NOAA has just released its forecast for this year’s hurricane season, predicting that there is a .45 probability that it will be stronger than last year. The forecast from Colorado State and North Carolina University are not that pessimistic, although all three could be considered similar given a reasonable margin of error in probability estimates.
However, more is known about Atlantic hurricanes, El Ninos, and surface water temperatures. And, with almost three decades of forecasting, it would be reasonable to assume that models used would by now reflect fewer differences and that the forecasts would reflect a consensus. The fact that differences remain is instructive when it comes to forecasting climate change.
The climate system is far more complex and contains more uncertainties with the factors producing hurricanes being a relatively small set of variables.
Climate is a chaotic system, meaning that it is non-linear and essentially unpredictable. The father of chaos theory, Professor Edward Lorenz of MIT, according on a 2011 issue of the MIT Technology Review demonstrated that “the dream of perfect knowledge founders in reality.” He demonstrated that small changes in simulation mattered a great deal and that “the imprecision inherent in any human measurement could become magnified into wildly incorrect forecasts.”
Climate scientists, along with many others, know this but pretend that chaos theory doesn’t apply to their climate forecasts. In doing this, they are manifesting what Frederich Hayek called the fatal conceit and the presumption of knowledge. In his address accepting the Nobel prize, he said, “If man is not to do more harm than good…, he will have to learn that in this, as in all other fields where essential complexity of an organized kind prevails, he cannot acquire the full knowledge which would make mastery of the events possible. … The recognition of the insuperable limits to his knowledge ought indeed to teach the student of society a lesson of humility which should guard him against becoming an accomplice in men’s fatal striving to control society… “
A healthy dose of humility and acknowledging the limits to our state of knowledge would allow us to better understand the climate system and more importantly what we can do about the risks associated with climate change.