Phil Sharp Commentary

September 27, 2011

The original “wedges” article by Pacala and Socolow provided a rebuke in 2004 to those in power who argued we did not have at hand the technology or fuels to get on a path toward stabilizing greenhouse gas emissions — a rebuke easily comprehended by the intelligent lay person.

In the above article he delivers wise counsel to the scientific and advocacy communities on how to reach those in power to get stronger action by employing an “iterative risk management approach” which helps one better grasp how to act in a world where there are uncertainties associated with what we know and with the consequences of our actions. Such a world is familiar to most smart people, and the effort by some advocates to articulate absolutes is both foreign and easily dismissed in the cacophony of today’s public discourse. No one should underestimate the impact in delaying action that has resulted from highly financed attacks on science and on the advocates. But Socolow calls for greater recognition among scientists and advocates of the complex nature of the action required, the trade-offs involved, and the need for sustained, trustworthy communications.

The approach of “Iterative Risk Management,” with Socolow’s help, was the major theme of the recent National Academies report on America’s Climate Choices. As a member of that committee, I became convinced that this framework provides a sustainable way for us to both think about climate change and to carry on serious public discourse. However, “iterative risk management” is still the language of specialists, and we need a better description for it. In simple terms, we act on what we know, aware of uncertainties; we learn as we go; and we adjust our actions in accord with that learning. To most intelligent persons, this is just common sense.

Since the failure last year by Congress to take serious action, some in the advocacy community have despaired at the thought of convincing the public by appeals to science. They would instead focus on the so-called “co-benefits” that might be derived from climate policy. While it is always worth pointing out such potential benefits, it would be a profound mistake to abandon a persistent effort to communicate the scientific arguments and new scientific findings. Our fundamental reason for taking strong action is the serious concern science has articulated about the warming path. And to sustain action, we need a clear and sustainable reason; we need not invent one or overstate the co-benefits to get the attention of leaders. I strongly believe that the “know-nothing” approach is not sustainable for major political leaders, and the imperatives of the economy cannot for long push climate change off the front pages.