A Sophomoric Look at Climate Change


My nephew completed freshman year in college, and he was excited to have qualified for the climate science track.  With his prowess in algebra on display, he explained simultaneous equations to me.  If A+B=9, no one knows the value of A or B.  BUT, if you also know that A–B=3, voila!  Now you know both values.  The first equation is useless without the second, and the second is useless without the first.  All you need is the same number of equations as you have variables.

On my nephew's first day of Climate 201, the learned professor whetted his appetite by telling him this elite class would develop a climate change model.

He shared with me his list of variables: CO2 in the atmosphere, H2O in the atmosphere, fluorocarbons in the atmosphere, snow cover in the Northern Hemisphere, forest fire sizes, orbit wobble of the Earth, sunspot activity, core heat loss to the surface, volcanic activity, continental drift, algae growth in the oceans, fossil fuel combustion, shifting of the magnetic north pole location.  His imagination was running wild, thinking of the complexity he would resolve in only one semester.

When he turned in the list, and it was compared to others, he found he had missed forty or so other variables.  Not to worry: The class now had a compilation that was certain to lead to an answer.  They began the remaining work.

For each variable, the class now began to construct an equation, which would quantify each variable's effect on climate.  My nephew chose volcanic activity for his first equation and soon realized that he really needed to analyze undersea versus open-air volcanic activity — so he would need two equations, not one!

A fellow student was working on ocean algae population, and he overheard her say she needed to know the ocean temperature, the different species of algae, where they occurred, and whether their population was affected when undersea volcanoes warmed some region of the ocean.  He told her his own equations might be useful, if he could complete them.

What to do?  My nephew asked the teacher if he could amend the variable list, since he now had several more unknowns, as did his algae classmate.  Suddenly, there was a cacophony of voices from throughout the class.  Everyone had more variables — fourteen more from the sunspot guy, nine more from the continental drift girl, and eighteen more from the water vapor team...

When the din died down, the teacher looked forlorn; the class had not completed one equation yet now had over 100 variables.  Some hemming and hawing led to early dismissal, with the promise of a revised assignment the next day.  My nephew was daunted by the task ahead but had great faith in the government-paid environmental expert, who had been so enlightening on the first day of class.

His faith was restored the following morning.

All of the students were attentive as the teacher began to explain how to change the task, which the students had known they would master.  First, he told them he had consulted with three of the world's leading climate scientists.  The discussion had gone late into the night on three continents, and the problems had been resolved.  A consensus was reached on the new assignment, and the students would be tasked in a way that allows us to define the climate for all times.  Bright, smiling faces were reminded that these great, anonymous scientists had actually studied the climate for decades and were of one mind.  What they had learned would be distilled in the new assignment.

The teacher recounted his mind meld, laying out only sparse details, since the class wasn't entitled to the privileged material he had accessed.  It seems that each of his colleagues had used government-funded research to develop an all-encompassing formula.  Though the formulas didn't agree with one another, each of these profundities was given great esteem, since no one had found errors in them.  (Because of their vital importance, the actual formulas could never be revealed.)  Class 201 in climatology would cross that threshold and display their work for the critics.  They needed only to reference the confidential assistance from the pillars of the field of climatology.  These 19-year-old world-beaters could scarcely contain themselves.

The new assignment was to be much more direct.  By reducing the number of variables, fewer equations would be needed, and those could rely on data previously used by great luminaries in their studies.

The class discussion started with new guidelines.  First, variables would be limited to just two — sea level and CO2 concentration in the atmosphere.  Even though ancient values were not measurable, the acclaimed mentors would reveal the values from the past, since they had been accurately divined from tree rings and ice cores.  There would now be a single equation for each, and solving the two simultaneous equations would yield irrefutable proof of climate change caused by fossil fuel usage.

Everyone was giddy — except for that one guy who was taking the course merely for grade inflation potential.  He asked questions like "What if the effect of the sun caused climate change?" and "Who caused the climate change that caused the last ice age?" and "What if the Earth has a natural ability to balance these variables?"

Suddenly, the entire class was discombobulated.  The instructor, too, was flustered, and he quickly dismissed the class, but he kept the skeptic behind.

The next morning started one student short, and no one cared.  This led to a secret corollary to mission success.  No one will be allowed to dissent from the consensus.  As work began, the instructor suddenly announced that he had been recruited to serve a sabbatical with one of his three consultants.  Everyone would get an A in the course; all they need do was assert convincingly that fossil fuels increase CO2 emissions and cause global warming.  Though there would be no published formula, students would be allowed to assert the theory affirmatively, based on confidential formulas they might someday see.

The Sophomoric Formula that would define success in the climatology would wait, but the entire group of students had now reached the same deep understanding as the wise guy classmate: this was an easy A course.

Gordon Wysong is an engineer and entrepreneur who served as a county commissioner in Cobb County, Ga.

Image: NTNU via Flickr.