Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Climate, Science and Growing Up as a Species

One of the doyens of climate science visited our campus last week and he said something that I can't shake. Steven Schneider has been one of the world leaders in articulating the results of the global study of climate. I met him first as a young man 23 years ago, long before, the greenhouse effect was a household word. He knows of what he speaks.
In his talk Schneider raised an issue, which rarely gets attention in the media or in academic discussions. As a science, the study of climate represents something new, something different and that change matters because it says a lot about what we are up against and how far we have come.

The study of climate not a laboratory science with neat, tidy boundaries between apparatus and subject. It’s not a pure theoretical science where mathematical models can be expected to embrace entire systems and provide single sharp answers that match single sharp data points to within a percent or less. Instead it’s a systems science where many interlocking parts fit together through complicated nonlinear interactions. Atmosphere, hydrosphere, geosphere and biosphere are all complicated enough on their own but together they form a "co-evolutionary" complex that simply does not yield up its secrets in the same way as, say, sulfur ion in a magnetic field does.

Systems science relies on massive multi-variate datasets and equally massive computer simulations. The large sets of coupled linear partial differential equations that govern these systems are inherently chaotic. That means they and the real systems they describe will be sensitive to small changes in how things bump against each other. In a nutshell, the systems represent complexity on a grand scale. Our ability to study such a large and complex system is new and is still developing.

The truth of this bare fact has not really been absorbed by either the scientific or popular culture. While the kind of systems science climate study represents is a beautiful and intellectually exciting thing to behold, its specific link to very specific decisions we need to make about our future is troubling.

If people keep thinking of climate study as a science in the old way they will expect an answer – a single result either proving or disproving the whole shebang. This expectation is exactly the reason why so called “climate skeptics” can publish a single paper focusing on a single aspect of the problem and get major media attention for “proving” climate change wrong. What Schneider was arguing for was a view in which the different communities of study (atmospheric chemistry, glaciers, ocean circulation etc.) form a dialogue in which consensus can be reached on what we think we know and how well we think we know it. Only then can risks associated with different potential outcomes can be assessed. From this view the urgency of acting on the science already “in the bag” can much more readily appreciated.

The really cool and really important point for me here is that our worldview is changing in our encounter with climate change. It is a different kind of science that demands a different approach to the world. Taken as a whole it’s all about growing up as a species and our tools growing with us.

16 comments:

  1. Adam, I'm intrigued that you find this changing of a world view cool. It says to me that until now, you've been seeing things differently than your culture for awhile, with a hope that others will come to see what you see. Your excitement seems to be more about a change in the way of seeing than about more interest in climate change.

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  2. Its a dual edge sword. I think our facing climate change is a kind of evolutionary pressure which will force us to redefine a lot about culture, nature and the relationship between the two.

    The dangers are profound but within the crisis comes a profound opportunity. It was a narrow of view of science and its role that got us into this mess. Recognition of the mess was part of the discovery of a different way of doing science (the systems approach). Recognition of this different approach is, for me, part of our maturation as a species. As an astronomer who thinks about astrobiology (and SETI sometimes a'la the Drake Equation) it makes me think we are in the middle of something that will forces onto a different path.

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  3. The way you're putting this, just got me to see that this evolutionary pressure, as you say, is different- we aren't pressured into finding natural resources per se, we're getting pressured into a new way of being, of becoming adept with complexity.

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  4. Yes, that's it. We are pressured to become a truely planetary species. That is what would be new and that is the link with thinking about intelligence and its evolution in a kind of astrobiological perspective. I kind of figure every intelligent tool making technology producing species (assuming there are others) must go through a phase like this.

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  5. There's an implication here, that fundamental to a technology problem, lies a maturity problem. This raises the question, what's the nature of maturity?

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  6. Adam, can you say more about a "truly planetary species"?

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  7. I was thinking about a blog post on this at some point but for now its like the less science-fiction-ish sustainablity equivilent of a Dyson sphere (where advanced species learns how to harness its stars entire energy).

    Being a planetary species means we have a sustainable planetary culture. Everything is part of this, economics, energy modalities, resource management etc. It can't be just changes in technology. The shift is too great to just invent your way around it. There has to be a new set of values and mythologies to support those values.

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  10. Adam, for you as an astronomer, what is the shift in thinking from astrophysics to astrobiology entail?

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  11. mostly its about thinking about life in a planetary context. I keep comming across the term co-evolution - the concept that there has been feedbacks between the biosphere, atmosphere etc. The change in oxygen levels with various kinds of biotic activity and its effect on greenhouse is one example.

    We have been discovering all these planets over the last 10 years and, at the same time, we discovered our own ability to effect habitability of our world. There is a real sea change happening in our conception of our planetary context.

    What do you think?

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  12. I like the idea of co-evolution; a lot.! To see ourselves, in relationship to our planetary system, as beings who have a very real relationship with it, not as cogs, but as colleagues, excites me to know end!

    I think this is one place where the lack of truly understanding our capacity for subjective experience is hindering our ability to evolve, as this is where I see our power to 'consider' resides. And because of this power, housed in a word that we've domesticated by making it pertain to politeness, we aren't locked into automatic responses to feed back loops: we can truly consider our way into them and creating them.

    One idea I could see establishing at this point, is that the evolutionary pressure that you've given insight to, is a pressure toward our need to develop this uniquely human capacity to consider, as well as reconsidering our approaches to understanding.

    A problem that I see in this, is that, " what" we are willing to consider is wrapped in stuff that we typically dismiss as irrational. Toward solving this problem, I would like to see us ingrain the use of the word, "non-rational" instead to denote those aspects of our lives, like beauty, that can't be rendered by reason." Irrational" then, can keep its durogitory sense, and anything not belonging to the category of reason can be given an equal stature.

    Is this making any sense?

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  13. This past Friday, I got to spend the day in a lab of physical chemistry at the U of Mn. where grad students were seeking to plot geometries of specific molecules. (very cool) As I shared some of my experience of interacting with you and your work in shaping the relationship between science and religion, something came out that I really like: I said, "for me, I'm not so much interested in working to find some kind of U.N. styled, how do we get along? sort of thing; I'm really interested in the idea of how we can theorize together." As I keep pondering your post, I see plenty of room for this, as the evolutionary pressure (nice phrase on your part btw) to reshape our selves at a level of Being, is pushing back on both scientific and religious culture.

    To me, Adam, a fundamental question in this venture is, what is the relationship and/or correlations of our inner environments to our outer environments? i.e., what will have to transpire for persons in both scientific and popular culture, in order for them to be willing to remodel an inner world based on an "old way of science" as you put it?

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  14. I like this a lot. Its not, as you say, a matter of papering over differences. I am simply not going to agree with a theist but that does not mean we can't ask what is the root of our disagreement. If we find that there are places like the interface between interior and exterior experience then there may be a way to formulate questions that push everyone to see their biases and consider how to overcome them.

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  15. I've been trying to come up with a name for the work that I'm doing because theologian doesn't quite fit, as parsing the reality in front of me is as informative as parsing a biblical text. Also, while I'm out to think intelligently about ideas of god, I'm not out to prove god.

    Taking a cue from Julian, would referring to myself as an 'independent theoretical theologian' mean anything to you in your context or does it just sound cheesy?

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