Posted tagged ‘Uncertainy’

Update and pointer on the ongoing carbon fest/Postrel roast.

May 2, 2008

I just want to call attention to Eric Roston’s latest post on the news of a research paper on ocean circulation and possible northern hemisphere cooling for the next decade or so.

Eric makes one key point — that those who would either seize on or deny this result because of a preconceived commitment to a policy prescription miss the real nature of science: that it is an ongoing, self-destroying, self-renewing enterprise. (He also makes the point that the mass media, and especially advocates, have a terrible time figuring out what each new iteration of scientific understanding actually means, especially in as complicated a subject as climate.)

Read Eric. To what he said I’d add just one point, something that Steven Postrel failed to grasp in the provocation that got this whole exchange of posts going.

That is: the central issue in the uncontrolled experiment we are doing by injecting carbon pollution into the atmosphere is not the precise change in global average temperature that will result, nor specific predictions about the fate of this locality or that.

Rather, it is about the ever increasing uncertainty about weather and climate that accumulates as wholesale changes in the bulk chemical composition of the atmosphere work their way through the physics, chemistry and biology of climate.

As I discussed below at too great length, the problem with climate change now, whether natural or anthropogenic, is that human beings have built an enormous, complex, and in many ways very vulnerable material infrastructure on certain assumptions about the stability of climate.

Current carbon profligacy casts those assumptions into doubt. We thus face both the daily costs of weather and more persistant patterns that do not conform to our expectation (Katrina; prolonged droughts; etc), and the costs of insuring ourselves against less and less accurately quantifiable risks of future climate events.

That uncertainty ultimately becomes something else: the fact of a climate regime different from the one within which we have built our cities and planned our farms. The Dust Bowl, or the collapse of the Sahel provide recent examples of the kinds of consequences we may expect from such an effect: not just suffering, but movement — the migration of peoples that traditionally produce stress at least, and armed conflict at worse.

The imperative both to understand climate dynamics and to avoid turbocharging whatever transformation is going on, derives from a healthy caution in the face of confounding the fundamental human belief that the world will behave tomorrow pretty much as it does today.

Update: Eric Roston’s name spelled correctly, again with apologies.

Image: Dallas, South Dakota, May 13, 1936. Source: Wikimedia Commons.