Chaos Theories

[ Editor’s Note: Staff illness, my illness, a paid writing project, a real ale festival and significant levels of exhaustion are still in between me and the keyboard. But I do now have a working computer again (again!) and will be back as and when I can. If anyone’s still reading this after a 4 month hiatus, … I appreciate your dedication but suspect you’ve too much time on your hands. Thank you. –JQP ]


Imagine, please, a kettle. Examine the water in this imaginary kettle. It’s pretty much stationary, I’d imagine, at room temperature. Treating the kettle and the water in it as a system, at that temperature the system is extremely predictable: nothing in it is moving about much, the level of chaos is fairly low. Now turn the kettle on and watch very carefully.

You will quite quickly notice that the system becomes less predictable, less stable, more active and wilder, as the heat in the system increases. If your kettle has glass sides and you put the lid on, you will notice that the effects of the increase in temperature become visibly more dramatic: you have “closed” the system. Less heat is escaping, so the effects of imported heat are more visible. If you increase the temperature far enough, your system will change radically and comprehensively (all the water will change state and leave the system through the cracks) leaving you with a barren, parched shell of what was once a nice cup of tea in potentia.

This is the image you should have in your mind when you hear an Environment Agency spokesmen using words like “unprecedented”.

The Second, Law, of Thermo, Dynamics.

The flooding in Cumbria is not quite Hurricane Katrina, but then we’re not in a hurricane belt. For Britain, even a Britain recently flooded a number of times in different areas, this has been a pretty wet week. Most specifically over a foot of actual rain fell on the Lake District and south-western Scotland [1] over the last 24 hours alone. That leads to water table rises of 15 feet in places, four washed out bridges, 200 people rescued, by the RNLI, from their houses and possibly (tragically) a dead police officer. The Lake District is one of Britain’s wettest, alongside Snowdonia. The Met Office believe yesterday was the wettest day on record in that proverbially soggy county, and that, ladies and gentlemen, is climate change.

Let’s get this clear before we start: climate and weather are not synonyms. The latter is a subset of the former.

Secondly; global warming doesn’t mean Scotland will turn into Barbados, for all Mitch Benn’s hopes. What global warming means is that if you take the relatively closed system of our planet and its atmosphere, the overall amount of heat entering the system is increasing. Also, the lid has been put on; that’s what we’ve been doing over the past 400 years, in Europe, by having an industrial revolution. These things are not even remotely contentious. They’re just what happened.

As illustrated above when talking about kettles, the second law of Thermodynamics tells you that as the level of heat in a system rises, so does entropy in that system. What the physicists don’t tell you is that “entropy”, more or less, means the bubbles in the kettle. It means that the system, as it gets warmer, gets less predictable. There’s two ways to make a system warmer; import heat from outside (which is happening) and prevent heat from escaping (which is where the CO2 “lid” is relevant). And what this does not mean is that New York will have a sunny winter. What it means is that our biosphere is going to start bubbling.

Whether humans have, or can, do much about the change in our climate is (I think) still debateable. That our climate is altering, and becoming less predictable, seems to be a consensus view among climatologists . What is beyond rational dispute is what happens to systems as they warm up. Food production, to name but one aspect of our lives, is heavily dependent on climate predictability. I lived through the African famines of the early 80s, which happened because all the local farmers failed to predict a sudden drought. Which lasted 5 years. My father has been keeping meteorological records in West Africa for over 30 years, and his figures very clearly show a drift from remarkably predictable weather (to the point that it rained at the same time every day during the rainy season) towards very unpredictable weather. This is a symptom of climactic change.

The single greatest success of the lobbyists on behalf of the strip-mine and Robber Baron cohort (or “military-industrial complex”, if you prefer) in our society is that they have convinced people that “global warming” somehow means hotter summers and milder winters, in a nice and convenient way for the local humans. This allows millions of people world-wide and very nearly half of all Americans to look at any snowstorm, or wet summer, and say “Ah-hah! Those damyankee librul’s are talking out their asses! This ain’t no warmer than last year!”

Those who have a vested interest in the status quo ante are, by definition, also those who have the money and power to manipulate society in their own interests. They have successfully done this since the 70s when it comes to recognising human responsibility for our own environment [2]. They’ve delayed the acceptance of that view as orthodoxy for over 40 years; years which could turn out to be quite important later.

Climate change means less predictable weather, less food, more dead people. Just like boiling a kettle, if you’re living inside it. So when you hear climatologists using words like “unexpected”, “out of season”, “unprecedented”, … “catastrophic”, it’s just a symptom of climate change.


[1] Apparently on the ancient principle, “To he who hath it shall be given…”

[2] You’ll note I don’t say responsibility for climate change, just responsibility for climate: we are collectively a very high-impact species which is also sufficiently evolved to have invented ethics. Not breaking things that are communally shared is part of adulthood. We as a species are about four or five, I think.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Chaos Theories

  1. Welcome back John!

    I agree with the need to emphasise that Climate Change is going to make things less predictable rather than just a change in a straight line.

    We English like think weather in this country is unpredictable, but we ain’t seen nothing yet.