Some recent studies are sounding
the alarm about climate change. The authors of these studies are
claiming that hundreds of American cities will be largely uninhabitable
within as little as 20 years! They’re forecasting chronic and
catastrophic flooding in many coastal areas. Should we panic? I think not. Instead, we should do a little analytical
thinking and remember the great scare of Y2K. If you’re over the age of about 35
you’ll remember the big panic that took place in the late 1990s. At that time, computer programmers
became worried about the decades-long practice of not using the first two
years of the date to save digital memory. So, 1998 was simply coded as 98. With the year 2000 quickly approaching
really smart computer people worried that all the machines we depend
on wouldn’t know what to do when 1999 became 2000.
There were all sorts of predictions. The electric grid goes down.
Planes falling out of the sky. Nuclear weapons launching themselves.
And so many other breathless prophesies of chaos, death and woe
of Biblical proportions. This was a big deal. Governments everywhere launched into
action and so did the private sector. A bazillion lines of code were
frantically rewritten in a race against the clock. The United States spent
more than 100 billion dollars and the world spent somewhere
between 500 and 600 billion. Of course, there were laggards.
A lot of nations and companies didn’t get the work done on time. Then, on January 1, 2000 what happened?
Nothing. Well, there were a tiny number of minor problems, but nothing
of any consequence. So what does all of this have to do with
frantic proclamations about climate change? Actually, quite a bit. We’re hearing
the same kind of dire predictions that we heard with Y2K.
The media is fanning the hysteria in the same way, only this time they are
being even more extreme. People who were skeptical of Y2K
and urged a calm analysis of the issue were ridiculed then and so-called
“climate deniers” are mocked today. With all that in mind, let’s consider
just one aspect of the Y2K-Climate Change comparison. With Y2K, we were
dealing with a single factor. It was abbreviated coding on dates.
The issue was created by humans in human manufactured machines.
There was only a single variable and it was well understood. And yet,
virtually all the experts were wrong. Climate change, on the other hand,
is an infinitely more complex issue. There are many large variables that
are not well understood. They include short and long
cycles in solar radiation; cold and warm weather ocean patterns
that last decades, volcanic activity, land use and other human activities.
And that’s just a partial list of the stuff we know about. There’s also the virtual certainty that
there’s another big variable or two that we haven’t even considered. Let me frame this in a way that makes sense. If Y2K is the equivalent of basic math
then climate change theory is advanced calculus. By the way, did the world waste more than a
half trillion dollars fixing what was mostly a non-problem?
Not exactly. It’s generally agreed upon that with
the rapid advancement of computer software a lot of computer systems were in
need of a serious upgrade. Consequently, that work got done
sooner rather than later. The same kind of thing could apply
to infrastructure upgrades in our coastal cities. There are many cities
on American coastlines that have had flooding problems dating back a
century or more. It would seem to be a good idea to spend tax dollars
fortifying those areas against the kind of storm surges that
have been battering the coastlines since long before humans ever
walked the earth. If even a modest amount
of increased flooding happens because of climate change, then all the better. Climate is the most complex thing
humans have ever even tried to understand. That being the case, wouldn’t it be nice
if climate change scientists applied a little Y2K humility before making
catastrophic predictions? And how about the news media?
Would it be too much to ask that they do their jobs a little better,
questioning these hyperbolic studies instead of hyping them even more? And how about reporting with a little
less certainty on the most complex issue ever known to man?
Would that be asking too much? Well, that’s no great mystery. You know the answer to that one.