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Outlook 2020: The Environment
December 14th, 2009

by futurist Richard Worzel, C.F.A.

Ten years seems like an eternity if you’re talking about technology, but is almost nothing if you’re talking about the Earth’s environment, which tends to move at the pace of geological changes. Yet, the next 10 years should refute that idea. I expect we will see measurable shifts in climate that will effectively end any serious debate over climate change. Despite this, there will still be extremists on both sides of the debate shooting at each other – and anyone else who happens to get into their line of fire.

That being said, how do I expect things to change over the next 10 years? Let me tackle this from the bottom up:

• Climate change, not global warming – Climate change deniers tend to persist in talking about ‘global warming’ because they can then claim any variation from a straight-up progression in temperature as proof that global warming ain’t happening. There is a clearly identified increase in average global temperature based on things like tree rings, ice cores, and other indirect temperature indicators that predate record keeping, and, coupled with human observation within the last two centuries, leads to the clear conclusion that temperature change been accelerating over the past century. (And for completeness, let me add a reference to climateaudit.org, run by one of the principal warming debunkers, Canadian Stephen McIntyre, who was one of two people who analyzed the ‘hockey stick’ curve of global temperature increases.)

However, a general trend in rising temperatures doesn’t mean that temperatures will rise all the time, or in every location. The Earth’s climate is an incredibly complex system with all kinds of positive and negative feedback mechanisms, and such a simplistic, straight-line pattern is unlikely in the extreme.

Moreover, the geologic record indicates quite strongly that a relatively small average increase in global temperature tends to translate into much more pronounced changes in specific locations. This is clearly happening today in the arctic regions, where glaciers and ice caps are melting. However, even here, climate change is what’s going on, not uniform global warming. In the Antarctic, for example, temperatures seem to be rising around the continent’s coasts, but falling near the South Pole.

Source: NASA, Earth Observatory website, April 27, 2006.

Meanwhile, the knock-on or domino effects may be even more important. The melting of the North Polar ice cap, and the glaciers in Greenland may be interfering with the Gulf Stream in the Northern Atlantic, which would affect the climate in northern Europe much more dramatically than, say, North America. On all counts, we will know much more within 10 years, but what is clear at this point is that climate is changing, and in ways that will almost certainly catch us by surprise.

• Climate is chaotic – Chaos theory is a branch of mathematics, and a chaotic system is one where the changes of the next time period are dependent on the changes of this time period. Hence, small differences at the beginning can produce dramatic differences over time. As a result, chaotic systems are fundamentally unpredictable, because small errors in observation, or small amounts of missing information lead to small differences from observed or predicted results that get magnified over time.

Climate, like weather, is a chaotic system. This means that it is fundamentally unpredictable. Indeed, one scientist, Dr. George Kukla, a retired professor at Columbia University and research scientist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Institute, believes that most ice ages are preceded by global warming, and that we may, in fact, be heading for the next ice age rather than run-away warming.

But the key issue relating to the politics of climate change is not whether we will experience torrid heat or the next ice age, but that we truly do not know what will happen next. This brings us to the central issue relating to the current debate: climate models.

• Climate models – Most people who work on, or comment on, climate change talk about the consequences of climate change to come through the balance of this century and beyond, predictions that cover a span of about 90 years or more. This completely flies in the face of my assertion that climate is fundamentally unpredictable. So, am I just wrong, or is there something else going on?

Well, if you look closely at these predictions of the effects of climate change, what the prognosticators are actually saying is, ‘Our climate models say that…’. Climatologists and others concerned about climate change create complex and intricate models of the way the Earth’s climate works, and then feed in various assumptions of what might happen to arrive at their conclusions. And they clearly know much more about climate than I do, and are far more familiar with the way their models work than I am. The difference is that I’ve seen this movie before – twice – and I know how it comes out.

In the 1970s, economists believed that they knew how the economy worked. They, too, build detailed and intricate models of the system they were studying, in this case the economy, and their models gave rise to the field of econometrics. One of my economics professors in university, Dr. Rudi Dornbusch, who later became an advisor to the IMF and the Federal Reserve Bank, and an informal advisor to President Ronald Reagan, confidently told me once that with their models, economists would be able to engineer recessions and inflation out of existence. He told me this in 1972 – right at the beginning of the biggest bout of inflation, and one of the worst recessions in the post-war period. And econometric models still are of limited utility, almost 40 years later.

Likewise, in the investment industry, there are always people claiming that their models have figured out the investment markets, and they will be able to make a fortune from them. The last group who said this precipitated the financial crisis of 2008 with their risk management models.

The problem lies in our incomplete understanding of complex systems, and the necessarily crude nature of the models we create. A model is a vastly simplified mathematical representation of a real world system. Climate models are no different from the economy or the investment markets except that climate is far more complex than they are. All predictive models are based on (a) what we know about such systems, (which is always a fraction of what there is to know), and (b) the past, usually the recent past. And they can often be quite useful – but only for short periods, and only when nothing dramatic happens. Typically these kinds of predictive models run on the rocks when something happens that the modelers had not foreseen, or goes beyond the boundaries of the recent experience programmed into the models.

The end result is that I do not believe any of the predictions, especially long-term predictions, from anyone’s climate models. I do believe these models are incredibly valuable to scientific research, because they impose a mental discipline, and force researchers to answer questions and develop new insights as to how the Earth’s climate operates. They may also be useful in warning of possible futures, or scenarios that might lead to disaster. But the Earth is both too vast, and too complex for any human model to capture and predict climate with any sort of certainty over extended periods of time. This is not to say that I believe we shouldn’t do anything. It’s only that I have zero confidence in anybody’s long-term forecasts of climate. And I believe that relying entirely on such models, as most commentators seem to be doing, is both misleading and dangerous.

But this isn’t just my opinion. Here’s a comment by a well-known scientist and environmental commentator:

‘The uncertainty in predicting the long-term effects of this excess of greenhouse gases merely reflects our state of scientific ignorance. If we know so little about what affects weather and climate that it’s hard to predict weather accurately from day to day, how can we anticipate climate change from year to year? … The fact is that we don’t know what will happen. By tweaking parameters and factors in complex computer models of the upper atmosphere, we can get predictions ranging from an impending Ice Age to catastrophic heating.’

And the name of the commentator? Dr. David Suzuki, a high-profile advocate of aggressive action to stem carbon emissions. He is also a geneticist, and not a climatologist, which does not take away from his comment on the unreliability of climate models. They are a thin reed on which to base multi-billion dollar policies.

• Climate as religion – The ‘debate’ on climate change has comes to resemble the ‘debate’ on abortion: the two sides are so polarized, and so entrenched in their positions that true discussion and dispassionate consideration of evidence has become virtually impossible. True believers believe that anyone who disagrees with them in any way is a heretic, should be burned at the stake, and have their carbon returned to the biosphere – or at least banned from any discussion on climate change, and what to do about it. And true deniers believe that anyone who gives any credence to any consideration that humanity needs to change its ways for its own good are the dupes of New Age lamb-chops with mush (or something less savory) for brains.

Moreover, when movements with this kind of public-steamroller concensus emerge, they tend to take on a life of their own. Scientists that offer views that seem to conflict with the idea of human-caused climate change can’t get their papers published in technical journals, because their peers all agree that they can’t possibly be right because they are obviously wrong (a logical tautology). Governments only provide funding for scientists who conduct ‘worthwhile’ research, which means research that promises to support the current orthodoxy. And scientists who go to private industry to get funding because they can’t get government funding are automatically labeled as industry shills, and dismissed. As a result, any scientist that wants to get funding and be published has to embrace anthropomorphic climate change as an established fact, and any scientist who disagrees tends not to be heard. This has happened repeatedly in the history of science; it’s nothing new, and it is the result of scientists’ own humanity. But it doesn’t lead to vigorous, objective debate. Instead, it leads to group-think, which is pretty much where we are today.

• What we don’t know – We’re pretty certain that the Earth is warming, on average. We’re also pretty certain, but cannot prove, that humanity is at least contributing to climate change, in particular through carbon emissions. Many in the field of climate change would also like to say that humanity is the primary cause, but, as I read it, there’s little real evidence to support or deny this.

More importantly, chaotic systems tend to remain in periods of stable equilibrium for long periods, then undergo rapid changes to a new equilibrium, which in this case would be a rapid transition to a markedly different climate for most of the world. But there are two aspects of this we don’t know. First, we don’t know how climate will change. Everyone’s betting that it will be a warmer climate, but the history of the Earth demonstrates that this isn’t always the case. In some cases, global warming is thought to have triggered a new ice age, and in a relatively short period of perhaps 30-50 years. And second, we don’t know whether changing our behavior will stop climate from changing. If we reduced our carbon emissions to zero – if we stopped emitting at all (which is clearly impossible) – it might not stop climate change from happening, now that we may have shifted the Earth’s climate from it’s old equilibrium. Or the most extreme doom-sayers may be right, and there is no time to waste. We may be on the edge of triggering a move to a new climate equilibrium, and must take extreme actions to back away from the cliff-edge. We don’t know.

What we do know is that extreme efforts have a real cost, and real consequences which we can know and can quantify. We also know that if we go about reducing emissions in inefficient ways, we can cause quite a lot of harm, including the deaths of a great number of people through starvation. The key, then, is to take aggressive action, but equally importantly, to do so in the most effective, and least costly manner possible.

• A ‘no tears’ approach – I was concerned about the emergence of today’s group-think in climate change in 1993, when I was doing research for a book, Facing the Future. I interviewed Professor R.E. Munn of the University of Toronto’s Institute for Environmental Studies on these issues. Professor Munn, too, was concerned about group think, and had already discussed the issue previously in a publication: ‘The emergence of McLuhan’s ‘Global Village’ has resulted in the phenomena of ‘Trial by Television,’ in which the opinions of millions of persons are shaped by inadequate and often incorrect reporting of environmental issues.’ How much more blinkered is ‘trial by Internet,’ where you can choose to look only at one side of an argument, with the result that you aren’t even aware of the counter-arguments.

When I interviewed Dr. Munn, we talked about many issues relating to climate change. Then he offered me what I thought was a brilliant solution to the whole issue, which he called the ‘no tears’ approach.

The basic idea is that we don’t actually know what will happen to the Earth’s climate, and we aren’t entirely sure the extent to which humanity’s activity is to blame, yet we also know the potential costs of doing nothing are enormous. Therefore, we should adopt policies that combat, say, carbon emissions by increasing efficiency. This makes reducing carbon profitable – and the profit motive is self-sustaining. Accordingly, organizations can do the right thing, in environmental terms, by doing the intelligent thing by maximizing their profits through working hard on increasing their efficiency. Indeed, I tell my corporate clients that any time you throw something away, whether it’s carbon, water, a cardboard box, or heat, you are throwing away profits that you haven’t figured out how to capture. And since the profit motive is self-sustaining, by encouraging this approach, perhaps by offering tax credits for research into increasing efficiency, you create a virtuous cycle that needs no regulation or policing because it’s not coercive.

I find this a much more likely approach than the burden our economies with extra layers of regulation, and punitive costs for non-productive activities. And if enough producers do this, even knuckle-draggers will have to follow suit, or they will find themselves facing competitors that have lower cost structures.

• Climate change and carbon are not the only issues – The Earth’s ecology is incredibly complex, interlinked, and the balance between forces is delicate. As a result, there are other issues beyond carbon emissions which will come to prominence over the next 10 years. I’m sure there are ones that will, in retrospect, seem obvious that I will miss, but here are some that I believe will come to prominence:

1) Heat emissions – Everyone’s talking about carbon emissions, but the amount of heat that humanity releases may become an important aspect of the climate change debate. Aside from anything else, greenhouse gases plus heat emissions will warm the globe faster than greenhouse gases alone. Think of a glass greenhouse with a heating system. And reducing heat emissions is a much tougher proposition than reducing carbon emissions since virtually all human activity produces heat as a by-product.

2) Weather pattern shifts – It’s not just warming that’s the issue, it’s the entirety of weather patterns. North America, for instance, may well experience both hotter, drier summers and colder, snowier winters because of climate change. As well, we may well experience stronger, and more destructive storms, from thunderstorms, to tornados, to hurricanes. Moreover, changes in rainfall patterns will cause floods in some places, and drought in others. And if droughts occur in major agricultural areas, such as the American Midwest and the Canadian Prairies, it could trigger problems with food production, and lead to soaring food prices, and starvation for hundreds of millions of people.

3) Water shortages – This is the biggest sleeper for the next 10 years, as well as a slam-dunk certainty. Water shortages are going to be global, and will exacerbate existing political conflicts, including the Palestinian – Israeli conflict, and the political friction between America and Canada. Water is one of those areas where people tend to emote rather than think, and when you’re thirsty, you almost don’t care about anything else. Therefore water shortages, which will go hand-in-hand with food shortages, are a potential powder keg in geopolitics, as well as in environmental issues. We are already seeing shortages and droughts in many parts of the world, and they are all going to get worse. Buy water stocks (the tradable kinds), and think carefully about where you live.

4) Population growth – Ironically, we can see the finish line, being the time when the Earth’s population stops growing, levels off, and then starts shrinking. Depending on what assumptions you make, this will happen sometime in the third quarter of this century, and the Earth’s peak population will be somewhere around 9.5 billion. This is happening because as global populations move towards urban centers, and as more and more countries develop a middle class, birth rates are dropping virtually everywhere. The net result is that the rate of growth in human population continues to fall (which means the number of people is still growing, but progressively more slowly).

However, adding almost another 3 billion people to global population over the next 60 years or so means another 3 billion mouths to feed, provide drinking water for, and who will want to drive cars, use electricity, and warm or cool their houses – all of which will add to the environmental burden humanity places on the Earth. This will be mentioned more and more frequently over the next decade, along with invocations of the name of Thomas Malthus. Of all the factors affecting the environment, this is perhaps the most important since it is human population that is the root cause of the environmental depredations we are discussing today.

• The bottom line to 2020 – So, bottom line, what do I expect over the next 10 years? Well, despite my contention that climate is unpredictable, I expect that we will see a continuation of the general warming cycle the Earth has experienced since around 1770, leading to significant warming in some locations, and significant changes in weather patterns in most locations. Rhetoric about reducing carbon emissions will continue to rise, but if there is agreement on what humanity, collectively, will do about it, it will only be later in the decade when we face the growing evidence of climate change. Meanwhile, I expect there will be lots of politically-expedient, and largely inefficient agreements and policies that miss the mark, such as the cap-and-trade bill that the U.S. Congress is diddling with, which actually benefits the worst polluters most. A carbon tax is by far the most efficient means of tackling carbon emissions, but also the least popular, and hence the least likely. And there will continue to be refuseniks who are intellectually dishonest (as opposed to deniers, who may honestly hold a divergent point of view). Such refuseniks will mostly be found among those who profit from the old ways, such as jurisdictions like Venezuela and Alberta, who produce petroleum from heavy oil and tar sands, and have a very strong motivation to continue to do so.

But cutting carbon emissions will not be enough, and we will hear more about other environmental issues, such as heat and water vapor emissions. (Water vapor is the supreme greenhouse gas, far more potent than carbon or even methane, but is hardly ever discussed because there’s so much of it already in the atmosphere.) And the professional environmental doom-sayers will have a field day. They make their living by pronouncing doom at every opportunity, and have a vested interest in continuing to do so, which will further bias the discussion, and hide important developments, both positive and negative. And they risk exhausting the public on the issue. You can cry wolf only so long, and then people turn to the sports pages (or sports websites, as it were). If that happens, then we may turn away from critical action just when it becomes most evident it is needed.

Someone once defined a futurist as someone who had ‘strong opinions, weakly held.’ This means that you need to have an opinion, but you also need to be willing to change it if the evidence shows you are wrong. I have changed my opinion significantly over the past 20 years, and expect to continue to do so as more evidence comes to light, but I don’t see much of this happening with many others in the climate ‘debate.’ I also expect I will be roundly castigated for not being a right-thinking individual, and probably by both true believers and adamant deniers. But I’m not interested in right-thinking; I’m only interested in clear thinking. ‘My commitment is to truth,’ said Ghandi, 'not to consistency.’



[1] Wikipedia commons, '1000 Year Temperature Comparison', http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:1000_Year_Temperature_Comparison.png

[2] Shindell, Drew T., et al, 'Solar Forcing of Regional Climate Change During the Maunder Minimum', Science, 7 December 2001, vol. 294: 2149-2152.

[3] Sternlof, Kurt, 'Scientist Refutes Notion of Recent Climate as 'Uniquely Benign' - Sees Evidence of Approaching Ice Age Despite Global Warming,' Columbia University Earth Institute website, http://www.earthinstitute.columbia.edu/news/story0_1.html

[4] Suzuki, David, 'Why We Must Act on Global Warming,' Toronto Star, March 26, 1994.

[5] R.E. Munn, 'Environmental Prospects for the Next Century: Implications for Long-term Policy and Research Strategies.' International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, Austria, 1987.

© Copyright, IF Research, December 2009.

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