Nobody actually knows HOW MUCH of alleged global warming is due to CO2, or indeed how much harm even worst-case warming would actually do; but cutting the levels down to a level that will satisfy the paranoids will be insanely expensive – which has every bit as much human misery associated with it as do floods, droughts, storms, etc.

    Indeed, some of those (I don’t say all – there are doubtless sincere fools) among the paranoids will NEVER be satisfied, because their primary objective is to control every possible piece of the economy, of peoples lives, thoughts, liberty, and everything else. Combine that with the anti-human extremes among the environmentalists (who want the population MASSIVELY reduced), and you have a _political_ nightmare scenario.

    I’m not afraid of nature, even badly fouled up by careless and greedy people. I’m afraid of those who tell others they will only use their power for good…and keep demanding ever more power. They need to be eradicated, in every generation in which they appear, forever if necessary.

    1. Bob Walters says:

      Follow the money. Who has the vested interest in keeping the world (especially the US) addicted to fossil fuels? Who pays for the few studies that attempt to cast a tiny bit of doubt about climate change? The disinformation campaign is just astonishing. From TV ads touting the wonders of fracking (just not where they live) to the statements about how wonderful CO2 is because plants breathe it. But then that makes about as much sense as trusting a group whose primary motive is lining their own pockets. Jump in! The oil spills are fine.

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