09/04/2011 06:27 pm ET Updated Nov 04, 2011

Hurricane Irene, Risk and the Future of the Planet

Ignoring the science of climate change jeopardizes the safety of our families, just as we would be putting them in harm's way if we ignored the warnings of a coming storm.

When Hurricane Irene crossed the Bahamas and headed toward landfall along the U.S. East coast, tens of millions of Americans focused their attention on weather reports. On the evening television news and, then, on expanded news coverage, meteorologists showed several potential storm tracks projected by different computer models. Those models were then brought together by the National Hurricane Center to show a cone of probability of the course of the storm and the strength of its winds in the days to come. This cone is an expression of the probability of high impacts from the hurricane, or calculated risk. The projected track of the storm down the center of the cone represents the highest risk with lower risk at the edges of the cone.

As Irene moved closer, individuals, business owners, utilities and government officials began weighing the risks depicted in the projected storm tracks and made decisions about how they should respond. For families, that meant: should we evacuate, shutter the windows, go out and buy supplies? For airlines, it meant canceling flights in advance of the storm. For electric utilities, it meant staging crews and equipment to respond to power outages. For elected officials, it meant massive preparations for a timely emergency response. All of these decisions had very substantial costs.

One can argue that the individual, corporate and public reactions to Irene were a rational response to science-based calculations of the risk of property damage and jeopardy to the lives of millions of families. From a political perspective, elected officials clearly did not want to be in the position of having ignored the warnings of danger to their constituents -- better to be prepared than to be caught short in the midst of disaster.

Given this response to the storm and to similar acute threats from storms and floods, our country's response to the threat of climate change is puzzling and unsettling. Think of the thousands of climate scientists who have issued a warning about the many potentially harmful consequences of rapidly accumulating carbon dioxide in the atmosphere as the longer-term equivalent of the television meteorologists predicting the course and intensity of the hurricane. Think of the various climate models as comparable to the computer models projecting the track of Irene. Neither the hurricane predictions nor the climate predictions are certain until it is too late to do anything about it. They are about assessing risk. Those of us on the East coast (and the elected officials who represent us) hung onto every word of the meteorologists to determine our risk of harm from Irene while, at the same time, inexplicably, most of the American people (and the officials who represent us) are ignoring the predictions of the scientific community on climate change. And it is not like climate change is not already happening.

One might argue the risks from climate change seem farther away and less real than from a single storm so, naturally, people will react with less urgency. Yes, but is it rational to simply ignore risks set out by the overwhelming majority of the scientific community that require long preparation to avert disaster?

And there is one clear difference between preparing for a single hurricane and addressing the risk of climate change. The hurricane will pass, but if we ignore the threat of the climate storm scientists warn us about, the adverse impacts can be expected to last for generations.