[Please welcome our newest contributor, Phil Hansten! -ed.]
What we can’t think about: The possibility that climatologists are correct to warn of potential catastrophic climate change.
“Prediction is very difficult. Especially if it’s about the future.” This sounds like a quote from Yogi Berra… you know, the guy who said things like “It ain’t over till it’s over,” and “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.” But actually the quote is from the Danish Physicist, Niels Bohr. And he is right. Prediction is indeed difficult, particularly in complex systems such as climate change, or how combinations of chemicals will react in a particular human body. After spending the past 50 years trying to predict outcomes in people taking interacting drugs, I think the principles involved are almost identical to those that could be profitably used in dealing with the risk of climate change. Since climate change denial is a central focus of EBF, I thought we might explore this idea.
Prediction of Magnitude. Suppose you are on colchicine for gout, and you start clarithromycin for a sinus infection. Clarithromycin can produce colchicine toxicity, which in turn can cause fatal bone marrow suppression. Some people have less serious reactions, but we cannot determine ahead of time how bad it will be in any given person; there are too many variables. Climatologists have the same dilemma; they know that the CO2 buildup is risking catastrophe, but they cannot make precise predictions of timing and magnitude; again… too many variables. Precise prediction of outcomes, however, is not required for a rational assessment of risk.
Tipping Point. There is another similarity. Once serious colchicine toxicity begins, it is difficult to stop. Colchicine can inhibit its own elimination by the kidneys, and dialysis doesn’t work. So by the time a serious reaction is detected, it is often too late. Climatologists tell us a similar story; we may get to a point where mutually reinforcing effects are set into motion, and no amount of remedial action will stop the inexorable march to disaster.
Threshold for Action. There is scientific consensus among experts regarding both climate change and colchicine. Some refuse to accept the science, usually because they don’t understand it or they benefit from their denial. But it is not a matter of whether the specific predictions of climatologists will prove true 30 years from now… rather, the question is whether global warming presents a non-trivial risk of catastrophe. The threshold for taking action when dealing with complex problems that can potentially lead to disastrous outcomes often occurs long before definitive scientific data are available. One can always say, “the jury is still out” to justify inaction; look at the delaying tactics of Big Tobacco after the health risks of cigarettes became clear. But in science, the jury is always still out, so the question is not about juries… the question is whether or not the data suggest we should take vigorous action.
But despite all the similarities, there is one striking difference between colchicine and climate change; ignoring a colchicine-clarithromycin drug interaction puts one person at risk of death; ignoring climate change could be fatal to billions.