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The Number That Really Counts

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The next report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), due to be released later this month, may cause some heat of its own according to The New York Times.

The Times' staff has seen a leaked copy of the document. It contains a potential controversy over the IPCC's newest estimates of how much warming and how much damage we can expect by the end of this century.

Reporter Justin Gillis writes that the draft embraces the most conservative end of the damage spectrum created by the predictions of various climate scientists. For example, the IPCC so far has decided to assume 3 feet of sea level rise instead of 5 feet, and less than 3 degrees of atmospheric temperature increase instead of 5 degrees.

Gillis speculates that the IPCC's history of being bullied might prompt the panel to err on the side of low-balling its projections.

"The group has been subjected to attack in recent years by climate skeptics," he notes. "The intimidation tactics have included abusive language on blogs, comparisons to the Unabomber, e-mail hacking and even occasional death threats. Who could blame the panel if it wound up erring on the side of scientific conservatism?"

The climate-action community could, with justification. In a perfect world, science would not be influenced by politics or by members of what President Obama has correctly called "the flat earth society". More importantly, a disagreement over degrees should not matter much outside the scientific community. Here's why.

First, numbers squabbling is one of the ways climate skeptics have distracted us from what's important. Our focus should be on what we'll do about climate change today rather than the delta between 3 degrees and 5 degrees 90 years from now. What we do today determines what we'll suffer tomorrow.

Second, for the purposes of public policy, a 3 degree catastrophe is really no different than a 5 degree catastrophe. A catastrophe of any size is a legacy we should do our very best to avoid. Period.

Third, our international negotiators and national leaders should not be in the crystal ball business. They should be in the risk-reduction business. Good risk managers manage against worst-case scenarios.

This isn't the first time I've made this argument, and I'm not the only one making it. The military establishment and the intelligence community routinely assess and prepare for risks. Down here at the grassroots, most of us engage routinely in risk management by purchasing health, life, automobile and homeowner's insurance.

In a book it published two years ago on how to apply risk management to climate change, the London-based environmental think tank E3G wrote:

In managing conventional security risks both policy makers and the general public accept that uncertainty is no excuse for inaction. Indeed, it is hard to imagine a politician trying to argue that counter-terrorism measures were unnecessary because the threat of attack was uncertain. But, precisely this argument is often used by opponents of action on climate change to argue against even small measures to mitigate the threat, or build resilience to impacts.

Current responses to climate change are failing to manage effectively the full range of climate security risks. There is a mismatch between the analysis of the severity of climate security threats and the political, diplomatic, policy and financial effort countries expend to avoid the attendant risks.

A responsible risk management strategy...must include effective adaptation policies and contingency plans which are capable of responding to the full range of possible higher risk scenarios which could result from a failure of mitigation plans and/or the eventuality that climate sensitivity turns out to be at the upper end of current estimates.

So when the IPCC releases its report this month, don't get lured into quibbling over the numbers. Let the scientists struggle with that. For the rest of us, the number that really counts is how many more years we'll allow deniers, detractors and elected leaders to stand in the way of solutions.