It’s difficult to understand the future of climate change. For one thing, it’s difficult to know anything about the future, much less to predict it.
I have a very good friend who thinks it is pretty much impossible to predict the future. These days he is a mathematics professor but long ago he got a PhD in the philosophy of science, and his dissertation was on just this, the impossibility of predicting the future. Nowadays he strongly agrees with Yogi Berra’s famous aphorism, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.”
But right now we are in a really bad spot. We absolutely have to try to fix climate change right now. If we hesitate for even five or ten years it may well be too late to go back to cooler times. So, we have to think about the future of climate change. It is absolutely essential for us to make some predictions about the future and to make some plans for fixing future climate change. As soon as possible.
But of course my philosopher friend is right. Predicting the future and making long term plans based on these predictions has along and dismal history. It is not hard to find erroneous predictions of the future and plans that went awry. Things never turn out the way people think they will. And this is especially true of technological predictions. New technologies have a way of popping up and making hash of everyone’s predictions about the future.
Here are a few laughably wrong technological predictions. I took these from a Forbes article titled “15 worst Tech Predictions of all time, by Robert J. Szczerba , published on January 5, 2015
1876: “The Americans have need of the telephone, but we do not. We have plenty of messenger boys.” — William Preece, British Post Office.
1876: “This ‘telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication.” — William Orton, President of Western Union.
1889: “Fooling around with alternating current (AC) is just a waste of time. Nobody will use it, ever.” — Thomas Edison
1903: “The horse is here to stay but the automobile is only a novelty – a fad.” — President of the Michigan Savings Bank advising Henry Ford’s lawyer, Horace Rackham, not to invest in the Ford Motor Company.
1921: “The wireless music box has no imaginable commercial value. Who would pay for a message sent to no one in particular?”
1946: “Television won’t be able to hold on to any market it captures after the first six months. People will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night.” — Darryl Zanuck, 20th Century Fox.
1955: “Nuclear powered vacuum cleaners will probably be a reality within 10 years.” — Alex Lewyt, President of the Lewyt Vacuum Cleaner Company.
1959: “Before man reaches the moon, your mail will be delivered within hours from New York to Australia by guided missiles. We stand on the threshold of rocket mail.” — Arthur Summerfield, U.S. Postmaster General.
1961: “There is practically no chance communications space satellites will be used to provide better telephone, telegraph, television or radio service inside the United States.” — T.A.M. Craven, Federal Communications Commission (FCC) commissioner.
1966: “Remote shopping, while entirely feasible, will flop.” — Time Magazine.
1981: “Cellular phones will absolutely not replace local wire systems.” — Marty Cooper, inventor.
1995: “I predict the Internet will soon go spectacularly supernova and in 1996 catastrophically collapse.” — Robert Metcalfe, founder of 3Com.
2005: “There’s just not that many videos I want to watch.” — Steve Chen, CTO and co-founder of YouTube expressing concerns about his company’s long term viability.
2006: “Everyone’s always asking me when Apple will come out with a cell phone. My answer is, ‘Probably never.'” — David Pogue, The New York Times.
2007: “There’s no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share.” — Steve Ballmer, Microsoft CEO.
And this is just the tip of the iceberg. New technology changes the world regularly, but no one ever seems to be able to predict it correctly.
And I seem to be surrounded by people who agree with my philosopher friend. I often ask my wife, “What are you doing tomorrow?” Her answer is always, I don’t know, I have no idea. I’ll just have to wait and see. And my college age granddaughter is just the same. She says, ‘I never make plans. What’s the point of making plans when everything changes in ways you can never figure out.” She always says, “I’ll decide when I get there. That’s the only sensible way to do anything.”
But, in the real world, I don’t think humans really live their lives this way. Even Yogi Berra had plans about how to deal with the opposing batters and their teams. Even my philosopher friend makes predictions and plans about his upcoming world jaunts. And my wife actually has a pretty good idea what she will be doing tomorrow. That’s what humans are like: we find it absolutely impossible not to make plans and predictions.
Yes, humans are animals just like all the rest of the animals. We are a species, homo sapiens, and we belong to a genus, homo, just like all the other animals. And humans are subject to all kinds of natural and ecological laws just like all other animals. If the ecological niche we live in changes enough, we die just like other animals.
And we sometimes get very arrogant and big headed and think we are special, better than all the rest. We even sometimes get so arrogant we call ourselves Man, the master of all living things. This of course is idiocy, and we are right now in the process or realizing just how easily the whole human experiment may be ended by the rise of just a few degrees of temperature.
But on the other hand, I think we are different, not special, but just different from all other animals. All animals are this way, most animals specialize in some trait that makes them different from the rest. Some can run faster, some see much better, some smell and hear incredibly well, some are huge and powerful, some are small and wily.
One thing humans have that make them different is the ability to plan, to think ahead, to predict. I agree with my philosopher friend, our predictions and plans are very often wrong. Even worse, they are almost always wrong. But still we plan. In the face of vast uncertainty, still we insist on predicting and planning. And I think this makes us different. We don’t just react, we insist on thinking ahead.
And I think this is perhaps one of the things that, for good or worse, make us humans. We get ourselves into all kinds of trouble with our insistence on prediction and planning, but sometimes we end up being surprisingly brilliant and successful.
Take NFL football, for instance. It is pretty much impossible to predict who is going to win a game. There is a famous aphorism about football games. “On any given Sunday, any NFL team can beat any other NFL team”. And this is surprisingly true. Just a couple months ago, the Dolphins, of all teams, actually beat the Patriots which sent the Patriots to the Titans who killed off their super bowl chances. Who would have predicted that, petty much no one.
Everything about football is pretty much unpredictable, beginning with that funny shaped, hard-to-hold-onto ball which bounces in all kinds of crazy, unpredictable directions. There are just too many complexities in the game to be able to predict much. Nobody ever really gets it right when they try to predict in early season who will win the super bowl . There are a few lucky guesses of course; but almost all the best, most complex calculations always seem to go awry for some small reason or another.
But even though it’s really hard to predict winners and losers, no coach ever goes into a game without trying to predict what his opponent will do and he always has a battle plan of some kind. Coaches and teams all watch endless hours of film about their opponents last games and their own previous games. But coach’s plans are never rigid or minutely detailed. They are always fluid, changeable ideas based on contingencies and chance.
Every football game always opens with a few plays that are probes and experiments and tests of the opponent’s strengths and weaknesses. And every coach’s own plan always depends what the opposing team is doing right now.
Often one team will surprise their opponent and make an early quick score or two. But these early victories seldom last long, as the scored-against team quickly adjusts and shuts down the other team’s early successes. That’s the way football games go: action and then reaction and then re-reaction. No plans are set in concrete because all coaches plan on the unexpected, the unknown.
The same thing happens in war, where all plans are well known to quickly go awry in the heat of battle. All good soldiers, from generals down to platoon leaders all know that no battle plan will hold up for long. All good battle plans are based on contingency and fluidity and the necessity to change and adapt.
Yet no great general ever goes into battle without a plan or at least a lot of preparations concerning ammunition, food, gasoline, equipment, goals and logistics. They know everything will change and that new plans will have to be made and opportunities will have to be exploited and failures overcome. They plan on this.
And good football players and generals always stick with one general plan: stay calm, be rational, be patient, try this and that, keep tabs on your opponents weaknesses and hope to persevere.
Take the 2020 super bowl. Pretty much everything went wrong with the Chiefs original plan and by the forth quarter they were down by twenty points or so. But Andy Reid and Pat Mahomes stayed calm, tried this and that, looked for opportunities, changed strategies a bit, tried a few new plays and finally a receiver broke away from his coverage and the ever-skillful Mahomes dropped a perfect pass right into his hands. And in just a few minutes the Chiefs made a bunch of quick points, San Francisco panicked and made mistakes and the Chiefs easily won.
My personal way of dealing with the uncertainty we all face is the shopworn cliche, “Always plan for the worst and hope for the best.” Or maybe the old World War II British maxim: “Keep calm and carry on.” Both of these are actually pretty worthless, but they are good, short rules of thumb for decision making. They mostly just make me feel better, but that in itself is worthwhile. When I’m worried and panicky, I make very bad decisions.
And I find that even though plans and predictions can never be set in concrete, it is often helpful to talk out the possibilities, and plans for dealing with certain contingencies and to just toss around some what-if ideas. I find that this definitely makes me maybe a bit more prepared for whatever may come.
This is the kind of planning and prediction that we need to use to defeat climate change. We don’t know exactly what the future will look like. We don’t know exactly what the right strategy will be, but we still have to try to predict the future, knowing that we will fail and we will have to come up with new plans.
We really have to have a plan, even though we know that it will have to change. We have to realize that everything will certainly be different than we think, and that changes will have to be made.
But, just like good generals and good coaches, we have to keep calm, try this and that, be prepared to change directions when things go wrong and we have to just carry on.
We are in a very tough spot right now. We have let things go until almost the end of the final quarter. And we have made the mistake of letting the clueless owner of the team jump in and try to call the plays.
But we have a great team who have been playing very well for a long time. These are our climate scientists who have been making careful, calm decisions about climate change since the late 1980s and even earlier. We need to kick the clueless owner out, keep calm and let our scientists get on with their job. We need to not panic, forget about the hail Mary’s, and get down to doing what we can to win the game.
At this point, it is probably going to be impossible to actually win the game, we are never going to go back to the old pre-industrial climate. But we can keep the loss as small as possible.
And there are a lot of small things we can do right now.
David Wallace-Wells, the author of one of best new climate books “Uninhabitable Earth” suggests that are many small things we could be doing right now that would make our situation much better.
Wallace-Wells says that right now in America, we are subsidizing the fossil fuel industry to the tune of 5 trillion dollars per year. That does not need to continue. We must stop that. This is one major thing that we can do right now.
He says we could do a lot to fight global warming just by not wasting so much. Currently we waste all kinds of food and all kinds of energy in many different ways. We could stop doing that.
In addition, says Wallace-Wells, we could end the Bitcoin nonsense: “Five years ago, hardly anyone outside the darkest corners of the internet had even heard of Bitcoin; today mining it consumes more electricity than is generated by all the world’s solar panels combined, which means that in just a few years we’ve assembled, out of distrust of one another and the nations behind “fiat currencies,” a program to wipe out the gains of several long, hard generations of green energy innovation.” This could be stopped also.
And says Wallace-Wells, there are a lot of other things that are costing us in terms of global warming. For instance, Americans waste 1/4 of their food. We could stop that. It cost a lot of energy to make that extra 1/4.
Above all we can’t decide there is nothing we can do about climate because we cannot predict the future or that all plans are doomed to failure.
What we can do is do what humans do best. Humans are very, very clever about getting themselves out of bad situation. When things looked hopeless in the late 1930s, when it looked like fascism was taking over the world, we kept calm and carried on, we made plans and looked ahead to the future and did the things we could do and in the end we won the second world war.
Things didn’t turn out quite as we planned and a lot of mistakes were made, but we muddled through and we won and we created a pretty good new world. It wasn’t a perfect world and it didn’t last for long, but that’s how everything goes in the imperfect, uncertain world that we have to live in.
This is the approach we have to take with climate change. Muddling though is what humans do best. And we may very possibly succeed in saving ourselves once again, for a short while anyway.
But then-again, no species lasts forever. All species eventually go extinct. And maybe this will happen to homo sapiens. But maybe not. The future of climate change is unknowable right now. It is radically uncertain. But we have to plan and predict and do the best we can, right now.
This is the fate of human beings: to do the best we can in the face of radical uncertainty and the unknowable and even the unknowable unknowables.
More reading about climate change
Summary: The future of climate change is going to be difficult. It is very hard to know anything about the future, much less predict it. But we are going to have to do these things if we are going to fix climate change. We are going to have to make decisions with less than perfect knowledge and we are going to have to use all of our skills to to solve some difficult problems. But humans are very good at this. Individually and collectively we have save ourselves many times in the past. This is the fate of human beings: to do the best we can in the face of radical uncertainty and in the face of the unknowable and even the unknowable unknowable.