When it Comes to Climate Solutions, We Must Embrace Uncertainty

We’re all going to have to get better at acknowledging the limits of our knowledge.

Pollution at sunrise, Castleton, Derbyshire, Peak District. UK
john finney photography / Getty Images

I’ve been aware of the climate crisis since my teens, and have been active in trying to stop it ever since. I started writing for Treehugger in my twenties, and have covered everything from electric vehicle etiquette to the tantalizing prospect of 100% renewable energy on a global scale. And I have just spent the best part of a year writing a book about the relationship between individual lifestyle changes, and the broader push for radical, systems-level transformation. Here’s the thing though, I’m not entirely sure I know what's going on.

The climate crisis – and related issues like the sixth mass extinction – are so vast, so complex, and so dynamic that I am not entirely sure anyone knows exactly what we should be doing to counter them.

That’s why I’ve always been confused by folks within the climate movement who are 100% adamant about certain positions. Is nuclear part of the climate solution, or is it an expensive boondoggle? Do we all need to follow Al Gore and become vegans for life, or can we innovate our way out of animal agriculture-related emissions? Could atmospheric carbon capture help bring us back from the edge, or does it provide excuses for fossil-fueled business-as-usual? The list of questions goes on. While there is a vast and growing amount of research that can help clarify our best path forward, I can’t help but wish that some in our movement would spend less time choosing exactly which hill to die on – and instead learn to live with ambiguity.

Of course, in an age of post-truth discourse and incessant both-sidesing of every important topic, there is a danger also of sitting too firmly on the fence. We do know a lot about what needs to happen. We also know that we are running out of time. As Stefanie Tye and Juan-Carlos Altamirano of the World Resources Institute argued in a blog post on uncertainty back in 2017, it would be a colossal mistake if embracing uncertainty became a reason to postpone action:

"It is certain that climate change is happening and driven by human factors. But its inherently complex nature makes it less clear what the impacts will be – including when and where they'll happen, or to what degree. The uncertainty of future climate policies, greenhouse gas emissions, complex climate, and socioeconomic feedback loops, and unknown tipping points all further complicate our projections.
But this doesn't mean we can't or shouldn't act to try to reduce risk. Indeed, it would be disastrous not to. Scientific uncertainty will always exist to some extent about any complex problem, climate change included. Rather than wringing our hands in indecision, it's important to understand this uncertainty, embrace it as a given, and move forward with ambitious action." 

In other words, we’re all going to have to get better at acknowledging the limits of our knowledge. We’re then going to have to get better at using our understanding of those limitations to inform our proposed responses. That means keeping our options open on potentially useful future tools, policies, and approaches, while also not allowing the potential of those future options to limit our ambition in what we do now.

Here’s how I look at the problem:

  • An ounce of carbon dioxide saved now is worth considerably more than an ounce saved later.
  • We have countless technologies, strategies, and approaches at our disposal right now that can slash our emissions dramatically – and often improve quality of life and address social inequities too.
  • We should prioritize those solutions – be they walkability/livable streets; healthier, plant-centric diets; or renewables and energy efficiency – which have the most social upside, the lowest costs, and the least uncertainty.
  • We also shouldn’t assume, however, that we can transition to these overnight. So less than perfect solutions – private, electric cars; solar panels on McMansions, etc.—should remain a part of our arsenal.
  • And we should continue to support development of longshot and technofix solutions – nuclear, atmospheric carbon capture, etc. – as a hedge against failure, but not allow them to distract from what can be done today.
  • As we do all this, we should also pay close attention to who is advocating what solutions and why – and we should take that motivation into account. There is nothing wrong with a ridiculous amount of reforestation and afforestation, for example, unless it is a fig leaf for continuing the use of oil and gas.

I confess I’ve never liked conflict. But there are very real fights that will need to be had in order to ensure that the most effective, most certain, and most broadly beneficial solutions get the lion’s share of both public and private support. My hope is that we can do all that while still keeping room for ambiguity and uncertainty.

Interestingly, while I decried the tendency among some within the climate movement to be a little too certain about the specifics of a low carbon future – when I posed this question on my Twitter feed, it seemed like uncertainty and ambiguity were the norm, not the exception.

So, maybe we’re more certain than we thought – at least to the degree that we are certain about uncertainty. The future might need us to build some highly innovative new nukes, but we can’t stop installing bike lanes and right-sizing our homes while we wait.

I’ll leave the last word to @Tamaraity, who does seem to know what’s up:

View Article Sources
  1. Tye, Stefanie, and Juan-Carlos Altamirano. "Embracing the Unknown: Understanding Climate Change Uncertainty." World Resources Institute, 2017.