In 2006, Ron Suskind published "The One Percent Doctrine," a book about the U.S. war on terrorists after 9-11. The title was drawn from an assessment by then-Vice President Dick Cheney, who, in the face of concerns that a Pakistani scientist was offering nuclear-weapons expertise to al-Qaida, reportedly declared: "If there's a 1 percent chance that Pakistani scientists are helping al-Qaida build or develop a nuclear weapon, we have to treat it as a certainty in terms of our response." Cheney contended that the United States had to confront a very new type of threat: a "low-probability, high-impact event."
Soon after Suskind's book came out, legal scholar Cass Sunstein, then at the University of Chicago, pointed out that Cheney seemed to be endorsing the same "precautionary principle" that animated environmentalists.
Sunstein wrote in his blog: "According to the Precautionary Principle, it is appropriate to respond aggressively to low-probability, high-impact events — such as climate change. Indeed, another vice president — Al Gore — can be understood to be arguing for a precautionary principle for climate change (though he believes that the chance of disaster is well over 1 percent)."
Of course, Cheney never would accept that analogy. Indeed, many of the same people who defend Cheney's 1 percent doctrine on nuclear weapons tell us not to worry at all about catastrophic global warming. That's unfortunate, because Cheney has the right framework with which to think about the climate issue.
"Climategate" was triggered Nov. 17 when an unidentified person hacked into the e-mails and data files of the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit, one of the leading climate science centers in the world — and posted them on the Internet. In a few instances, they revealed some leading climatologists seemingly massaging data to show more global warming and excluding contradictory research.
Frankly, I found it disappointing to read a leading climate scientist writing that he used a "trick" to "hide" a putative decline in temperatures or was keeping contradictory research from getting a proper hearing. Yes, the climate-denier community, funded by big oil, has published all sorts of bogus science for years. That, though, is no excuse for serious climatologists not to adhere to the highest scientific standards.
That said, be serious: The evidence that our planet, since the Industrial Revolution, has been on a broad warming trend outside the normal variation patterns — with periodic microcooling phases — has been documented by a variety of independent research centers.
We know our planet is enveloped in gases that keep the Earth at a comfortable temperature. As we pump more carbon-dioxide and other greenhouse gases into that blanket, more heat gets trapped.
What we don't know is what other factors might over time compensate for that man-driven warming, or how rapidly temperatures might rise, melt more ice and raise sea levels. It's all a game of odds..
When I see a problem that has even a 1 percent probability of occurring and being irreversible and potentially catastrophic, I buy insurance. That is what taking climate change seriously is all about.
If we prepare for climate change by building a clean-power economy, but climate change turns out to be a hoax, what would be the result? Well, during a transition period, we would have higher energy prices. But gradually we would be driving battery-powered electric cars and powering more and more of our homes and factories with wind, solar, nuclear and second- generation biofuels. We would be much less dependent on oil dictators who have drawn a bull's-eye on our backs; our trade deficit would improve; the dollar would strengthen; and the air we breathe would be cleaner. In short, as a country, we would be stronger, more innovative and more energy independent.
But if we don't prepare, and climate change turns out to be real, life on this planet could become a living hell. That's why I'm for doing the Cheney thing on climate — preparing for 1 percent.
THE NEW YORK TIMES