by Karl Coplan

On October 14th, the Pace Law School Federalist Society and Environmental Law Society co-sponsored a debate between Professor John C. Kunich of Appalachian Law School and myself.  The Federalist Society advertised Professor Kunich as a climate change denier who would make the case that  “man made . . . climate change  . . . is a scam of epic proportions, a scam kept afloat by junk science, censorship, intimidation, and threats.”   The Federalist Society president further billed the debate as a “chance to once and for all end all questions surrounding anthropogenic climate.”

Given this hype, it is no surprise that the event was very well attended by students on both sides of the political-environmental spectrum (though the free pizza also did not hurt attendance).  Students expecting to see a climate science smack-down were bound to be disappointed, as Professor Kunich’s position is nowhere near as extreme as billed.  In his book, “Betting the Earth: How We Can Still Win the Biggest Gamble of All Time,” Professor Kunich takes more of a climate skeptic position than a climate denier’s position: his premise is not that anthropogenic climate change is a hoax; rather, his premise is that there is scientific uncertainty about the existence and severity of anthropogenic climate change, as well as the international political and scientific feasibility of effective human mitigation of climate change.  Kunich argues that the level of uncertainty has been understated by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and relies on the University of East Anglia e-mail disclosures to argue that the scientific consensus is overstated, and that scientific dissent may have been suppressed.  The best “scientific” dissent he can come up with, though, consists of the writings of non-scientists – journalist and hereditary British Peer Lord Monckton and EPA economist Alan Calvin.  Ultimately, Professor Kunich seems agnostic on the fact, severity, and even the likelihood of AGW, professing only skepticism at the level of certainty assumed by those who advocate for mitigation efforts.

Professor Kunich then recounts the thinking of leading historical thinkers about uncertainty – philosopher Blaise Pascal, mathematician Kurt Gödel,  and physicist Werner Heisenberg.  He posits that each of these thinkers, when confronted with the uncertainty of the science surrounding climate change and the effectiveness of human responses, together with the (assumed) high cost of attempting to respond, would agree with him that an aggressive regulatory response to climate change would be ill advised.  Professor Kunich claims to apply the logic of poker playing to the gamble on climate change. In reaching his conclusion that a response is unwarranted, Professor Kunich creates a matrix describing a number of different variables and possible outcomes – including the range of uncertainties for climate change and the severity of its impacts, and both the feasibility and effectiveness of coordinated human responses. Relying on this matrix, Professor Kunich ultimately concludes that paying the economic price for “climate insurance” is prohibitively expensive, with insurance wasted in six of the possible eight outcomes where aggressive climate response is taken. In contrast, the failure to take aggressive measures in response to climate change resulted in a “first order grave error” in only two out of the eight possible combinations.

The problem with Professor Kunich’s decision making matrix, of course, is that it assumes equal probability for each of the “uncertain” factors he identifies.  While Professor Kunich’s book correctly cautions that one must not assume even probabilities for each of the uncertainties he identifies, his use of his decision matrix does just that; in the end the result of the matrix is purely a function of the number of uncertainty factors identified.  Ultimately, you can’t make an intelligent decision about a response to climate change while remaining completely agnostic about the likelihood that anthropogenic climate change is happening and that it can be mitigated by changes in human behavior.

Nor must AGW be a certainty, or even close to a certainty, for a regulatory response to be appropriate.  The IPCC does not say that AGW is a certainty, rather, the Fourth Assessment Report concludes that AGW is “very likely” – a 90% probability.  Even if scientific and political uncertainty were assumed to be much less than that reported by the IPCC, with the economic cost of climate change response estimated at 1% of GDP (a figure similar to the cost to the US economy of the Iraq war), the expected value of responding to climate change that fundamentally alters global patterns of human habitation and agriculture far exceeds the expected cost of taking measures that might possibly prove unnecessary.  This is the essence of the precautionary principle – which Professor Kunich acknowledges, but would quickly turn around to caution against. He views the principle’s potential disruption of the US economy as a disaster of the first order.

Ultimately, I have more faith than Professor Kunich in the ability of the US economy to adjust to a new reality by internalizing the true external costs of fossil fuel energy.  Professor Kunich relies in part on Pascal’s Wager – the suggestion that faced with the unknowable uncertainty about the existence of God, the possibility of an eternity of reward (or punishment) should outweigh any temporary advantages available to the dissolute disbeliever, thus making the moral life of faith far more attractive.  While Professor Kunich tries to argue that Pascal’s Wager favors inaction on climate change, Pascal’s Wager is a better fit with a no-regrets policy – the real possibility of disrupting the Earth’s climate for a millennium far outweighs the temporary dislocations associated with converting away from a fossil fuel dependent economy.  And even if consensus predictions of anthropogenic global warming were to turn out not to happen, the national security, domestic environmental and economic benefits of becoming more energy self sufficient as a nation, like the benefits of living a moral life in Pascal’s Wager, would be positive, not negative.

To debate can be viewed by clicking here