Saturday, August 07, 2010

Thinkin' about Climate Change Risks

I recently had the opportunity to interview George Backus, a nuclear engineer, systems researcher and economics expert who leads a team at Sandia National Laboratories, in Albuquerque, New Mexico, whose job it is to evaluate and detail the risks to the United States from climate change.

Bachus has a deep and unique understanding of complex systems, not just Earth's climate, but how climate changes could interact with our equally complex -- and probably much more fragile -- economic system.

I recently posted two stories about Backus and his team's work on Suite101: "Rethinking Climate Change Risks -- National Lab's Approach," and "National Lab Calculates State-by-State Climate Change Risks."

Climate change skeptics often argue that the uncertainties in even the most advanced climate models mean we should do nothing about climate change -- no investments, no new regulations, no new laws, no new treaties; just business as usual.

Bachus turns that argument upside down. The greater the uncertainty, he says, the greater the risk. If climate scientists could tell us that sea levels would rise by no more than six inches by 2050, every region could know if it was at risk and take appropriate steps. However, if the best models can do is tell us that a six-inch rise is slightly more likely than any other number, but that the actual change could be anything from one inch to three feet, planners have to take into account the unlikely, but potentially catastrophic impact of that three foot rise.

Like a scorpion, it's the tail end of the distribution of possible climate change outcomes -- the Katrinas and the ten-year droughts, plus their impacts on the economy, jobs and security -- that really stings.

For the details, please take a look at those two stories.

Robert Adler
for the institute