Six years ago Professor John Schellnhuber (who had recently been appointed as Chief Government Adviser on Climate and Related Issues by the German Chancellor) talked at the RSA Art and Ecology Conference (2006) about the challenges in modelling the interactions between different critical points in global environmental systems – gulf streams, sea ice, glaciers and snow on mountains, desertification, etc. He was addressing complexity, not looking at one thing in isolation.
The recent article, Extreme Weather, in the National Geographic explores the increasing extreme weather – flooding, storms, tornadoes, drought and fire. The article offers an interesting analogy: climate change has a similar effect to steriods – you don’t know whether the steriods enable the batter to score this home run in particular, but you do know that they increase the overall likelihood of scoring more home runs than someone not on steriods. So the point is not to ask whether climate change caused this storm or that heatwave, but rather to recognise that it is affecting frequency and intensity.
All analogies (and metaphors) have to be used carefully – steriods as a metaphor for ‘enhancing’ and making more powerful is probably not the worst, but the other medicalised metaphor is ‘cancer’ which engenders a particular sort of fear – see Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor.
We are still learning about complex adaptive systems. Understanding that things are connected and that there are unintended consquences is only a small step along the road.