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November 2011
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Climate Change, Like the Weather, is Unpredictable

Is it going to rain today? You can usually look outside and tell if it might rain. There is something about the air, it’s heavy, it’s moist, it almost feels electric. But will it rain tomorrow? The next day? How about a week from now?

Isn’t that how you build a case? You load it with proven fact

Our ability to predict the weather, actually our ability to predict almost anything long-term, is feeble at best. I just finished Dan Gardner’s Future Babble: Why Expert Predictions Fail – and Why We Believe Them Anyway and it was loaded with information and statistics about how our predictions about the stock market, housing values, human demographics … pretty much anything and everything, fail. Most of the time we would be as successful if we flipped a coin when making these decisions.

Towards the end of the book Gardner starts discussing climate change, a favourite topic of mine. Gardner believes in climate change but he is skeptical of the climate models to forecast changes in our climate years, decades or centuries out.

“Climate scientists are quite blunt that there is lots about climate that science does not understand, which is precisely why scientists find the field exciting to work in. Combine that ignorance with the almost indescribably complex interactions at work in the massive, non-linear systems that make up climate and there are huge uncertainties woven into every climate prediction. … These models may overestimate the extent of climate change and the damage it does. But the may also underestimate it…”

But even if science is underestimating climate change there are still some other benefits to doing projects that lower ones carbon footprint. Gardner argues the economics, social and environmental cost of carbon accounting schemes. ‘Carbon sequestration’ (pumping CO2 into the ground) will be a waste of money if our climate predictions do not pan out. But he argues the opposite case for methane capture off landfills – it’s win-win-win. Economically you make/save money by capturing a resource naturally emitted from a landfill. Socially, the harmful methane is captured from our atmosphere and has decreases our negative health impacts. And environmentally one reuses a gas that would otherwise be harmful to the atmosphere for electricity production.

Carbon taxes actually have a similar effect, or they can. Raise the carbon tax and cut other taxes. Under this scheme one then also raises the “effective price of fossil fuels thus making alternative energy more competitive.’ Europe got it right. After the price crash of oil in the mid-80’s Europe decided to keep fuel prices artificially high with taxes. Thus research and development in conservation and alternative fuels continued. And what do we see today? Alternative energy in Europe is competitive, and they now rely on it and have to rely less on fossil fuels.

I enjoyed Gardner’s book. At times it was a little overwhelming with the amount of data he presented debunking our science of predictions, but again that was the point. He wanted to hammer the point home that we cannot make predictions about our future. The future is chaotic, non-liner … unpredictable, and as a scientist/engineer I find that exciting.