Climate Trouble

The Lone Ranger, English scientist and inventor James Lovelock, is 95. He is the originator of the Gaia Theory, which says Earth is a self-correcting entity that behaves as if alive. He has worked as an independent scientist and inventor most of his life, giving us several important contributions to our knowledge and a number of useful scientific tools. So when he calls our attention to the limits of science and mathematics to predict climate change, we need to listen.

So what does he say? Is there climate change, or not?

We use extremely complex mathematical models to inform us about climate change. These involve literally millions of measurements of all sorts of things from all parts of the planet. Within these grand models there are numerous equations, including many coupled non-linear differential equations, and even partial non-linear differential equations. I have no idea what that means, but they are represented in physics by the three-body problem, in which the gravities of each of three bodies in space affect the other two, and how the three behave was considered an unsolvable problem for a century, although there are now some 13 proposed solutions. But you get the idea: it’s complicated, very complicated.

Is there climate change, or not?

So, with all of these elegant equations and ingenious solutions, plus vastly powerful super-computers to solve them, we surely can predict the future climate.

Well, no.

The mathematician Edward Lorenz showed us in 1963 that three or more of these non-linear equations always result in a chaotic system—the well-known butterfly effect, in which a butterfly’s wings can cause a hurricane on the other side of the planet. The results of our calculations quickly become chaotic and unpredictable. See here. That’s why weather forecasts are only accurate for about three days, a week at most. After that there are too many possible outcomes for any one to be probable. If weather cannot be predicted beyond a few days, and climate is far more complex than mere local weather, it’s clear why we should not place undue reliance on mathematical climate predictions alone. They are by nature not capable of providing the certainty we seek.

But, as our Lone Ranger points out, there is a more serious problem. Our knowledge, even with all those millions of measurements, is still quite incomplete. The biggest single shortcoming comes from all we don’t know about the ocean. Oceans cover 70% of Earth’s surface, and provide half the space for life, and are the planet’s biggest heat sink. It’s pretty cold on the bottom of the ocean, so anything that circulates the water in an unusual way has the potential to reduce temperature at the surface. More serious, to my mind, is that oceans are becoming more acidic due to atmospheric CO2, which has detrimental effects on many species. We don’t know exactly what the effect of volcanic eruptions will be either. We don’t know lots of things. Most such factors have effects on others and are in turn affected by others, and each of these unpredictables adds to our uncertainty.

Our knowledge is still quite incomplete.

So there’s a plentiful supply of uncertainties for climate change deniers to latch on to in order to claim vindication for their ideological climate religion. So when there is a slight leveling off of the rate of warming, or the summer Arctic ice doesn’t melt quite as much as last summer, they seize on such findings to proclaim that global climate change is a hoax, an elaborate worldwide scheme by tens of thousands of scientists to get grant money. Or something. This is our own fault, really, because we tend to attribute more accuracy to our mathematical models than they are capable of providing. Or at least the news media do.

Reading Lovelock’s new book, A Rough Ride to the Future, has given me a more nuanced appreciation of climate change. Moreover, there are some scientists whose opinions I respect who don’t believe we can say climate change is human-caused. However, virtually none of them deny the fact of climate change. What they say, like Lovelock, is that our information is incomplete, and what we do know does not justify certainty. It’s still possible that it’s a completely natural phenomenon. But these more cautious scientists are a very small minority, and virtually none of them deny the reality of climate change. 

On the other hand, there is a whole army of right-wingers whose denial depends entirely on conservative and free-market ideology, and simply ignores the facts. I have no respect for such fools as Donald Trump, Glen Beck, and senator James Inhofe, who loudly trumpet their ill-informed opinions based on magic and ignorance as if they were fact, and create dangerous delays that will cost us dearly.

We need to trust our own eyes,
and our eyes tell us that
climate change is everywhere.

OK. So, if we can’t rely on our extremely complex mathematical models to tell us with certainty that we are in a period of global climate change, what can we trust? Perhaps what we need to trust is our own eyes, and what our eyes tell us is that the Northwest Passage whose impenetrable ice wrecked so many sailing ships we read about in our history books is now a reality because the ice is gone in the summer. The famous Snows of Kilimanjaro are all but gone, Himalayan snow and ice are going fast. World wide, glaciers are retreating at rates not seen in tens of thousands of years. Summer arctic ice is at historic low levels. The Greenland ice cap and Antarctic ice fields are melting faster than expected. Ice chunks the size of whole states are separating from Antarctica. People in low places like Miami Beach and Charleston that are close to sea level are increasingly finding themselves wading in salt water. A city in Senegal has lost 700 buildings to rising sea levels, and the whole city may soon be gone.

Seasonal changes are disrupted worldwide, with the result that many species of plants and animals, with their symbiotic needs, are challenged to survive. In the US we have record periods of heat wave, many forest fires, flash flooding, loss of field crops and forests to uncontrollable pests. Rapidly retreating ground water levels and depletion of aquifers. Disrupted wind patterns bringing bitter winter cold from the Arctic that reached all the way into the mid-South. Drought threatens to become a permanent condition in the Southwest, and more frequent flooding in other parts.

In short, complex models may be too incomplete to be relied upon, but they all point to the same conclusions we can reach simply by looking around: the world is warming, the sea level is rising, and the climate is changing in unpredictable ways we are only beginning to appreciate. It seems very likely that we are the culprits because of the greenhouse gasses we have pumped into the air at exponentially increasing rate over three-plus centuries. Better information has only boosted what we already knew or suspected. All the news is bad.


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