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In the story of the blind men and the elephant, the trunky mammal is misidentified as a spear, a tree, a wall, a rope; the men are too siloed from one another to fully discern the animal they’re patting down. Today, the old metaphor from the Indian subcontinent is mostly used in corporate retreats and master’s of public policy programs to demonstrate the gains of synergy (or something thereabouts). There’s a new elephant lurking in the room, though, and its name is climate change.
A new report on the global risks of a changing climate, commissioned by the U.K. Foreign Office, suggests that we’re still mistaking the elephant for a spear. “In public debate, we have sometimes treated it as an issue of prediction, as if it were a long-term weather forecast,” writes Baroness Joyce Anelay, minister of state at the Foreign Office, in her introduction to the report. “Or as purely a question of economics — as if the whole of the threat could be accurately quantified by putting numbers into a calculator.”
It can’t, she argues. At the systemic level, we ought to be as serious about preventing climate change as we are about “preventing the spread of nuclear weapons.” In fact, taking systemic risks into account is the only responsible way to prioritize a national agenda in the face of competing goals (say, economic growth or reducing unemployment), writes Anelay.