Grossman: There are no winners in climate change wager

Friday, Feb. 23, 2018 3:52 PM
Richard Grossman

Back in January 2008, the Herald published a unique challenge: “I offer a public wager of $5,000 that the Earth will be cooler in 10 years.” Roger Cohen, a physicist, proposed this wager.

I responded, and our bet started the next month. Cohen’s rules were reasonable, however, I am a Quaker. Members of the Religious Society of Friends are admonished to not bet, so I countered with a different structure. Each of us would donate $5,000 to Durango Nature Studies, and the money would be held in escrow until the bet was over. We also agreed that the decision would be made by averaging the data for three years rather than by comparing 2007 with 2017.

After agreeing on the rules, we each pulled out our checkbooks and wrote checks. We realized that neither of us would profit from the bet; we would just get “bragging rights.” The Herald ran an article that February correctly quoting me as saying, “I think part of Roger’s goal was to keep the issue of global warming in the public mind.…”

I was curious to know just what Cohen was thinking. I knew that he had been manager of Strategic Planning at Exxon, which led me to believe that he must be quite intelligent. When we got together for an amiable lunch, I asked him what he really felt about climate change. His answer surprised me: The true reason that he wrote the challenge was that he wanted people to really think about climate change and to question the media. I asked if he thought any of the climate change could be anthropogenic. His reply was that, yes, maybe about a third was human-caused. In private, Cohen did not seem so sanguine about denying climate change.

The Herald printed an update in 2015. “We’ve all lost” ran the headline, accurately quoting me. It stated that Cohen had conceded that he had lost the bet because the climate was, indeed, warmer than in 2007. This implied that I had won the wager. The article quoted Cohen about my response: “Grossman, learning of the news, was not the least bit pleased or boastful. “I don’t think I’ve won,” he said. “I think I lost. I think we’ve all lost.”’ Indeed, climate change is probably the worst challenge that all life will face this century.

In correspondence with me after that 2015 article came out, Cohen clarified what he really said, “that the climate’s temperature only appears to have increased because the deciding database had changed.” We had agreed to use the British climate database, HadCRUT3, but it was replaced by HadCRUT4.

The data is available for public viewing on the internet, and they confirm what anyone who reads the news already knows. The climate is warming. The amount of warming is small in the 10 years of our wager, but significant. The average of the three years at the end of the bet is +0.231 degrees Celsius hotter than a decade earlier. This may not seem like much, but if this trend continues it means that the climate will be almost 2 degrees Celsius hotter in a person’s lifetime. That’s over 3 degrees Fahrenheit!

Here we are at the beginning of 2018. A decade has passed since Cohen wrote his challenge, and sadly he is no longer with us. He died of a brain tumor in 2016. I would have loved to have asked him about the wager, but there are some things that we will never know.

Perhaps my biggest question is a seeming inconsistency between a document that Cohen wrote in 1981 and his wager that the climate was not heating up. Back then, he was a scientist at Exxon and was asked to criticize a report another person had written. He felt the other person was too optimistic about climate change: “... it is distinctly possible that the CPD scenario will later produce effects which will indeed be catastrophic (at least for a substantial fraction of the earth’s population).” CPD probably meant “Continued Product Development.”

Later in this same document he wrote that future data gathering and science “... may provide strong evidence for a delayed CO² effect of a truly substantial magnitude ...”

With the temperature rising, we can consider Earth as having a fever. We have overwhelmed the planet’s ability to deal with our carbon waste emissions. Unfortunately, the fever is a symptom of the illness of overpopulation and over consumption. We must do what we can to limit these for the sake of our grandchildren.

Richard Grossman practiced obstetrics and gynecology in Durango. Reach him at © Richard Grossman MD, 2018