ISBN 978-0-399053501-7. “What’s the worst that could happen? – A rational response to the climate change debate” by Greg Craven was published by Perigree (Penguin Books) in 2009. The paperback has 264 pages boasting ten chapters, appendix, resources, notes, references, acknowledgements and an index. Craven is a high school physics and chemistry teacher whose YouTube video “The Most Terrifying Video You’ll Ever See” has probably passed 1.5million downloads by now. The first I heard of this was during a BBC4 documentary in February 2011 called “Meet the Skeptics” by which time I already had the book in my shelf to read. Without wishing to gush like an excited schoolboy this is, without doubt, the best book ever written about climate change. But it was a book that should never have needed to be written. Let me explain why. This is not a book about climate change. This is not a book about why we argue about climate change. It isn’t even a book about the politics of climate change. No, it is one thing: it teaches ordinary lay people how to perform a personal risk assessment. That’s it really. It was written after the video went viral on the web. The book is needlessly overly long, not sure why, but it hits all the right buttons precisely because it doesn’t pretend to give you THE ANSWER. No, this is a book that tells you how to analyse the debate and reach your own conclusions.
Craven asks you to identify and leave your biases at the door then draw up a grid. The grid has two rows and two columns. Across the top on the left is a column headed “Significant action now” whilst on the right it reads “Little or now action now”. The two rows, that intersects these two columns, reads (simply) “True” and “False” to the question “Global Warming?”. The rest of the book takes the reader through the risk analysis. It asks us this: “What’s the wisest thing to do, given the risks and the consequences?” This was the basis of the viral internet video. In it Craven concluded simply that the wisest thing to do was to act significantly now. This was based upon the economic costs of acting significantly, but finding the global warming wasn’t caused by man, only resulted in a global economic recession. If it were true, and we acted swiftly, we would all be very relieved but we wouldn’t be much better off economically – but it could have been much worse. If we took no action and global warming wasn’t man-made then we could all feel smug and party. However if we took no action and global warming wreaked havoc then there would be a global catastrophe. Now, ask yourself, which was the least risky avenue to take? Cravens natural conclusion was to take lots of action now. Like us, he is risk averse.
Although we would be sympathetic with this result, this initial analysis was wrong (as Craven later found out). Hence he wrote this entire book to improve the analysis – only to return to the same answer. It is TOO risky to do nothing based upon the evidence we have, from the sources we have the evidence from. In his initial analysis he failed to properly understand and convey the probability of risk from climate change. It was pointed out to him that he could use the same grid to analyse the risk of being struck by lighting or the earth being invaded by giant mutant space hamsters. Either way you would always get the same conclusion, ie, you would never get out of bed. Hence you have to assign a probability of the risk and that assessment requires the reader to study WHO is supplying us with the evidence. Are these guys credible? One of the most valuable sections of this book are chapters 6 and 7 where Craven examines the evidence from warmers and skeptics and rates their credibility. This section alone is worth the asking price of the book. I am surprised nobody thought of doing something that simple before? Also valuable is chapter 3 where Craven runs through the psychological issues of bias that effects our abilities to judge the evidence rationally. Craven refers to an article by Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert in the Los Angeles Times titled “If only gay sex caused global warming”. The problem with climate change is that we have nobody to blame who we can fix out sights on it. If it was caused by space aliens or Islamic fundamentalist terrorists or gays or some brutal dictator then we could demonise and focus are attacks on them. As the threat is not so visible and immediate, our brains turn off. It isn’t intentional, is isn’t personal, it doesn’t violate our moral sensibilities, it is not a clear and present danger, and it happens too slowly to notice. If we could only panic then something might get done. But we can’t, so we do nothing.
At this point we have to whole-heartedly agree with what Craven has done. He sees this exactly the way WE see the problem. The risks from doing nothing to mitigate climate change are enormous. The people who are telling us that these risks are serious consist of the finest brains on the planet. They are credible witnesses. If you ignore these guys then you may as well stay in bed all day because you are unlikely to believe anybody about anything. Meanwhile the people who tell us that we can relax and do nothing just don’t have the same credibility at all. Craven gives the reader the tools to assess the credibility of the witnesses. For example an organisation has a higher weighting than an individual. An organisation that contradicts its normal bias is also more credible than one that confirms its natural bias (ie, when oil companies tell us we need to act). This way you don’t need to decide WHO IS RIGHT – only if they are credible. We felt pretty smug because this was largely the reason we reached the same conclusion as Craven. This approach is wonderfully neutral and disarming. You don’t need to understand the science nor engage in a slanging match with every skeptic. You just have to quietly ask “are you credible?”
At the back of this book Craven turns his attention to what we can do about climate change. His conclusion is that individually we are powerless and shouldn’t just turn to worn out old platitudes about changing lightbulbs. Instead he proposes an electronic declaration of war. The ship needs to be turned rapidly and a war-time response is required. He suggests going viral with all kinds of new electronic media such as Twitter and Facebook to create a tidal-wave of pressure for action. It is not a question of being a pessimist or an optimist. It is now a question of actually doing something. The idea needs to be viral. A meme. A social epidemic.
Throughout this work I turned down the corners of many pages. It is just a wonderful source book for inspiration. It doesn’t tell you how to win the argument. It teaches you how to be rational. It is this rationale that is so often missing in the argument between warmers and skeptics. I just loved some of the nuggets Craven dug up. One favourite was a quote by a Nobel Prize Winner in Economics, Thomas Schelling, who said: “This idea that costly actions are unwarranted if the dangers are uncertain is almost unique to climate. In other areas of policy, such as terrorism, nuclear proliferation, inflation or vaccination, some ‘insurance’ principle seems to prevail: if there is sufficient likelihood of sufficient damage we take some measured anticipatory action.” Exactly. Craven himself says this in his conclusion “I vote for slamming on the brakes. Hard. I can recover from any hot coffee that I spill on my lap. But I can’t put myself and my car back together again if I drive confidently off a cliff, kinds in the back.” We felt very touched by the closing words from Craven’s Acknowledgements where he thanked his children and apologised for not spending more time with him when he was wroting this book “I hope that you will understand that I took that time away from you in an attempt to give you something even more fundamental – your security. It may not be enough, but I did all that I could.” That is all any of us can do.