Complex interactions

The environment is complex. I love studying complexity, and observing ecosystems fascinates me because they are made up of many moving parts that each interact with the others in ways that are simple but in an overall way that is too complicated to predict reliably.

Several years ago, wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park. The expectation was that this would help manage the populations of deer and other large game. It did. But it also impacted the environment in a slew of unexpected ways in what's called a trophic cascade. This video explains it well:

Our earth's climate is undergoing small changes in median temperature (you know, that "climate change" or "global warming" think you're hearing about). One of the major sides in the debate is that, well, we can adapt to small changes in temperature... "so what if things warm up a little?". Here's the problem: there will be similar cascading effects, and in this case they will be on a scale we can't imagine or predict and affect every corner of the globe.

Take this year's massive cold events across North America: these are one of the major effects predicted by climate models from a decade ago. Yes, for you deniers out there, "global warming" can include significant cold spells in localized regions. But the models in this case were only designed to predict certain kinds of weather events; they were not designed (and could not be) to predict what this would do to to plant life, tourism patterns, electricity usage, or how many people would stay inside and watch an entire season of House of Cards who otherwise would have been outside hiking. And all these effects impact other systems in ways that are simple in isolation but extremely complex in aggregate. Some of those decisions feed back into the carbon emissions cycle and further compound the climate changes that caused them.

Our decisions as individuals and as a society impact our lives in ways that are too complicated to predict reliably. This has always been the case. Our challenge is to recognize when some aspect of our lives is causing changes that are significant, and then changing our ways to protect our future selves.

So what if the temperature goes up a few degrees?

So what, indeed.


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