What’s the worst that could happen?

By Bryan Walker 03/10/2009

What's the Worst That Could Happen?: Cutting Through the Hubbub Over Global WarmingGreg Craven has been a YouTube phenomenon. Seven million people have viewed his short climate change video posted in 2007, The Most Terrifying Video You’ll Ever See. It was followed up with a number of others. Now he’s produced a lively and engaging book What’s The Worst That Could Happen?  A Rational Response to the Climate Change Debate which may not reach quite as many people, but certainly deserves a wide readership.

Craven is a high school science teacher in Oregon. He is open about the deep alarm he feels about climate change. But he’s not a climate scientist. He doesn’t set out to convince  readers of the reality of global warming. Instead he offers what he calls some thinking tools, not for working out whether climate change is true or not, but for working out whether we should be taking action or not. The decision grid ’allows you to stop focusing on who’s right and instead ask, what’s the wisest thing to do, given the risks and consequences?’ Risk management, he calls it. The grid is a simple 2×2 affair, which compares and considers the consequences of action or inaction if global warming turns out to be either true or false. He’s aware that when he talks about a debate between ’warmers’ and ’sceptics’ he’s describing popular perception, not what goes on in climate science circles, but popular perception is what he is concerned to address.

The book was honed in the classroom. He found there’s no better way to refine a thought than to toss it out in front of a roomful of critical teenagers. The writing is crisp, quirky, often humorous, never ponderous. An active reader is presupposed, with pages set aside for participatory jottings. It’s hard to avoid engagement. Yet there’s an unmistakable drive and underlying seriousness to the vigorous text.

Craven offers useful observations about how science works, as a preliminary to embarking on the decision quest. Some examples: science is about pursuing the truth, but it never claims to actually get there. Its statements are usually very conservative. The presence of differing views doesn’t mean that something is controversial. Peer-reviewed papers are the basic currency of science. Science often runs counter to common sense, which would still have us thinking the sun goes round the earth.

The next preliminary step is to examine the ways our brains work (defectively). Confirmation bias is the main problem for us to be alert to, and he provides many suggestions as to how to manage that. Another feature important in the global warming debate is that the human brain’s alarm system has been conditioned over time to respond to threats that are immediate and visible.

Then it’s on to a tool he developed himself, the credibility spectrum. This is a ranking of sources by such factors as expertise, bias, track record, authority within the scientific community, reputation. Readers are invited to make up their own spectrum, but Craven shares his, which puts statements from professional societies at the top, along with statements from organizations that contradict their normal bias. Next down are government reports. In the middle come university research programmes, appropriately sourced petitions, think tanks and advocacy organisations. Down then to individual professionals, book writers, and finally individual lay people.  He chooses and identifies sources for each of those categories from both sides, warmers and sceptics.

There follows an excellent 30-page summary of what it is that the warmers are saying we should be concerned about and the doomsday they see ahead if we carry on as we are. The point of this chapter is simply to establish that their concern is not unreasonable and warrants at least the amount of attention needed to decide whether we should do anything about it or not. But the striking clarity of his account gives the chapter an importance well beyond that limited intention.

He then returns to his own credibility spectrum, warmers to the left, sceptics to the right, and explains why it could only lead him to the conclusion it did:

’When I look at the stunningly strident statements from all those calm professional sources at the top left, and I think, What are the chances they’re all out to lunch? and then I add my observations that the predictions have only been getting more dire and more immediate as time goes on, it scares the willies out of me. So 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, kids in the back.’

After that he sends his readers off with step by step instructions to build their own credibility spectrum and use the decision grid to produce their own conclusion.

For those readers who come to the same conclusion as he does, the appendix offers a strong recommendation. Craven stands with Hansen, because he has the best track record for predictions which mainstream science eventually catches up with. 350 ppm has to be the target for CO2 concentration in the atmosphere. This will require an effort similar to that which the US put into World War II when massive government action accomplished the seemingly impossible in an amazingly short passage of time. In perhaps the greatest economic mobilisation in the history of the world people invested an average of 25 percent of household income in War Bonds. And far from dooming the economy the collected effort of the citizenry brought the US out of the Great Depression and produced the world’s strongest economy.

Personal action to reduce our carbon footprint is fine, but it won’t get us to where we need to be. Only government action can do that. We need a collective determination, and the most significant contribution the individual can make is to spread the word, activate the interconnected web of communication that permeates our society.  Go viral. ’Focus on burning the number 350 into the collective consciousness.’ Over to the reader.

This is a most welcome book. It has proved astonishingly difficult for the findings of climate science to be communicated to the public. In part this is due to the success of the organised denialist campaign, in part to the cautious language of science itself, in part to the difficulty of comprehending how our apparently secure world can possibly be under the threat of such an enormous peril. Craven doesn’t try to fill the comprehension gap with information —- though what information he does provide along the way is mainstream and persuasive —- but invites his readers to give serious scientists the attention and respect their work demands. And he tries to do it not by telling, but by showing how they can get to the position where they find their own realisation that the science must be heeded.