How Should We Look at the Chances of Climate Catastrophe?

Paul R. Ehrlich | April 22, 2014 | Leave a Comment Download as PDF

Chances of Climate Catastrophe

Is it ironic or predictable that Harvard’s President, Drew Faust, would enter into a Faustian bargain over climate change and the University’s investments in carbon-intensive companies?

Let’s suppose that, by pure chance, it turns out that there is a 90% probability that the climate denier campaign paid for or organized by those companies is correct – that human caused climate disruption is not occurring (or if it is it is inconsequential).  History shows that the consensus of several thousand honest scientists working in any area can be dead wrong (near universal opposition to Wegener’s idea of continental drift was an example in my lifetime).

Suppose there were only a 10% probability that business as usual would bring about global climate disruption sufficient to cause the deaths of billions and misery for survivors.  What, if anything, should or would society do about it?

Looking at how other risks are handled can give us a clue.  Your odds of having a house fire are way under 1%, and those of having your house burn down entirely are less than one in a hundred thousand.  Yet most people choose to have fire insurance.  The lifetime odds of dying in an airplane accident are about one in five thousand, yet many people are afraid of flying and/or take out trip life insurance.[1]

The chances you will die in a car accident are very much smaller than that one-in-ten risk of civilization ending, and the lifetime risk of just being in an accident is only about twice that of our hypothetical collapse (and in the last case states often require insurance for drivers).

It seems fair to say, then, that people are accustomed to taking out insurance against a variety of risks.  On the other hand, we also know that subjective views of risk do not match the actual odds very well.  People worry about being in airplanes, when cars are roughly fifty times as likely to kill them.

One factor in this is familiarity.  Human beings in developed nations see and use cars day in and day out, and traveling in wheeled vehicles goes back some 5000 years to the dawn of history.  Rolling over solid ground seems perfectly natural to great apes who have walked on solid ground for millions of years.  Air travel is only a century or so old, and doubtless seems natural to birds.  But even as an instrument-rated multi-engine pilot I often think about the fact that only a thin layer of aluminum or composite separates me from a several mile drop when I’m flying.  I rarely consider the odds of a head-on collision when I’m driving.

Of course, none of us is personally familiar with global climate catastrophes, and relatively few people are familiar with the literature dealing with societal collapses.  In addition, with educational systems badly broken and the culture gap (that between the total cultural information possessed by human societies and the knowledge of an average individual) widening, relatively few people even know the basics of where their food comes from, how the human life-support systems of the biosphere work, or why society should be increasingly concerned by global toxification.

Lack of a sense of urgency and deep, pervasive ignorance can partially explain why even universities are failing to take significant action to help avoid disaster (the other explanations are meat for social psychologists, but it is obvious that the enormous human capacity for rationalization rather than acknowledging inconvenient facts and the implications of those facts would be at the top of their list).

This failure to act and resort to rationalization is exemplified by the Faustian bargain with big coal and big oil made by Harvard’s President Faust, author of brilliant historical analyses of the antebellum South and the Civil War period.[2] Rather than spearheading the movement to have her university divest from fossil fuel stocks, stocks that could rapidly lose their value if society awakes to its peril, Faust allowed a meretricious statement to be issued in her name, and like so many others temporized and bowed to political pressure.

Harvard, the “Stanford of the East,” is a great university.  But in a nation where many politicians are both pig-ignorant and afraid of so called “intellectual elites” – that is, people who engage in rational debate and sober consideration of evidence on matters of public policy – public support for education has fallen far beyond escalating need, and great universities must bow and scrape for funds.  Educational leaders feel obliged, by financial need and the necessity they feel to please rich donors, to continue to make investments in unethical companies whose lethal policies and attitudes have been amply documented.[3]

When they are most needed to be leaders for  society, universities are increasingly becoming followers of, and suppliers of narrowly trained cogs for, the corporate-dominated oligarchies that now increasingly control rich nations.  That is tragic, for those nations that not long ago appeared on the road to truly representative governments, are quite possibly now being doomed to disappear.

It is fortunate that some university administrators, faculty members, students, and alumni are still trying to supply the bottom-up leadership so desperately needed to take out insurance against society sliding over the precipice.  The contrast between Jim Hansen, until recently the U.S. government’s top climate scientist, going to jail in protest over the fossil fuel industry, and Harvard’s Drew Faust kowtowing to it, is stunning indeed.


[2] Her book, “This Republic of Suffering” was one of the most thought-provoking I have ever read.

[3] My own favorite, of course, can be found at

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  • Guest

    From the NASA website.

    “The combined average temperature over global land and ocean surfaces for
    June 2014 was the highest on record for the month, at 0.72°C (1.30°F)
    above the 20th century average of 15.5°C (59.9°F).This surpasses the previous record, set in June 1998, by 0.03°C (0.05°F). Nine of the ten warmest Junes on record have occurred during the 21st century, including each of the past five years. June 2014 also marks the second consecutive month with record high global temperatures. With the exception of February (21st warmest), every month to date in 2014 has ranked among the four warmest for its respective month. Additionally, June 2014 marked the 38th consecutive June and 352nd consecutive month with a global temperature above the 20th century average. The last below-average global temperature for June was June 1976 and the last below-average global temperature for any month was February 1985.”

    I guess NASA is part of the conspiracy

  • gduggan

    I cannot stop laughing

  • Mkjon

    The Universities keep going along with the Climate change as long as keep getting those multimillion dollar grants to study the effects of “Climate Change”.

  • gofigure560

    The physicist Richard Feynman said that it doesn’t matter how smart
    or powerful you are, if your hypothesis is contradicted by the empirical
    data, you need a new hypothesis. The anthropogenic global warming
    hypothesis claims that the increasing level of carbon dioxide (co2) due
    to human activities (largely related to burning fossil fuels) causes
    global warming. Evidence backing that claim is nowhere to be found.

    “The seas are rising!”. The seas have been rising for the past 18,000
    years, ever since the last (real) ice age began melting (except
    possibly for a few hundred years of reversal during the Little Ice Age).
    Sea level is up 400+ feet. The current annual sea level rise is 1 to 3
    mm per YEAR! ( 1 mm = .0393701 inches.) This is miniscule and likely
    overwhelmed by measurement error. Using differences of noisy annual
    rates to determine acceleration is laughable. Some perspective may help.
    There have been 13 ice ages in the past 1.3 million years. The average
    duration of each ice age during that period was 90,000 years. Each ice
    age has been followed by a warming (interglacial) period, (such as the
    one we now enjoy) average duration 10,000 years. When there is no
    further increase in sea level it’s a good bet that the next ice age (or
    at least a Little Ice Age) has just arrived.

    The statistics clearly show that extreme weather events (typhoons,
    hurricanes, tornados, floods, droughts) have been even less frequent and
    less severe than usual over the past few decades. Even many scientists
    who back the anthropogenic global warming hypothesis are embarrassed by
    uninformed folks (particularly well known politicians) blaming such
    weather events on human-caused global warming.

    The latest UN IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) admits in at least one released version of its recent periodic report that current
    temperatures are the highest in the past 800 years. This is, finally, a
    reversal by the UN, now admitting that the Medieval Warming Period
    (MWP, about 1,000 years ago) was a global event and experienced higher
    temperatures than now. Human activity was not responsible for that
    warming period (and co2 level was low and was not rising.) What’s more,
    earlier warming periods going back thousands of years in this
    interglacial had even higher temperatures. In other words, current
    warming is well within the bounds of natural warming. However, that did
    not stop even many “scientists” from making the bogus claim that our
    current warming could not be explained, so must have been caused by
    human activity. (That is pure speculation, not even based on plausible
    logic!) Before casting aside the default assumption, that our current
    warming is merely natural climate variation, there must be at least a
    scintilla of evidence.) Finally, there has been no additional increase
    in our global temperature for the past 17 years, even as the co2 level
    has continued to increase. In fact, the five accepted global
    temperature datasets, (3 terrestrial, 2 satellite), all reportedly show a
    current 5 year cooling trend and 4 of the 5 show a current 10 year
    cooling trend!

    The beginning of our current warming (such as it is) is generally associated with the beginning of our industrial revolution and the recent rise in co2 level. But there is no justification for that cherry-picked start-date. Our current warming
    actually began, by definition, at the bottom (the low temperature) of
    the Little Ice Age, which happened in the mid 1600s. For those lacking
    arithmetic skills, that’s two centuries of warming BEFORE both the
    industrial revolution and before co2 began increasing. The only known
    correlation between global temperature variation and co2 variation is
    over geologic periods and shows temperature variations being reflected,
    hundreds of years later, by very similar co2 variations. That’s just the
    carbon cycle at work. Oceans outgas when warmer, and absorb gas during
    cooling periods. During the most recent cooling period (1940s to 1970s)
    co2 continued to rise. More recently, as the global temperature has
    basically remained flat, co2 has continued to rise. Moreover, co2 has
    been 10 to 20 times higher than now in the more distant past, been much
    higher during two ice ages and going into once ice age, so neither does
    there appear to be any nearby “trigger”. Also, the physics is clear:
    co2, as its level increases, has a rapidly diminishing heating capacity.

    All the computer models which project global warming assume that the real greenhouse gas culprit is water vapor, which supposedly provides a positive feedback, bringing on a temperature increase 2 to 3 times greater than that brought on by increasing co2. The assumed feedback assumption is speculative at best because NO ONE yet understands climate feedbacks. In fact, cloud cover, one aspect of water vapor, likely provides a negative (offsetting) feedback. This
    baseless assumption about water vapor feedback happens to be consistent
    with their projected output, since all have grossly overestimated the
    actual temperature increase. (In any case, computer model output is NOT
    evidence of anything apart from the understanding and possible
    confirmation bias of the authors!)

    Co2 relative volume in the atmosphere is 4/100 of one percent. This is also referred to as 400 parts per million by volume (ppmv), or .0004. That’s why it is
    referred to as a trace gas. The recent average annual increase in co2,
    related to human activity, (fossil fuel and land use) is 2 ppmv. This co2 emission represents less than 4% of the natural annual co2 emissions of the carbon cycle (ocean and biomass emissions, so human impact is based on .04 X .0004 = .000016). Also, the US is responsible for less than half of that 4%, and our contribution has been dropping (both absolutely and relative to most other countries) due to increased use of natural gas and also partly due to recent economic conditions. Obama is promising to reduce our use by 17% over the next several years. But the economic analysis, using the alarmists’ own numbers, indicates that the cost to our economy (which will also affect other countries) would
    be enormous, and have an impact on temperature so miniscule that the
    improvement would not be discernible. Hundreds of billions (if not
    trillions) in cost and NO IMPROVEMENT!

    I have yet to hear even one coherent rebuttal attempt of the issues outlined herein. Even more important, neither have I seen any evidence supporting the
    alarmist position. So far the only response to questions or criticism involve circular logic, name-calling, “appeals to authority” (hardly relevant when it is “authority” which is in question), or claims of the “consensus”, and that the science is “settled”. Science is not decided by votes, but in any event the “consensus” claims are invariably based on completely debunked surveys. Finally, the claim that the science is “settled” settles only the claimant’s position. Michael Mann (infamous
    “hockey stick graph” author) responds to scientific criticisms by ignoring the facts presented, and instead asks whether the reader prefers to have their gall bladder taken out by a dentist rather than a surgeon.

    It is clear that human activity is contributing to the increase in carbon dioxide. However, some perspective, again, is needed. By 2099 the co2 level is projected to reach 600 ppmv (this assumes a continuation of the annual increase of
    2ppmv per year). A crowded gym with poor venting would likely be at
    1,000 ppmv. Submarine crews work, for months, in atmospheres of 3,000
    to 5,000+ ppmv. Plants LOVE the increased co2 level and, in that
    environment, require less water. Scientists have also acknowledged that
    lifeforms, not unlike our own, survived in co2 levels which were many
    times higher than now.

    We have time, and technology will likely come up with sensible solutions long before the co2 level is a problem. Invoking the “precautionary principle” to address an imagined catastrophic situation will solve nothing but could bring on much
    larger problems. Don’t let the politicians introduce this kind of hobgoblin!

  • Rmic

    what an arrogant lying dolt !

  • n_slash_a

    What are the odds that Paul is getting paid by the global warming fear mongers to scare people into believe that a make believe catastrophe is going to destroy the planet and the only solution is to spend gobs of money in “research”? Where that research involves making up numbers, putting said fake numbers into really pretty looking graphs, and then calling anyone who doesn’t believe “racist” or “denier”.

    I would say about 100%.

  • Deserttrek

    hmm wasn’t the world supposed to be done by now anyway paul?

    time to retire

  • What if a man who has gotten rich with failed predictions, over half a century, predicts yet more doom? Is there a 10% chance that anyone outside of low information media is even listening to Chicken Little, anymore?

  • CJ
  • Tanks-a-lot

    “Suppose there were only a 10% probability that business as usual would bring about global climate disruption sufficient to cause the deaths of billions and misery for survivors. What, if anything, should or would society do about it?”

    The solution is to reduce the population of the earth by billions. Oh wait.

  • Huckfunn

    As always, the global whiners offer no science. Just predictions of death and doom. The warm-mongers have no science. All they have are computer models which have all been proven wrong. There’s been no warming in over 17 years. Total hoax, total scam.

  • Paul Ehrlich …Paul Erhlich. Now where have I heard of him, before?

    Oh, yes. He’s the fabulist who wrote in The Population Bomb: “In the 1970s the world will undergo famines – hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death.”

    • nickshaw

      Someone just hit his “replay” button. 😉

      • Can’t deprive the Stanfurd libs of the full breadth of conservative wit just because they’re too afraid to investigate verboten websites.

  • Joe Woodhouse

    Looking from a distance, it would almost seem that Drew Faust is controlled by a disease of awareness.

    It could be argued that human awareness evolved to accurately model the organisms environment (with a model of the organism in it) so that it could effectively adapt to and move in that environment. Poetically, the brain evolved to mirror the Universe, with the body in it, to enhance survival and reproduction of the possessor of that brain. Therefore, the natural endowment is for that brain to mirror the Universe and its patterns with great fidelity.

    Now we see powerful leaders and policy makers whose mirroring of the Universe is defective. Something has gone wrong with human awareness and the resulting actions are destroying the very foundations of civilization. This disease of awareness seems to be spreading and being accepted as the norm.

  • Sally

    I think that the biggest problem with accepting the inevitability of this catastrophe is that there is little that can be done by the individual.
    I have thought for years that a key issue in every aspect of environmental collapse (forest clearing, overfishing, excess CO2 and CH4 production, water pollution with medications in our pee, die off of species due to loss of their environments, poaching of nearly extinct species, etc., etc.) are all related to the huge growth in population I have seen in my lifetime.
    But I could not influence that even in the US, where we have an active movement to limit contraceptive availability and stop the use of abortion services; where we cut off funding to developing countries familiy planning services, if they discuss abortion. If women could have only the children they really want, this would be hugely changed. And more of our kids would be happy kids, not seeking out places to detonate a suicide bomb.

    • The one, indispensable resource is people, you fool.

    • jane

      I agree completely;the UK is now showing a similar shift in attitudes -in that abortion is now seen as a dirty word-and there are constant efforts to restrict its availability:this while our population is increasing rapidly and our wildlife and environment are shrinking accordingly.

      We also have a significant cultural gap and widespread apathy-combined with mounting public lack of trust in politicians and experts.

      “When they are most needed to be leaders for society, universities are increasingly becoming followers of, and suppliers of narrowly trained cogs for, the corporate-dominated oligarchies that now increasingly control rich nations.”

      This is a consequence of the dominant neo-liberal model which prevails in so many so-called advanced societies: tax cuts;shrinking public funding and an ever-growing corporate influence on governments and institutions.

      My guess is that the corporate sector will only invest seriously in climate research if an opportunity to increase future profits seems likely and that independent,publicly funded studies will continue to struggle.

  • Erik Assadourian

    For those interested in reading Faust’s statement: Not exactly the same words as the video Paul links to, but similar!

  • Ken Caldeira

    While this risk management framing is fine and I don’t disagree with anything here, it is not all about the tails of the distribution.

    The central expectation if we keep on our trajectory towards burning all available fossil fuel resources and dumping the CO2 in the atmosphere is that we will turn the planet into something that looks much closer to how it looked in the Cretaceous.

    I don’t want to quibble about the word “catastrophic” but effectively irreversible ocean acidification, melting of the great ice sheets, shifting weather patterns, etc, seems sufficiently catastrophic to me to want to be concerned about the median expectation and not just the tails. Even if we knew that the central IPCC estimates were correct with 100% confidence, that would not alter my policy recommendations.

    (See )

    • Paul Ehrlich

      Ken’s article well worth re-reading. Paul