We’re all in this (test tube) together

Watch this video, and decide which is riskier - taking action on climate change, or not taking action?

By: Dr Joe Smith (Department of Geography)

  • Duration 15 mins
  • Updated Wednesday 16th July 2008
  • Introductory level
  • Posted under Environmental Studies
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The best piece of climate change communications that I’ve come across in years does not come from the BBC, Hollywood, or a massively overpaid ad agency. Rather it’s the work of a geek-and-proud-of-it 38-year-old science teacher from Independence, Oregon. His line is that the American public is making a mistake approaching climate change as a question of whether the science of climate change is finished or not. Instead we all need to look at this as a risk management problem.

This ten-minute video looks pretty unpromising at first sight. Greg Craven has posted a homemade film that is structured as a dialogue between himself and a devils advocate (Greg in a silly hat). The piece is delivered straight to camera with the odd chemistry class explosion thrown in to keep the kids happy. It is structured as a logical argument that he believes leads conclusively to an argument in favour of action to limit the risks of climate change.

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The Most Terrifying Video You'll Ever See 2

Greg: Here’s something I bet you haven’t thought of. You know that whole shouting match about global warming?

Other Greg: Yeah, and I’m sick of it!

Greg: What’s with the hat and smoke?

Other Greg: I’ll be playing devil’s advocate.  Lay off, it’s the best I could do for horns and brimstone.

Greg: Okay. I know it seems like such a noisy mess that it’s easier to tune out but here’s a thought for you: while we debate whether humans can really change the climate or not, we are at the same time running the experiment.  The kicker is, no matter what the outcome of the experiment, we’re in the test tube, so it seems pretty clear we’d better get to the bottom of the controversy as quickly as possible.

Other Greg: But how do you know which side to believe?

Greg: What if I told you I’ve got a way to look at it where you don’t need to believe anyone but you can still decide with confidence what we should do?

Other Greg: What are you smoking? That sounds impossible.

Greg: Yeah, I thought so too so I put it out there in a video and, after being critiqued by thousands of people, I think I’ve now gotten a conclusion that’s pretty much undeniable.

Other Greg: We’ll just see about that.

Greg: So here’s the reasoning in a nutshell. If you want more detail watch for the index at the end of the video.

Other Greg: First off, no-one’s perfect, so every choice you make brings with it a risk if that choice turns out to be a mistake. Given that, which risk would you rather take? Listen to the activists and take big action now risking the possible harm to the economy that the sceptics warn us about, or listen to the sceptics and don’t take big action now risking the possible destruction and upheaval that the activist warn us about? The bottom line is which is the more acceptable risk, the risk of taking action or the risk of not taking action?

Greg: Ah jeez, when you put it that way.

Other Greg: Hey, don’t just accept what I say. I’m just some guy. Think it through for yourself.

Greg: Okay, okay.  Wait a minute, global warming isn’t caused by humans in the first place, I’ve seen lots of evidence for that so you’re presenting a false choice.

Other Greg: Are you infallible?

Greg: No.

Other Greg: Could you be wrong?

Greg: Yes.

Other Greg: So the question of which is the more acceptable risk still applies, doesn’t it.

Greg: Fine, but it’s still a loaded question.

Other Greg: Well, take a look at where the question came from and see if you agree that it’s a valid one.

Greg: If you need to make a decision when things are unclear like we do with global warming, it’s often useful to look at the different possibilities for the future.  The first possibility is whether human-caused global warming turned out to be true or not. So let’s put F for the future where it turns out to be false and T for where it turns out to be true.  The other possibility is what action we end up taking.  Let’s make column A yes for significant action and column B no for little to no significant action.  So that gives us four boxes that spell out four different basic futures. What might each of these futures look like? 

First is the future where we did take action and global warming turned out not to be real after all.  Let’s take the most pessimistic view there and say all we get is a bunch of economic harm and zero positive benefits. How about this box?  We didn’t take action and we didn’t need to, everybody celebrates, the sceptics because they were right and the activists because it wasn’t the end of the world after all.  How about this box? We took action and it was a good thing too because the doomsayers were right, we’ve still got the economic costs but everyone’s okay with that because we saved our cookies.  Now how about this box down here? We didn’t take action but the doomsayers turned out to be right.  Well, if we did the most pessimistic view up here we should do the same thing down here and this you’ve heard before, we have environmental, political, social, public health and economic disasters on a global scale, a disaster scenario.  

Now obviously this is grossly simplified, the smiley faces give that away, but we can say that the future will fall roughly into one of these four boxes.  Most of the shouting match is about trying to predict which row the future will fall into, which we can’t know for certain until we actually get there. But what we can know, because we control it, is which column the future will not fall into, because by taking action or not we are choosing a column and that eliminates the risk in the other column. So it’s a bit like buying a lottery ticket.  We choose ticket A or ticket B and then wait to see what the laws of physics dish out as our result.  One way or the other we’re taking a risk, so which risk is more acceptable, the risk of taking action or the risk of not taking action?

Other Greg: Hey that sounds good but the logic is bogus. Wouldn’t that grid argue for action against any possible threat, no matter how costive the action and how ridiculous the threat, even giant mutant space hamsters because it’s better to go broke building a bunch of rodent traps than to even risk the possibility of being hamster chow, right?  So this grid is useless.

Greg: Yeah, I totally agree with you.

Other Greg: Huh?

Greg: The grid by itself isn’t a silver bullet but what it does do is it allows us to make a decision using uncertain knowledge by changing the question from are humans affecting the climate to the real question, what’s the wisest thing to do given the uncertainties and the risks? Really it’s just basic risk management. So to get around your hamster argument we need to get a sense of how likely each row is.

Other Greg: Why can’t we just wait until the science is finished and then we’ll know what to do?

Greg: Well for one thing that doesn’t avoid risk because that’s the same as just choosing column B, which is where we sit right now. And for another thing, science is never finished.  We’re still studying the law of gravity, for Pete’s sake.  As a science teacher I can tell you that science, that most precise and geeky of all human endeavours, is surprisingly never certain.  Every single scientific statement carries with it some sort of estimate of how big the uncertainty is, which is part of why there will almost always be some disagreement on any scientific issue.

Other Greg: So where does that leave us if anything any scientist says is accompanied by a sort of ‘yeah, but I could be wrong’?

Greg: The trick is to not look at what individual scientists are saying but instead look at what the professional organisations are saying. The more prestigious they are the more weight you can give their statements, because they’ve got huge reputations to uphold and don’t want to ever say something that later makes them look foolish.  Probably the two most well respected of these in the world and NAS and AAAS. These are not advocacy groups but both recently issued unprecedented statements calling for big action now on global warming.  This isn’t a bunch of hippies, these are the nerdiest people on the planet.

Other Greg: So trust the eggheads, huh?  Basically you’re saying if AAAS and NAS said so who the heck are you to argue?

Greg: No. Well sort of. I mean who else are you going to believe on a scientific issue? But remember, you still don’t have to believe in them, you’re just using the fact that two such dodgy institutions stake their reputations on this to get a sense of this row must be way more likely than this row, pushing this line up. And companies such as this are even calling for emissions caps on their own industries, pushing this line up even further.  Now the conclusion is clear, because we’ve got our own solid reasons to believe that this must be a much more threatening risk that this, not only in likelihood but in damage as well.

Other Greg:  Okay, I can see that, but if the statements from those groups are such a slam dunk how come we still hear so much debate?

Greg: Well there is a handful of dissenting scientists, like there always is, in the media that knows a controversy sells. But I found a couple of polls that suggest it’s the lack of absolute certainty that’s holding people back, which is a little odd to me. We buy car insurance without being certain that we’ll get into an accident because we want to make sure that if it does happen we don’t end up broke. And during World War II just the possibility that Hitler was developing an atomic bomb was enough of a threat to justify all our action.  If you were a voter back then and it was public knowledge, would you have insisted that every scientist interviewed that such a bomb was possible before supporting the Manhattan project?  Would you have held out until you understood they physics?  No. So why are Joe Schmoes like you and me still debating the finer points of climate science instead of talking about risk management.

Other Greg: Well there’s a gajillion causes out there already screaming for my time and money. Save the planet and stuff.

Greg: Look, it’s not the planet that I care about, it’ll do fine on its own. What I care about is saving our bacon, and I understand how overwhelming it is when you hear cries about save the whales or the rainforest or the children or air pollution, water pollution, light pollution, toxic waste, nuclear waste, government waste, corporate waste, peak oil, snake oil, ...[unclear] … abortion rates. Where do you start?  Let me suggest a way to prioritise.  All of these, peanuts, if the worst of this comes to happen.

Other Greg: Ooh way to go Mr Smartypants, you just managed to tick off pretty much everybody. How come your pet crusade trumps everyone else’s?

Greg: Because even though it’s not likely, if the worst of global warming does happen we’ll be so busy dealing with the fallout that most all other human concerns may seem like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.  I mean who’s really going to care if some protestor wants to burn the flag in the courthouse lawn when the whole city is flooding?

Other Greg: But why the hysteria, what’s the big deal about a degree or two?

Greg: Yeah, it turns out it’s not the warming that gets you, it’s the way that such a quick change throws a monkey wrench in the whole system. That’s why global warming is a misleading name and global climate change is only a little better.  Really what we’re talking about it global climate destabilisation, and it gets worse because in just the last five years we’ve learned that this may happen very abruptly, like within the span of a decade, so it may turn out to be like pushing on a light switch.  Small pushes in the past have produced small results until you hit an unexpected tipping point.

Other Greg: Man, we’re totally hosed, we’re going back to the Dark Ages aren’t we?

Greg: Disturbing, isn’t it?  Actually there’s a lot of reason to believe that we can fix this, maybe even without reducing our standard of living, if we’re quick about it.

Other Greg: But what do I do?  I’m just one guy, with a stupid hat.

Greg: What you do is spread the word because the only way we really get into column A is by policy changes and those only happen when enough people demand it. So we need nothing less than a change in the culture itself, and you can help make that happen.  So you forward this video to others and they forward it to ten and so on. In just four steps that’s over ten thousand people that may have their opinions influenced. That’s power, use it.  This is likely to be the greatest threat that humanity has ever faced.  Think that’s overblown?  Maybe, but can you be so certain that you’re willing to bet everything, because we only get to run this experiment once.  Hopefully this idea of risk management will be what ends the debate.  How the world ends up?  Well, that depends in part on you and what you do next.  We have greatness within us, innovative, giving, determined, it’s time for the best in us to come out.

 

 

The argument is a version of Pascal’s Wager, that is, the argument put by the French philosopher Blaise Pascal more than 300 years ago that you may as well believe in God as belief may bring big rewards but carries few risks, whereas, scepticism carries dreadful risks, but few rewards. In fact Greg’s use of this kind of decision matrix is on much safer terrain that Pascal’s, because it is rooted in physics and economics not theology. Here is a version of his matrix:

  Action on climate change No Action on climate change
Climate change science is false Economic harm with no immediate benefit No climate change and no costs to the economy
Climate change science is true Disaster averted Environmental, social, political & economic disaster

His incredibly efficient script acknowledges the simplifications in his argument. He adds some subtlety to all of these positions. For example in the case of the top left box action on climate brings plenty of economic benefits - including energy security. But ultimately he suggests we shouldn’t wait to see what the laws of physics are going to throw at us but should get on with reducing the risks of climate change with urgent action.

Gently funny but with deadly serious intent; clever but self-deprecating, I find this pitch-perfect. Despite Al Gore’s best efforts plenty of people, particularly in the US are sceptical, or at best confused, with regard to climate change science or policy action. One of the great things about Greg’s approach is that it invites all those people into a conversation about what risks they’re willing to take. It doesn’t brand them as foolish or greedy, but instead lets them listen to a reasoned conversation between Greg and his alter ego.

He embodies the contradictory emotions and thoughts that a lot of people carry around on this topic. And he encourages critique from viewers, resulting in updated versions of his argument. As with all things on the World Wild Web it is difficult to judge the tone and verify the source of some of the comment. I wasn’t sure whether the posting that said ‘this is scary - halfway through I went out to buy a Prius’ is a first class ironist or in need of quite a lot more study time on the subject.

But I find it really intriguing that a nerdy teacher can put together a ten minute film that is viewed by over four million people across a year, and then have a dialogue with anyone that chooses to respond. I’m no blind techno-optimist, but it is handy that the Internet came along at precisely the same moment as ‘the greatest challenge facing humanity’. Last word to Greg:

‘This is likely to be the greatest threat that humanity has ever faced. Think that’s overblown? Maybe. But can you be so certain that you’re willing to bet everything? Because we only get to run this experiment once. Hopefully this idea of risk management will be what ends the debate. How the world ends up? Well that depends in part on you and what you do next. We have greatness within us: innovative, giving, determined. It’s time for the best in us to come out.’