News Journal: Climate change is too important to ignore

In the months after 9/11, Vice President Dick Cheney repeatedly invoked the principle that if there’s even a 1 percent chance of a terrorist attack, we must prepare as if it were a certainty.

Standing in line at a coffee shop during the recent wave of brutally cold weather I heard someone say, “This weather sure puts a nail in the whole global warming hoax.” And I immediately thought of what became known as “the 1 percent doctrine.”

Let me connect the dots. It is tough trying to convince people like the guy I was in line with that climate change is real and the odds are very good that it is caused by human activity. Somehow, for many people on both sides, climate change has become an ideological issue. In past columns, I have cited the fact that every major national and international scientific organization has passed resolutions saying its membership believes that global warming is a reality. Over and over again, polls of recognized climate scientists show that 95 percent or more of them say the same thing.

Yet over and over again other polls of all Americans show there has been little or no change in the percentages of those who accept or deny climate change. It seems people have made up their minds, one way or the other.

So I don’t intend in this column to try to change anyone’s mind. I’ll even grant that there are reputable scientists who are skeptical of or even deny aspects of climate change. Instead I’d like to argue that we should apply the Cheney doctrine to climate change.

Can a rational human being who doesn’t believe in climate change at least agree there is a remote possibility that 95 percent of climate scientists are right? Maybe a 1 percent chance?

If so, shouldn’t we prudently prepare “as if it were a certainty?”

Now let me invoke another principle, this one from the world of probability analysis and statistics. In those fields, they use something called “expected value” to make decisions about allocating or not allocating limited funds based on two factors –probability and the potential payoff.

You may think the probability of climate change being real is very low, but you would have to admit that if it is a reality, the potential payoff –the expected value –of taking action and spending money to ameliorate its effects is enormous. Said differently, even if there is only a 1 percent chance that the more alarming predictions about climate change are correct, the payoff of doing nothing could be catastrophic.

Back to that guy in the coffee shop line. I have to admit I had to hold back telling him, buddy, I don’t care how cold it is. No climate scientist has ever claimed that global warming means the end of cold weather.

Along with a lot of media pundits and talk show hosts, he was confusing anecdotes about weather with long-term climate science. He had probably listened to one of them saying there was no Polar Vortex, that it was a hoax invented by global warming alarmists to make the cold weather conform to their theories.

Huh? Even a cursory review of the scientific literature shows that the polar vortex concept has been around for a long time. Check the August 1950 issue of the Tellus Journal of Geophysics.

Climate change in no way suggests there won’t be extremely cold weather spells in Delaware for years to come. What scientists do say is that the long-term trends, measured in decades not in days, is for an alarming increase in average temperatures over the next 50 years.

How about this for anecdotal weather news? At the same time we were experiencing a couple of days of polar vortex weather, Australia was in the throes of an unprecedented heat wave –setting records for the hottest Australian day on record, the hottest four-day period and the hottest 14-day period.

I don’t claim that proves global warming, although it probably persuaded a lot of Australians. I do want to point out that drawing conclusions from local weather misses the big picture. Our cold spell did nothing to alleviate the inexorable rise in sea levels that are scheduled to wipe out a few Pacific islands in the next ten years.

Not believing in global warming isn’t going to stop it. And even those who persist in denying it ought to think hard about applying Dick Cheney’s 1 percent doctrine. We are running out of time.

Ted Kaufman is a former U.S. senator from Delaware.