william_h_calvin's picture
Theoretical Neurobiologist; Affiliate Professor Emeritus, University of Washington; Author, Global Fever

Climate will change our worldview. That each of us will die someday ranks up there with 2+2=4 as one of the great certainties of all time. But we are accustomed to think of our civilization as perpetual, despite all of the history and prehistory that tells us that societies are fragile. The junior-sized slices of society such as the church or the corporation, also assumed to outlive the participant, provide us with everyday reminders of bankruptcy. Climate change is starting to provide daily reminders, challenging us to devise ways to build in resiliency, an ability to bounce back when hit hard.

Climate may well force on us a major change in how science is distilled into major findings. There are many examples of the ponderous nature of big organizations and big projects. While I think that the IPCC deserves every bit of its hemi-Nobel, the emphasis on "certainty" and the time required for a thousand scientists and a hundred countries to reach unanimous agreement probably added up to a considerable delay in public awareness and political action.

Climate will change our ways of doing science, making some areas more like medicine with its combination of science and interventional activism, where delay to resolve uncertainties is often not an option. Few scientists are trained to think this way — and certainly not climate scientists, who are having to improvise as the window of interventional opportunity shrinks.

Climate will, at times, force a hiatus on doing science as usual, much like what happened during World War II when many academics laid aside their usual teaching and research interests to intensively focus on the war effort.

The big working models of fluid dynamics used to simulate ocean and atmospheric circulation will themselves be game-changing for other fields of dynamics, such as brain processing and decision making. They should be especially important as they are incorporated into economic research. Climate problems will cause economies to stagger and we have just seen how fragile they are. Unlike 1997 when currency troubles were forced by a big El Niño and its associated fires in southeast Asia, the events of 2008 show that, even without the boat being rocked by external events, our economy can partially crash just from internal instabilities, equivalent to trying to dance in a canoe. Many people will first notice climate change elsewhere via the economic collapse that announces it.

That something as local as a U.S. housing bubble could trigger a worldwide recession shows us just how much work we have to do in "earthquake retrofits" for our economy. Climate-proofing our financial flows will rely heavily on good models of economic dynamics, studies of how things can go badly wrong within a month. With such models, we can test candidates for economic crash barriers.

Finally, climate's challenges will change our perspective on the future. Long-term thinking can be dangerous if it causes us to neglect the short term hazards. A mid-century plan for emissions reduction will be worthless if the Amazon rain forest burns down during the next El Niño.