The Climate Debate Just Shifted

When scientists are certain, what’s the next challenge for the public?

The debate over whether humans are causing climate change is over.

In late September, the international body of scientists and governments that won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007—the IPCC—put it this way: “It is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century.”

“Dominant cause” is pretty straightforward, but the term “extremely likely” isn’t. In IPCC lingo, “extremely likely” means a greater than 95% probability that the statement is correct.

“Extremely likely” is one step down from absolute certainty, and it means that the quantity and quality of the evidence has reached an extraordinarily high standard. The world’s experts are telling us that global warming is “unequivocal” and that there is virtually no doubt as to the cause.

So, what does this mean for the future of the climate debate?

We may already be seeing a glimpse of what comes next. The public focus on personal experience is shifting attitudes. Recent reports from the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication show more than 70% of Americans in California, Colorado, Ohio and Texas believing that global warming is happening.

Witnessing extreme storms, drought, intense and frequent wildfires, heat waves and dramatic flooding changes minds. But Americans are still divided in their beliefs about the cause. This is why the new IPCC statement on causality is so meaningful.

The record-breaking damage and costs of “outlier” events are becoming our new normal. Once labeled “extreme risks,” these extremes are becoming familiar experiences, if not annual expectations.

With this new normal comes our next big challenge: understanding what the word “risk” really means.

This is where a special class of economists who specialize in risk management can help us.

While other economists model the future as if the basics will remain the same, risk managers consider the potential for very big disruptions that might come our way.

Risk managers look beyond the most likely future in order to evaluate a broader range of outcomes—even the less likely ones called “black swans”—in order to help people prepare for the worst case scenarios.

As the old adage goes, it’s smart to hope for the best and plan for the worst. But in a changing climate, where extreme events are becoming more common, what are the worst-case scenarios? How far should we go in planning for them?

Imagine, for example, that a rapidly melting Arctic might release large amounts of methane, a highly potent greenhouse gas, which might accelerate the rise in global temperatures and sea levels. According to the experts I interviewed recently, this scenario is already underway.

If the process happens quickly, the costs would be roughly equivalent to the world’s entire economic output for a year.

Is this the worst case? Is this what we should plan for? Is this the limit that we should dedicate ourselves to avoiding?

Questions like these form the background of a wonderful novel by Nathaniel Rich, titled Odds Against Tomorrow. We discussed the challenges of worst case thinking in my podcast segment, “What Does Fiction Look Like When Life Imitates Art?

For most of us, this is something new, uncomfortable and confusing. As the National Research Council observed a few years ago, most of us are “unprepared, both conceptually and practically” to meet the demands and opportunities of the changing climate.

So we are just beginning to incorporate risk management into our thinking. Yet risk management is—or will soon become—the new normal.

If necessity is the mother of invention, then the reality expressed in the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report certainly qualifies. The resilience of our communities, businesses and nations depends on mastering the language of risk.

The good news is that a large majority of Americans are awakening to the reality of the changing climate. When faced with such challenges, we constantly underestimate our capacity to do amazing things, yet time and again we achieve them.

Learning to think about, talk about and plan for extreme risks is no different. The IPCC’s dramatic statement simply turns the page. It’s time to begin the next conversation.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo courtesy of courosa via creative commons license.

About the Author

Tom is founder and CEO of Bowman Change, Inc., a consultancy dedicated to helping organizations reap the benefits of working with purpose—making social issues and environmental change central to their missions.