Overconfidence Ruining Climate Debate

Global warming activists are working hard to prime the public, politicians, and the press to support what they hope will be the largest climate change agreement ever this December in Paris. For the rest of 2015, all other environmental campaigns will take a back seat. The goal is to create a situation in which our negotiators feel compelled to agree to a new United Nations treaty to "save the climate," no matter the cost.

Besides last month’s Earth Hour, an event that has always focused on “changing climate change,” to quote their current motto, the environmental movement has increasingly let climate activists take center stage. For example, this year, April 18 – 23, is designated Climate Education Week, dedicated to teaching students the Earth Day Network’s position on climate change.

Across the world, thousands of political, academic, religious, and corporate entities are joining the cause. Even the pope will soon make a UN announcement in support of strong action to curb "greenhouse gas emissions" (GHG) that are supposedly threatening global climate.

But there is a serious ethical problem here.

Reports such as those of the Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change (NIPCC) illustrate that debate rages in the scientific community about the causes and consequences of climate change. Yet environmentalists and most of our leaders present the issue as if "the science is settled." We know with certainty, they claim, that our GHG emissions will cause a planetary emergency unless we radically change the way we generate energy.

This position is perhaps best summed up by the climate activist group 350.org, which asserts on its web site that “one thing is no longer up for debate: our climate is changing profoundly and rapidly, and human activity is the cause…to preserve a livable planet, scientists tell us we must reduce the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere from its current level of 400 parts per million to below 350 ppm.”

Independent of the findings of the NIPCC reports, the confidence of campaigners such as 350.org is irrational. Uncertainty is inherent to all science, especially one as immature and complicated as climate change. And considering what’s at stake -- a human-induced eco-collapse if alarmists are correct, or, if skeptics are right, a waste of trillions of dollars and a loss of millions of jobs -- properly assessing the probabilities of alternative scenarios is critically important to public policy decision-making.

We take uncertainties into account all the time when we make decisions in other fields. In assessing the value of life insurance, for example, both buyer and seller must assess risk. If they knew for sure that a person was about to die, no company would underwrite a life insurance policy for that individual. If it was certain that the insuree would live to 100, then there would be little need for life insurance at all. Deciding how much to invest in insurance versus our other expenses is a risk management exercise. We must admit that we do not know the future, while having the courage to make decisions based on an assessment of the evidence we do have.

Yet, in formulating public policy on climate change, our leaders gloss over the uncertainties and close the door to evidence that does not fit the alarmist agenda. Anyone, no matter how qualified, who questions this approach is shunned as a "denier."

So even in countries that can least afford it, governments spend vast sums to reduce emissions and encourage "green" energy sources. Rather than concentrating on activities we know will yield real benefits -- helping the poor adapt to natural climate variability and take advantage of inexpensive fossil fuel resources -- politicians trumpet speculative plans to regulate our planet’s climate. "We must limit global warming to two degrees," is their battle cry, as if we had a global thermostat.

Consequently, of the $1 billion spent worldwide every day on climate finance, 94% goes to mitigation, trying to control future climate (re: the San Francisco-based Climate Policy Initiative [CPI]). Only 6% is dedicated to adaptation. Astonishingly, in developing countries, even less, an abysmal 5%, goes to adaptation. We are valuing the security of people yet to be born more than those suffering today.

This could make sense if we were confident that human-caused climate Armageddon lay just ahead. Millions of people would be left to suffer and die today to save billions in the future.

But as the degree of certainty that a particular climate policy will significantly benefit future generations diminishes, today’s adaptation to mitigation funding ratio becomes less and less rational. Finally, if we knew that a human-induced climate crisis was not in the cards, then it would be easy to justify that no money be devoted to mitigation at all. Aside from "no regrets" policies to conserve energy and reduce pollution where it is a problem, all climate finance could then safely be devoted to helping vulnerable societies adapt to climate variability and funding research so that someday we may be able to meaningfully forecast future climate.

So the climate debate should be focused on trying to answer one simple question: how likely is it that a man-made climate crisis lies ahead?

To help them gather the evidence needed to answer this question, governments must convene open, unbiased hearings into the current state of the science, arranging that experts on all sides of the debate testify. Only then will they be able to conduct the risk management necessary to balance the known needs of those suffering today with the possible problems to be faced by future generations.

When the crusade to stop climate change finally collapses, the environmental movement will be disgraced, and their non-climate related causes will also no longer be taken seriously. This, not hypothetical future climate states, is what should most concern today’s environmentalists. Its time they kicked climate campaigners off the stage.