Writing in The Diatribe (formally The Conversation) a non-climate-scientist named Edward R. Carr who nevertheless serves the IPCC in a scientific advisory capacity says while the election of Joe Biden will save the planet because we know what to do, it might not because we don’t know what to do. After listing all the things the next President “can do quickly” while bypassing Congress, advice he probably didn’t give Donald Trump, he says “One of the big challenges – and the place where Biden needs to start – is the lack of understanding of systemic risks, opportunities and costs of both climate actions and inaction.” What? You don’t know what’s happening, what to do about it or what it would cost? You used to sound so sure. But not now. And why? Because (gasp thud) “Right now, there is no federal agency tasked with developing a systemic understanding of climate change impacts across society.” Right. Other than the 13 agencies that prepare the US National Climate Assessment every four years. But what we need now is more bureaucracy.
Whatever one thinks of the proposed solution, the admission of ignorance is important. And certainly true. We do not know nearly as much about climate change as we wish we did or, indeed, many people shout that we do. For instance, to take just one small settled piece of the settled science, namely Greenland glaciers, researchers at Hokkaido University just declared triumphantly that the long-hypothesized 1,000-km-long river of meltwater deep within the ice might exist unless it doesn’t.
We ask your leave to quote a lengthy passage here because it gives some insight into what science does, and does not, actually say. “Radar surveys have previously mapped Greenland's bedrock buried beneath two to three thousand meters of ice. Mathematical models were used to fill in the gaps in survey data and infer bedrock depths. The surveys revealed the long valley, but suggested it was segmented, preventing water from flowing freely through it. However, the peaks breaking the valley into segments only show up in areas where the mathematical modelling was used to fill in missing data, so could not be real.” So a survey of actual data suggested a segmented river because models filled in gaps. Which is the opposite of actual data. But now another model says if we erase the gaps inside the computer then something we can’t name might happen unless it doesn’t. “’The results are consistent with a long subglacial river,’ [co-author Christopher] Chambers says, ‘but considerable uncertainty remains.’” And that’s just about whether one thing inside one part of Greenland is even there.
Consider also that recently German’s Potsdam Institute made a highly-touted prediction based on its superior El Niño model that fell flat on its ocean. And it was only for one year and only for one aspect of the extraordinarily complex phenomenon of ocean currents. The state of our understanding even of the bits and pieces of climate is not merely fragmentary but often so deficient as to be anti-knowledge. And yet a great many people persist in saying that we may not understand what the parts are doing now, or will next year, but we know what’s going to happen to the whole in 80 years.
Carr is not in that category. Or rather, he is and isn’t. Which means there is much to criticize in his piece. And not just that “If his administration focuses only on what is politically possible and fails to build a coordinated response that also addresses the social and economic ramifications of both climate change and the U.S. policy response, it is unlikely to succeed.” He may tout his experience forging consensus in Washington: “I have spent much of my career working on responses to climate change internationally and in Washington. I have seen the quiet efforts across political parties, even when the rhetoric was heated. There is room for effective climate actions”. But his insistence that the President must not just do what is “politically possible” makes us wonder if he knows what those words mean. But never mind. If you’ve done six impossible things before breakfast, why not discuss climate over dinner at Milliways?
Well, because apparently we don’t really know anything about it, due to the lack of One Big Agency to… uh… add to what all the other agencies are doing. And if such an agency is crucial, and missing, how do we know we must act, and act now, given how much he admits we don’t know?
We would also ask whether science is not best done by decentralized researchers critiquing one another’s work independently rather than a giant agency focused on massaging a consensus at the behest of its political masters. Like, say, the IPCC. And also for what purpose the U.S. government has expended tens upon tens of billions of dollars on climate research if at the end of it we face this “lack of understanding of systemic risks, opportunities and costs of both climate actions and inaction” or of “a systemic understanding of climate change impacts across society”.
Systemic is such a sophisticated word. We feel wiser just transcribing it. But being yokels at heart, we can’t shake the feeling that the reason we don’t have systemic understanding of systemic risks is that we don’t understand the bits and pieces very well. Thus we’ve been told the science was settled since at least 1997. The debate has ended repeatedly. We know all and see all. And then suddenly Biden would save us if only we knew what was happening and what to do about it but he doesn’t.
It’s positively … unsettling.