“Our interest is to understand – first the natural variability of climate – and then take it from there. So we were very excited when we realized a lot of changes in the past century from warmer to cooler and then back to warmer were all natural.” Anastasios Tsonis, Atmospheric Sciences Group at University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee
It is widely assumed that climate change is knowable and the greatest threat to life on Earth in the 21st century. Neither assumption holds up. Way back in the Third Assessment Report the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said that both climate and models were coupled, nonlinear, chaotic systems – and that prediction of the future was therefore not possible. As far as life on Earth is concerned – wildlife populations continue to crash. But even at the most extreme interpretation from the World Wildlife Fund – climate change poses only 7.1% of the risks to wildlife populations. The significant risks – exploitation and habitat change – emerge out of poverty.
The idea that climate is predictable relies on inadequate theories on the nature of climate change – and in glossing over the limitations of climate models. There are potentially three theories of climate change. The most common ideas are that climate is in a stable equilibrium state or – alternatively – that warming is superimposed over a state of periodic climate change. The most powerful climate theory – the one that best explains observed climate data – is that climate change is chaotic and random. It is seen in regime changes in cloud, ice, ocean and atmospheric circulation, hydrology and biology that are evident in climate records and that are best described as shifts in state space on the multi-dimensional climate strange attractor at 20 to 30 year intervals. Complexity science suggests that climate may change abruptly and unpredictably as a result of changes in greenhouse gases. It implies also that warming in the 20th century was to a greater or lesser extent the result of internal variability in the complex, dynamic climate system, that non-warming may continue for another decade or so and that subsequent cooling is indeed possible. Ideas that are all a profound departure from what is marketed as a scientific consensus.
Models are a different but related problem in dynamic complexity. Small changes in input data – within a feasible range – result in exponentially diverging solutions. A phenomenon known as sensitive dependence to initial conditions since Edward Lorenz’s work on convection models in the 1960’s. Small changes in the structure of models likewise result in diverging solutions – something known as structural instability. James McWilliams, of the Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences at the University of California Los Angeles, says that “sensitive dependence and structural instability are humbling twin properties for chaotic dynamical systems, indicating limits about which kinds of questions are theoretically answerable.”
Julia Slingo, head of the British Met Office, and Tim Palmer, head of the European Centre for Mid-range Forecasting, show the problem schematically. Sensitive dependence and structural instability result in multiple feasible solutions within a range that is known as model irreducible imprecision. There are multiple feasible solutions evolving from small variations in inputs or even minor changes in the structure of models. This is far removed from the single solution of many models which are then collated by the IPCC as representative of the range of potential climate outcomes. Each of these single solutions has at its core an intractable problem. One solution is chosen on the basis of modeller expectations of the evolution of climate this century rather than on rigorous and defensible scientific grounds. Many other equally plausible solutions are possible and are ignored without any justification. Glossing over this core problem of chaotic models – one that is known without a doubt to exist – amounts after all this time to an egregious and ongoing scientific fraud. Either that or utter incompetence.
The acceptable scientific use of models is to first initialize to current conditions, run the model thousands of times and present the results as a range of probable outcomes within the limits of irreducible imprecision that is the divergent solution space. Even then projection beyond a decade or so remains problematic. We are left with the expectation that climate outcomes remain uncertain – and the understanding that there is little to zilch appreciation of this in the public sphere. The most common public positions involve scientifically simplistic narratives leading to an impossible certainty.
A false climate certainly stimulates inchoate fears and ever more apocalyptic scenarios which in turn support social engineering ambitions up to and including the overthrow of capitalism and democracy. In the absence of apocalyptic scenarios – there would still be social engineering ambitions but fear of climate change lends an unwarranted imperative to solutions based almost entirely on taxing fossil fuels out of the energy mix. Taxes on energy are at best a partial approach to the task of reducing emissions of greenhouse gases and aerosols – and consequently the risk of triggering abrupt climate change. We may instead imagine an alternative approach that addresses the issues of development and the environment far more comprehensively.
The undeniable reality is that there has been no progress on reducing emissions in other than the forestry and agricultural sector. The agreement reached in Paris recently does nothing to change this. The COP21 greenhouse gas commitments – with the best will in the world and US$13.5 trillion – result in an increase in energy emissions to 2030 of 3.7 billion metric tons of CO2. The reason is that there little in the way of alternative technologies that can supply the energy needed over multiple sectors as economies grow. This is changing as technology evolves in a process that takes decades in gestation but which will ultimately rapidly transform productive systems. Especially as fossil fuel costs increase due to increasing scarcity. It is a fundamental economic principle that will inevitably drive energy technology changes. There are many energy technologies in development – many have significant promise for transforming energy sources.
Science shows that the climate system is characterised by unpredictability and risk. Responding to unpredictability and risk requires building resilience in both natural systems and human communities. Much of the 180 billion tons of carbon lost from vegetation and soils can be taken up in soil under the most modern agricultural practices. We may not merely slow emissions from agriculture and forestry but reverse the loss of carbon from terrestrial systems with major benefits in addition to offsetting anthropogenic emissions from fossil fuel combustion, land use conversion, soil cultivation, continuous grazing and cement manufacturing. Restoring soil carbon stores increases agronomic productivity and enhances global food security. Increasing the soil organic content enhances water holding capacity and creates a more drought tolerant agriculture – with less downstream flooding. There is a critical level of soil carbon that is essential to maximising the effectiveness of water and nutrient inputs. Global food security, especially for countries with fragile soils and harsh climate such as in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, cannot be achieved without improving soil quality through an increase in soil organic content. Wildlife flourishes on restored grazing land helping to halt biodiversity loss. Enhanced agricultural productivity produces resources for solving problems of lack of development and environmental degradation.
We might thus also address the health and environment effects of black carbon emissions. The warming potential of black carbon – from diverse sources – is equal to that of carbon dioxide emission from electricity production – but is given little attention in the public sphere. Black carbon is primarily emitted in developing nations – emissions in developed nations are subject to increasingly stringent regulation for public health reasons.
Increased agricultural productivity, increased downstream processing and access to markets build local economies and global wealth. Economic growth provides resources for solving problems – conserving and restoring ecosystems, better sanitation and safer water, better health and education, updating the diesel fleet and other productive assets to emit less black carbon, developing better and cheaper ways of producing electricity, replacing cooking with wood and dung with better ways of preparing food thus avoiding respiratory disease and again reducing black carbon emissions. A global program of agricultural soils restoration is the foundation for balancing the human ecology. In last years international year of soils – France committed to increasing soil carbon by 0.4% per year. As a global objective and given the highest priority it is a solution to critical problems of biodiversity loss, development, food security and resilience to drought and flood.
It is difficult to imagine a more poorly framed science and public policy issue than climate change – and it is equally difficult to imagine that this will change anytime soon. Much of the sturm and drang is obstinately misguided, horribly superficial and utterly inconsequential. We are likely to continue to muddle successfully through the morass of smug and superior, progressive idiocy. Technology will evolve, the movement to restore agricultural soils is growing and the need to conserve and restore ecosystems is met when economic resources are sufficient. At the nexus of development and environment is the opportunity to create comprehensive, integrated and practical responses across broad policy areas – while keeping democracy and capitalism thank you very much.