Uncertainty is Not Your Friend

By Stephan Lewandowsky
Winthrop Professor and Australian Professorial Fellow, School of Psychology, University of Western Australia
Posted on 6 March 2012

The Australian Future fund is tasked with delivering high risk-adjusted returns on public funds, such as the Australian Government’s budget surpluses, in order to cover the Government’s unfunded superannuation liability arising from entitlements to public servants and defence personnel.

The Chairman of the Future Fund, David Murray, recently suggested on national TV with respect to climate change that “if we’re not certain that the problem’s there, then we don’t – we shouldn’t take actions which have a high severity the other way.”

This attitude towards uncertainty is not atypical: numerous news commentators have cited uncertainty about the severity of climate change in support of their stance against taking any mitigative action.

In a nutshell, the logic of this position can be condensed to “there is so much uncertainty that I am certain there isn’t a problem.” How logical is this position? Can we conclude from the existence of uncertainty that there certainly is no problem?

This conclusion appears inadvisable for a number of reasons that will be examined in this series of three posts. To foreshadow briefly, there are three reasons why uncertainty should not be taken as a reason for inaction on climate change:

  • Uncertainty should make us worry more than certainty, because uncertainty means that things can be worse than our best guess. Today’s post expands on this point below, by showing that in the case of climate change, uncertainty is asymmetrical and things are more likely to be worse, rather than better, than expected.
  • In the second post, I will show that it is a nearly inescapable mathematical constraint that greater uncertainty about the future evolution of the climate necessarily translates into greater expected damage cost.
  • Finally, the presence of uncertainty does not negate the urgency of mitigative action. There may be uncertainty about our carbon budget—that is, the amount of greenhouse gasses we can emit before we are likely to exceed temperature increases that are deemed “safe”—but the implications of there being a budget are that delaying mitigative action will necessarily end up being more costly later.

Uncertainty means things could be worse than anticipated

What does uncertainty mean in the context of climate change? Although the word uncertainty has been used in many different contexts, a good definition is to equate uncertainty with imprecision in our best estimate of the future evolution of the climate.

In particular, I focus on the likely “sensitivity” of the climate, which refers to the expected increase in global temperatures in response to a doubling of CO2 from pre-industrial levels. According to best current estimates, climate sensitivity is anywhere between 2 degrees (Celsius) and 4.5 degrees, with a best estimate of about 3 degrees. Because an eventual doubling of CO2 from pre-industrial levels (~275 ppm) cannot be ruled out, given today’s concentration of ~392 ppm and the on-going increase of 2 ppm per year, this estimate of climate sensitivity is also a good estimate of the temperature increase from pre-industrial levels that we may experience towards the end of the century.

Without going any further, we can already draw one conclusion from this fact: If our best guess of climate sensitivity is 3 degrees, and the uncertainty range is 2-4.5, then things could be worse than expected. We expect 3 degrees but might get 4.5—of course, we could also get as “little” as 2, but we are ignoring the vast majority of possible outcomes if we assume (or hope) that we will “only” get 2 degrees.

So clearly, uncertainty means that things could be worse than anticipated.

But the problem does not end there. There are two additional aspects of uncertainty that we need to consider.

First, we must consider the distribution of climate sensitivity estimates. We know that there is a “best” (mean) estimate, and we know that there is a range of most likely values. But it turns out that climate scientists can do better than that: they can provide a distribution of possible values of climate sensitivity which attaches a probability of occurrence to a range of possible values.

The figure below shows the distribution of climate sensitivity, taken from a paper by Roe and Baker (2007).


For present purposes, the most crucial aspect of the figure is its asymmetry: It has a “fat” upper tail and a fairly skinny lower tail. That is, there is little likelihood that climate sensitivity will turn out to be more than 1 degree less than the best estimate of around 3-3.5 degrees (i.e. there is little chance of it being below 2), but there is a considerable chance of it being more than 1 degree above that value—note how it is not inconceivable that it might be as high as 5 or even 6 degrees.

There are some very good—and intellectually fascinating—reasons for why the climate sensitivity distribution is asymmetric and has a fat upper tail, but they are beyond the present scope. Interested readers may want to consult Roe and Baker (2007) or Roe and Armour (2011). (For a critique of the work by Roe and colleagues, see Zaliapin & Ghil, 2010, 2011.Their critique does not affect the presence of fat tails, only the generality of the reasons underlying its occurrence).

So uncertainty doesn’t just mean that things could be worse than anticipated—in the case of climate, chances are that things will be worse rather than better than anticipated.

But remember, the problem does not end there. We have to consider one more aspect of uncertainty in climate sensitivity.

This final consideration concerns the effects of the magnitude of uncertainty. All other things being equal, should we be more worried by greater uncertainty or less worried? If scientists had really down-played uncertainty—as some commentators have insinuated—what would the effects be? What if uncertainty is actually greater than scientists think?

The answer is fairly straightforward, and it is illustrated in the figure below using a statistical Monte Carlo simulation.

(OOPS – one reason not to hotlink is because sometimes the target site is down. Apologies if you see a broken link icon below. If anyone has a copy of the figure, please send it along. -mt)

The four panels in the figure contain synthetic (i.e., simulated) data that are sampled from a “lognormal” distribution—so if you took the log of the values and then plotted them, they would take on the familiar bell shape. I used a lognormal distribution because it has the fat-tail property that we know is an attribute of climate sensitivity.

To make my point, I ensured that the mean of the four distributions is identical (around 3, with a tiny amount of deviation introduced by the simulation). However, the standard deviations (spread) of the distributions differ considerably, from .49 in the top left to 2.6 in the bottom right. The spread of each distribution characterizes the extent of uncertainty surrounding the mean estimate of 3 degrees.

What are the consequences of increasing uncertainty? The consequences are indicated by the red line at the 5 degree mark in each panel. This represents a temperature increase that would indeed be nothing short of catastrophic in light of suggestions that any temperature rise beyond 2 degrees would be extremely difficult to cope with (Richardson et al., 2009).

It is obvious from the figure that the probability of a truly catastrophic outcome increases with uncertainty; from a small .07% in the top left to a concerning 14% in the bottom right. That’s a 200-fold increase in the likelihood of a catastrophic outcome when uncertainty increases from .49 to 2.6.

So uncertainty means things could be worse than anticipated.

Uncertainty in climate evolution means things are likely to be worse, rather than better, than anticipated.

And the greater the uncertainty, the more likely we could be faced with some very serious consequences.

Unlike the Chairman of the Australian Futures Fund, the real uncertainty professionals know this. Which is why Munich Re, a reinsurance behemoth, has identified climate change as one of the greatest risks facing mankind.


Richardson, K. et al., (2009). Climate Change: Global Risks, Challenges & Decisions. Synthesis Report of the Copenhagen Climate Congress. (University of Copenhagen).

Roe, G. H. & Armour, K. C. (2011). How sensitive is climate sensitivity? Geophysical Research Letters38, L14708.

Roe, G. H. & Baker, M. B. (2007). Why Is Climate Sensitivity So Unpredictable?Science, 318, 629-632.

Zaliapin, I. & Ghil, M. (2010). Another look at climate sensitivity. Nonlinear Processes in Geophysics, 17, 113-122.

Zaliapin, I. & Ghil, M. (2011). Reply to Roe and Baker’s comment on “Another look at climate sensitivity” by Zaliapin and Ghil (2010). Nonlinear Processes in Geophysics,18, 129-131.

by Stephan Lewandoswky, originally published at Shaping Tomorrow’s World. Used by permission and with thanks. Stephan retains copyright.

Abstract image by the remarkable Peter Berry


  1. ..."uncertainty means things could be worse than anticipated."

    Exactly. Not only that, we can be really certain about this. Meant to only spend an hour on this, oops... but here's a visualisation of how certain we can be about uncertainty -

    'random walking across a bridge at night': probably drunkenly, back from the pub. Home is, sadly, across a bridge with no barriers over a deadly ravine. The viz shows 16 points along the bridge, each a normal distribution.

    So, for any particular walk home, what are your odds of falling into the ravine? Depends how long and wide the bridge is. If the lines are the edge of the bridge, the percentage chance of taking a plummet are shown at the bottom next to each point along the bridge. They increase as you stumble along - but they quickly home in on absolutely certain odds.

    I'm not sure what language needs using - maybe probability rather than uncertainty? But - as with a drunk walking across a bridge - more uncertainty is, as you say, NOT A GOOD THING. And it's an easily, certainly quantifiable ungood thing too.

    Galton had it right: "I know of scarcely anything so apt to impress the imagination as the wonderful form of cosmic order expressed by the “Law of Frequency of Error”. The law would have been personified by the Greeks and deified, if they had known of it. It reigns with serenity and in complete self-effacement, amidst the wildest confusion. The huger the mob, and the greater the apparent anarchy, the more perfect is its sway. It is the supreme law of Unreason. Whenever a large sample of chaotic elements are taken in hand and marshalled in the order of their magnitude, an unsuspected and most beautiful form of regularity proves to have been latent all along."

  2. Pingback: Uncertainty is Not Your Friend | JunkScience.com

  3. OT, sorry, but connected to the link: I like how Junk Science has T-shirts with the slogan: "DDT - a weapon of mass survival." It's interesting that these kind of science examples (DDT near the top of the list) were prevalent in 'freedom!'-related pamphlets that turned up here in the UK at skeptic events. I'm reminded of how crickets synchronize their chirps. I don't even mean that insultingly! The level of match on topics across vast swathes of the liberal/libertarian landscape may well happen just like that.

  4. What Lewandowsky says is true enough. But remember that we're now living with a "free market of ideas", where "free market" in this case means that ideas are spread and perpetuated if they can make money.

    So, while "climate is uncertain therefore no CAGW" is a nonsensical argument, it does help some people make lots of money, so, um, idea capitalism works, or something.

    -- frank

  5. Therefore -- and I think this is a shift from my earlier thinking -- perhaps the question to ask isn't "how much should we spend in order to spread the right ideas?". Because that'll just feed into the crazed 'logic' of idea capitalism -- more money, more mindshare.

    Perhaps the question we should ask is, "how can we spread ideas far and wide using less money?"

    -- frank

  6. Scientists and other communicators can eliminate the negative effects of uncertainty by limiting their own communication to that which is certain. It is harder so restricted, but results in better arguments.

    I don't understand the headline Uncertainty is Not Your Friend. The body is all about uncertainty as an argument for action, the certainty of action being greater than the uncertainty of the science. The precautionary principle provides for acting within that uncertainty. Neither the science nor the precautionary principal can tell you what particular action to take.

  7. (Sigh.) Nope.

    If you limit yourself to what is epistemologically certain, you cannot discuss science at all.

    If you limit yourself to what is practically certain, there still is very little science you can discuss, and hardly any earth science, and no economics whatsoever.

    Which brings us to the point, which is that this fact does not prevent people from discussing economics and making economic decisions. Why should it prevent us from discussing earth science and making decisions based on the balance of evidence?

  8. I agree climate uncertainty does not preclude action. At what level of uncertainty does the precautionary principle come into play?

    Poets who restrict themselves to a predetermined form (sonnet, blank verse, haiku e.g.) often find the limitations increase creativity. What a good thing for one's mind to form an argument within similar limitations. It is analogous to looking at something from multiple points of view to get a true understanding.

    Now if

  9. Think you lost some comment there Paul. Anyway, consulting the oracle/wikipedia: the precautionary principle comes into play "in the absence of scientific consensus that the action or policy is harmful". There isn't any doubt about that. Watch Hansen's video - the earth is in massive energy imbalance, is gaining something like 400,000 hiroshima's worth a day, and will do until the system equilibriates again -which is decades / centuries away even if we cease co2 production tomorrow morning, and even longer if we trigger any feedback effects - which we probably are just in the process of doing right now.

    The uncertainty - as Stephan so effectively explains it - is not over whether there will be harm, but how much.

  10. Pingback: William M. Briggs, Statistician » Climate: Uncertainty Means That Things Can Be Worse Than Our Best Guess: Part I

  11. Bad metaphor, Paul.

    When you're driving a car, and there are vehicles, traffic lights, and pedestrians to your front, back, left, and right, you don't friggin' get to decide whether you want to use your steering wheel to compose a haiku or a sonnet or a ballad.

    You have to make a correct choice of how to proceed, and there aren't that many correct choices. There are many possible correct choices, but there are also many wrong choices. And if you make a wrong choice, you get a really, really catastrophic traffic accident.

    And this is the kind of choice that climate policy is about.

    -- frank

  12. I guess the troubling part is that a chairman of a sovereign wealth fund would make decisions based not on rigorous calculations, but solely on arbitrary movements in his brain which result from talking points coming from elsewhere. 'Flair' and 'intuition' may make a good bedtime story, but for real decision making, I'd rely more on actual math and research.

    -- frank

  13. "meme theory"?

    Absolutely fine. Until you look at how the theory just glides smoothly over the notion of 'competition' when using the analogy with evolution.

    The environment this particular meme has to evolve and spread in is already fairly well occupied, if not completely polluted, by its anti-meme. Which is obviously not just a different, opposing idea, but one that is hostile, aggressive and rejectionist. In fact, it's predatory.

    There's no happy evolution possible towards serene coexistence with 2 different memes finding their own separate, comfortable niches. It's do or die.

    And in generating or opposing ideas in modern societies, money in the form of advertising and other publicity is definitely with the predator so far. The wonder is that so many, rather than so few, of the population at large accepts the scientific reality in the face of such powerful forces.

  14. Once you've determined that scientific uncertainty does not preclude a reason for action, you're confronted with a fresh set of uncertainties. Can a particular action be implemented? Will it be effective or, at least, a net positive? Do the benefits outweigh the costs?

    Individuals and subgroups can act within a greater level of uncertainty than can private and governmental institutions. It seems axiomatic the the larger the institution and the more money involved, the less uncertainty can be tolerated. The grander the plan, the more certainty required.

  15. All else equal, sure. But the next question you have to ask yourself (and this is a very common step in scientific reasoning) is this: is all else actually equal? What are you comparing?

    If you are saying that agility is maximized with small groups, that is certainly the case.

    My last reply to Paul Kelly ever unless he starts saying something new.

    Not all groups acan be small.

    Small groups do not produce petroleum, electrical energy, massive steel buildings, or vast concrete highways. Large systems are endemic to a crowded world where they are superfluous in a sparse one. Look around you if you are in a modern city. You're a fellow erstwhile Chicagoan! The pyramid builders got nothin' on us.

    So when you determine the optimum size of a system, based on your description, it would have to be a man acting alone. But systems of many sizes emerge to deal with a variety of problems. Perhaps you mean to suggest that a problem should be dealt with at the smallest scale feasible. I am somewhat inclined to that point of view. (Though, for instance, I think the corporate structure at Starbucks is probably still rather decent, I do not understand why a system of that scale is needed to locally roast and brew coffee, and on the whole, I think Starbucks does damage.)

    But climate change is a global problem. The boat is leaking everywhere, and many people are fed only if they are bailing the wrong way. If you multiply the most difference an individual person can make by the number of people, you have what is in some ways an absurdly optimistic scenario. Nevertheless, it is not enough, not by a long shot. Not if we don't change the way we be together, as fellow humans, all in the same boat.

  16. "If you are saying that agility is maximized with small groups, that is certainly the case."

    Yes, that is what I am saying, although a sub group does not have to be small. It just has to be formed around a particular set of interests and actions. For our purposes the sub group would indeed need to be quite large. I'd start out with every person willing to bear some cost from a carbon pricing regime. That's quite a large group, large enough group to make real impact. Absurdly optimistic? Perhaps, but no more so than waiting for politics and government to do what you wish them to do. I think also that systems are more agile than institutions.

    You continue to misconstrue organizing outside the political process to mean acting individually, which is probably at the root of much of your antipathy toward it.

    Maybe had I used risk rather than level of uncertainty in my axiom the meaning would have been clearer.

  17. Wedges, Paul. Pacala-Sokolow wedges. Talk in terms of something as big as a wedge, with numbers, or go have a conversation with somebody else.

    There's nothing wrong with what you are saying or doing, it just addresses different issues than interest us here. We're not about being green or doing good deeds. We are about crunching the numbers to a survivable trajectory. Tell us how low to bring the numbers by when and why and how. Or go talk to a more receptive audience, and more power to you.

  18. "There’s no happy evolution possible towards serene coexistence with 2 different memes finding their own separate, comfortable niches."

    But isn't that what we do have in our modern world Adelady? The selective way people acquire their news and opinion has created islands of thought that are increasingly unconnected and meme-niches develop.

    So not only are the arguments for accepting scientific reality easy prey, they may not even be getting into the same ecosystems in the first place. We see them thriving happily in our own ecosystems, free from rats... hmmm this analogy can extend indefinitely. Dodos? Too friendly and innocent for their own good?

    I'm losing my train of thought here. It's the 'happy' part that matters. We can certainly get serene coexistence, it just not going to be happy.

  19. Ah, Paul, still trying your 'let me just throw out a random one-liner to dismiss my interlocutor's point so that I can go back to my usual prepackaged spiel' thing?

    The thing is, I'm not "improving" your metaphor; I'm subverting it.

    We're in a situation where a wrong decision can lead to mass disaster. This is not about composing haikus or sonnets or ballads. Haikus don't (normally) cause death or starvation if they aren't composed right. Public policies, however, do.

    And that's why politicians and the public need to take into account exactly what scientists know, and why scientists need to tell them exactly what they know. That means explaining uncertainties, and what these uncertainties mean and don't mean.

    Now please excuse me; I have another haiku to write up.

    -- frank

  20. Paul Kelly:

    It seems axiomatic the the larger the institution and the more money involved, the less uncertainty can be tolerated. The grander the plan, the more certainty required.

    At the risk of stretching my metaphor above even further: a mere look at the traffic network should convince anyone that Paul Kelly's "axiomatic" rule is complete nonsense.

    Could the planners of the public highways have predicted precisely where I'd want to go at 2pm tomorrow? Of course not. But they didn't need to.

    -- frank

  21. If memes are genes, then surely Monsanto.

    More importantly, I don't see the "meme theory" use of evolutionary metaphors to be leading to anything other than more useless metaphors.

    People seem to be having much greater success in changing other people's minds by using other approaches -- such as (1) throwing money to dittoheads, (2) leaking (or hacking out) information about adversaries, and (3) disrupting events and channels aimed at disseminating actual facts and science. In contrast, meme theory's success rate at any actual tasks seems to be hovering around zero.

    So again, the question: how can we spread ideas far and wide using less money?

    -- frank

  22. It's interesting to note that the only way that people can defend the "climate is uncertain therefore we must do nothing" idea is to talk in abstract terms, divorced from any actual examples of decision making.

    So we have, for example, Paul Kelly's above attempt to derive so-called "axiomatic" statements based on abstract "individuals" and "groups" and "institutions". Such "axiomatic" statements have zilch to do with actual decisions by actual people for actual things -- such as, say, the decisions that a taxi driver needs to make while on the road, when trying to take me to my destination.

    -- frank

  23. Frank,

    I have never ever defended the “climate is uncertain therefore we must do nothing” idea here or anywhere else. What part of "I agree climate uncertainty does not preclude action."(March 14, 2012 | 11:59 pm) don't you understand?.

    In fact, I've proposed an action approach that makes discussion of the uncertainties of climate science irrelevant. You and MT reject that approach partly because, oddly enough, for you it contains too much uncertainty. Meanwhile, you offer no action proposal that has any chance of near term implementation.

  24. willard,

    Will it help if I replace "taxi driver" with "the driver of the taxicab which you most recently took"?

    And seriously, what's the point of repeatedly bending over backwards when people keep using fallacious 'arguments'? Are we to be so scared of 'public opinion' that we must strenuously avoid pointing out bogus arguments as being bogus? willard, what exactly are you trying to achieve here?

     * * *

    What part of "I agree climate uncertainty does not preclude action."(March 14, 2012 | 11:59 pm) don't you understand?.

    [...] I've proposed an action approach that makes discussion of the uncertainties of climate science irrelevant.

    Like letting 'free society' sort itself out? I fail to see how that's different from advocating the doing of nothing.

    You and MT reject that approach partly because, oddly enough, for you it contains too much uncertainty.

    Or in short, you mean we don't even know whether your approach works, but because you don't know, therefore you think it's OK? The dumbness is plainly evident when I rephrase your 'argument' in plain English.

    Look, the whole idea of decision-making is to take into account existing uncertainties, but strive to reduce these uncertainty.

    So, for example, the US government can't know with complete certainty whether anyone's trying to assassinate the President (or some other important figure) at any point in time, but it has a Secret Service staffed with trained people who can try, by various means, to minimize the chances that any such attempt will succeed. There's uncertainty reduction for you.

    And to stretch my traffic metaphor yet further, that's why we have right-of-way rules, so that the taxi driver doesn't need to keep second-guessing where the cars and pedestrians to his left, right, front, and back are going to go next.

    But whatever, Paul. You can continue dressing up your bogus 'arguments' in abstract language; and I'll keep rephrasing them in plain English.

    -- frank

  25. I will point out, as I've pointed out before whenever I detect a whiff of anyone taking PK seriously, that there are people all over the country and world doing exactly the sort of thing that PK says he advocates. Verily, they are thick upon the ground (even in Chicago, doing stuff PK could work on.) But interestingly, these folks who are actually walking PK's talk largely differ with him as to the sufficiency of what they're doing. It's a needed and necessary piece of the puzzle, but even so just one piece. The problem we face was created (however inadvertently) by large-scale actions at regional, national and international scales, and it's basically just silly to imagine that grassroots actions can be scaled up to anything like the needed solution(s).

  26. Steve Bloom:

    Let's just say that I'm writing my longish rants mainly for the benefit of any lurkers out there who may be taken in by Paul Kelly's so-called "axiomatic" argumentation.

    I certainly don't take him seriously.

    -- frank

  27. Frank,

    When all I read from one commenter is repetitive, chances are that I stop reading that commenter. So I don't believe that Paul is helping his cause by constantly repeating the same motto. Perhaps he wins something by hammering his memes, but he loses the conversational effect. Optimizing the trade-off between these two objectives is still an open problem, I believe.

    If what gets repeated is outrage, what obtains is an aspersion contest. The only reason I would read an aspersion contest is style. Even when flaming, style matters.

    If your objective is to have a conversation, don't bend backwards, but lean over and try to bear in mind that you could be wrong. Internet is there for a good while. Sounding cocksure helps no one in an eternal moshpit.


    This is why I underlined the logical point about abstract entities.

    Replacing “taxi driver” with “the driver of the taxicab which you most recently took” would be more vivid, but would still get you an abstract entity. The expression still uses an indexical to shift between possibilia. Abstract entities are efficient devices, and most of them are quite innocuous. Even if grant nominalists some points, nominalism loses in the end.


    I believe you are mostly right about the overall decision framework. But I doubt that what we do right now is anything else than commenting on an Internet blog. So I would spare the "actual decisions" stance. Mileage varies, of course.

  28. willard,

    Your point is taken -- perhaps I should be talking not about "abstract" and "concrete" entities, but about "vivid" and, um, "hazy" descriptions.

    But I see that, for whatever reason, you avoided answering this very simple question:

    what exactly are you trying to achieve here?

    This is a very simple question, yet it is also very important.

    Because if you don't know your actual end goal, then you'll just be moving in random directions based on random movements of your brain, and you'll just end up nowhere.

    For me, the end goal is simple. The problem is the possibility of catastrophic climate change. So what I'm trying to achieve is to reduce the possibility and impact of catastrophic climate change. To me, everything else we discuss here should be to lead to that goal.

    I don't know what your ultimate goal here is. Is it to mitigate climate change? Is it to help spread the truth about climate change and climate science? Is it to help formulate a science-based, fact-based approach to climate policy-making?

    Yet I don't see anything resembling these goals in what you state. At the moment it seems to be something along the lines of

    'I want to make it look superficially to the outsider as if we're having a sensible and civilized conversation about something without even daring to offend anyone.'

    That may well be your goal, but it sure isn't mine.

    To me, the goal has always been climate change mitigation -- simple as that.

     * * *

    But I doubt that what we do right now is anything else than commenting on an Internet blog.

    This looks like yet another indication that you don't quite know what you're trying to do -- it seems your end goal (as it seems to be) is to get a conversation going on "an Internet blog", and yet you also think this very goal is pointless.

    Me, I think words and information have power, but we need to work out how to properly direct this power, instead of simply deciding beforehand that 'we must have a conversation conversation conversation conversation conversation.'

    As I said above, perhaps we should be asking,

    How can we spread ideas far and wide using less money [than what inactivists have]?

    And this question should be asked in the context of the overall goal -- which, again, is to mitigate climate change.

    -- frank

  29. US Senator James Inhofe as quoted by Joe Romm:

    I was actually on your side of this issue [of climate change] when I was chairing that [Senate Environment] committee and I first heard about this. I thought it must be true until I found out what it cost.

    I think that, unfortunately, a lot of people do actually think that way, in many contexts outside of climate policy (e.g. workplace safety) -- as in, if a problem costs "too much" money or effort to solve or even mitigate, then let's simply imagine that it's Not A Problem.

    -- frank

  30. Steve Bloom,
    (March 17, 2012 | 12:30 pm)

    Thanks for making my case for me. "...there are people all over the country and world doing exactly the sort of thing that PK says he advocates". So the reason to reject an approach is that it is already working. Awesome logic.

    "It’s a needed and necessary piece of the puzzle, but even so just one piece" is exactly what I have repeatedly said here and elsewhere for some time. Glad to have you on board.

    Your last paragraph contains a false premise. The things that are creating the problem all started out small and simple and grew in size and complexity. Criticizing something because it is not the whole puzzle immediately after saying it is just one piece of that puzzle is laughable.

  31. Which puts me in mind of one of the more egregious contradictions of the "yes, but uncertainty" crowd: the absolute certainty that implementing any form of carbon mitigation will lead to the collapse of the global economy, pensioners freezing in dark, unheated flats, wailing and gnashing of teeth, dogs and cats living together, etc.

    Has there been any study with any degree of rigor, even done by the other side, that shows even a strong possibility of such a disaster? It seems to me to be at the albino-sewer-alligator level of urban legend.

    Even if every environmentalist and climate campaigner agreed with me that we need a radical reappraisal of our present "growth at all costs" orthodoxy (hint: they don't), that still wouldn't mean the only alternative to business-as-usual is some anarcho-primitivist dystopia. But it's unquestioned dogma by everyone to the right of Andrew Revkin, if not Andy himself.

  32. The problem we have with you, Paul, is that we want to solve the puzzle, not just place a piece, and we don't have all the pieces.

    So it is fine for you to do what you do, but it isn't helpful at all to keep bringing it up in places where the big picture is discussed.

    It makes you a nuisance and potentially a net liability. Is that what you want?

  33. The fuel poverty and excess winter deaths have been acknowledged and reported on (25,000 excess winter deaths of which between 2,500 and 7,800 due to fuel poverty): see http://www.guardian.co.uk/money/2011/nov/22/fuel-poverty-protestors-die-in-winter-deaths

    Back in 2009, the course was already set, but the Guardian reported on it anyways (Consumers will need to pay more for energy if the UK is to have any chance of developing the technologies needed to tackle climate change: http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2009/jun/29/energy-bills-green-technology?INTCMP=ILCNETTXT3487

    And the connection to green energy seems clear: (Reducing dependence on fossil fuels and moving to renewable and nuclear energy would cost an additional £60billion every year until 2050, the officials said.): http://www.telegraph.co.uk/earth/greenpolitics/8980982/Greener-energy-will-cost-4600-each-a-year.html

  34. Tom is a special instance of the class: to him, the apocalypse is already here.

    Yes, I too would be very interested a link or a cite showing a connection between heating prices and renewables policy, but I'm not holding my breath. Last time I asked it was "I'm not going to do your homework for you," as I recall.

  35. Of the four threads where I have commented, at only one - on Gleick - was my intent to argue for the approach I advocate. Here, my first comments were only about how to successfully deal with uncertainty. Then for whatever reason you insisted on reading my words "sub group" as "small group" even after I pointed out that sub group does not mean small group. Sub group is a social science term. As an example, Progressives are a sub group of the Democratic Party. They are certainly not a small group.

    Once again, I agree that uncertainty should not preclude action. That is what I came to this thread to talk about. It was Frank and Steve and you who changed the subject. Frank and Steve, I understand. Their stated purpose is to lie about what I have written. It is surprising that you, Michael, are so blinded by hostility that you can’t recognize when someone is agreeing with you.

    Before getting back to the topic of this post, a word about puzzles. You say you want the how, why and when, yet a review of the featured articles here finds none that address those criteria. Oh, there's lots of whys, but no hows and the whens are all some undetermined hopeful time in the future. There's been two possible exceptions, both posted by Bart. One was a January 9, 2012 article about the messaging puzzle piece that no one here seemed to understand or credit. His December 14, 2011 article was about an immediate focus on other forcings, a very large piece of the puzzle thoroughly backed by science. Again he was dismissed. A short while later Lou Grinzo posted his this changes nothing article. I don't know if it is worth noting that Bart has not posted here or on his own blog since.

    For my part, I will not mention the bottom up, social process, focus model approach or use words that make you think I am until it can be demonstated for you in a real world situation. Now back to the topic.

    The statement "...the larger the institution and the more money involved, the less uncertainty can be tolerated" still stands, which you concede at least in terms of agility.

    So too does "The grander the plan, the more certainty required". You refer to the large systems in Chicago. These systems - water, sewer, roads and highways, railroads and electric trains, natural gas, electrical, and telephone lines all required a very high degree of certainty for their creation.

  36. I already did all this work at CaS a while back. The increase in energy prices came from the energy companies and had nothing to do with anything that Tom is talking about. In fact, the BIG SIX, as they are referred to, were under investigation by Ofgem (last time I checked) for not keeping their prices in line with cost. IOW, they raised prices when they wanted and didn't lower them when the price of producing energy decreased. On the other end, the government failed, and continues to fail, to keep up with protecting pensioners from freezing to death. So we have failures of regulation and subsidy, and business greed.

    With this being said, it would not surprise me if the neo-liberal western world, on one hand, passed energy taxes, and on the other, failed to make these taxes regressive enough to not affect poor people's access to energy. That's what neo-liberals do. They appease special interests at the expense of humans and morality. But this hasn't happened yet. So repeating it as fact in the face of objective reality is embellishment of an unrealized fear, and nothing else. Not at all helpful.

    As I recall, Tom had no answer for this last time.

  37. In fact, I'm right on both accounts. According the government study, it hasn't happened yet, but it will without a change in policy trajectory. Here's the kicker from the study:

    He highlighted a government study which found that the poorest one-fifth of households would see their income fall 0.8 per cent as a direct result of green taxes and the move to renewable energy, while the richest fifth would break even.

    Appease rich people and the renewable energy lobby, and everyone can go screw. We need smarter people developing policy, not politico puppets.

  38. Recent stories related:

    "Ministers are planning to install another 12,500 of these worse-than-useless windmills, some of them up to three times the size of existing monstrosities.
    We are paying for all this through hidden charges which now make up a fifth of all gas and electricity bills. The average household has to fork out an extra £100 a year.
    That’s because the Government forces energy companies to buy from renewable sources, which are far more expensive than conventional power stations. The cost is then passed on to the consumer.
    Ministers know there would be an outcry if they raised taxes to pay for windmills, so they hide the subsidies in our gas and electricity bills and hope the energy companies get the blame.
    Scottish Power has just announced it is increasing gas prices by 19 per cent and electricity by 10 per cent. Although there is little the companies can do about rising world commodity prices, our bills are being artificially inflated as a direct result of the government’s insane ‘climate change’ policies."
    Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-2001877/Green-fuel-tax-The-answer-friend-aint-blowing-wind.html#ixzz1pifj5OQQ

    Of course, no-one likes the Daily Mail or the Telegraph. So here's a report: This report finds that unnecessary and hugely expensive renewable energy policies will cost the average household in Britain a total of £400 a year by 2020 – the equivalent to 2.5p on VAT. The £400 is not the total cost of climate policy but the additional cost imposed because the government subsidises expensive renewables such as offshore wind rather than cheaper ways of reducing carbon emissions. (http://www.policyexchange.org.uk/publications/item/the-full-cost-to-households-of-renewable-energy-policies?category_id=24)(Arguments disputing the report also available on the website.)

    The UK's Department of Energy and Climate Change did indeed publish a report in July 2011. The report was concerned with the drastic increases forecast for large industrial users, but did mention in passing (without showing any work) that price increases for homeowners would be either 1% or they would actually save money because of efforts to combat climate change.

    In July of 2011, the UK's Department of Energy and Climate Change published a report saying that government policies would increase consumer energy bills by 27%, an average of 280 pounds per year. They also mentioned that if homeowners bought insulation and energy efficient products, they would save more than the 280 pounds per year. That's from the Beeb, so it must be true. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-15855888.

    In another story from the Beeb, we see fuel poverty as a growing problem. "The number of homes technically in fuel poverty in England has gone up almost five-fold in the past eight years from a total of approximately 1.2 million in 2003 to 5.5 million in 2011." It's this story that published the lower bound to deaths caused by fuel poverty--2,500. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-15352599

    The higher figure--7,800--is new and was published just 10 days ago in the Independent. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/fuel-poverty-deaths-three-times-higher-than-government-estimates-7462426.html

  39. Thinking that it is impossible to persuade using only what is certain is defeatist. Besides, it is easy to do. Here's the case for as rapid as possible energy transformation.

    The risks of burning carbon fuels are at least:
    A 10% chance of serious climate harm.
    A 15% chance of increased international tensions.
    A 20% chance of serious environmental damage.
    A 10% chance of economic dislocation.
    A 15% chance of missing the right step in human progress.

    Those chances add up to more than enough chance to apply the precautionary principle. So go ahead. Apply.

    Note the words "at least" before the percentages, which were chosen for their certainty. Actual percentages may be higher, but they cannot be lower.

    [ Now THAT is begging the question -mt ]

  40. Yes, in that the assumption is that some kind of perhaps dramatic energy transformation will occur over the next century or so. The only question is whether it occurs in a good way or a bad way. I guess the nightmare scenario is we just burn the shit up as fast as we can and then go uh-oh.

  41. On the other hand it is not begging the question because the proposition which requires proof - that the risks of burning carbon is sufficient to trigger the precautionary principle - is not assumed without proof. It is proven by the percentages of various risks, which I think we agree are indisputable.

    [ You aren't helping. You are going round in circles. What does it mean for two people to "agree" something is "indisputable" when you know damned well that somebody will up and dispute it? I'm not splitting hairs here. I certainly agree that those are pretty strong lower bounds (though hardly independent of each other). I certainly agree that we are taking stupid risks. But Senator Inhofe does not.

    How does the fact that you and I may agree that he is being unreasonable affect the fact that he thinks we are lying? ]

  42. I think Imhofe would agree with the middle three percentages. He did sponsor a bill about carbon soot. He might even agree with the climate percentage, but he might set it lower at 5% say, but probably no higher than 15%. The last percentage depends on whether he read Popular Mechanics and Popular Science as a boy in Oklahoma. It's late.

  43. Tom Fuller

    Of course, no-one likes the Daily Mail or the Telegraph.Of course, no-one likes the Daily Mail or the Telegraph.

    The reason that people don't like the Daily Mail and the Telegraph* is that they are mouthpieces for the GWPF.

    The article you link is one of a number which contained factual inaccuracies - supplied by the GWPF - and which ultimately resulted in the DM printing a series of corrections.

    Some details at the Carbon Brief here and here.

    *Adrian Berry, Telegraph science correspondent 1977 - 1996 and now its consulting science editor, is on the Academic Advisory Council of the GWPF.

  44. OK, I see MT is still hoping against hope that, if he uses the right words and prostrates low enough, he can get some of the inactivists' 'thought leaders' to change their erroneous thinking, and then -- hocus pocus! -- the well-funded network of bullcrap will suddenly, magically cease to work.

    -- frank

  45. What on earth are those percentages, and how exactly, were they "chosen for their certainty?" "A 15% chance of missing the right step in human progress?" What does that even mean? This is the indisputable, slam-dunk evidence that will sway the public on the need to combat climate change?

    Other Paul, I have no reason to doubt that your heart is in the right place. But it seems to me that you are not connected to the current state of the climate debate if you find this a compelling argument.

  46. Tom, I'm confused by your Telegraph link. Why would you link to an article with an obviously ridiculous headline ("Greener energy will cost £4,600 each a year") which actually appears quite reasonable after the first paragraph you quote and says the opposite of what you appear to be implying?

    "The cheapest option for switching to green energy would increase the estimated cost of energy to £4,598 per person per year.... Continuing to rely on coal and gas would cost about £4,682 a year per person, according to the forecasts."

  47. Here we go again:


    Let's not grypo's reply:


    I hope one day some AI tool gets developed to remind us of these repetitions.

  48. Many thanks, Willard, for finding it. I had thought Fuller had been definitively refuted on this on Keith's site. I am not sure this was the only occasion regarding the specific claim. Tom seems quite enamored of it despite any refutation.

    Tom, the point of discourse is not to win or lose, it is to converge on truth. Did you not recall Grypo's reply? Did it affect your thinking on the matter in any way?

  49. It's easy to disagree with what I say when I put it in those words, but MT's current approach does seem to me, for all intents and purposes, to be just as I have described.

    And I think Steve Bloom has a point -- unless we manage to co-opt Justin Bieber or something, the whole "let's hijack some thought leader" approach probably won't get very far.

     * * *

    Anyway. We know that "AGW is uncertain therefore do nothing" is bogus, as has been practically explained ad nauseam. But a whole lot of people don't. Again, the question to me is this: how can we get a whole lot of people to even be aware that the argument is bogus, in a way that doesn't require a humongous pile of money and resources?

    Instead of 'hijacking' a thought leader, can we, in a way, become thought leaders ourselves?

    -- frank

  50. Indeed, instead of claiming that carbon tax makes no economical sense (something along the lines of YesButHayek), we could try to honestly broker another argument. Here is one:

    > I think a high carbon price is politically impossible, which is why I argue for starting low with investments in innovation as part of the package.


    The most honest way to broker this stance is with this steps-steps dance:

    - nod empathically to everything your interlocutor needs to say about carbon taxes while keeping your hands crossed;

    - show your palms as if you were about to counter and tell something about YesButPolitics;

    - open up your hands wide and look into the sky and keep repeating that SmallIsBeautiful.

  51. Paul Daniel,

    Climate, security, environment, economics and the march of human progress are the five most cited reasons for replacing fossil fuels. The percentages are back of the envelope assessments of the certainty of risk posed to the various reasons by continuing business as usual. The argument is that the combined weight of these various risks triggers the precautionary principle so that the debate can be moved from why to how.

    In the real world, most people make their own assessments of the various risks and their relative importance. You no doubt see the risk to climate is far greater than 10% so that climate becomes your principle reason for favoring rapid energy transformation. Many others put non climate environmental risks first. President Obama puts it in terms of economics and national security. For me it's a combination of environment and economics with a healthy dose of the march of human progress. Without that march we couldn't even be talking about energy transformation. We have only recently reached the technological advancement necessary to big replacing fossil fuels. Human progress is a bit more ephemeral than the other reasons, but don't discount it. It was, for example, the impetus behind the development of the Chevy Volt.

    Is offering people a choice of a number of valid reasons that can be used singly or in combination to argue for replacing fossil fuels compelling? Well, it worked for you. You chose climate.

  52. I get the argument. What I don't get is how "back of the envelope assessments of the certainty of risk" are any more compelling than the other assessments out there.

    I can't imagine how the average skeptic or unconvinced person would not accuse you of merely pulling those figures out of the back of something else.

  53. PDA,

    I'll have a longer reply later about how the argument works in actual interactions. For now. if you feel my certainty percentages are in error or lack foundation, please do substitute ones of your liking.

  54. Paul, what I don't get about your combined percentages argument is that in the absence of confidence in climate change all the other percentages could be argued to swing the other way.

    If we didn't believe there would be significant climatic impacts might there not be a 30% chance of missing a step in human progress if we move away from fossil fuels, a 5% chance of increasing international tensions, a 70% chance of economic dislocation? These would cancel out your 'certain' percentages.

    No, I've read a lot of what you've written and i've tried but I just don't get it. "You chose climate"??? Are we using climate as a reason to transition away from fossil fuels? odd.

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  56. I've read the exchange several times. There's a lot there to dive into.

    From Dave:
    - Media herd mentality
    - VSP's
    - Brutal logic
    - etc...
    it really helps me understand why I believe, although well intentioned, the media thinks in an alien language. But the best paragraph comes from Wen

    But “brutal logic” runs up against media logic. There are (at least) two great cardinal sins in (serious) newsrooms and magazine offices: first, the sin of rehashing old news, of failing to advance the story/conversation. And a bitter irony here is that for sophisticated news editors/reporters, who think that they already “get it,” climate is nothing if not old news and a stale conversation. They feel like they’ve heard the same thing a million times. And so, from somewhere deep in their journalistic bones they resist covering it unless they can be seen to “advance the story” or reshape the narrative in a big way. The other cardinal sin, as you know, is to be seen as an advocate. And then, of course, there’s the fear of being labeled an alarmist.

    So we have two impossible problems to overcome. 1) climate change will never be new 2) the truth is activism

    ...also notice the comparison to the debt narrative...

  57. I am truly sorry to say that if you only read one author on sustainability these days, I think it should be David Roberts, though in my modest way I aspire to second place.

    However, if you only follow one web source, it should be this one! For one thing among many, we link to Grist more often than they return the favor.

    But I'm grateful for the exception.

    I agree that the article in which we get passing mention is especially valuable.

  58. I like the consistency of good conversation here. You brought the good from InIt and added more voices and content. I can only see Planet3 having upside. But Roberts does knock it out of the park sometimes. And this is one of those sometimes.

  59. I still object to the headline of this post. Nothing in the article nor the comments following supports the idea that uncertainty is not your friend. The ambivalence is understandable. Everyone here agrees that uncertainty does not preclude action and could be an argument for action. Yet, everyone here except me thinks that uncertainty is a big reason there is no action.

  60. No, let's try again:

    1) I think confusion is a big reason there is no action.

    2) I think people who think more uncertainty argues in favor of less action are very confused.

    (That is true in the very earliest stages of considering a problem. When it is from completely out of left field it makes sense to say, hey, prove it buddy, show me some evidence. But my God, the best scientists have been trying to tell you this stuff for forty years with increasing urgency and stridency every year. One popular solution is to create lousy scientists to contradict them. This seems to keep the peace in the short run but seems rather suboptimal.)

    3) Given that in this case we do have substantial evidence of a very serious problem, UNCERTAINTY ABOUT THE PHYSICS OF CLIMATE is a BIG REASON for MORE ACTION about FOSSIL FUEL EMISSIONS.

    That is, if one is not confused about uncertainty, the more uncertainty one has about climate prediction, the more one should be more afraid of human alteration of the atmosphere. There is a whole lot of evidence that we are rocking the boat.

    Why should confused people be indifferent? It makes no goddam sense. When I don't know how to get my boat to shore, I imagine I would be doing everything I could to fight down panic.

    That is what this article is about, PK. Do you understand it, especially the third point?

    You will see that my position is exactly the opposite of the one you attribute to me. You may imagine that I am a bit disappointed in my efforts to communicate with you given the alarming misunderstanding you display here.

    I do not want to hear noises of support or noises of disapprobation before you convince me that you have a clue what I am saying. Because that is the point of this article. I dislike long discourse with people about something I say or I agree with that they don't understand. I am very willing to try to explain anything I know or ponder anything I don't know in the company of anybody I encounter at whatever level of detail interests them. I like to talk with people who can both talk and listen. But they have to show some sign of listening...

  61. I don't know why you think I don't understand the article or that I disagree with it. My first comment on this thread said the article is all about uncertainty as an argument for action, the certainty of action being greater than the uncertainty of the science. The precautionary principle provides for acting within that uncertainty.

    If UNCERTAINTY ABOUT THE PHYSICS OF CLIMATE is a BIG REASON for MORE ACTION about FOSSIL FUEL EMISSIONS, then shouldn't uncertainty be embraced as a friend?

    More uncertainty argues in favor of less action is not an argument anyone here has made. It seems to me no different except in tone than uncertainty does not preclude action and could be an argument for action.

  62. Where do you get this weird way of thinking?

    If you think potential catastrophe is a good thing because it justifies action to avoid catastrophe, you are more confused than I thought.

    You should probably move to the lip of an active volcano, because your precarious presence there will encourage you to move away.

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