Eos, Transactions American Geophysical Union

Forum: The challenge of global change



How can we sustain a public sense of the common danger of global change while remaining honest in view of the realities of scientific uncertainty? How can we nurture this sense of common danger without making statements based on half-baked ideas, statistically unreliable results, or oversimplified models? How can we strike a balance between the need to overstate a case to attract the attention of the media and the obligation to adhere strictly to the ethos of science?

The task of achieving a scientific understanding of the inner workings of the terrestrial environment is one of the most difficult and ambitious endeavors of humankind. It is full of traps, temptations and deceptions for the participating scientists. We are dealing with a horrendously complex, strongly interactive, highly non-linear system. Lessons learned from disciplines such as plasma physics and solid state physics which have been dealing with complex non-linear systems for decades, are not very encouraging. The first thing one learns is that there are intrinsic, physical limits to the quantitative predictability of a complex system that have nothing to do with the particular techniques employed to model it.