I'm no scientist, so when it comes to complicated subjects involving any sort of formula or graph, I defer to experts. Case in point: climate change. I've followed the drumbeat of recent scientific papers connecting melting ice sheets in the poles and worsening hurricanes to climate change. I've followed the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as this reputable international body's released one foreboding report after another.
But then I've also listened to other scientists. Not the pseudo experts paid off by Big Oil to gush falsehoods. I'm referring to weather experts, insurance pros and free-market types, such as those gathered recently at the Weather Risk Management Association's annual meeting.
These experts are saying: "Whoa, Al. Hold up a minute."
No doubt, the IPCC reports represent consensus among hundreds of the world's top climatologists and other "ists." Sure, any scientist worth her weight in academic degrees will tell you there's a signal of change in those patterns, and man's behind a good bit of it. But there are still the questions of how strong that signal is and how fast change will play out.
One thing to note about the IPCC--they release a "summary for policymakers" with their full reports. "Policymakers" is a nice way to say politicians, and like politicians, anything specifically geared toward them should be ran through a truth detector test.
Take the IPCC's Summary for Policymakers released in April, with such predictions as death by diarrhoeal disease in Asia, a painful shrinkage of the Amazon rainforest, and the evaporation of arable African land--all by the end of this century.
Meteorologists I've heard from are suspicious of forecasts for 2080. They feel uncomfortable predicting extreme weather months out, let alone decades. It's the geologists' jobs to prognosticate far in advance, and if you talk to them, they'll tell you that the planet's due for an ice age.
The IPCC talk about hurricanes also whips up some scientists. The IPCC reported that it was "likely" climate change would lead to an increase in tropical cyclone activity. But hurricane pros in the trenches of this debate can't even read the same study without arguing whether the authors are listed in the right order, let alone agree on if the increase in storm activity is significant.
There are some Paul Reveres in the climate change debate that refuse to allow any debate. Stop all carbon emissions now or else, Benedict Arnold.
But this attitude leads to hasty short-term solutions that could cause long-term damage. There's the carbon trading system in Europe, which is reportedly so loosey-goosey it might be encouraging pollution. There's ethanol in its current presidentially popular manifestation--from corn--which might burn more energy to produce than it provides. Neither makes sense if allegations are true.
Instead, let's think of solutions today that could help with tomorrow--no matter how fast or slow climate change comes on. Here's one: more worldwide weather stations to better study emerging climate patterns and devise insurance and derivatives to mitigate them. Or, instead of cringing at future hurricanes, we could focus on better building codes and coastal development policies.
I don't mean to give ammo to those who still believe that global warming is a conspiracy cooked up by freedom-hating communists and disgruntled ex-presidential candidates. Something is happening to our planet because of us, but there isn't a consensus on how much of something, and how fast of something. So let's act, but let's think before we do. Let's not all drink the corn ethanol.
MATTHEW BRODSKY is associate editor of Risk & Insurance®.
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July 1, 2007
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