Tuesday, May 15, 2007

A risk assessment of global warming

I have no formal knowledge of risk assessment – but I know someone who once took a risk. Ah, yes, I jest. Very funny, but what does it all mean? I’m glad you asked. It is true that I’ve never studied the idea of risk assessment in any formal way, and my knowledge is limited to our innate capacity to assess risks and make decisions based on perceived outcomes. Humans in general aren’t necessarily great at this. I think we’re probably OK on basic tasks, like crossing the street, but we also tend to be scared of things that pose very little danger (airplanes, sharks, kamikaze sharks piloting airplanes, etc) and relaxed about things that might warrant a more circumspect approach (driving while drunk – I’ve heard it happens – and smoking are the first examples that pop into my mind, though there must be better ones).

Back to the issue at hand. Climate change. Global warming. I’m talking specifically here about the way my beloved Prime Minister, John Howard (and his ilk), is tackling the problem. That is, he isn’t really. Beyond a bit of lip service and some heavy investment in the coal industry’s communications strategy, his main thrust is that – as Ian Lowe put it recently – preserving the current state of the economy is more important than saving the world. (And Howard’s argument is spurious – there’s a raft of studies showing that, overall, moving to a low-emission economy would stimulate rather than retard and/or that the failure to move to a low-emission economy would be disastrous…this is where I should spend some time finding links to sources that support this statement, but I can’t be bothered – but the reports do abound, including the Stern Review and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assessment reports).

So. (This is an oversimplification, but hopefully it makes my point.) There are two main camps in the global warming debate: 1) the Lowes, who say that unless we make some major changes, there’s going to be a whole shitload of trouble so we better do something NOW; and 2) The Howards, who say that the jury’s still out and maybe it’s not going to be a big deal, so let’s just sit for a while so we don’t put our glorious economy at risk.

OK. There are four possible scenarios here (in an oversimplified way, but stick with me):

  1. There WILL be a-trouble, and we DO act (not desirable – of course it would be better if we didn’t have climate change – but we have a chance to sort it out).
  2. There WILL be a-trouble, and we DON’T act (disastrous).
  3. There WON’T be a-trouble, and we DO act (not bad, potentially very good).
  4. There WON’T be a-trouble, and we DON’T act (status quo – you be the judge of whether that’s good or bad).

So, of those four scenarios, three are acceptable (1, 3, 4). One (2) is disastrous.

Let’s look at scenario 3. This is the worst-case scenario if the vast majority of the planet’s climate scientists (what would they know about something they’ve spent most of their lives studying, I ask you; clearly we should defer decisions to politicians and business leaders) are wrong, but we choose to act on the chance they’re right. That is, we’ll end up with a much more energy-efficient economy that doesn’t rely on finite resources of polluting fossil fuels. Maybe there’ll be a few economic humps and bumps, but there’s a very strong case that it will be economically very beneficial to invest heavily in renewable energy technologies (not that making money should be the primary reason, but it almost always bloody-well is, and it also raises the question of why GDP-obsessed folk like Howard would risk missing the boat here).

Now look at scenario 2. This is the worst-case scenario if the scientists are indeed correct and we sit around wanking our engorged economic egos instead of trying to fix things. That is, we’re pretty-well fucked.

So – and correct me if I’m wrong; I did mention that I have no formal knowledge – doesn’t a basic risk assessment suggest we should actually try REALLY FUCKING HARD to do something?

There’s an irrational part of my brain that wants climate change to kick in damn fast and damn strong and sweep us all the way to hell, just to prove Howard et al. wrong. But I recognize that this would be the most pyrrhic of all victories.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Only caught this post just now.

Womb, there are some problems with your view on this, you haven't taken into account a number of things:

Is the Federal government really 'doing nothing'? Have you read the official policy first? Take a look:


Are you aware of the deforestation initiatives that Australia has led?

Not signing Kyoto is not the same as 'doing nothing'. Kyoto was deeply flawed and pretty much useless. It fails to take into account deforestation, meaning it has actively encouraged countries like Indonesia to tear down rainforest to plant palm oil trees.

Australia has actually met its Kyoto targets, unlike countries like Canada.

As for 'the precious economy', this is not some abstract notion. It is the livelihood of people, it is being in employment and putting food on the table. Imposing a unilateral emissions cut of the magnitude proposed by Labor and the Greens *will* mean less net jobs. A lot less. You have to understand the nature of this economy - we are energy exporters, we are coal-rich, and this is what is still the most efficient means of producing energy.

Heard of carbon leakage? If you impose an emissions cut with no equivalent commitment from India and China, then all that happens is jobs get transferred to those countries, and the carbon still goes up in the air! That's another reason why Kyoto was useless - with no requirement for India and China to join, it has no practical effect.

Finally there is the fact that a unilateral cut in our own emissions in Australia will decrease the pool of available tax dollars which could be invested in technological solutions such as clean coal and nuclear power.

Wind farms and solar energy are still not feasible, they do not produce baseload power (wind power will probably *never* be feasible).

Ill-thought out renewable energy taxes have caused such phenomena as grain prices rising, causing people to starve as fields are used to grow ethanol-use plants and not food.

You have to look at the detail and understand economics before pronouncing Australian policy in the knee-jerk manner that has dominated so much of the shrill media.

2:50 pm  

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