A casual inquiry about climate change


I’ve recently engaged in some healthy discussion about climate change, and thought I should try to record some of my thoughts, and the results of some preliminary, casual investigations into the topic.

First, a couple of general comments. It strikes me that the topic of climate change is emotionally and politically charged. It seems everyone has an opinion, whether informed by science or media, and such opinions tend to be strongly held, and strongly defended. A little over a year ago I stumbled into a discussion on the topic with an old friend, and we ended up angry with each other, which I don’t recall EVER happening in the ~ 25 years we’d known each other. So I recognize that whatever I write, I might offend somebody. I hope not. The second point is that while most of the world seems to fall into two distinct opposing camps, either believing or disbelieving anthropogenic climate change, I find myself firmly in the middle, straddling the fence. I know humanity must have had some impact on climate, and I know climate is changing (as it always has, as clearly evidenced in the geological record), but I’m not convinced we’ve had a significant effect, and less convinced that the question of whether we have is even answerable through scientific investigation.

Anyway, this will be the first post in perhaps a few examining the topic of climate change, with an emphasis on trying to understand the human role in affecting climate.

DISCLAIMER – I admit to being a climate ignoramus. I had five years of geography classes in high school, and the teacher put a significant emphasis on weather (same teacher from grade 10 to 13, different teacher in grade 9). I was very interested at the time, and almost chose geography for university (instead of engineering), but alas that was 28 years ago, and I have had NO formal training in climate or weather since then. Only the same casual exposure we all get by experiencing the weather and reading about it in the news. So I claim no specific expertise.

My basic position is that climate, like weather, is a chaotic physical system, beyond deterministic understanding and prediction. Some systems are well behaved and predictable, even though they are governed by a large number of variables. Think about the movement of planets or other celestial bodies, or the tides. highly predictable, understandable, well behaved, stable systems.

By contrast, some systems are ill-behaved, wildly unpredictable, given to chaos, even though they might be governed by a similar number of variables. In this case, behaviour might be highly sensitive to very small (and possibly unmeasurable, undetectable, un-knowable) perturbations of the input parameters. In this case, even though behaviour might depend on a small number of variables that can be individually isolated, and the correlation between those variables and overall behaviour might be well understood, predictions would be impossible, since the system is unstable, reacting unpredictably according to small changes in individual (or combinations of) input parameters.

I will try to go over some of the things I’ve learned in a preliminary, naive exploration of climate science to better inform myself on the topic. This will likely take several posts over some period of time, between posts about actual work related interests. 🙂

About petequinn

I'm a Canadian geotechnical engineer specializing in the study of landslides. I started this page to discuss some mathematical topics that interest me, initially this involved mostly prime numbers, but more recently I've diverted focus back to a number of topics of interest in geotechnique, geographic information systems and risk. I completed undergraduate training in engineering physics at Royal Military College (Kingston, Ontario), did a masters degree in civil (geotechnical) engineering at University of British Columbia (Vancouver), and doctorate in geological engineering at Queen's University (Kingston). I was a military engineer for several years at the beginning of my career, and did design and construction work across Canada and abroad. I've worked a few years for the federal government managing large environmental clean up projects in Canada's arctic, and I've worked across Canada, on both coasts and in the middle, as a consulting geotechnical engineer. My work has taken me everywhere in Canada's north, to most major Canadian cities and many small Canadian towns, and to Alaska, Chile, Bermuda, the Caribbean, Germany, Norway, Sweden, Bosnia, and Croatia. My main "hobby" is competitive distance running, which I may write about in future.
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