Civilization Miscellany World

The Danger of Climate Certainty

We know from the study of social insurance that uncertainty—regarding whom a misfortune will strike—is a great spur to social behavior. It is the veil of ignorance that makes the healthy pay for the medical care of the sick. It is only because the healthy pay their premiums before they learn, at the end of life, that they did not in fact need to pay them, that the sick can afford medical care.

By the same token, the great spur to collective global action against climate change, such as it exists (and admittedly it does not much), is the fact that no country knows yet quite what the effects of climate change will be. As with all complex changes, that of climate will make winners as well as losers, at least in the medium term. Some countries will be submerged. Otherwise will thaw, or be the beneficiaries of rains diverted by changing weather patterns. But because no country knows yet into which category it will fall, each has some incentive to pay to insure against climate change, just as each of us has an incentive to pay a heath insurance premium.

But as climate change advances, and the consequences for individual countries become easier to predict, that incentive will lessen, at least for the countries that stand to benefit. If it becomes clear, for example, that the zone of arable land will shift northward into Canada and Siberia, then Canada and Russia—or the countries in the best position to invade or dominate them—may find it more expedient to promote climate change than to ward it off, just as improvements in the use of genetics to predict health outcomes may one day give some people the confidence not to buy health insurance.

Indeed, one can imagine not only Canada and Russia pulling for climate change if the arable zone ends up moving northward, but also China, which teems on Siberia’s southern border and has a historical claim to the territory. As soon as it were to become clear that Siberia would replace America as breadbasket to the world, China would have an immense prize right on her doorstep. It would be in her interest to carry climate change forward, at least long enough to cement her new strategic advantage.