Recently I responded to a question about climate change and risk on the National Journal Energy and Environment Expert Blog, where I am a frequent contributor. The question they posed noted that the Security and Exchange Commission and the Department of Defense had recently taken a stance that climate change poses a significant risk to investors and our national security. The Journal went on to ask if considering these risks was prudent for government agencies.
A portion of my answer is posted below. Please visit the Energy and Environment blog to read my full post and the opinions of other energy and environment leaders on both sides of the issue.
The posing of such questions at this advanced stage in the national policy debate on climate change reveals (rather painfully) why this country is not taking decisive action to address the threat of global warming.
Climate change is all about risk — risk to our economy, risk to food and water supplies, risk of “natural” disasters caused by foreseeable catalysts, national security risks from a world destabilized by environmental refugees, risks of extending the range of pests and pathogens.
Our failure to use risk analysis to evaluate the wisdom of action to mitigate climate change has been a major barrier to making rational decisions about the steps needed to protect our common future from unconstrained greenhouse gas emissions.
Today’s situation reminds me in some ways of the early days of the effort to control toxic substances in the United States.
In the late 1960s and 1970s, scientists were discovering the relationship between toxic chemicals and human disease. There were, of course, deniers then, and those who argued that regulation would damage economic growth.
But as we began to quantify the risks from toxic chemicals in causing cancer and birth defects, and as people came to understand those risks, there were hundreds of community meetings across the country at which citizens who lived near contaminated sites demanded explanations of why government was not acting to protect their communities, and, particularly, their children, from harm.
Certainty was not required for people to question why the pollution was not being stopped. An expression of risk was enough.
Once the risks were acknowledged by government, there was little choice for Congress to act or face increasing condemnation from voters and, ultimately, in the eyes of history, for having sat idly by while people suffered. Just a generation later, one cannot imagine piling leaking chemical drums over drinking water aquifers or spraying chemical wastes into rivers.
Now, virtually the entire global scientific community has defined a relationship between greenhouse gas emissions and rising global temperatures. Increasingly, specific projected temperature increases can be related to on-the-ground impacts like rising sea levels, decreasing crop production and diminishing water supplies. While one can dispute the timing and exact accuracy of these projections, any rational person must, at least, interpret them as risks.
In this context, the current debate over the fine points of climate science discussed by Juliet Eilperin in a recent Washington Post article seems strange. If a panel of experienced doctors told you that the risk to your family of contracting a dreaded disease from a continuing chemical exposure were one in 10, wouldn’t you take immediate action to reduce that exposure?