01 December, 2005

100% Chance of "We Don't Know"

Regular readers of this blog know that I am deeply skeptical of sweeping but strangely precise claims about the dire consequences of climate change, man's impact on it (current and future) and what we can or should do about it. That's largely as a result of having studied this stuff in some depth back when the firm academic consensus was completely opposite to what it is today.

The popular mind (and especially the MSM) has a short memory. Thus I find it strange - having been steeped in the almost incomprehensible vastness of geologic time - that firm predictions about climate change are outside the range of public memory. Ten years at a minimum - 100 years as the norm. The latter seems like a really really long time in terms of society's standard time clock (making it in many ways unassailable within the conventional frame of political and social discourse). And yet it is laughably miniscule in the sweep of geologic time. Anything can happen in 100 years - or nothing at all. One thing is certainly true about the natural processes that long precede our involvement in them: the planet moves in fits and starts. Hurry up and wait.

But even that perspective did not prepare me for the dramatic about-face shift in the headlines in the last 24 hours:

Wednesday: "The four hottest years on record [in Europe] were 1998, 2002, 2003 and 2004. Ten percent of Alpine glaciers disappeared during the summer of 2003 alone. At current rates, three quarters of Switzerland's glaciers will have melted by 2050." [emphasis added]

Thursday: "The ocean current that gives western Europe its relatively balmy climate is stuttering, raising fears that it might fail entirely and plunge the continent into a mini ice age." [emphasis added]
The first bit of "news" is from a report by the European Environment Agency (EEA), based in Copenhagen. The second is from findings of a study conducted by Harry Bryden at the Southampton Oceanography Centre in the UK (more here). So... which is it?

The funny part is, they could both be right... or totally off-base if they've extrapolated way too far (as I believe they probably have) from what in the perspective of geologic time and chaos is an extremely limited set of data. The only thing I find encouraging in this is that - at least with these headlines - we have for a moment returned to science as a fundamentally inexact zig-zagging phenomenon, always made stronger by disagreement and vigorous debate.

In the meantime, I submit that Europe has more pressing matters it ought to be concerning itself with. If in fifty years the Islamofascists have the run of the place and Sharia law is declared there, do we really care if Europe is a desert or an ice cube... or just the same as it is now, i.e., variable from year to year and decade to decade?

UPDATE: Welcome LaShawn Barber and Atlas Shrugs readers! Les Enfants Terrible dices the same headlines even more closely, with a few choice barbs thrown in for good measure.
By most accounts, man-made emissions have had no more than a minuscule impact on the climate. Although the climate has warmed slightly in the last 100 years, 70% percent of that warming occurred prior to 1940, before the upsurge in greenhouse gas emissions from industrial processes...

The last shutdown, which prompted a temperature drop of 5°C to 10°C in western Europe, was probably at the end of the last ice age, 12,000 years ago. There may also have been a slowing of Atlantic circulation during the Little Ice Age, which lasted sporadically from 1300 to about 1850 and created temperatures low enough to freeze the River Thames in London.

None of the scientists in the article had any idea how early societies managed to unseat the ruling neo-con governments in power at the time in order to affect sweeping reforms which ultimately turned the tide not once, but twice, and rescue the climate from prehistoric SUV's, and evil loin-cloth wearing industrialists.