Skip to main content Accessibility help
  • Print publication year: 2014
  • Online publication date: June 2014

3 - Risks, Uncertainties, and Precaution


“It is a world of change in which we live, and a world of uncertainty. We live only by knowing something about the future; while the problems of life, or of conduct at least, arise from the fact that we know so little.”

– Frank H. Knight

Climate change poses risks of catastrophic changes to human communities and ecosystems. Left unmitigated, the risks of climate change are dangerous, in particular to persons who will be made especially vulnerable by the conspiracy of poverty and geography: those residing in huge mega deltas in North Africa and East Asia, or living along major glacier-fed rivers in Asia and South America, or engaged in subsistence agriculture in the arid regions of central and southern Africa. Climate change also threatens mass extinctions of species. But one thing undeniably true about the future climate is that we do not have detailed knowledge about how different it will be from our present climate. That truth gives us pause. If we don't know, how can we plan for adaptation? Why should we take action to mitigate climate change? If this question is asked rhetorically, it sounds like a form of climate change skepticism. The claim that we do not know exactly what is in store for us if climate change is left unmitigated is not false. But the policy conclusion drawn by climate change skeptics most certainly is.

Ramsey, Frank Plumpton, “Truth and Probability,” in The Foundations of Mathematics and other Logical Essays (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd., 1931), pp. 196–198
Weitzman, Martin L. in “A Review of The Stern Review of the Economics of Climate Change,” Journal of Economic Literature XLV (2007): 703–724
Knight, Frank H., Risk, Uncertainty, and Profit (New York: Hart, Schaffner and Marx; Houghton Mifflin Co., 1921)
Allison, I., et al. The Copenhagen Diagnosis (Sydney: The University of New South Wales Climate Change Research Center, 2009)
Lindzen, Richard S., “Is the Global Warming Alarm Founded on Fact?” in Zedillo, Ernesto, ed., Global Warming: Looking Beyond Kyoto (Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution Press, 2008), pp. 21–33
Lin, Bin, et al., “The Iris Hypothesis: A Negative or Positive Cloud Feedback?Journal of Climate 15 (2002): 3–7
Hansen, James, “Huge Sea Level Rises Are Coming – Unless We Act Now,” New Scientist 2614, (July 25, 2007)
Schneider, Stephen H. and Kuntz-Duriseti, Kristin, “Uncertainty and Climate Change Policy,” in Schneider, Stephen et al., eds., Climate Change Policy: A Survey (Washington, DC: Island Press, 2002), pp. 67–68
Kennedy, Martin, et al., “Snowball Earth Termination by Destabilization of Equatorial Permafrost Methane Clathrate,” Nature 453 (2008): 642–645
Meehl, Gerald A., et al., “How Much More Global Warming and Sea Level Rise?Science 307 (2005): 1769–1772
Wigely, T. M. L., “The Climate Change CommitmentScience 307 (2005): 1766–1769
Hulme, Mike, Why We Disagree about Climate Change (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), p. 86
Cline, William, Global Warming and Agriculture (Washington, DC: Peterson Institute, 2007)
Stern, Nicolas, Stern Review: The Economics of Climate Change, online edition. (accessed October 5, 2012)
Nordhaus, William, A Question of Balance: Weighing the Options of Global Warming Policies (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008)
Fellner, William, Probability and Profit (Homewood: Richard D. Irwin, Inc., 1965), pp. 140–142
Nozick, Robert, “Newcomb's Problem and Two Principles of Choice” in Rescher, Nicholas, ed., Essays in Honor of Karl G. Hempel (Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1969), pp. 114–146
Sunstein, Cass R., Laws of Fear (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), p. 110
Rawls, John, Justice as Fairness: A Restatement (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001), p. 98
Gardiner, Stephen M., “A Core Precautionary Principle,” Journal of Political Philosophy 14 (2006): 33–60
Gardiner, Stephen, et al., Climate Ethics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 148
Gollier, Christian and Treich, Nicolas, “Decision-Making under Scientific Uncertainty: The Economics of the Precautionary Principle,” Journal of Risk and Uncertainty 27 (2003): 77–103
Cranor, Carl F., Regulating Toxic Substances: A Philosophy of the Science and the Law (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), pp. 25–28
Posner, Richard A, Catastrophe: Risk and Response (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 161
Manson, Neil A., “Formulating the Precautionary Principle,” Environmental Ethics 24 (2002): 192–202
Lomborg, Bjørn, Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist's Guide to Global Warming (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008), p. 160