Albuquerque Journal: Global Warming: Risk Huge Despite Uncertainty

March 2011

By John Fleck

In uncertainty lies risk.

That explains why you buy house insurance, said Sandia National Laboratories researcher George Backus — uncertainty about whether or when it might flood or burn down.

You don’t know when you’ll crash your car, but you buckle up (to mitigate your risk) and, again, buy insurance.

So when Backus and his colleagues at the Albuquerque-based national security research center began looking at the risks of climate change to the U.S. economy, they turned to the concept of insurance in their efforts to think about how the United States should respond.
“It’s actually a meaningful metaphor,” Backus said in a recent interview.

Looking at the effect of changing precipitation patterns on the United States, they found that the risk to the U.S. economy — to agriculture, to the energy industry (which uses a lot of water) and other businesses — was around $1 trillion between now and 2050, but possibly twice that.

By 2050, they found, the changes to U.S. water supplies triggered by a changing climate could be costing us $60 billion a year (in 2008 dollars).
That the number represents but a small share of GDP “can give a false sense of comfort” because their data suggest the longer we wait, the bigger the potential damage and the greater the uncertainty becomes, they wrote.

Out in the distant future, they found, there’s a real risk — not a certainty, but a genuine risk, based on the best science — that increasing greenhouse gases could make things a lot worse.

The science is far from perfect, with major uncertainties, Backus said. But it is the best that we have with which to begin making decisions about the future. “What do we want to use? The best we have or a Ouija board?”

This isn’t the work of a bunch of Birkenstock-wearing hippies. These are the same folks responsible for maintaining our nuclear deterrent. They are thinking this way because the language of risk and uncertainty is familiar to people in the national security community, and it is their job to think about and help us prepare for bad things that might hurt our nation.

Theirs is a world in which thinking about “high-consequence, low-probability” events, things such as accidental nuclear explosions or potential enemies bent on our destruction, is a way of life.

And it is a world that is increasingly taking climate change seriously, not because of what we know about it, but rather because of what we don’t.
Take Navy Adm. David Titley, the Navy’s senior oceanographer and head of the service’s Task Force Climate Change.

There is great uncertainty in the projections scientists offer about future sea level rise as a result of climate change. That uncertainty is clearly a problem in Titley’s business.

Sea level rose 8 inches in the 20th century. There is a lot of uncertainty about how much it will rise in the future, primarily because of uncertainty about the speed and effect of Greenland’s melting ice cap.

But Titley’s best estimate when his superiors asked him to look into the issue was that sea level in the 21st century could rise another 3 to 6 feet.
“We’re the Navy,” Titley said in a talk at the Pentagon last fall that has become a minor YouTube hit. “We tend to build our bases at sea level.”

Titley called climate change, caused by rising greenhouse gases from fossil fuel burning, “one of the pre-eminent challenges of our century,” partly because it involves “a big uncontrolled experiment” with an uncertain outcome and potentially major downside risks.

Those risks have made potential national security problems associated with climate change — things like what happens in unstable parts of the world as water supplies decrease or what happens to military and resource geopolitics as the Arctic melts — a major research topic at Sandia.

Backus and a team of colleagues spent more than a year looking at the best estimates of how the U.S. climate might affect our water supplies, the uncertainties in those estimates, and the potential effect on the U.S. economy. Then they applied the same risk-assessment tools used in the national security community.

“Policymakers will most likely need to make decisions about climate policy before climate scientists have resolved all relevant uncertainties about the impacts of climate change,” they wrote in their 259-page report, “Assessing the Near-Term Risk of Climate Uncertainty.”

A lack of action, they found, could lead to the equivalent in economic impact of 7 million lost jobs by 2050.

Uncertainty in the science is often used to argue against potentially costly action to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. That is an argument Backus, thinking in insurance terms, rejects. Part of that uncertainty is the possibility of very bad outcomes.

“The uncertainty is the risk,” Backus said.

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