Column Thinking

Trent Ernst, Editor


I don’t know if you’ve looked outside recently, but the weather for the last few weeks has been pretty darn nice. I don’t want to jinx it or anything, but I would like to point out that this thanksgiving, I was outside working in my shorts and a tank-top. (Yes, I know, you’re glad you missed the experience.)

Having done what I thought was my last trip around the yard with the lawn mower a few weeks ago, I noticed the grass getting shaggier, until I decided to do one last one last mow.

In mid-October.

Which brings us to the topic of today’s discussion: global warming and column thinking. And yes, this is based on that video that you may have seen online about global warming. If you’ve seen that, you can pretty much skip this editorial.

Column thinking is a way of cutting across a debate between two possible outcomes where neither outcome is certain.

In the realm of climate debate, the (highly simplified, but still effective) argument goes like this: If we propose a best case and a worst case scenario for each possibility, what is the best possible solution.

In the realm of climate change, there are two groups. One says that climate change is happening, is being accelerated by humankind’s impact on the world and, if left unchecked will lead to catastrophic outcomes. That there is a tipping point, past which the world will degenerate into Al Gore’s worst nightmare.

The other side of the argument says that, yes, climate change is happening, but the influence that humankind has on it is minimal. That we are still recovering from the last little ice age and that the amount of greenhouse gases needed to affect change on the climate increases exponentially.

That is, to increase the temperature by one degree overall, you’ll need to double the amount of greenhouse gasses, while to increase it by two degrees needs four times as much. The more greenhouse gasses, goes the argument, the more needed to affect change.

If we take these as the two extremes, there are also two extreme actions we can take. We can do nothing; change nothing. Live the way we are living now. Or we can change our entire society to try and reduce our impact on the environment.

The argument has so far been about whether global warming is actually happening, but what if we re-frame the debate. We have no control over how the planet will react to additional greenhouse gases. But we do have control over whether we act or not. If we act and we were wrong in acting, if there was no global warming, we spend a lot of money, we change society, we may have an economic crisis, but the world keeps going as is. If we act and we were right, the outcomes are about the same, except we’ve saved the planet to boot.

In both these situations, humanity will probably face a deep economic crisis. Let’s look at our other controllable option: not acting.

If we do nothing and the people who say that climate change is not going to precipitate an environmental catastrophe, that there is no tipping point, then we win all around. We’ve saved our money, and everything is happy happy, joy joy.

But if we do nothing and climate change really does have a tipping point, then the worst case scenario is an environmental disaster, which will probably spark a social catastrophe, a financial collapse of nations…Basically, Armageddon. So given these two choices (act or don’t act), which is better? If we choose to act, chances are, things are going to get tough for a while, no matter what.

If we chose not to act, then the outcomes are much more divergent, we either have the best possible outcome or the worst.

So do we play it safe? Do the work, spend the money and ensure a safe, if not prosperous future or do we roll the dice and hope that climate change is overrated?

Because it’s not our future we’re betting, it’s our children’s.