Climate Change, Science and Uncertainty

By Terry Young 23 Sep 2021

Leading up to the COP26 summit in November 2021, Jubilee Centre is publishing a series of blog posts on various aspects of climate change. The different authors will be on a panel together at our online Facing the Climate Crisis event on October 20th, where they will seek to model a generous conversation around climate action, which is often portrayed in divisive terms. This is the first of two posts thinking through some of the challenges of climate change from a Christian perspective. The second post can be found here.

In 1974, the Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman spoke on Cargo cult science with the subtitle: Some remarks on science, pseudoscience, and learning how to not fool yourself. An outstanding scientist and communicator, he urged students with a good theory to keep looking for evidence that it might be wrong. The paradox of good science is that the more we doubt and test our conclusions, the safer they are.

When the Cavendish Laboratory was opened in Cambridge in 1874, it bore a Latin inscription that translates as: ‘Great are the works of the Lord; they are pondered by all who delight in them.’ (Psalm 111:2, NIV)

Like a dance in a Jane Austen novel, where people link up a while and then draw back, Christians have historically oscillated between trust in, and scepticism of, science. Faith that a Creator would behave logically drove early scientists to seek patterns: Kepler, for instance, appealed to the platonic solids and even to musical scales to model planetary pathways. Connecting music and maths with celestial motion was a leap of faith and, eventually, he found the formulae that made him famous.

In science, the experiment is king. When Marconi transmitted across the Atlantic by radio, it confounded science because radio waves were known to only travel in straight lines. Nobody knew about a conducting layer high up in the atmosphere that bounces waves back down, which made Marconi’s experiment work.

But Feynman’s peers also wondered whether the science of going to the moon was worth if they couldn’t get their boys back from Vietnam. We call these wicked problems: complex situations where many factors compete in unpredictable ways. If you widen a road, for instance, more cars can drive along it: more lanes means more cars. If you close lanes, capacity falls and you are back to where you were. However, if you widen a road from a city centre to a nearby town, something new happens. People start to live further out, so traffic levels rise again, while knock-on effects (e.g., rising property prices) complicate things and the problems the widened road had solved return - with even more jams. Moreover, if you close a whole lane, you don’t even get back to where you started: you have a whole new mess!

Our atmosphere is billions of times more complicated than road networks, but still has these competing factors (e.g., people, seas, atmosphere) and knock-on effects. Neither do you return to the start if you turn around: I don’t think any scientist believes that if you reset atmospheric carbon dioxide levels back to 1950 levels you would immediately get 1950s weather – too much has changed.

Most technology and medical treatments show how well scientists have improved our lives in predictable and beneficial ways. Science successfully answers many questions: are atmospheric carbon dioxide levels rising? The best evidence says ‘yes’. Are global temperatures rising? The best evidence says ‘yes’. Are glaciers shrinking and sea levels rising? Again, the best evidence says ‘yes’. However, the ground is less firm when we approach complicated situations: is there a simple connection between temperature, human activity and carbon dioxide? Not exactly. Does it make sense to make plans about global warming? Probably. What should we plan? It's hard to say.

So, traditional science, with Feynman’s doubting and checking, had served us well until we bumped into problems that did not respond simply to basic interventions. Such problems come from competing factors – chance, choices, wealth, policy, industry, regulations, schooling – and reverse gear usually goes somewhere else. Climate change is a typical example of something that lacks a clear logic, and because everything is tangled and experts see only part of the problem, unintended consequences explode out of nowhere.

Where would we look for a theology of complexity? The Israelites were surrounded by nations with superior technology, while the Church was born into Roman engineering, so technology was not central to either community. Some Christians appeal to eschatology – poisoned seas, scorched earth (e.g., Revelation 16) – but Jesus warned against predicting the end of the age (e.g., Matthew 24:36). Meanwhile, the account of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9) shows pessimism about the possibility of global collaboration.

Our best shot with the future is computer modelling before we take action. Such simulation is everywhere and invisible: models now tell us when we will reach our destination, coordinate our home shopping, overrule umpires, and fill our gaming consoles with scenarios. They can also contribute to economic collapse (as in the 2008 global crisis) but usually provide crisp, timely guidance.

There are a few things people need to know about models:

  • First, any model is a compromise: simple enough to understand yet sophisticated enough to mimic properly what you are trying to study. At their best, models balance usability and judgement with the constant challenge that Feynman advocated of trying to make sure that you are not fooling yourself. 
  • Second, very small changes in input data can generate huge differences in output, particularly when highly complex systems are simulated for a long time. 
  • Third, you can only include what you know. Sometimes, by repeatedly running a model, you may deduce that something is missing and then go in search of what else to include, but you are usually a prisoner of what is embedded in the code. 
  • Finally, models do not yield ‘answers’ in the conventional sense. They are run maybe millions of times, each time slightly different from the rest, to build a picture of what is likely to happen, and under what circumstances. 

While models are the best we have, they are nothing like a crystal ball. My guess is that you have a better idea of the price of bread on New Year’s Eve 2030 than anyone has of atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations in the year 2,300. A big climate challenge is whether to take expensive action now or to leave it until we are wealthier and more technologically proficient, when we will have the resources to act more appropriately. In the meantime, we risk passing a point beyond which there is no reversing. 

 

Terry Young has a PhD in laser spectroscopy, and spent the first half of his career in industrial R&D. He moved into academia and was professor of healthcare systems at Brunel University before becoming an independent consultant, focusing on the design and modelling of systems for health organisations. Terry writes regularly for the Baptist Times and the Integrated Care Journal; he and his wife Dani have three sons, a daughter-in-law and two grandsons.

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