Cheap Seats 2019
Risk – Part 5 - 06/05
By Rich Trzupek
How to properly conclude this examination of the way Americans perceive and manage risk in the 21st century? There is a temptation to weave the various threads together into a neat cable that leads back to the risk-based issue that has been so very prominent in public discourse for over thirty years: climate change.
To be sure, there is much to be said in favor of composing a triumphant finale that reflects upon the themes and rhythms so common to the distortion of risk-based issues as applied to this particular contentious debate. There is a strong temptation to damn its most fervent advocates. But, the majority of those true-believers do not appear to be so much villains, at least to this observer’s eyes, as they seem to be either fools or frauds.
Climate change alarmists come in a wide variety of flavors. Some are useful idiots, like mechanical engineer Bill Nye who parleyed an ability to communicate rudimentary scientific and engineering concepts to the public in an entertaining and accessible way into a long career. Nye’s stumbling attempts to present himself as a climate-change expert crumble quickly when he is confronted by those with even a modicum of knowledge of the subject.
Some alarmists appear, at least to this author, to be knowing frauds. Vice-President Al Gore may well be the most shameless of this breed. Between his travel schedule – often involving private jets – his luxurious and energy-intensive private residence Gore’s hypocrisy sometimes defies belief. Yet there are problems with holding up climate change as the ultimate example of America’s growing inability to assess and manage risk.
For one thing, the climate actually is changing. Despite the chorus determined to label skeptics (like yours truly) “deniers,” I don’t know of a single skeptic with a place on the national stage who claims the planet’s climate remains static. It never does. The important questions do not involve the existence of change, but the magnitude of that change, man’s influence during this particular period of change and weighing the benefits and drawbacks of potential mitigation measures.
Because the climate change debate has been around for so long and had so much public exposure, there is no shortage of skeptics who continue to engage in reasoned, cogent discussions about these and many other aspects of climate change. My friends at the Heartland Institute have been one of the leading voices of reason for as long as anyone. There is no shortage of other brilliant men and women who can discuss these issues calmly, clearly and persuasively. To name just a few of my favorites, there’s Dr. Roy Spencer, Dr. John Christy, Dr. Judith Curry, Anthony Watts, Steve Milloy, Steve McIntyre and a host of others who continue to engage in this debate, despite the mud and manure constantly flung in their direction.
The point here is that there is no shortage of people who can talk about climate change in rational, understandable ways. This includes some who sincerely believe that mankind is having a disproportionate effect on current climate change and that mitigation measures are worth whatever pain they might cost. But, however one feels about climate change, there is no shortage of material available to help one make an educated decision about what additional steps America should or should not take in attempt to slow or reverse the changes.
My bigger concern about the way American approaches risk issues these days is about how increasingly easy it is to frighten people with risks that are, in the grand scheme of things, pretty darn insignificant. Crusading journalists, environmental NGOs and opportunistic politicians are every ready to jump on the bandwagon whenever somebody stumbles across the latest risk-based “flavor of the week.” Unlike climate change, there are rarely enough educated calming voices to give the issue some kind of perspective. What is in fact an insignificant risk is quickly elevated into an imminent danger. We see it happen with chemicals all the time. We’ve seen it happen with mobile phones, smart meters, electro magnetic frequencies and all sorts of new commercial and industrial construction projects that anger those living nearby.
There is a vanity at work here and, like all vanity, it inevitably leads to unfortunate consequences, not the least of which is a gradual dumbing down of the general public. How to counter this trend? I will close by offering a few inquiries you should make whenever someone is attempting to convince you that you are in imminent danger:
1. Demand numbers and pathways. This is particularly important in the case of any sort of chemical. It is not enough to say that compound X may cause pinky toe cancer. The amount of exposure and the pathway are critical when assessing risk. Contamination of ground water, for example, may involve concentrations of this chemical or that well below any level of concern, or may occur in a place where everyone uses lake or river water.
2. Demand context. When one identifies a risk and claims it represents an unacceptable danger, find out how this risk compares to other, more familiar risks. Any risks less likely than dying of a lightening strike or a fall in the shower, for example, are hardly worth talking about.
3. Determine who has skin in the game. As we have seen, both corporations and environmental NGOs can be motivated by profit and funding when inflating risk. The motivations of many a politician and journalist can be similarly suspect.
If nothing else, never lose sight of the fact that we are blessed to live in a country and at a time in history where life expectancies and quality of life are beyond anything our ancestors could have imagined. Whatever small risks we all encounter each day, the rewards of living at such a time in such a place far outweigh them.