Management Responses to Climatic Variability
Gilbert F. White
University of Colorado
Yesterday, we reviewed the problem of certainty and uncertainty with respect to climate change from the standpoints of the scientific framework, the recent record, and the paleo record. We explored, in a tentative fashion, some of the implications of change for crop production, hydrologic characteristics of the water cycle, and management of large water systems. We moved on from that to consider economic and legal implications, and a number of other possible effects of climate change.
Today, we shift from the question of possible implications to the question of what might be done about it. As a kind of a bridge between these two considerations, we have the background given yesterday by the Commissioner of Reclamation, who spoke of how climate uncertainty looks to a major water agency in course of transition. We also had John Dracup's suggestion of a new kind of warning service now being prepared for the water community.
We might recall some of what is known from behavioral science about the nature of effective warnings. We know that to get across new information that will affect the manner in which people respond to a hazard warning, there are certain desirable characteristics. One is that the source of the warning be credible. I can look here and say, it's hard to think of a more credible organization to transmit information than the Water Science and Technology Board of the National Research Council. Certainly, it wouldn't be viewed as lacking in solidity or probity in its activities. One wouldn't expect that Bob Dickinson or Roger Revelle would lead us beyond the boundaries of solid scientific understanding. But in addition to the credible channel for the warning, we need a lucid message. That's what we were trying to elucidate yesterday—a lucid message of just what we know and what we don't know. Be-
yond that, we need some indication of the evidence on which people can make their own risk calculation—make their own judgment on the probability of a specified magnitude of effect. I think we had begun to get at that yesterday.
We know that people are much more likely to act intelligently if they are provided with information, not only about the costs and benefits or what the impact might be, but also about what the feasibility is of their doing something in response. If they are presented, for example, with a course of action that they don't think is practicable or that isn't within their reach, they are less likely to perceive it accurately, let alone to act on it, than if they feel there is something they can pick up and do.
This morning we consider what sorts of actions people here, or people we can influence, could exercise. Of course, the kind of action we exercise depends upon the social setting in which we are placed—upon the organization or society. I'm reminded of this by a joke that's making the rounds in Moscow these days. It came out of discussions of the catastrophe at the Aral Sea. The formulation runs as follows: In a new Soviet society, when you're confronted with a looming catastrophe you turn to the market and let the market decide what's an effective course of action. In the United States, in a capitalistic society, when you're confronted with a catastrophe the attitude is, "Don't worry, the government will bail you out." So, one's perception of the kind of framework in which we are operating has a considerable influence on how accurately we may perceive the problems we are confronting. Thus, I would suggest that there's another consideration in this whole matter of viewing climate change from a global standpoint.
As many of you know, there has been going on recently through the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) an analysis of the whole range of topics that we've been considering here—going far beyond water. The IPCC has now reported. (Bob Dickinson referred to some of the findings.) The IPCC's report was considered at the World Climate Conference in Geneva last month. There now have evolved several suggestions about steps that should be taken. The Western European nations are strong on moving to the acceptance in an international convention of limits on production of greenhouse gases in various forms. They are proposing a treaty that would be executed by the time of the United Nations (U.N.) Conference on Environment and Development scheduled to take place in Brazil in June 1992. The United States has been opposed to certain features of that proposed treaty on the grounds that they don't want to specify the maximum or minimum figures for limitation of effluents.
There's been a good deal of distress in the environmental community about the reluctance of the United States to enter into such agreements. But there's still another group—best perhaps represented by the "group of 77" (the developing countries)—that is taking a different position. I haven't heard how that's coming out in the U.N. General Assembly this week in New York. But the other position—as I understand it (and we'll all know better in the course of a few weeks when the debates are over)—is that if one looks at the environmental situation around the world in relation to development, it's all very well to think about limiting chlorofluorocarbons or carbon dioxide or methane, but if we are concerned about the welfare of the planet, much more important these days is the wise management of what appears to be a severely deteriorating set of resources of soil, water, and vegetation. The Western European nations are talking about limiting carbon dioxide, which will have an effect over the next 20 or 30 years. The argument of this group is that we need only look around to see that the planet is under severe pressure and its society is decaying. Take action now, and don't satisfy ourselves in thinking we're coping with it by simply limiting effluents. This question is being raised in connection with preparations for the U.N. conference.
You may ask, which of the actions that they may be proposing or appraising ought to be taken regardless of climate change? To what extent are they truly urgent requirements for our world society? I hope we shall have this in our minds as we consider the management alternatives. And then, what is it that has still further urgency because of climate change? It is with those questions that I introduce our four speakers.