Monday, May 23, 2011

On uncertainty and prudence

"The models are still not good enough to keep up with the rapidly changing reality. The science is still not precise enough to tell us exactly how bad it's going to get, how fast. Since the range of possible outcomes starts at bad, goes on to very bad and finishes up with absolutely awful, that's not a very good reason to postpone action until we can be certain."

- J. Gullidge.

The place of uncertainty in discerning the best course of action is multifaceted. On the one hand, we are always in the situation of uncertainty: life is uncertain. No one knowns what tomorrow will bring. And yet prudence seeks to grasp the outline of likely futures in order to find today the actions that will preserve goods and bring possibilities to fruition. But prudence's task is not to become eagle-eyed, identifying every outcome from every move like a champion chess player. Life is not a game of chess. There is a fuzziness and ambiguity over the future, which is the result not only of our limited knowledge but also of human freedom. While prudence can anticipate likely patterns of human behaviour, its judgements are not infallible and nor do they need to be. We are capable of acting in the dark, or at least in the gloom, since it is how we always are.

When contemplating action on climate change, we are placed in a yet more complex situation. The climate system is incredibly complex, as are human cultural and behavioural patterns and political and economic structures. Our knowledge is far from rudimentary, indeed, knowledge of the climate system has moved in leaps and bounds over the last three or four decades. This allows us to sketch the outline of certain pathways with varying degrees of likelihood, but the destinations remain shrouded in shadow, since the further ahead we imaginatively travel, the more we lean on a web of fragile assumptions. And yet we can get more than a glimpse of the fact that the trajectory of our current habits seems to lead to increasingly catastrophic discontinuities.

Therefore, enormous changes are approaching, whether sought or unsought. In this scenario, the attempt to manage risk is futile, as though all possibilities can be quantified and controlled. Risk thinking, which relies on calculative reason, ends up treating only what is measurable as real, and in its present incarnation, requires all quantities to be translated into a single language, that of money. But such a metric is insufficiently subtle to serve as a measure of human flourishing.

Multiple futures appear before us, all of them very different from the present. Certainty of outcome is an illusion. Ultimately, geophysical and economic models cannot answer what kind of humanity we are becoming. That is for us to discern and resolve in the space that is open for us: today.


Anonymous said...

Excellent post, very Ecclesiastes and Proverbs!

(It explains my weird sideways career choices as well, and how I have come to the point of needing to start all over again at 43.)

It really does seem that each new climate report is worse than the last.

However, I just have to remind myself that the tiny branch of peer-reviewed climate science that deals with cloud formation still contains enormous variables in it. Maybe, in God's grace, the Earth will limit us to the 'bad' scenarios by creating the right kind of cloud that reflects incoming heat? The wrong kind of cloud can trap more heat and act as a feedback! We're just not sure which way this one is going to go... unless I've missed some of the latest papers in this field?

byron smith said...

This is the most recent summary I have read, which is a few months old now, but doesn't give me much hope that clouds are going to save us.

It is true that clouds (and aerosols) are probably the largest uncertainties in climate science at the moment, though both can go either way (i.e. greater knowledge may just as well lead us to think that the problem is even worse than we currently think as lead us to revise our expectations to something slightly less dire).

On the very measurable, very practical bottom line of carbon emissions, the news is bad.

byron smith said...

Climate uncertainties: David Roberts outlines three kinds of uncertainty and explains why all three will remain (at least to some extent) no matter how good our science gets.