The Gnat Is Older Than Man: Global Environment and Human Agenda

By Christopher D. Stone | Go to book overview

CHAPTER VIII
Taking Out Calamity Insurance

JUST AS lawmakers and regulators are uncertain about the impact of each of the control mechanisms they deal with, scientists and economists are unsure and at odds about their forecasts. The scenarios that raise the most concern involve uncertainties and risks on a wideswinging, high-stakes scale.* The future may not turn out so bad. On the other hand, it could conceivably hold outright calamities in store: a nonlinear change in climate variables, a destruction of the ozone shield, a breakdown in the ocean food chain, or something even worse we haven't thought of yet. When faced with the prospect of such wide swings of fortune in more familiar contexts, our thoughts often turn toward insurance. Indeed, as scientific and economic uncertainties have accumulated, it has become common to hear references to “insurance” in the climate-change context. At the UNCED meeting in Rio, while most of the discussion of climate change focused on firm targets for CO2 reductions, an insurance annex proposed by endangered island nations (the Alliance of Small Island States, or AOSIS) managed to slip into the Climate Change Convention in the form of one of several actions to be given “full consideration.” 1

The inclusion of “insurance” as an option is wise. But most people who have injected insurance terminology into the discussions are using the terms in a metaphorical rather than technical sense, generally to support larger expenditures on precautionary measures. For example, climatologist Stephen Schneider, in urging investments in

____________________
*
The distinction between risks and uncertainties is not vital, but I employ risk to denote the probability that a certain well-understood state of affairs will come about. In flipping a coin, two states are possible, heads or tails. And the “risk” of tails is.5. With climate change, ozone shield thinning, and ocean pollution, we are uncertain even as to the states across which the probabilities are to be assigned.

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