Thursday, August 16, 2007

Don't dither. Take action

When you're convinced, like me, that there's sufficient evidence and logic that we're at high risk in from so many related climate forces, it's frustrating as hell to see our leaders and our neighbors doing nothing. I was at least a little encouraged to read this guest essay on Gristmill by Herman E. Daly, an ecological economist and professor in the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, College Park, who is a featured expert in the new film, 11th Hour.

Here's the crux of what he says about not taking any action if there are any unresolved arguments about scientific findings.

As long as we focus on measuring inherently uncertain empirical consequences, rather than on the certain first principles that cause them, we will overwhelm the consensus to "do something now" with the second order uncertainties of "first knowing the exact consequences of what we might someday do."

To put it another way, if you bail out of an airplane, you need a crude parachute more than an accurate altimeter. And if you also happen to take an altimeter with you, at least don't become so bemused in tracking your descent that you forget to pull the ripcord on your parachute.

We'll NEVER achieve absolute certainty about the future. It wasn't certain that Hurricane Katrina would be a certain category of storm or that it would land at a particular point on the Gulf Coast until it happened. But history shows that preparation was delayed on many fronts due to less than perfect prediction. That's the stupidest of human responses. We've got to do better than that. As Daly says in the last paragraphs of his essay,
Setting policy in accord with first principles allows us to act now without getting mired in endless delays caused by the uncertainties of complex empirical measurements and predictions. Of course, the uncertainties do not disappear. We will experience them as surprising consequences, both agreeable and disagreeable, necessitating mid-course correction to the policies enacted on the basis of first principles. But at least we will have begun moving in the right direction.

To continue business as usual, while debating the predictions of complex models in a world made even more uncertain by the way we model it, is to fail to pull the ripcord. The predicted consequences of this last failure, unfortunately, are very certain.

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