Summary: The daily news bombards us with stories about severe risks to us and the world. Countless well-meaning special interest groups publish incendiary stories, which journalists uncritically repeat. We can’t afford to prevent or mitigate them all, so we do little or nothing. Here’s a first step to rational action: list and describe each to see the big picture. Let’s start today! List your top fears in the comments, ranked high to low.
(1) So many dangers!
“Apocalyptic and misanthropic environmental narratives, as Clive Hamilton represents them, have had an important role in stirring up the public. But they have also contributed to widespread resignation and cynicism. So far, they have fallen short of mobilizing enough people to bring about real political change. ”
That’s the heart of the problem. The daily bombardment of doomsday warnings leaves people feeling helpless, with the natural result of ignoring all warnings. Worse, to cut through the noise scientists’ press releases become ever more shrill, with ever less context.
How many have we had this month? The over-the-top New Yorker about the doomed NW USA: “The Really Big One” by Kathryn Schulz in The New Yorker — “An earthquake will destroy a sizable portion of the coastal Northwest. The question is when.”
That’s topped this week by James Hansen and 15 other climate scientists predicting (in the Huff Post’s words) “Catastrophic Rise In Sea Levels”, with “sea levels rising as much as 10 feet in the next 50 years.” For those who prefer journalism, the Washington Post notes that this is far above the IPCC’s likely projections, other climate scientists are skeptical, and the paper is not peer-reviewed. It’s also science by press release, with the hysterical headlines preceding publication of the paper.
Even that’s topped by this press release from the U of GA: “Earth’s ‘battery’ draining too fast to sustain life” — “Unless humans slow the destruction of Earth’s declining supply of plant life, civilization like it is now may become completely unsustainable.”
Add these to the top of your pile of past warnings, such as … We face a world full of foes, from terrorist sleeper cells in your town to great powers bent on world conquest (China and Russia). But even our foes will go broke as the world’s resources are exhausted: peak oil, peak fresh water, even peak phosphorous.
At least the collapse of the world economy and the following wars will remove our ability to further wreck the biosphere. No overpopulation. Of course, we will still suffer the effects of past chemical pollution (and subtle ones, like impotence from hormones in the water). Too bad about the coming mass species extinction; we’ll miss the animals (unless we build a space ark, as in the film “Silent Running“).
While we suffer from these ills we will bake amidst the floods and storms during the droughts from climate change. These will distract us from the natural disasters wrecking the world. A reversal of Earth’s magnetic field, mega-tsunamis that scour away the cities on our coasts (more here), and super-volcanoe eruptions (like Yellowstone).
For variety, the sun will hit us with another solar storm like the Carrington Event of 1859; the National Academy’s warning is terrifying (read the summary). This will knock out the world’s electronics, so we will not see the asteroid or comet that will destroy a continent (“The odds that a potentially devastating space rock will hit Earth this century may be as high as one in 10“).
Now for the bad news: as a result of all these things we will be too weak to deal with the coming super-plagues (in addition to the disease of the week, dozens of them, each afflicting 5 – 10%+ of the population).
(2) The result: doom fatigue
The result of is public apathy. So many threats, of different kinds and different magnitudes and probabilities over different time horizons. Are we doomed? That’s a commonplace expression in posts and comments mentioning climate change. There are so many different kinds of doom in our future, often presented as certainties — and the remedies are costly and of uncertain effectiveness. Why bother doing anything to avoid them?
Plus, older adults remember past forecasts of certain doom. By now the world should have been wrecked by nuclear war, famine from over-population, resource exhaustion, poisonous pollution, bankruptcy of the government, satanic cults, and global cooling (science by press release in the 1970s). Those apocalypses passed us as surely as the Christian end-of-the-world predictions. Perhaps today’s forecasts of doom will prove false as well.
There are tools to help us put our risks in a useful operational context, allowing us to manage our fears and rationally allocated funds amongst them. Nothing will happen so long as special interest groups, each touting their own cause, dominate the news — and funding rewards the most successful fear-mongers. We’re all losers from their competition.
(3) A solution
What is the cost of minimum prevention or mitigation of the “plausible worst case” for all these risks? Probably a lot more than we will spend. Perhaps more than we can afford to spend.
The precautionary principle provides analysis of individual threats, such as climate change, but it does not work well for full the universe of risks. The finance industry copes with this problem every day. Each security in a portfolio has its own range of risk exposures, but risk can be meaningfully assessed only at the portfolio level — compared to a risk budget. This is different than the risks a nation (or world) faces, but offers some useful ideas.
To provide Congress and the public with recommendations, the government could create a Commission (with staff, amply funded) to assess individual risk, with a brief analysis of each, applying a common analytical framework to rate each risk in terms of probability and impact. The results would provide a basis for discussion and further analysis, liberating us from the narrow perspectives of the special interest activists.
Let’s start today. List in the comments what you consider the most serious risks facing America, ranked high to low. Also, you might list the dollars per year you’d allocate to the mitigation of each. US GDP is almost $18 trillion per year. (This was suggested by Tony B. “ClimateReason” in a comment at Climate Etc.)
For More Information
Ideas! See my recommended books and films at Amazon.
Judith Curry (Prof of Atmospheric Science, GA Inst Tech) has written several useful posts about risks and uncertainty, such as these…
- Coping with deep climate uncertainty.
- Can we make good decisions under ignorance?
- Decision making under climate uncertainty.
- Driving in the dark.
- Decision strategies for uncertain, complex situations.
If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. For more information see The keys to understanding climate change and Preparing for the future: should we be precautionary or proactionary?
For a more detailed look at today’s extreme weather
To learn more about the state of climate change see The Rightful Place of Science: Disasters and Climate Change by Roger Pielke Jr. (Prof of Environmental Studies at U of CO-Boulder, and Director of their Center for Science and Technology Policy Research).