Earthquakes != climate

Daniel Sarewitz has a recent column in Nature (paywall, unfortunately). It contains some wisdom, but the overall drift conclusion is bonkers.

First, the good stuff: Sarewitz rightly points out the folly of thinking that more climate science (like regional downscaling) will lead to action where existing science has failed to yield any. Similarly, he observes that good scientific information about the vulnerability of New Orleans didn’t lead to avoidance of catastrophe.

For complex, long-term problems such as climate change or nuclear-waste disposal, the accuracy of predictions is often unknowable, uncertainties are difficult to characterize and people commonly disagree about the outcomes they desire and the means to achieve them. For such problems, the belief that improved scientific predictions will compel appropriate behaviour and lead to desired outcomes is false.

Then things go off the rails.

… perhaps the best thing that ever happened in the field of earthquake research was the recognition that earthquake prediction was likely to be impossible. In recent decades, the priorities of the US Geological Survey’s earthquake-hazard programme have moved away from prediction and towards the assessment, communication and reduction of vulnerabilities. This evolution has demanded closer collaboration between scientists and diverse regional and state decision-makers, to provide information that can help improve construction practices, land-use decisions, disaster-response plans and public awareness.

This difficulty is on spectacular yet unacknowledged display in the climate-change arena. …. A central obstacle is that predictions of longterm doom have created a politics that demands immense costs to be borne in the near term, in return for highly uncertain benefits that accrue only in a dimly seen future.

Science could help untangle this politically impossible dilemma by moving away from its obsession with predicting the long-term future of the climate to focus instead on the many opportunities for reducing present vulnerabilities to a broad range of today’s — and tomorrow’s — climate impacts. Such a change in focus would promise benefits to society in the short term and thus help transform climate politics. Strange as it may seem, the right lessons for the future of climate science come not from the success in predicting thunderstorms, floods and hurricanes, but from the failure to predict earthquakes.

Earthquakes are a terrible analogy for climate, because their causes are strictly natural (except for small earthquakes from dams, mining, geothermal extraction, etc.). Therefore there’s no equivalent of emissions mitigation for earthquakes. Reducing vulnerability is a good idea, but Sarewitz is basically suggesting that we abandon consideration of the long term entirely, which is foolish, because climate is not entirely unpredictable.

It’s also unjustified, because the dilemma he poses (“A central obstacle is that predictions of longterm doom have created a politics that demands immense costs to be borne in the near term, in return for highly uncertain benefits that accrue only in a dimly seen future”) is at least partially a false framing and in any case more a matter of economics than of science. Why not start by combining no-regrets mitigation with vulnerability reduction, rather than abandoning mitigation altogether?

The proposed solution – focusing science on reducing vulnerability – also strikes me as misguided. To reduce vulnerability you don’t need much more science (especially if you believe that climate is fundamentally unpredictable). You need lots of economics and policy work. So, what to do with all those unemployed climatologists, now that we can ignore the long term climate? Turn them into Ag Economists?

If climate is completely unpredictable, then we’d have to plan for vulnerability to a zero-mean forecast of future geophysical factors. For some localities and variables that might actually make sense – for example, here in Bozeman winter snowpack could go down (a temp effect) or up (a precip effect). But designing ports for sea level to rise or fall (both) would be rather expensive. Planning for vulnerability while pretending that we know nothing about anthropogenic effects on climate strikes me as a silly abdication of intelligence.

Perhaps most importantly, there are surely some irreducible vulnerabilities to either geophysical surprises or knock-on effects of climate impacts like migration and war. You’d have to live a fatalist random worldview to plan for vulnerability yet fail to consider mitigation as a way of reducing your aggregate risk.

A focus on vulnerability does have two benefits. First, we are committed to some climate change, so reducing vulnerability reductions have an intrinsic payoff. Presumably there are also win-wins, like getting rid of flood insurance subsidies on development in coastal areas that are also environmentally sensitive. Second, the act of planning for future climate variability may be a good way to make the implications of possible impacts, uncertainty, and long-lived infrastructure vulnerability very real to people.

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