Quasi-Climate Quote: In Debate, Romney Says ‘We Have To Make Decisions Based Upon Uncertainty’

Climate change remained the threat-that-must-not-be-named in the final presidential debate. Even the center-right Politico mocked the candidates for ignoring “a global climate crisis that could result in unprecedented sea-level rise, drought and food shortages.”

So, I’m launching a new occasional feature — “quasi-climate quotes” — words an opinion maker says on some subject that far better apply to climate change.

At the debate, Romney explained why he thinks we need to increase military spending:

And our military — we’ve got to strengthen our military long- term. We don’t know what the world is going to throw at us down the road. We — we make decisions today in a military that — that will confront challenges we can’t imagine.

In the 2000 debates there was no mention of terrorism, for instance. And a year later, 9/11 happened. So we have to make decisions based upon uncertainty. And that means a strong military.

This quote makes little sense as stated, since U.S. military spending “is bigger than that of the next 17 countries combined,” as The Economist noted last year — a point Obama alluded to in the debate himself.

But if one were to apply it to the dangers posed by climate change and to spending on clean energy, then it would require a complete reversal of our current do-little climate policy.

The key point is that there is uncertainty in every major challenge we face. Arguably, reducing risk and avoiding worst-case scenarios are the major drivers of much national spending, from the military to health care. I’ll have more to say on that in a later post.

Uncertainty as it applies to the climate threat has been overstated by both scientists and anti-scientists. As demonstrated in the “Illustrated Guide to the Science of Global Warming Impacts” — an analysis of more than 60 recent scientific studies along with numerous review pieces that each cover dozens of studies — we have an unusually high degree of certainty around future climate impacts if we stay anywhere near our current emissions path.

The main “uncertainty” we face on our current emissions path is whether climate change will be the worst catastrophe ever to befall humanity (at a warming of, say 5°F to 7°F) or whether it will mean multiple catastrophes (from warming >7°F) that leave Earth with a carrying capacity far below current population levels. Climate change, much more than military threats, will likely force us to “confront challenges we can’t imagine” — fearsome “unknown unknowns” or unexpected negative synergies such as the bark beetle devastation that wasn’t foreseen even a dozen years ago.

Warming beyond 7F is “incompatible with organized global community, is likely to be beyond ‘adaptation’, is devastating to the majority of ecosystems & has a high probability of not being stable (i.e.  4°C [7F] would be an interim temperature on the way to a much higher equilibrium level,” as climate expert Kevin Anderson explains here. Tragically, that appears to be the likely outcome of business as usual.

And that means moderator Bob Schieffer of CBS News asked the quintessential quasi-climate question at the end:

What do you believe is the greatest future threat to the national security of this country?

Sadly the President whiffed on this, continuing his indefensible climate silence throughout these debates. And it isn’t like Obama spent most of his response answering the question. As Politico noted, “the moderators’ questions certainly didn’t stop the candidates from diverting the conversation to their talking points of choice.”

In this case, Obama quickly pivoted to a long digression on education. Yes, those focus-grouped-to-death suburban moms that both candidates are fighting for just love to hear about investments in education — but suburban moms and indeed the majority of independents, Democrats, and moderate Republicans support climate action and clean energy as poll after poll after poll shows.

Someday a Churchill will emerge who won’t duck the issue, who understands that discussing climate change “may actually enhance turnout as well as attract voters over to their side.” Let’s just hope he or she emerges in 2016, since time is the one resource we are running out of the fastest.

12 Responses to Quasi-Climate Quote: In Debate, Romney Says ‘We Have To Make Decisions Based Upon Uncertainty’

  1. Mike Roddy says:

    The precautionary principle is well understood by risk analysts. An excellent book on the subject is Fooled By Randomness, by Nassim Taleb. He cites extensive evidence showing that people always undervalue the dangerous but rare occurence- and shows how these events are inevitable.

    As for the debates, not even bringing up climate change was both pitiful and expected. Let’s not forget the media’s culpability here. Moderators’ insistence that they alone composed the questions rang hollow, since corporate media self censorship is now de riguer. It’s why reporters are never troublemakers any more, but instead are there to soothe us.

    The best artists, journalists, leaders, and researchers always end up being troublemakers, because truth becomes evident long before our tired habits catch up to it. We have become sclerotic, just as the Bourbons, Romans, and Communists did, and when we realize it it may be too late.

  2. Robert Nagle says:

    But who the heck will be around in 2016 to do it? I’ve almost come to believe that only a moderate Republican (that rare bird) could pull do a Nixon-in-China with climate change. Heck, two years ago I might have believed that Romney could have been that man.

    I have never voted Republican, but I would do so in a minute if I thought a Republican presidential candidate had a better chance of crafting and gaining support for a comprehensive climate change bill.

    I guess the shocking thing is not that the candidates are avoiding the issue but that the luminaries in journalism are just not that tuned into climate change — and haven’t been for years. It’s as though they spent most of their reporting years on the deficit/Medicare/health care and it never occurred to them that climate change might overshadow them.

  3. Joan Savage says:

    Romney used the word uncertainty almost as a euphemism for risk, but the two words are not equivalent, and the strategy for dealing with uncertainty is different from the strategy of dealing with known risks.

    We have to communicate the distinction between uncertainty and known risk in discussion of climate change policy.

  4. prokaryotes says:

    Paradoxical Romney wants to act on threats which are much more uncertain and rather minor in impact when compared to the “unequivocal” evidence on climate change as a major threat to national security.

  5. Artful Dodger says:

    So when are you throwing your hat in the ring, Winnie?


  6. Robert Marston says:

    So Romney’s proposed solution to climate change is supposedly beef up the military because we know climate change will cause dislocation and resource wars?

    Romney proposes 2 trillion in spending for additional defense capability. In any normal person’s world this would be an arms race. But we have no one to race with. As Obama noted, there’s no-one else in the world that competes with our military. We outspend the next ten nations combined.

    So how about this? How about we funnel that 2 trillion instead into prevention and mitigation? How about we spend 2 trillion on alternative energy development, construction and innovation, on protecting our farmlands and coastlines, on reducing carbon emissions as rapidly as possible, and on selling the technologies we innovate to the rest of the world. I think that would be a lot more effective than building up the military to ‘prepare for the end of the world.’

  7. Paul Magnus says:

    I am afraid she is probably right… “The talk is very different from the walk,”

    Climate Portals

    US elections: Barack Obama accused of ‘climate denial’
    Green party presidential candidate Jill Stein criticises president’s failure to address green issues during election campaign

    “These last four years have been drill baby drill and far worse. Obama’s adopted the fossil fuel policies of George Bush and done far worse,” she said.

    A second Obama term, Stein said, would amount to “climate devastation with a friendly face and a warm endearing personality”.

    She went on to argue that a Romney victory in November would not be that great a loss for the environment – despite the Republican’s promises to do away with environmental protections and Obama’s moves to curb coal plant emissions.

    “I think it’s really important to hold Obama equally accountable, and it is an absolutely false choice to tell people they have to choose one or the other,” Stein said. “Obama is not going to get us out of here alive. His climate policies are just as devastating.”

  8. wide-eyedinnh says:

    As a tangent, Romney uses the term “North American Energy Independence”, code for use the tar sands. Canada/Alberta’s strategy, is to sell tar sands as – if you are going to use oil, use it from Canada, not the the crazies in the middle east. It’s a good argument. Somehow it must be stopped.

  9. Merrelyn Emery says:

    I can see it now. Commander in Chief speaking to the oceans -“stop rising now or we’ll nuke you” ME

  10. Ozonator says:

    Mormon Romney is supposed to have a 10 year food supply and knowledge of his people migrating westward with hand carts in response to violent American mobs. However, the current, extreme GOP insists that unlimited coal, oil, and gas production, unlimited NRA guns in lieu of civilization, SUVs and no home insulation, free potable water, NIMBY for the 47%, rape and slavery are good Biblical things, and GOP’s Southern States like Louisiana are at the bottom of most of the good lists because of biases of science.

  11. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    In Australia the Right, led by the Murdoch excrescence, simply inverts the meaning of the precautionary principle. In the Rightwing version it is the economy, economic growth and profits that are more precious than the sustainability of the planet, so no action must be taken until the science is totally settled (and the Right will never accept that it is) lest the economy be harmed. This argument is usually accompanied by nauseating humbug about the plight of the poor, who, in this instance, the Right pretend to be concerned about, although every other of their policies increases poverty and misery.

  12. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    As Stockman revealed in Reagan’s baleful day, the plan is to waste money on ‘defence’ and run up deficits so that there will be no loot left to spend on the ‘moochers’, Romney’s 47% (although the target group is much wider). Never under-estimate the Right’s febrile misanthropy and detestation of any action that makes life that little bit better for others.