Climate Change? Check Your Butterfly.

Climate change is a hot button issue that has many believers and as it has deniers. Both claim to have the absolute facts and will cite a huge amount of evidence with backing data to prove their positions. They will argue until they are blue in the face that their side has the truth and the other side is manipulating the truth. Each side is calling the other a liar and they have the figures to prove it. It has come to the point that no one outside of scientific circles really knows what to believe. It becomes a blur of facts and figures that all seems to contradict one another. As my grandmother had a saying – figures never lie but liars always figure.

I am writing to propose that they are both right and they are both wrong. Both sides are missing the basic element of their research analysis. The original concept of predicting climate and weather change has a history that is as old as humanity itself. As you can tell from the nightly news we have a basic indication but no absolutes. How many times have you been told that it will be a sunny day only to have it rain on your picnic?
There is a relatively recent study that occurred back in the early 1960’s that I think will shed some light on the subject matter. This research has an unfortunate name and has become a cult classic – especially in the environmental circles. It was and is called the butterfly effect. What most of us have heard is the claim is that the flapping of a butterfly’s wings has the ability to cause a hurricane thousands of miles away. This however again is only a half truth.

In the tradition of Paul Harvey here is the rest of the story. Here is the truth of climate change figures for both sides.

The story starts back in  an MIT meteorologist Edward Lorenz who created an early experimental computer program that would simulate weather conditions. During the process of creating representations of atmospheric conditions, Lorenz changed one of the numbers that represented a particular condition from .506127 to .506. I know big deal so he left off a few tiny numbers. Now you would not think that such a small difference would make any significant difference at all. This is especially hard to believe given what the numbers represent.

The original and first number of the model in the computer program represents decimal values. You remember (some of us painfully) the math lessons that dealt with decimal points and their values. I have written them out so you can actually see how small of a number we are talking about. . 506127 represents: tenths = 5, hundredths = 0, thousandths = 6, ten-thousandths = 1, hundred-thousandths = 2, and millionths = 7. The second or new number in the computer program that he accidentally put in only represented the decimal up to the thousandths which is ever so slightly larger – it leaves off ten-thousands = 1, hundreds-thousands = 2 and millionths = 7. To write it out in mathematical terms it is .000127. We are talking about numbers less the number 1 and we are talking about a very small alteration of number value or so it would seem. Again it would seem no big deal. But this tiniest of alterations completely and totally transformed what was his model forecast. For almost ten years Lorenz studied this anomaly and came up with a concluding paper.

In 1972 Lorenz wrote a paper about this effect titled “Predictability: Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil Set Off a Tornado in Texas?” This is where the popular phrase butterfly effect came from. In this paper Lorenz made the claim that large effects of tiny atmospheric events pose both a practical problem of limiting the ability to accurately portray long-term weather forecasts, and a philosophical one by being unable to isolate the specific causes of conditions which appear later. The implications of this are that there are any number of interconnections of nature that could potentially alter, initiate, and/or cause weather conditions. So here is the question that this research poses – could the flap of a butterfly’s wings cause or for that fact prevent a tornado? From Lorenz’s way of thinking we will never know exactly what would or could have happen if the wings had not disturbed the atmosphere. It was because the tiniest alteration of any of the values alters the chain of events down the line. It becomes too complicated to sort out where we can re-create the original conditions. It becomes impossible for us to measure anything accurately especially in the long-term because of the complexity of the amount of or lack of influence from a multitude of sources.

We can somewhat be in the general area of what might potentially happen but not able to nail it down exactly. That is why your local weather person has such a difficult time accurately predicting several days of weather let alone weeks, months or years. They basically average out several predictions and hope for the best. If we are only the slightest bit off in the calculations of our models the outcome can be completely off either positively or negatively. Thus small imprecisions matter greatly and the world becomes radically unpredictable. We can at best give our best guess based upon the best data that we have at the moment but that can change in the next instant based upon the addition or deletion of any cause or effect in the equations.

This has several important implications that cover a wide range of elements. First it means that what we would call insignificant actually has an important factor in determining the outcome of any given condition. It has the potential to be either right for the climate change people or the climate change deniers. They are both right and wrong only in as much as the numbers that they punch in are absolutely positively accurate to the slightest variable without exception.

The question then is what does this all mean? That we absolutely, positively, without a shadow of a doubt have no idea how any of this will turn out scientifically given the enormous amount of variable data and influence all of us as inhabitants (animal, mineral and vegetable) of this earth and the earth itself has upon the climate.

So with all the unpredictability there is the other question. Shouldn’t we consider what we are doing so that it has the absolute least amount of negative impact upon the planet and has the most positive impact upon the planet? Don’t we owe it to the next generation to leave them with something better that what we had? Or do we continue with the attitude of we got ours’ let them figure it out for themselves?

We may not know all of the factors but we can make the world a better place – for ourselves and for our children, and for our children’s children. Wouldn’t that be a tremendous inheritance to leave – true wealth?

For more of the story about Lorenz check out:

[1] The meaning of the butterfly Why pop culture loves the ‘butterfly effect,’ and gets it totally wrong By Peter Dizikes June 8, 2008


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