Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Climate Control

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many intellectuals believed that scientific methodology, which had enjoyed incredible success in explaining and controlling the natural world, could be used to explain and control human society. Scientific theories of history and human society blossomed.

The 20th-century result was a horrible waste of precious time, money and lives.

What we learned from that painful experience is that human society is a complex, adaptive system that adjusts to new conditions in surprising ways and with unpredictable systematic consequences. The same is true for the economy, itself simply a subset of human society.

There is a growing body of study that focuses on the similarities of complex, adaptive systems. World climate is just such a system. Some aspects of climate are suitable for scientific analysis. For example, we can scientifically document the temperature, just as we can count the number of men and women in a population. As a result, there is no question that the climate is changing.

But can we scientifically attribute the cause of climate change, or scientifically control the direction of change, or scientifically guarantee there will be no unintended consequences? I believe our experience with complex, adaptive systems requires us to admit the answer to all of these questions is "No."

The only thing we can say for certain about a world-wide effort to control the climate is that, at best, it will be expensive and it might work. At worst, history will repeat itself, and it will be a horrible waste of time, money, and -- yes -- even lives.

Image property of Walter O. LeCroy

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