Education and “Chaos”: The Example of Climate Change

Students will have heard on read descriptions of “chaos theory” which try to capture the phenomenon that a small change “here” or now might involve a mega-change somewhere else or later on or both. In other words, tremendous turbulence could arise from overlooked minutiae in some other region or domain. Chaos here does not mean lawless…it means lawful but in surprising ways, like a pendulum swinging from another pendulum where the laws of pendular motion are still in effect but the motions are “jumpy.”

This can be described as follows:

Chaos theory is a branch of mathematics focusing on the study of chaos—states of dynamical systems whose apparently-random states of disorder and irregularities are often governed by deterministic laws that are highly sensitive to initial conditions. Chaos theory is an interdisciplinary theory stating that, within the apparent randomness of chaotic complex systems, there are underlying patterns, constant feedback loops, repetition, self-similarity, fractals, and self-organization.

The butterfly effect, an underlying principle of chaos, describes how a small change in one state of a deterministic nonlinear system can result in large differences in a later state (meaning that there is sensitive dependence on initial conditions). A metaphor for this behavior is that a butterfly flapping its wings in China can cause a hurricane in Texas.

Blaise Pascal (17th century) gives us the example of “Cleopatra’s nose.” Had her nose been longer, Pascal muses, she would presumably have not been so beautiful and this could have altered romantic entanglements and the behavior of rival Roman generals and world history might have moved along different pathways completely (recall Caesar and Cleopatra, the play).

All of this “strange science” applies to climate change.

In the Winter 2019/20 issue of Options, from the International institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA, Austria headquarters), there’s a short piece that shows you how climate change has such “chaos-type” features which could “turbo-charge” changes already expected:

Will Forests Let Us Down?

Current climate models assume that forests will continue to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere at their current rate.

A study by an international team including researchers from IIASA, however, indicates that this uptake capacity could be strongly limited by soil phosphorous availability. If this scenario proves true, the Earth’s climate would heat up much faster than previously assumed.

(Options, Winter 2019/20 issue, IIASA, page 5, “News in Brief”)

Students should glimpse something here that points to a “deep structure.”
Climate scientists and climate modelers at this time are trying to re-examine and re-jigger predictions to include overlooked details that could add “chaotic dynamics” to the predictions. Knowledge itself is evolving and if you add knowledge changes and revisions to model ones, you have to conclude that even with this fantastic level of human ingenuity and scientific intricacy, we “see the world through a glass, darkly” because the facts, models, chaos math, overviews, are themselves in “interactive flux.”