Big decisions demand awkward questions

The climate change debate is starting to dominate our lives. A gem of a book from Greg Craven is the best weapon I’ve yet seen for making sense of the deluge of information and argument that now confronts us daily. [11 August 2009 | Peter Boyer]

What if we’re wrong about climate change? What if things we thought were true turned out to be false, and vice versa? What’s the worst that could happen if we took the wrong decision today?

Greg Craven spruiks his new book

Greg Craven spruiks his new book

If the climate debate is to get much-needed traction among the population at large, we all need to ask ourselves such questions. As citizens and voters we’re being asked to stake a lot on some big decisions, like whether we should set stringent carbon emissions targets or saddle ourselves with emissions trading or a new international protocol.

A wrong decision could prove costly. If we undertake mitigation measures that turn out to be unnecessary there will probably be a big dollar cost. If we decide we should do nothing we may pay in a currency much harder to measure, like a collapsing, chaotic biosphere.

I’m thinking about this now because of a new book that has the capacity to change the whole climate debate. Its message is that the public discussion must abandon a futile quest for certainty and focus instead on the credibility of information sources and the most prudent course of action.

Greg Craven canvasses the options using his 2x2 decision grid

Greg Craven canvasses the options using his 2x2 decision grid

A couple of years ago a friend drew my attention to a video clip on YouTube called “The most terrifying video you’ll ever see”. Featuring an earnest-looking young man calling himself “wonderingmind42”, a series of videos takes viewers step by step through climate and economic scenarios to work out how best to deal with them. It has now scored well over two million hits.

Now, “wondering mind”, revealed as an Oregon farm boy turned science teacher named Greg Craven, has gone into print. His book is about asking questions, and the big question he asks, in the title and repeatedly in the text, is “what’s the worst that could happen?”

Climate science is so complex, Craven says, that it’s impossible for lay people (including himself) to reach independent conclusions about it. Instead of looking for proof, his solution looks at ranking the credibility of scientific, economic and other “expert” sources.

Craven’s “credibility spectrum” enables his readers to work out for themselves which information is worth keeping from the prodigious array of sources now available via the internet. Armed with this and a heightened awareness of our own built-in biases, we bypass arguments about who’s right and who isn’t and cut to the real chase.

The real question, Craven argues, isn’t about right and wrong, true and false, but about looking at what the most credible sources are saying and, from that, deciding on the best bet, the most prudent course of action. The final action is to fill in the blank boxes in a disarmingly simple, devastatingly effective two-by-two grid.

Craven’s easy, chatty style belies the scale of his achievement. His videos and now his book are the best effort I’ve yet seen to get people to understand and respond to the climate challenge, something that countless millions of words written and spoken on the subject by others have so far failed to do.

His book has prompted me to do some serious re-appraisal of my own. I’ve looked afresh at how I’ve dealt with the science of climate change and people’s responses to it, and found some things I will now approach differently.

I’ll be more alert to my own biases, and will more readily acknowledge science’s uncertainties. I’ll be armed with a simpler, more transparent methodology for weighing the evidence and helping myself and others determine the best actions.

I’ll also be less bothered by those impossible demands to prove my case — impossible even for the scientists, let alone little old me. “Who’s right?” is the wrong question. As Greg Craven says, the question we need to ask is “What’s the wisest thing to do, given the risks and consequences?”

What’s the worst that could happen? is published by Penguin. I got my copy from Amazon.

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