“Disaster myopia” was a new phrase to enter the lexicon of Irish political life this week. This condition manifests itself in an “increasing tendency to discount the probability of a disaster occurring, the longer the interval of time that has elapsed since a disaster last occurred”.
Disaster myopia is, we also learned, reinforced by competitive pressure: “Dealing with the threat from competitors and defending or increasing market share is real, but disaster is an abstraction until it breaks.”
“Was the scale of risk-taking such as to be reckless? Looking back from a point in the middle of the wreckage, recklessness seems like a reasonable word to use but, of course, this is hindsight bias at work.” At the time the future looked different. …Undoubtedly the sceptics could have and, with the benefit of hindsight, should have, articulated their doubts much more consistently.
“Whether this would have made much difference is something we will never know, but it is a matter of profound personal regret to me that I wasn’t more forceful in setting out the contrarian view and didn’t work harder at analysing its implications.”
The above epiphany comes courtesy of Jim O’Leary, a former director of AIB and offers a piercing insight into how groupthink, self-interest and chronic short-termism all conspired to create the circumstances in which the financial bubble-and-bust disaster not only was likely to occur, but in fact became almost inevitable. It also calls to mind the great JK Galbraith’s injunction not to confuse insight and intelligence with the possession of large amounts of money.
Regulars to ThinkorSwim will no doubt have spotted where this argument is headed, given that some disasters are, well, more disastrous than others.
The US National Academy of Sciences yesterday issued a 180-page report entitled ‘Stabilisation Targets for Atmospheric Greenhouse Gases’. It could have been sub-titled: “How to know when your Goose is Cooked”. A small flavour below:
“The Earth is now entering a new geological epoch, sometimes called the Anthropocene, during which the evolution of the planet’s environment will be largely controlled by the effects of human activities, notably emissions of carbon dioxide. Actions taken during this century will determine whether the Anthropocene climate anomaly will be a relatively short term and minor deviation from the Holocene climate, or an extreme deviation extending over many thousands of years.”
In summary, the National Academy report (these are the heaviest of hitters in the field, with more Nobel laureates can you can shake a doctorate at) sets out the stark conclusion that (a) we’re in the last-chance cafe; (b) it’s five to midnight and; (c) last orders have just been called…
A man who understood disaster myopia – and climate science itself – better than almost anyone else on the planet was Stanford University climatologist, Dr Stephen H. Schneider, who died suddenly on Monday, aged 65. I met and recorded a 35-minute video interview with Dr Schneider in March 2008. I found him a genial host, generous with his time and his expertise, and patient in filling in the many gaps in this interviewer’s knowledge on complex issues.
Dr Schneider has been the victim of a concerted hate campaign for having the temerity to try to alert the public to the extreme hazards atmospheric destabilisation poses to all life on Earth. A comment of his on the anti-science lobbying campaign funded by corporations sums it up well: “Can democracy survive complexity?”.
An FBI investigation recently found he was named on a neo-Nazi “death list,” and Dr Schneider was bombarded with hundreds of hate e-mails a day. “What do I do? Learn to shoot a magnum? Wear a bulletproof jacket?” Dr. Schneider said in a recent interview in the US. “I have now had extra alarms fitted at my home, and my address is unlisted. I get scared that we’re now in a new Weimar Republic where people are prepared to listen to what amounts to Hitlerian lies about climate scientists.”
He had a wonderful line for the deniers: “When somebody says ‘I don’t believe in global warming,’ I ask, ‘Do you believe in evidence? Do you believe in a preponderance of evidence?’ ”
Our sympathies to his wife, biologist Dr Terry Root. Her loss is our loss too.