III. How Scientists Got It Wrong


Scientists versus Engineers

NY Times, Nov. 2018

Few thought it would arrive so quickly. Now we’re facing consequences once viewed as fringe scenarios.”

There has been a convergence of problems that resulted in a deceptive analysis of what climate change was doing.

Scientists want to “do science” which means to define a problem that can be solved with confidence and accuracy. In the case of climate change this is impossible as has been recently demonstrated by an outbreak of overheating in several areas. The problem is too complex to solve as it is really many sub-climates each doing their own thing and then interacting with other sub-climtates.

The big mistake was that we did not need an accurate solution, but rather a definitive assessment of risk.

However, nothing would change the minds of politicians, or for that matter anyone who is in the class of believing what they want to believe. Conservatives are notorious for refusing to face evidence or to try to learn understanding from experts.

Someone needed to define the real problem. It did not matter exactly how something was happening. What was needed is an overview of the magnitude of the risk we were taking.

Much good discussion appeared in web sites that were not widely read, and worse, were not strategically understood. A comment that I read over and over that some “tipping point” would be cataclismic went right over everyone’s head. And everyone here included the media which did not pursue the meaning of “cataclysmic,” and did not present it in a way appropriate to its meaning. Interviews that explored the meaning of cataclysmic followed by an hour of well produced explanation with the tone of imminent disaster, as if a nuke were heading our way.

Such productions, if widely done in all media should have garnered the attention necessary. And they should have been done in 1988 when James Hansen appeared before Congress. The themes “how bad can it get,” could the planet become uninhabitable?”, what should we be doing, etc. (It reminds me of the first interview I heard with George W. Bush. “Are you convinced all 150 men on death row are guilty? Yes. End of discussion. The answer is bullshit because we know he hasn’t conducted a thorough oversite review of the cases and the processes, but the interviewer just let it drop. This is typical and leads to many horrible problems since the truth is never found out.)

This is were engineers (or engineering thinking) comes in along with risk analysis. What is the worst case? (An uninhabitable planet) How important is it to avoid this (utterly essential), what do we need to do: 1. Come up with an approximate overview analysis with a great emphasis on probable speed (which was known for individual surprises); 2. Understand the principle driving forces that we can influence; 3. An outline of a plan to deal with it; 4. An agency designed to deal with it (e.g. the abilility to impose sanctions on anyone and any nation not going along); 5. A excution plan; 6. A virtually unlimited budget. We either do everything concievable to protect the planet or run a risk of having a substantially degraded one and at least some risk of one that is uninhabitable.

In the meantime scientists are running conservative models that leave out low probability outcomes, except that leaving out enough low probability catastrophic outcomes and the probably of at least one of them happening becomes high.

And one is all we need to have a cataclysm. And as a reminder: if enough methane is released to make the reaction (warming) self-sustaining we are screwed. There are just two things to do: shut down emissions and suck out CO2. Both push in the right direction. What is the risk? High employment and Bill Gates gets a 30 room house instead of 60.

I remember reading many analysis of ice cores in the Arctic, showing what had happened in the previous million years and wondering why this was necessary. In a way it was in that it provded evidence of what the earth might be like if we let emissions go on as they were. However, it is in a way a trap thinking that we might find something that would alter what needs to be done. And yes, it might add some feeling of being scientific but it in no way should have altered the perception of the emergency and how it must be solved.

We are still faced with the problem of convincing the world that a revolution in behavior is essential on the fastest time scale concievable. It is World War III.

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