A Racing Uncertainty

Huw Lemmey



Professor Jonathan Rosenhead presents a crisp and clear analysis of the decision-making processes we engage with when discussing climate change and extinction, using a term he has coined — "A racing uncertainty". He's derived this from the idiom used informally by bookmakers and gamblers at the horse races- "a racing certainty". A racing certainty is a race that's a sure thing, a safe bet. So what's a racing uncertainty?

​ According to Rosenhead, a racing uncertainty is "a race almost impossible to call; any prediction, however confident, is almost bound to be wrong". And that's his conclusion regarding discourse on climate change. "Rumsfeld woz rite", he claims, on one point (and one point alone), when he said:

There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don't know we don't know.

This applies to climate change discussions and prediction. What are the unknown unknowns within climate change? This, he says, is an issue of complexity. We can make models based upon, say, three significant issues: the economy, society and the environment. But in reality, these are intersecting, overlapping concepts, clearer in debates than in modelling. They are impossible to split, or even parse.

Once you interfere with a system of the level of complexity of, say, thermohaline circulation, whatever happens next is almost "anyone's guess".

So how good are we at making forecasts in situations of unprecedented forecasting and modelling? Sometimes those in the best position to make predictions get it terribly wrong. For example, former president of the Royal Society and physicist Lord Kelvin said, in 1897, "Radio has no future". History is littered with such examples of bold predictions. Rosenhead also cites the history of predicting consumption of fossil fuels. Put simply, we're virtually clueless in long-term complex modelling. "We should be modest and thoughtful about our ability to predict the future", he says, which seems like a good starting position for the weekend's discussions.

With the climate change debate we experience many misplaced certainties. Of course, the climate change deniers who say it's not anthropogenic are clearly experiencing a case of wishful thinking mixed with ideological delusions. But climate change modellers also engage in a practice which vastly overestimates its abilities.

So, faced with a climate emergency about to tip into catastrophe, what do we do?
Rosenhead presents us with two clear options:
1. Mitigation, which consists of limiting the magnitude or rate of long term climate change. This is the classic model of tackling the issue of climate change. The other option is:
2. Adaptation. Adaptation seeks to reduce the vulnerability of ourselves and biological systems to the effects of climate change. This fits within an increasing focus on not sustainability, but resilience. We're facing serious crisis, and there's nothing we can do to stop it. We can learn to live with it, however.

So, concluding, he challenges us to ask how we might cope with living with uncertainty. We can't know how bad things are going to get. We shouldn't limit this debate to experts, and we should understand that the potential gravity of the situation means we should prepared for adaptation as well as mitigation.

He ends with quotes from Clausewitz; that plans go out of the window after the first engagement. On the military theme, perhaps we could also end with a quote from General Eisenhower: ""In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable." The other military quote we probably shouldn't mention is that of General Patton: "A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan executed next week".