The very deliberately chosen title of this article may sound a little confusing at first. After all, as a veteran climate activist, one knows that the majority of scientists agree on the existence of anthropogenic climate change – even if there is uncertainty about the extent of its influence. Whereas the inclined climate sceptic tirelessly emphasizes that past predictions of doom were wrong with reliable regularity. No massive forest extinction, no islands disappearing by the dozen, and even the ozone hole seems to be closed again by about 2075.
According to this logic, it is only reasonable to be sceptical about the alarmism of Greta Thunberg and the movement Fridays for Future inspired by her. That’s not because the argument behind it is so powerful, but because we humans often don’t understand the world around us.
Complex Systems and Randomness
The human mind has an inherent need to recognize causal connections everywhere in order to explain the world to itself. We see an increasing warming of the earth since the Industrial Revolution, so it is quite evident that humanity is to blame. Or perhaps the climate just has reached a warm period again and the human influence is negligibly small, so we continue as before?
None of these positions recognize that it doesn't really matter who is actually to blame, because any predictions based on the assumption of linear relationships are completely useless (fortunately, this is no longer done within climate science, but there is far-reaching agreement on anthropogenic influence anyway). However, before the climate skeptics triumphantly throw their arms into the air, a somewhat more extensive digression into complex systems is necessary.
Anyone who has read my last two articles here will have noticed that one of my current leisure activities is to study the literature of complex systems. This results in a whole number of interesting insights into the world around us and, consequently, the climate as well. But one thing at a time.
Complex systems appear in various forms. Be it within engineering sciences to model complex cycles such as traffic flow, information and communication sciences, which deal with the flow and interaction of information within networks, or political and economic sciences and their respective fields of observation. And, of course, climate sciences are also part of this.
Complex systems are characterised by the fact that they consist of innumerable components that may interact with each other. The characteristics of these interactions include non-linearity (not necessarily B from A, proportionality is not given), adaptivity (the ability to respond to change), emergence (superior, new properties not found in the individual components), feedback loops, and a few others that are not too important for basic understanding.
Now these are a lot of buzzwords that can cause some confusion at first reading. For a better illustration an example shall serve.
Complex systems are often characterized by a long-term, inherent robustness against minor interferences. This means that even a large number of smaller problems do not lead to the destruction of the entire system (note, of course, that there is a certain limit and at some point each system will collapse, but more about this later). Just take the Internet. Even if individual providers have network issues, which will be very unpleasant for individual users, the Internet as a global network system will not be threatened and therefore will not collapse. The infrastructure itself is secured by large nodes, so-called Internet Exchange Points, the most important of which is currently located in Frankfurt. Should the latter have technical difficulties to contend with, it is unlikely that the entire system will fail, but much more serious consequences can already be expected. However, if several of these nodes are affected at the same time, we will face a serious problem. The probability of such an event may be low, but it should not be underestimated.
It is therefore important to be aware of those dynamics within complex systems that are often referred to as “fat tails”. This term is basically the technical expression of Black Swan events, i.e. rare but highly influential events that often have far-reaching consequences. What most students get to know during their basic statistical education is the discussion of normal distributions and the resulting probabilities of occurrence for rare events. Such events are also referred to as 5-sigma-events, i.e. those occurrences whose distance from the mean corresponds to five or more standard deviations. In a normally distributed world, it would follow that these events are highly unlikely. Statisticians such as Mandelbrot and Taleb, on the other hand, argue that in a complex world, fat-tail distributions are particularly relevant and normal distributions often underestimate the risk of rare events.
However, not only extreme events can be relevant, but also the cumulative influence of smaller variables. The inherent non-linearity of complex systems can lead to processes that at first glance appear less intuitive. Scott E. Page illustrated this with a very nice example – the algae development of a pond:
Algae are often a consequence of increased phosphate concentrations within a water body. However, it takes a while until a clear pool becomes an algae-polluted pond. The unique characteristic of this is that it is not a gradual change, but a very rapid tilting of the entire system. For a while, the system of the pool can handle the increased phosphate concentration quite well, but at some point there comes a moment when this is no longer the case and the system undergoes a fundamental change in which the algae feel more comfortable than ever before. The gradual increase in the phosphate concentration ultimately leads to a fat tail event that completely throws the original system off course.
Now this example is a very simple one and should only serve as an analogy for understanding, because we can explain quite well why this change occurs. In much more complex domains this becomes far more difficult, not to say impossible. Which completes the loop and brings us back to the original topic.
The earth’s climate obviously belongs to the group of complex systems. However, there is also the problem that the behaviour of such systems cannot be predicted exactly, since no model can include all components in its calculations. At this point the climate skeptic feels completely confirmed, because he always knew that these climate scientists and their prognoses cannot be trusted. Without noticing it, however, he falls victim to one of the oldest problems of truth-finding: the induction problem, which I have already discussed here.
The failure of past forecasts is not a reliable indicator that it must always remain that way. In a complex environment, it is impossible to establish obvious causal relationships, but as more potential stressors are added, the risk of causing devastation can increase.
Climate models now face the problem that they are inherently probabilistic, operating on past data and de facto unable to provide fully accurate predictions. However, this is not so much an argument against using the models as it is against the communication strategies derived from them. The media and activists often suggest a certainty of prediction that simply does not exist – but does not have to – in order to demand more reasonable environmental protection strategies.
In the past, there have repeatedly been scenarios in which warnings were given of a possible catastrophe, but which then did not occur. Take, for example, the warning of a population explosion in the 1960s, represented by Paul Ehrlich. He spoke of the extinction of all relevant marine animals around 1980. Obviously, this did not happen because countless factors have developed in a direction that he and other followers of this idea did not see coming. How could they? Such predictions are doomed from the beginning.
But to deduce that there have been various climate episodes in the past, and even if the situation worsens, humanity will be able to develop a new invention that prevents the worst is dangerously naive. In a complex world, it is impossible to make predictions based on past data. It is simply impossible to calculate rare events. A high risk aversion and thus the protection of the environment is the really rational decision. People tend to forget that in complex systems one plus one does not always result in two, but often much more (keyword: non-linearity). Stressors can act as super-additive functions and cause enormous damage.
Nobody knows what will happen, no model is able to accurately predict the future.
The point is: This is not necessary to realize that influencing systems you don't understand can have unintended, negative consequences. However, by removing or at least slowing down some stressors, the risk of extreme events can be reduced. It does not require linear evidence or apocalyptic predictions to be aware of the potential damage that one's actions could cause.
Climate research itself is very well aware of the difficulty of prognoses within complex systems and articulates them accordingly. Above all the groundwork by Edward Lorenz and the Lorenz system named after him, in popular culture also known as the butterfly effect (ironically, this is often misinterpreted in such a way that one should pay more attention to small details, since their influence could be so great – although countless of them exist and one does not know which are the relevant ones anyway).
The core statement of a Lorenz system is that it is impossible to know all the initial variables within a physical system, from which it follows that the prediction of future behaviour must inevitably fail, even if the system is highly deterministic and quantum effects are ignored.
On the basis of this impossibility, Snyder et al. draw a very meaningful conclusion along the lines of the arguments of Mandelbrot and Taleb. Precisely because making exact predictions is not a realistic option, it is all the more important to develop human systems in a way that ensures their survival even when fat-tail events occur. Above all, this means reducing the number of possible stressors.
From this it can be deduced that one should trust the most pessimistic of all models, knowing full well that sometimes things can get even worse, since each one is probably wrong to a certain degree. One can doubt the reliability of accurate forecasts, but this is precisely the reason why we should position ourselves highly conservatively and search for better solutions than before. This would have the advantage, especially in public discourse, that one could acknowledge the inadequacy of correct predictions and still demand better environmental protection mechanisms.
Of course, it is easy to say that not everything will be as bad as some models predict. After all, we have been doing quite well in the past. But this time it is different, because the worst-case scenario is not just a few hundred million deaths, but the complete uninhabitability of this planet for the human race. If not even existential threats force us to change our behaviour, then we do not deserve to survive.
Environmental protection is humanitarian
Climate skeptics must be credited with the fact that correct predictions are not really among the praiseworthy characteristics of human behaviour. However, to conclude from this that everything would eventually turn out fine does not do justice to the problem. As climate change is a very abstract phenomenon for many people, it helps to transfer the argument just made to a more familiar event: the 2008 financial crisis.
The majority of economists did not see such a crash coming, let alone consider it possible. The mathematical models of economics at the time did not foresee such catastrophes, but of course it was by no means the first global economic crisis. It is in the nature of rare events that they cannot be predicted. The global economy is no less complex than the climate. Accordingly, forecasters also face the same problems here. Even then, there were a handful of skeptics who warned that the financial system could eventually face a huge collapse. They were right. Does this automatically mean that today's climate skeptics are just as correct? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Nobody knows. It would be desirable, but the risk that this is not the case can hardly be dismissed.
The public debate is facing a strange paradox:
Even if anthropogenic climate change does not exist (or does not exist to such a degree) and the world will be in perfect order as usual, what is the problem of at least trying to live more sustainable lives? Even if one is not completely convinced of the apocalyptic narrative, there are undeniable environmental problems that adversely affect the quality of human life. The Earth itself will continue to be there. It simply exists. It does not care whether some intelligent monkeys inhabit it or not. The protection of our environment is not so much about the planet as it is about ourselves. It is something deeply humanitarian.
Dear avid reader,
if you are interested in my thoughts beyond the scope of this blog, feel free to regularly visit egotheist.org and see what I'm up to lately.
 Mandelbrot, B. (1997). Fractals and Scaling in Finance: Discontinuity, Concentration, Risk. Springer
 Taleb, N. N. (2007). The Black Swan. Random House and Penguin.
 Ehrlich, Paul R. (1968). The Population Bomb. Ballantine Books.
 Lorenz, Edward Norton (1963). "Deterministic nonperiodic flow". Journal of the Atmospheric Sciences.
 Snyder, Carolyn W.; Mastrandrea, Michael D.; Schneider, Stephen H. The Complex Dyanmics of the Climate System: Constraints on our Knowledge, Policy Implications and the Necessity of Systems Thinking. Philosophy of Complex Systems. Volume 10 in Handbook of the Philosophy of Science. 2011. Pages 467-505