More on Question 1…

What kind of world is likely if we take no action?

Yesterday, when we left this question, it seemed on the surface like it might answerable in terms of science. Indeed, researchers of all stripes have been busily working the issue. Each year, nations of the world are spending billions of dollars to train and pay scientists, and to equip them (us – for I am one) with the tools they (we) need to develop understanding of the Earth as a system, and for that matter, many of the details. We’ve got instruments, sensors, for measuring physical quantities like atmospheric temperature and wind speed and the Earth’s magnetic field, for sniffing out the chemical composition of the air and sea, for sampling biota and measuring biomass and biodiversity. We have surface networks of some sensors. We have satellite platforms for others. We’ve got communications and computer infrastructure to help us corral and digest the data – to convert data into information, and transform information into knowledge and understanding. We’ve built numerical models that project conditions out to decades and centuries. What was a trickle of journal papers fifty years ago has turned into a torrent. The annual rhythm of scientific meetings has become an incessant blur. Correspondence has morphed into a flood of e-mails, teleconferences. Communication, once desperately needed, has become an often distracting intrusion.

What kind of world is likely? As the resources for answering this question have grown, so scientists have been getting more organized and structured in their approach. Consider the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC. Under United Nations auspices, every few years, scientists put out a new assessment. They begin each report by building scenarios of likely futures. Hundreds of scientists are actively and centrally involved. Thousands more are drawn in. Some scenarios are known as Business-as-Usual or BAU. Other scenarios expand the range of possible futures.

What do we have to show for all this effort? Quite a lot, actually. As recently as one hundred years ago, most people believed:

–         the assimilative capacity of the atmosphere was (essentially) infinite

–         the climate was unchanging, and

–         weather was unpredictable

Today, by contrast, we know that:

–         the assimilative capacity of the atmosphere is finite, not just locally or regionally, but globally

–         climate is variable over all time scales, sometimes abruptly so, and

–         weather is far more predictable than we’d thought

Thus, in little more than the span of a single human lifetime, scientists have taken three notions about the real world that have been held throughout thousands of years of human experience, and not just tweaked them slightly, but turned them upside down. Talk about progress! Society has received good value for its investment. It’s as if we’d been trying to get around Manhattan using a geological survey of the Adirondacks, and then suddenly someone walked up and handed us a street map and a GPS.

Quite a lot, but still not nearly enough. When it comes back to the question, what kind of world is likely if we take no action, we still don’t know, except in the most general terms.

!!!How can this be?

In a nutshell, this is because over the past couple of centuries, human beings have moved from being bit players in the real world to the main actors. Back when, any planet-wide changes in habitat, in ecosystems, in atmospheric chemistry and radiative processes were only imperceptibly influenced by human decisions and actions. That’s no longer the case today. What happens next, what the real world is in the process of becoming, is no longer something we’re watching, it’s something we’re causing.

So the set of sciences needed to answer our question has expanded from the natural sciences to include all the social sciences: psychology, sociology, political science, communication, anthropology, history – the complete list is too extensive to give here. To predict the future of the real world, we need to predict human behavior. And, social scientists are the first to point out that the act of studying human behavior invariably winds up changing that behavior.[1] Take the stock market. Analysts make their observations, but by the time those observations have been published, the salient information has often been entirely discounted. Take efforts to prevent terrorism. Today we work to make air travel safe, but the terrorists have already moved on. Take the depletion of fish stocks – by the time scientists announce the depletion of fish stocks, fisheries managers have already taken steps to restore the fishery. (Oops! That’s not what always happens there, is it? Human behavior? It’s unpredictable.)

That’s why the first question is articulated here as “What kind of world is likely if we take no deliberate action?” That is, what will happen if we keep on behaving as we are now? What we’ll see in a future post is that we can indeed make a few statements about present trends. They’re general, but still useful.

But in tomorrow’s post, we’re going to digress a bit. Remember that we said the act of studying human behavior changes that behavior? Scientists themselves are not immune. Both natural and social scientists, as well as professionals who provide science-based services – especially early-career scientists – change their behavior in light of new, emerging realities. Today, Thursday, I’m traveling from DC to Boulder to meet with one such group. They’re great company, exciting to be around. Tomorrow I’ll tell you more about them.


[1] Physicists encounter this same problem in quantum mechanics. Heisenberg’s eponymous uncertainty principle states that it’s possible to locate small particles such as electrons or deduce their velocities, but not both to arbitrary accuracy. That’s because electrons are small. To illuminate an electron so that you can see it, you have to clobber it with a photon. However, physicists face a simpler problem than do the social scientists. Suppose the electrons were reading the journal papers, figured out they were getting clobbered, and went into hiding? Or developed anti-clobbering technology?

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