Okay, maybe not everything. However, when discussing climate science it’s inevitable at some point the conversation will turn to the subject of ‘the future’. Often in the form a question like “So what’s going to happen?”, at times meant in quite precise terms. In some ways it’s a quite flattening question. Unfortunately, I’m not very good at fortune telling. What I can do is talk about what could happen, what there is to be worried about, and why. Really though, if you want to hear the worst case scenario, that was already summed up in 1992 by the songwriter Leonard Cohen’s apocalyptic description of The Future:
Things are going to slide (slide) in all directions,
Won’t be nothing you can measure anymore,
The blizzard of the world, has crossed the threshold,
And it has overturned the order of the soul.
When they said repent, repent,
I wonder what they meant.
This all reads a bit melodramatic, and I doubt Cohen was reflecting on the topics of meteorological concern when he was writing it. Coincidentally though, the refrain points to all the most serious of climate change related fears.
There is much talk about the possibility of large-scale, long-term climate trends, but slowly emerging, consistent, and predictable shifts aren’t actually very scary. People adapt, just as they always have. But sliding in all directions? Droughts and floods consistently successive to each other? Regions where the climate stays sub-tropical overall, but with increasing risk of severe cold events that would devastate the crops that can be productively grown in these areas? The idea of a world that is “the present + 3” or “everything you already expect but with the frequencies reshuffled” is disruptive enough, but not as disconcerting as a restructuring of synoptic behaviours or teleconnections.
Under such circumstances what can you measure? Most long term planning is based on historically based estimates of return periods of experienced events. Extremes are defined relative to a subjectively defined ‘current’ climate. Weather forecasts are based on models calibrated to historical records and tailored for local forecasts based on documented relationships between simulation outputs and observed local events. Measurement is the practise of describing something in reference to something else. Will it be productive in the future to describe the climate in reference to an unfamiliar and often poorly documented past? If not, what degree of flexibility will be required of a society in order to compensate?
The big concern of global warming is less about the inconvenience of a higher temperatures, and more so about the possible consequences of adding ever more energy to an already very busy system. It’s a situation where adding something new to the snow-globe actually makes it shake harder. How will that affect the patterns we see in the swirling blizzard? What equilibrium states are possible? We know from the geological record that there are different climate norms the world can happily organise its self around. What sort of preconditions and events are required to drive the climate system over a threshold to where it isn’t just being pushed away from its unforced state, but is actively centred around a new equilibrium? To what extent would that push the rate and degree of change away from anything that can be adapted to?
Admittedly, what might be the natural order of the soul is a bit beyond my expertise to comment on. However, what does it mean when we define what is ‘normal’ not in terms of long running statistics or notions of mathematical stability, but in terms of human experience? People are very adept at embedding themselves physically and psychologically into their environments. This is a useful skill, but it can make re-adapting a traumatic experience. Politics and popular culture contain many testaments to the human capacity for panic in the face of change, and the scale to which destabilisation can induce tragedy into societies is on display in the news on a daily basis.
I don’t know if anyone is calling for repentance as such, but there is a lot of activity, and lots of voices calling for action, or at least for meetings and attribution studies. Political will is important in responding to unfolding developments, but politics typically isn’t about shaping agendas around facts, it’s about using facts to support agendas. As much as people debate and plan around climate concerns, I often find myself wondering what is they actually mean. Whether the goals are actually to address identified problems, or if this is just another arena for the assumed to be zero sum game of global politics.
In his song Cohen speculates that soon we will be nostalgic for our old worries and battles, which with the benefit of hindsight will seem manageable now, even if they weren’t then. That’s probably an inevitable truism of human nature. To what degree and when will this be a result of climate change? I haven’t seen the future, but, like doctors seeing a patient with a persistent cough or unexpected pains, people who are aware of what they might mean are very disconcerted by the signs. Thinning sea ice, unstable glaciers, record temperatures in spatially disassociated locations, shifting ecosystems, droughts extensive enough to upturn formally resilient communities… symptoms of instability keep appearing with alarming frequency. Teasing out what these might tell us to prepare for, or how far in advance we might have warning of it is a crucial and ongoing task. This may all seem a bit overwrought, or just as likely come across as rather esoteric. “So some old song reminded you of some vocabulary terms from your dynamical systems course notes, and that set you sitting up at nights. When do we get to the part about climate change or is it all maths babble?” There’s lots of talk about identifying strong signals and ‘hot-spots’ in climate change projections. Areas where we have ‘actionable’ information. Where it is possible to do with confidence, this is very productive/proactive. Given a little momentum people are hugely resourceful. Perhapse even more disconcerting is the possibility for situations where predictability breaks down if it was ever there. There are probably more of these than we think. In economics, change is part of the system, it’s instability that is worrying, and a thing worth planning for. There may be a lesson there. The social fallout of moving into the unfamiliar, where there are no known functional strategies is typically devastating. The human capacity for productivity is often a result of creating optimal, but very fragile systems. It is difficult to guess how much of a nudge it takes to offset already precarious balances, but it may be less than we think.