Pick your disaster please


Or perhaps it already is the year 2100 and we are characters in The Sims XXIV. Because if I narrowly study “The Sims” games and carefully project the future development from currently existing data, today’s reality is around the level of detail I would expect by then. If so, I really hope there is a backup of our world.

This week’s New Scientist has another article on global warming: “Sea level rise: It’s worse than we thought“. It focuses mostly on the melting of glacier. It is the same old death warmed over and elicits the same mocking and denial from the people who don’t believe humans can change the climate.

I was tempted to write a comment myself, but I restrained myself primarily because I no am no longer a subscriber. The reason why not is, ironically, that they have not introduced an option for web-only subscription, but insist on sending me dead trees every week as long as I subscribed. And by air freight, it seems, given how rapidly they arrived. I can see the positive aspect of that, but it ought to be entirely optional, as it is with The Economist and lately even EnlightenNext (formerly What is Enlightenment). But enough about that. What was my reaction?

“2100 – that’s several decades after the Singularity. It won’t be a problem for humans anymore, even should there still be humans around.”

What? Why should climatologists need to worry about something squarely in the field of the computer scientists? As if they don’t have enough to keep track of already! The only thing they need from the tech nerds is a new supply of even faster computers every couple years, to run the newest, improved climate models. Ironically, it is exactly this trend toward faster and faster computers that may render their entire career absolutely worthless, because the things they study literally happen at glacial speed, while the changes brought about by the information revolution happen over the course of a few years.

This is not the only case. It is a general trait of science. It is a long time now since anyone could be an expert on science – these days, we all know more and more about less and less. This renders most science without predictive power, because the real world is almost never limited to one science. Well, we can (for the time being) still predict solar and lunar eclipses with great accuracy. But when we get down to earth, nothing stands still – or moves in the same direction – long enough to make a good prediction.

Peak oil, anyone? Remember a year ago, when the oil price was so disastrously high that students started to enroll in online courses even though they lived only an hour’s drive from the college? And since agriculture was based heavily on gas- and diesel driven tractors and lorries, food prices went up as well, even more than they already did from the brainless decision to invest tax money in growing corn for fuel, outcompeting human food. So, last year, the end of the oil age was near. Oh noes! We are all going to walk or ride. The cities will be left deserted. The military and police will collapse. We are going back to the dark ages if not worse! Well, that situation is bound to repeat itself if the world somehow gets out of the current economic slump. But you know what? This directly influences the CO2 content in the atmosphere, and thus the greenhouse effect. Unless you are reasonably well informed about fossil fuel extraction (and, it later turned out, economics) your climate predictions will be only marginally better than tea leaves. Generally you can say “it will become warmer” since there is already CO2 out there enough to change the climate for a long, long time. But any details beyond that are doomed.

But that is not all. Oh no. Let us talk virus. After the SARS outbreak that mysteriously died out, the world became aware that pandemics were a real threat. And as good luck would have it, a few innocent people died of bird flu before we had time to forget the whole incident. Sucks to be them, but for the rest of us this was like a gift from on high. Or at least could have been. The world’s governments – at least the parts of the world that people are not fleeing from at the risk of their very lives – started to plan, and even cooperate. Roche built factories to churn out the miracle flu medicine, Tamiflu, and governments started stockpiling. Many other plans were laid as well, to stop a pandemic before it could stop us.

Remember what happened? The Mexican flu sneaked up on us, and is currently spreading rapidly, especially in the southern hemisphere where it is winter now. If this had been the bird flu, with 60% mortality, instead of the much less murderous swine flu, civilization as we know it would have been doomed. On a timescale of approximately a year. That is to say, in 2011 there would be no Internet, no nations, no banks, and very few places with both electricity and running water. I am not kidding about this, and neither should you kid yourself. We studied for this test for five years, and we flunked utterly, completely.

I could go on and on, in fact I have several long paragraphs in my brain cache ready to write down. But would that even do any good? What we need to know is that urgency has priority over severity. This understanding is passed down by the survivors from every battlefield, literal or figurative, and most people have a vague idea that it must be so. Which is why you need so long an education to obsess over something you not only don’t know, but CAN’T know.

Now, tell me something about the climate in 2030, when I or at least someone I care about may still be around. If you don’t know what will happen in 20 years but can make very accurate predictions a century ahead, excuse me if I attend to my other interests instead.

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