Climate Change and Home Insurance

Bret Stephens’ first column for the NYTimes Opinion pages kicked off less of a Climate Change debate, as I imagine he would have preferred, and more of a social media backlash. I’m not sure what to make all the insults and invective launched at him, the threats of NYT subscription cancellations, and charges of calling him a denialist. It is disappointing, yes, and perhaps hypocritical, but I don’t know how much of it is based on principled evaluations of his position versus his debut as a new conservative/neoconservative voice in the NYTimes Opinion pages, versus political tensions running high post election or some combination of other things.

I’m interested, in this post, in engaging with Jay’s idea of climate science certainty. In an interview published in Vox, Stephens, lays out the case for skepticism or at least non-complete-certainty using a compelling analogy — comparing climate mitigation strategies to buying house insurance.

…The best argument made on behalf of climate mitigation strategies is even if there’s a small chance your house catches fire, you take out insurance. That’s perfectly sensible. And you can make a perfectly sensible argument that even if we’re not 100 percent sure we’re facing a catastrophic climate future, we should take out a host of insurance policies to mitigate carbon emissions.
But then the intelligent question is: “How much are you paying for insurance?”

I find this analogy much more interesting to consider. It guides us away from polemic announcements of impending disaster. Or from actual science denial, even in the form of a law maker bringing in a snow ball into Congress as evidence that Global Warming doesn’t exist. I don’t find either of these types of hyper-certain approaches useful for a national debate. The insurance analogy allows for a more interesting debate about the probabilities of impending disaster, the efficacy of things we can do as a society to ameliorate the effects of climate change, and what trade-offs we’re willing to make to get there.

I agree that some amount of skepticism is important in climate science. Skepticism is at the root of the scientific method. We should use a healthy dose of skepticism in our national, and global, conversation about climate change. But hardly any of our national or international conversations seem to be about the fat-tailed probabilities of climate change or climate change abatement strategies and the trade-offs we might make to address them.

There’s also something to be said about the gap between personal responsibility that climate change believers face (which I agree, everyone should try to take steps to decrease their climate footprint) and the kinds of decisions we face as a society to address climate change. I don’t know enough to say this with confidence, but no amount of individual lifestyle adjustment will do enough to address the scale of the problems we face. We need to make major social and political decisions to accomplish the levels of abatement we have ambitions for. The way climate change conversations are going now, I don’t have confidence that we’ll be able to make that happen.

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