Friday, 10 January 2014

Whether the weather, whatever...

So it's back to a familiar pattern - the weather hits the news, and discussions arise about climate change, impacts, causes (blame), and so forth. In a sense this is good, because it brings climate to front and centre in the public consciousness, but I have a concern about it. I think it is leading us down a tricky path.

It's no surprise that weather extremes are used as tools to advocate for action on climate, since the impacts are immediately visible and present to the consciousness of the public in a way that no amount of good science or statistics can ever emulate. It's the time when people just 'get it' more readily. It's evidence by ostensive definition; 'Look!'.

The problems I have with this: first, the obvious one, that it perpetuates the language of 'cause' or 'blame'; the notion that any given weather extreme is caused by a changing climate, or evidence of a changing climate. No. It might be evidence of what happens when the weather systems of a globe or region don't do what they normally do. It might be cited as an example of what sort of damage and suffering might be expected if weather patterns change in particular places. But it is not the reason why scientists, working with long-term statistical averages, are worried about the direction we are going in. It's also, arguably, not a good precedent for future events.

The desire to get the message across, that changing climate has significant impacts which are likely to hurt us, is of course important. But a changing climate and the long-term consequences of this are much more than the sum of a series of damaging extremes in local or regional weather. So I feel that to work this particular meme, this message, is potentially dangerous. In our eagerness to get folks to pay attention, we might be skewing the real importance of what is happening to the planet and our role in this.

It will be interesting to see how the WG3 section of the AR5 copes with this apparent contradiction - that the urgency of action is demonstrable through known, visible impacts, but that the reason for concerted international effort goes beyond these impacts. Consistently, scientists have been at pains to point out that the likely consequence of AGW of more than 2 degrees is 'dangerous'; 'Dangerous Climate Changes'. 

But the dangers are not just about what happens to weather patterns in line with what we already know and can see, or measure. More worrying is the danger arising from our ignorance or uncertainty - in other words, runaway feedbacks, system-wide effects (what price a permanently accelerated jetstream, or a shutdown of the THC/AMOC?), and simply unknown effects which are only hinted at now, but would, if they happened, have really frightening consequences. I'm thinking here, for example, of what happens if, as a result of pollution and drought, insecticide and shifting wind patterns, we lose 95% of the Global honey bee population?

In simplest terms, the dangers we should be worrying about are those about which we are uncertain, but which have a logical relation to what has already been observed. To steal a phrase from a well-known Nobel scientist, what should draw our more serious attention is that the impacts of increasing atmospheric CO2, increasing deforestation, increasing black soot deposition and increasing abuse of natural ecosystems, will probably be more than we currently imagine, and different. 

Though I am reluctant to push this to the absolute extreme, the argument here is that, if the sum of the impacts of our present stewardship regime (bad joke) of the Earth are 'more and different' to what can happen within current parameters, then we really are setting ourselves up for a Global (social) transformation a couple of step-changes beyond what is currently being considered in 'mitigation and adaptation' scenarios. And we aren't in a position to anticipate these. Yet.

Which takes me at last back to my gripe. Focussing on weather extremes is short-term. Focussing on economic damage is short-term. Focussing on the evidence before our eyes is too narrow a view. If climate change is about anything, it's about the bigger picture. If sustainability is about anything, it's about the bigger picture. The value of a wood is greater than the sum of the value of each tree; the importance of finding a way to reduce our impact on our planet lies not in saving trees, or woods, it  lies in avoiding the awakening of the Kraken, of arousing Godzilla, of unleashing the rough monster that slouches towards Bethlehem to be born; it really is about keeping nightmares in the realm of the unreal.


  1. Certainly being aware of the interactions and complexities of interactions with a particular emphasis on interactions of scale, over time, would help shine more light than our dizzying media treatment of weather. More is different is an interesting and intriguing place to start with that. My first thought is to think of the edge of the ocean as an example where scale changes and interactions change or stay the same - from sand to pebble to boulder to mountain, from trickle and foam to waves to tides to sea level rise. If we look at water vapor currents globally and regionally over time, and compare them to what we know of planetary circulation (Coriolis forces, Rossby waves, Hadley, Ferrel and Polar cells and the jet stream) and local weather reports, we begin to tease out the connectedness and disconnectedness of the whole.

    1. It is interesting that the examples you bring up are all boundaries - boundary conditions being a particular problem in modelling, for example. I can draw a link (without implying a parallel mechanism) between boundaries in weather or climate and catastrophe curves.
      There is considerable complexity in drawing out the transition point even in a relatively simple system. But it can be modelled effectively and described mathematically - as I understand. Take a multiply-complex set of systems such as the whole earth, and the task of even describing the nature of the curve and the transition (crisis point) becomes daunting.
      But what can be claimed is that there is likely to be such a point - the point at which the collective impulse and direction of travel of the human forcing of the planetary systems reaches crisis, or transition. In the simplest terms, if we believe that such a transition is likely to be primarily and permanently (in human terms) destructive, then we need to find the 'formula' which points to how we can change the force or direction of our momentum.
      Increasingly, it seems like politics and policy is falling into two 'camps', the one which says that the likely catastrophic point is manageable by increased wealth and adaptation in the future, when the means exists, and the one which says that the point is unlikely to be manageable by any means, so diversion (mitigation) is fundamentally required.
      Connectedness is important here - because of the domino principle, and because if there are multiply-connected interactivities, the force of the catastrophe when it does occur is likely to be more - and different - to the sum of the individual impacts.