On Postponing Corrective Action to a Gradual Deterioration

At the drug store there is a short information video about the health risks of smoking, featuring the following:

Smoker: “Nothing is bothering me at the moment.” (NL: “Ik heb nu nergens last van.”)

Medical advice: “It is dangerous to postpone quitting smoking. Not all consequences are reversible at that point.” (NL: “Wachten met stoppen is gevaarlijk. Niet alle gevolgen zijn dan nog terug te draaien.”)

The same can be said about climate change. Nothing about the future is for sure, but different actions bear different risks. Postponing any meaningful mitigation action until the shit hits the fan comes with considerable risk, because many changes in climate are not reversible on human timescales. Once you notice the trouble, it’s only the beginning, because of the inertia in the various systems (energy-, carbon cycle- and climate system). The ‘stop’ button has a delay of multiple decades, which means you have to act based on foresight, or what comes closest to it (e.g. projections based on science).

Steve Schneider, who sadly just passed away, said about a potential treatment to his disease:

I was willing to take the low risk of using the drug in order to avoid the high risk of the can­cer count building up and being hard to reverse.

Climate and health: Both are a matter of risk.

If the situation deteriorates only gradually, rather than shock-wise, it is apparently much harder for people to seriously gauge the risk. It’s tempting to say: “Oh, I can still bear this”. It’s as if your point of reference gradually moves in synch with the situation. In such cases, a helicopter view is especially important.


  1. Hence the familiar "boiling the frog" metaphor (true about frogs or not).

    The idea of taking urgent and expensive action to affect the future 30 years from now is unsurprisingly a very hard sell. For those of us who have come to see that as necessary, its frustrating to realize that the facts that convinced us simply aren't accessible to most people. Equally frustrating, there are many people to whom the facts are quite accessible who not only draw different conclusions, but who also conclude from that disagreement that "AGW supporters" are not only wrong but corrupt.

    Nonetheless, if the basics are indeed as Bert describes them - that because of the inertia in the linked systems we are not only increasing risks we are increasing them in an effectively irreversible way - we have to be discussing policy responses that will in the short run seem unrealistic at best. And this applies not only in the climate case, plainly.

  2. But speaking from the social perspective, everyone understands the benefit of building fences at the top of cliffs as against the costs of steadily, or suddenly, increasing the numbers of ambulances dealing with the calamities at the base of the cliff.

    The main difference is that many people can't see that there's a cliff at all.

  3. Pingback: What I’m Reading Sunday, October 16, 2011 | Rationally Thinking Out Loud

  4. Adelady, I would like you to know how much I appreciate your comments. Unfortunately I am not finding anything to argue with, so perhaps you feel you are wasting your breath. Perhaps others' silence is similar.

    It seems unfortunate that it is necessary to be controversial to get any recognition. So let me just offer a general appreciation of what you have said on this site so far.

    Perhaps if you keep trying you will actually get someone to disagree with you!

  5. I can't help thinking that making analogies between climate cahnge and personal health are fundamentally wrong. They appeal to self interest.

    As a relatively wealthy middle-aged person living in a rich country with a temperate climate, I am unlikely to personally experience any major negative consequences from climate change. It's not in my self-interest to take any medicine to alleviate the progress of a disease whose negative consequences are going to afflict someone else.

    I do realize, however, that I have disproportionately contributed to this problem and that others, including the unborn, will suffer the consequences disproportionately. Anything I do to limit my future carbon emissions is going to motivated by ethics, not self-interest.

    Giving up smoking was hard enough for me but making serious reductions in my carbon emissions is proving tougher: just how many more trans-Atlantic flights can I justify taking to visit my mother? Like St Augustine, I would like to achieve carbon continence, but not yet.

  6. Andy,

    You're absolutely right that medical analogies don't account for the fact that other people (at different places and times) will suffer most of the consequences.

    Any analogy breaks down at some point (or it wouldn't be an analogy) and this certainly is a biggie. (see e.g. http://ourchangingclimate.wordpress.com/2010/09/06/future-generations-global-warming-is-not-our-problem/ )

    The reason I still like to use the analogy is that it highlights how most people deal with future (and partly irreversible) risks stemming from inherently uncertain diagnoses. It shows how one can still make a rational risk assessment in the face of uncertainty, and thus that "it's uncertain, so we'll wait and see" is *not* a rational approach (if the risk is substantially higher than zero, of course).

  7. That's fine mt. I'm not all that thrilled with disagreement anyway. But I do like to find the occasional niche to slip in a perspective that might help someone. I like to keep lurkers in mind at least as much as participants.

    Small insights can accumulate. Sometimes that accumulation is useful. Somewhere, to someone.

  8. Bart "Oh, I can still bear this." This health issue applies even more to carers.

    There's a problem hospitals face when trying to send home dementing patients. The families have coped for years with the incremental, month by month deterioration in the behaviour and the health of their parent/relative. But when the patient has been absent for a week or more in hospital, they're faced with the reality of taking on all of the problems all at once. It now seems sudden.

    And they can't face it. Of course, the thing that has really happened is that their own mental and physical health has been damaged, gradually, over that time. They've just had a few days or weeks respite and they can now *see*, maybe for the first time, how much damage they've suffered and how the family is so much better with the stress removed.

    The problem for the climate analogy is that the worse things get, we're less rather than more likely to get any respite that lets us see the whole picture of just how much things have changed.

  9. I agree, the medical analogy does handle the uncertainty question better than most analogies do. My "fundamentally wrong" comment was overstated.

    Perhaps I wrote that because I have recently been reading the book A Perfect Moral Storm: The Ethical Tragedy of Climate Change and have come to realize the power of the interacting factors: the multi-generational time spans; the global extent and the need for global solutions; the uneven and uncertain distribution of causes and consequences. Because we are not equipped with instincts, traditions or institutions to deal with a problem like this, it is very susceptible to moral corruption, which enables even the most motivated among us to indulge in half-measures and buck-passing.

    I find this analysis deeply depressing. If only we could appeal to self interest!


    So, your analogy was not wrong, just insufficient, something you obviously were already aware of.

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