Climate Change: It’s All About Risk

Recently I responded to a question about climate change and risk 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.

Should climate change be considered a risk? Does it make sense for the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Defense Department to consider the risks of climate change?

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 across the country hundreds of community meetings 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 but 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?

Visit the National Journal‘s Energy and Environment Expert Blog to read the full post.

(image: by Flickr user drp. Used under a creative commons license: / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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  1. “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?”

    Damn right I would. The first thing I’d do is get a 2nd opinion, and from a different doctor at a different hospital. Chances are good that the 2nd doctor will have an opinion which disgrees with the 1st one and that will reduce my exposure tremendously. Perhaps it will reduce it to almost zero. That’s analogous to what we’re seeing in the climate change debate; The public is seeking a 2nd opinion finally and they are listening to the climate skeptics and reducing their exposure to almost zero. I haden’t thought of this before, thanks.

  2. Just a reply to Klem,

    Getting 2nd opinions from other doctors doesn’t actually change your chances of contracting diseases from those chemicals. It doesn’t matter what people tell you the chemical (if its toxic) will get you.

    The key is to make sure those doctors know what they are talking about. It’s called getting the right advice, not just the advice you want to hear.

    In any case, I think most people would reduce their exposure to the chemical.

  3. “Should climate change be considered a risk?”

    You wouldn’t build a building without considering how weather may pose a risk to its design. Climate change poses a threat to many of the systems our world built around, and should be considered in many future decisions going forward

  4. it is practically and theoritically true that exposure to toxics is a hazard to the environment and human health.This if not supported at a national scale but even in the local scale I have witness of such an impact of toxic on the total environment .this hazards is arising only due to coal mining.No wonders if this so called small activity had such impact ,then the question now is How will the other activities that involves release of and other toxic gases into the atmosphere chemical-which are deemed as environmentally friendly and economically healthy -affect the environment.indeed climate change is a natural phenomena but with the competition that has arises in the field of world economy and military lines,this climate change has been unnaturally accelerated.This further HAS CREATED GREAT RISK to the total environment.Recent news of decreasing in crop production ,melting of the atlantic ice sheet,rise in sea level,and many others natural calamities had been very devastating.Maybe how many percent of the people have ponder on these issue and acknowledge that such occurence had been the result of not only natural phenomena but that human activities had itself wrought upon humans such hazards?the question at present is not Why we don’t acknowledge but rather why do we keep denying the facts?
    the answers to these questions lies in the files of the higher officials because it is only through their acknowledgement of this ‘inconvenient truth’ as Al gore put it then we can have some solutions to the various problems faced at present world over.

  5. Climate change is not based on fact. The climate change “experts” research is a lie and Al Gore’s “inconvenient truth” has turned out to be a “inconvenient lie”. I believe in being green and I have actually decreased my carbon footprint by 70%. Have Al Gore and the global warming experts done the same? If they are so concerned about climate change then they should drastically reduce their carbon footprints and stop being hypocritical.

  6. For all those who don’t understand or “believe” in climate change (e.g. Barbara99) please go to the National Acadamy of Sciences and see what the scientific facts are. Please consider that what some right-wing and industry are saying about this subject is based on their bottom dollar and not science. This is a scientific issue so listen to credible science and that is what the National Acadamy is all about. Peer reviewed science. I found a great quote that I like to share with those who choose to remain uninformed. “True ignorance is not the absence of knowledge, but the refusal to acquire it.” Please google the National Acadamy of Sciences to learn what those who are knowlegable have to say about this critical issue. Happy Earth Day

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