Climate change action - uncertainty is not an excuse

The is blog post is written by Valerie Shen, a sophomore at Harvard College, who is interning this summer for the Climate Change Policy team at The Wilderness Society.

When The Wilderness Society was established over 75 years ago, the co-founders sought “to save from invasion that extremely minor fraction of outdoor America which yet remains free from mechanical sights and sounds and smell.” In 1964, the Wilderness Act declared wilderness as “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man.” While these principles still guide much of our actions today, simply blocking off land from development and mechanical interference is no longer sufficient to ensure that it is truly untrammeled.

The growing threat of climate change means protecting public lands from active intervention no longer truly keeps them safe. Temperature and precipitation changes have led to a host of problems including the spread of invasive species, extinction, and a general disruption to the long-standing balance of power in various ecosystems. Despite these major impacts, however, efforts to protect wilderness from climate change have been delayed, partially because of perceived uncertainty regarding science on this issue.

Countless studies have linked global climate change to man-made greenhouse gas emissions, and show the direct damage in terms of severe weather and habitat degradation. These peer-reviewed studies provide abundant evidence and approach the issue from various angles. Yet the inherent nature of scientific discovery precludes absolute certainty in such issues, and unfortunately this has become a major road-block in the battle against climate change.

Take for instance, the issue of climate sensitivity. Swedish scientist Svante August Arrhenius, famous for his “Arrhenius Equation” relating chemical reaction rates to temperature, started this debate in 1896 when estimating how much carbon dioxide influences global temperatures. Numerous studies have followed, but there is still no definitive answer. While scientists see this uncertainty as motivation to refine their models, much of the public considers it an excuse to delay action. After all, if we don’t know exactly what carbon dioxide will do to the earth, we might as well keep emitting right?

To me, this perspective is as illogical as jumping into an ocean because you don’t know how deep it is and it might not be as dangerous as everyone believes. Even worse, while people are quick to accuse scientists of overestimating impacts, few recognize that reality may be even worse than currently predicted.

These problems with uncertainty figure into the discussion at many levels. We are uncertain about how much CO2 will be emitted, how much will remain in the atmosphere, how this will change temperatures, and ultimately how this change will impact public lands and society in general. At each step, models make assumptions and multiple layers of calculations mean even small discrepancies can lead to vastly different conclusions.

It is easy to ignore the most extreme scenarios, but doing so irresponsibly obscures the most efficient choice. While no one knows exactly what the planet will be like in the future, uncertainty is never justification for inaction. Whether our predictions are better or worse than reality, mitigation must start today and global warming is an issue that must be tackled. Simply leaving land untrammeled is no longer a sufficient strategy to protect America’s wilderness.