Rolling the Dice With Our Planet

Question: If an asteroid were heading towards us, the world would unite to meet the challenge. Why can’t we do this when it comes to the climate change crisis? 

Nate Lewis: There are two differences at least that I see between the asteroid problem as you’ve posed it and the climate change problem. First is the fact that you can’t see carbon dioxide. It’s a colorless, non-toxic to humans at some concentration, gas. On the other hand, how would you feel if everybody on the freeway, every mile they drove, stopped, opened their windows and dumped out a pound of trash? That’s exactly what we do, it’s just you can’t see that pound of carbon dioxide trash that comes out of everybody’s tailpipe on average every single mile we drive. 

The second thing is that if the asteroid were absolutely hitting the earth, we would probably really respond, but there’s some probability that it may get by and then we always have to understand the cost benefit analysis of do we act or not. The same thing is true with carbon dioxide emissions. We don’t absolutely know what levels of carbon dioxide are, or are not “safe.” And so we get into an actually, in my opinion, a very inappropriate discussion of whether or not we should take action or not. The real issue is not whether we can prove that climate change will or will not occur within 10 or 20 or 30 years. The real issue is that we don’t really know for sure, but we only get to do this experiment once. And if we get into a situation that we don’t like, we can’t do anything about changing it back to where it was. This is not a situation of sound science. It is all about rolling the dice once with the one planet that we have.

Recorded on February 3, 2010

The real issue is not whether we can prove that climate change will or will not occur within 30 years. It’s that we don’t really know for sure, but we only get to do this experiment once.

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