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The following is excerpted from Andrew T. Guzman’s new book, Overheated: The Human Cost of Climate Change. You can purchase it here.

“KerPlunk! And Planet Earth”

This book’s lesson is easy to state and is worth making explicit up front. As we make decisions about how to respond to climate change, we must not lose sight of the very real possibility that it will have a cataclysmic impact on the way we live. I do not mean that there will be serious economic effects or that there will be modest numbers of additional deaths—these impacts are already happening. I mean that we should be worried that climate change may kill tens of millions or hundreds of millions and severely disrupt the lives of perhaps billions.

This all sounds alarmist, and I suppose it is. But that is because we should be alarmed. Nobody knows with certainty (or with great confidence, for that matter) exactly what the impact of climate change will be, and I am no exception. We do know some things, however, and they are not comforting. We know that the expected changes in our climate are significant, and the projections seem to grow more dire with each passing year. We know that the oceans are rising and will continue to do so for at least the next century, causing deadly flooding in many parts of the world. We know that agriculture will be disrupted as temperature and precipitation patterns change and as mountain glaciers melt. We know that the stresses generated by climate change will increase tensions in many parts of the world and are likely to trigger violent conflict. We know that rising temperatures will increase the incidence of disease and illness around the world. We know that even if the changes turn out to be on the mild end of existing projections, there will be great suffering—and that is if we are lucky. If fate is unkind and climate change is on the severe end of our best predictions, then we are all in deep, deep trouble.

Whether or not we are lucky, the consequences of climate change will be felt by billions of people around the world. This is obvious, but it is also often ignored in our public debates. We talk about environmental changes, scientific evidence, ice sheets, ocean levels, and droughts, but we do not always get around to talking about people. In writing this book, I have tried hard not to fall into this familiar trap. I have written it with the human impact of climate change in mind. The book is about how people will be affected by climate change, rather than how science and climate interact.

A focus on the human cost of climate change is critical, because that is what will persuade people to act. Scientific debates are important, but acknowledging the science is not, by itself, enough to get our political systems to react. Discussing possible policy  responses to climate is important, but these responses will happen only if people are persuaded that something must be done. I am convinced that the most important barrier to a sensible and determined response to climate change is a lack of public understanding about the ways in which our lives and the lives of our children will be affected. Hearing that global average temperatures will increase by a couple of degrees is not enough for most people to support aggressive government action in response. Recognizing that this change in climate will lead to tens of millions or hundreds of millions of deaths and that it will harm billions of people, on the other hand, may motivate people to demand action from their political leaders.

There is no way to avoid  a discussion about science entirely, but I have tried to keep that material to a minimum. I ask that you bear with me for a few pages in this introduction as I address the predictions of scientists just enough to get the ball rolling. Chapter 2 then explains the basic science of climate change, because some understanding of the science is necessary to appreciate the con- sequences for humans. The remainder of the book, however, is focused on how human beings, our communities, and our social structures face a threat unlike any we have ever seen before.

There is no way to think about the future without predictions, and so there is no way to think about the challenge of climate change without predictions about the world’s future climate and its consequences. You can think of scientists making predictions about the likely impact of climate change the same way you think of making bets on the roll of two six-sided dice. If you have to bet on the outcome of a roll of the dice, you should bet that they will add up to seven. This is the most likely of all outcomes. You will, however, be wrong much more often than you are right. There is one chance in six that the roll will be a seven, so you will be wrong five out of six times. When climate scientists make a prediction—for example, when they predict that the earth will warm by 2° C during this century—they are making a prediction the same way you are when you are betting on the dice. That is, they are offering their best guess, even though they are more likely to be wrong than right. This is not a criticism of the science or the scientists but rather a reflection of the complexity of the earth’s climate system. The best scientists are not the ones who get it right all the time—there are no scientists like that—but  rather the ones who have the best understanding of the probabilities involved. These scientists will get it right more often than anyone else, but they will still be wrong a lot.

The fact that we do not know exactly what the future holds does not, unfortunately, relieve us of the need to make policy decisions. Should we tax carbon emissions? Implement a cap-and-trade scheme? Enter into an international agreement on mitigating greenhouse-gas emissions? Invest in geoengineering projects to try to cool the earth? To talk sensibly about any of these options—or any of the dozens of other issues relevant to climate change—we need to take our best guess about what the future holds, even if our best guess is wrong more often than it is right.

Fortunately, we have some tools for making policy in areas, such as climate change, where there is a lot of uncertainty. Knowing that a seven is the most likely result when you roll the dice is useful for gamblers, even though that prediction is wrong more often than it is right. In a similar way, the best guess of scientists about what climate change will bring is useful for political leaders deciding what policies to implement.

Human conduct is causing the earth to warm, and we have to decide what to do about it. We are locked into playing a game of dice with the world and with humanity. If there was ever a time when we could have chosen not to play, it is long past. The challenge we face, then, is not deciding whether or not to play but, rather, how to place our bets. Should we enact policies that are a little less expensive but cause more warming in the future, or should we opt for policies that cost more today  and cause less warming later? Either way, we are placing a bet on how the climate will react to our actions and how we—humanity—will be affected by the changes in the climate. And we are playing with the highest possible stakes.

 Reprinted from Overheated: The Human Cost of Climate Change by Andrew Guzman, with permission of Oxford University Press. © Andrew T. Guzman 2013


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