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Global warming. It's not worth the risk

By David Young - posted Monday, 5 January 2009

The effects of global warming and how long it will take is generally misunderstood. Global warming is not the real problem. The climate of the world has been changing since it came into being. Temperatures go up, temperatures go down. Ice comes and goes. Life on the planet adapts.

We might have to relocate because of changing conditions and the world's population may decrease with time, but if that was all there is to it then things won't be too bad. The real problem is that the world weather system is chaotic and transitive, and could flip to a completely different pattern that would make human life on this planet impossible. To explain this and the possible consequences of ignoring global warming I will go through it step at a time.


Chaos has always existed, but our modern understanding of chaos began with Edward Lorenz in 1961. Lorenz was studying weather patterns on a primitive computer. The idea was that Newtonian determinism said that everything has a cause and effect so if we could feed into a computer all the present data about the weather (the cause) together with the formulae for the dynamics of the system the computer could model the effects for years to come. The computer program was run continuously and Lorenz’s colleagues used to bet on the next day’s weather according to his machine.


Lorenz wanted to look at a particular sequence of weather predicted by the computer and because of the slowness and awkwardness of computing in 1961 he decided to enter the data immediately before the sequence and run a new sequence rather than run the whole program from the beginning. To save time he only entered the data to 3 decimal points instead of the six decimal points that the computer worked to. So 0.2658352 would become 0.266. This was in line with the thinking of the day that minor variations would dampen out with time.

But although the weather patterns started the same, before long the patterns began to drift from the original weather patterns of the original computer run. Soon the predictions looked nothing like the original predictions.

The effect of a very small deviation was that it expanded to become totally unpredictable and this is what we call chaos theory today. Chaos theory started with trying to predict the weather and so it is not surprising that it is often explained in terms of the weather, or the Butterfly effect. A butterfly flapping its wings can cause a cyclone on the other side of the world. It was originally a seagull that flapped it wings in Argentina that caused a storm in New York, but a butterfly on the other side of the world sounds better.

At the time Lorenz was working on his program many billions of dollars where being spent on trying to predict and control the weather. The assumption was that if we had enough data we could predict the weather forever, and that we could give it a little “nudge” now and then to make it rain when we wanted it to, make it sunny when we wanted sun and so on.

This was not all for the benefit of mankind. It was seen in some circles as being a very powerful military weapon. Whoever controlled the weather controlled the battle, and whoever controlled the weather controlled the world’s economy.

The guru of weather control was John Von Neumann. Von Neumann built an early computer and thought that the machine would give all the answers needed to make little adjustments, such as cloud seeding, to give us control over nature. By the 1980’s Von Neumann’s bureaucracy had super computers continuously churning through models that had over 500,000 equations, but still could not get past two to three days of predictions with any accuracy.


Von Neumann worked on the old mathematical theory that any minor discrepancies would settle down and disappear.

Lorenz saw it differently. Yes, you could change the weather. You could make it do something different from what it would otherwise have done. But if you did, you would never know what to would have otherwise have done. It would be like giving an extra shuffle to an already well-shuffled pack of cards. You know it will change your luck, but you don’t know whether for better or worse. Gleick, James. Chaos, Vintage. Sydney 1998.

There are two important properties to chaos theory. The first is that the smallest of events will have a profound effect on the overall system, and second, no-matter how much data a scientist or financial advisor has they are as powerless as you and I in predicting the weather next Tuesday or if the stock market will rise or fall tomorrow.

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About the Author

David Young has been a writer for 20 years. At other times he has been an architect and a flying instructor. Details of his books and writings can be found at his website

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