Climate Change: Unknown Unknowns - Part 1

U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld is still remembered for a speech he gave in February 2002 about the lack of information linking the government of Iraq to weapons supplied to terrorist groups.

Donald Rumsfeld.jpg

He said, Reports that say that something hasn't happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know (now). But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don't know we don't know…Those in the latter category tend to be the (most) difficult ones.”

In the context of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, now the longest in US history, one “unknown unknown” was how Al-Qaeda would morph into ISIS and then how ISIS would morph into a force strong enough to occupy large parts of Iraq and Syria for several years, and then what the effects would be on the Syrian civil war and the flow of refugees into Europe.

This got me thinking: what are the Unknown Unknowns that we don’t yet consider when discussing the effects of climate change. If you read the most recent IPCC report closely enough, it appears we can “live with” the effects of even a 2C rise in average global temperatures and a six-foot rise in ocean levels (that is, IF we can stop global warming at that point and reduce net annual carbon emissions to zero by 2050, HIGHLY UNLIKELY, by developing AND deploying large-scale and economical Carbon Capture and Storage technology by 2040).

Clearly there are also “Known Unknowns” that will affect our ability to respond to climate change. For example, both Social Security and Medicare will be broke within 15 to 20 years without drastic changes in the current system, leading to a great drain on government funding for responses to climate change.

Equally clearly, all levels of government will be bankrupt from CURRENT pension obligations within 10 to 15 years without equally massive and painful changes to benefits. Also clearly, the cost of natural disasters will continue to spiral upward as more extreme storms and fires result from warming oceans and drying out of much of the western North American continent. Political stalemate at the national level is also likely to last a generation, hindering government response to these events.

You might think of these possibilities as RISKS we can plan for, even if they become more difficult to avoid. But what about UNCERTAINTIES arising from climate change?

What about these Unknown Unknowns? What if there are positive feedback loops we don’t yet know about? Clearly, massive methane releases from permafrost (as it melts) are one concern. Perhaps there’s a “runaway” phenomenon we don’t yet know much about that would make our efforts futile without a rapid reduction in atmospheric CO2 concentrations back to 350 ppm from 410 ppm now.

Are there other “unknown unknowns” we should be thinking about? Is designing “Resiliency” into our buildings and along our shorelines going to be enough? Do we TRUST that all levels of government are good enough to plan for these events? Shouldn’t we be introducing, for example, SCIENCE FICTION writers into all of our planning exercises to generate a broader base of future thinking?

Three great recent Sci-Fi books I can think of which illustrate how Sci-Fi might help us think in a broader context:

  1. The Water Knife (2016) - how water planning might have to respond to social unrest caused by long-term drought in the Southwest during the next 30 years

  2. Seveneves (2015) - for much longer term thinking about how humans could manage real disasters such as the complete destruction of Earth’s habitability

  3. The Three-Body Problem (2006) - while it deals with ET communications, it also illustrates how we might put our climate knowledge to use in better ways, the first book in a trilogy President Obama called “wildly imaginative, really interesting.”

What resources can you suggest for engaging in better thinking about Climate Change’s “Unknown Unknowns”?