I’m glad Al Gore won the Oscar. Personally, I found his film a little dry and pedantic, but it has clearly played an essential role in shifting the public debate on global warming. (Or are we now supposed to call global warming “the climate crisis,” pace Gore?)
But it’s worth remembering that our scientific models of global warming, although they seem accurate and are backed by an iron clad scientific consensus, will no doubt turn out to be wrong, at least in the details. This is just the nature of scientific models. As the respected scientific authors of Useless Arithmetic: Why Environmental Scientists Can’t Predict the Future point out, nature is more complex than we can begin to imagine. It “depends on too many processes that are poorly understood or little monitored”. We are overconfident in our predictions at our own peril.
This doesn’t mean we should lapse into a false sense of security. In fact, just the opposite might be true. Marine biologists constructed intricate population models of Atlantic fish stocks, but the stocks collapsed anyways. Nobody expected open pit mining to create such toxic pools at the bottom of the pits. Climate scientists didn’t expect the ozone hole to widen again, and nobody understands what’s happening with the Greenland glaciers.
So I read stories like this with a real sense of dread:
Oysterman Jim Aguiar had never had to deal with the bacterium Vibrio parahaemolyticus in his 25 years working the frigid waters of Prince William Sound.
The dangerous microbe infected seafood in warmer waters, like the Gulf of Mexico. Alaska was way too cold.
But the sound was gradually warming. By summer 2004, the temperature had risen just enough to poke above the crucial 59-degree mark. Cruise ship passengers who had eaten local oysters were soon coming down with diarrhea, cramping and vomiting — the first cases of Vibrio food poisoning in Alaska that anyone could remember.
“We were slapped from left field,” said Aguiar, who shut down his oyster farm that year along with a few others.
As scientists later determined, the culprit was not just the bacterium, but the warming that allowed it to proliferate.
“This was probably the best example to date of how global climate change is changing the importation of infectious diseases,” said Dr. Joe McLaughlin, acting chief of epidemiology at the Alaska Division of Public Health, who published a study on the outbreak.
Here’s the scary moral: we might not even know about the worst side-effects of global warming yet.