The Fraser River saw evacuation alerts for part of the Fraser Valley this spring. A 2014 climate change model predicted that a once every 200 years flood return could turn into a once every 50 years flood. (Black Press file photo)

The Fraser River saw evacuation alerts for part of the Fraser Valley this spring. A 2014 climate change model predicted that a once every 200 years flood return could turn into a once every 50 years flood. (Black Press file photo)

Column: Climate change sets politicians and scientists against the impossible

When the stakes are so high, how can we tolerate scientific error?

On May 23, Grand Forks was flooded. Nearly 2,000 hectares of forest was on fire outside of Prince George. Yellowknife was 24.6 degrees, beating the 22.8 degree record set in 1965. And in Newfoundland, 30 centimetres of snow was falling.

Ask Black Press columnist Tom Fletcher, and I suspect he might scoff that such disparate events could be connected through climate change.

After all, as he wrote in his column “Making sense of climate policy” (North Delta Reporter, Vol. 3, No. 21), scientists haven’t been able to come up with an accurate prediction of how climate change will affect our communities. It’s easy to imagine him sweeping graph after graph off his desk, saying “So much for that prediction, at least in the short term.”

In some ways, Fletcher was right. There is a pile of failed forecasts when it comes to climate change predictions. But in assuming this negates the validity of the science, he is indescribably wrong.

The history of science is a littered with inconsistent and incomplete theories, and even the most well-known have faced internal strife.

Take evolution by natural selection, an apt comparison for climate change because it too has been an element of the “religious dogma” Fletcher finds so infuriating.

In 1859, Charles Darwin published his magnum opus On the Origin of Species. In it, he postulated that species evolved through natural selection, a process in which better suited individuals survive longer and produce more offspring.

By his death in 1882, Darwin had convinced most natural philosophers that evolution was real. Many were not convinced about natural selection.

They postulated a number of other theories for why evolution occurred. One of these was sexual selection, a mechanism Darwin downplayed in his book. Another, later hypothesis included genetic mutations that occur randomly in DNA.

Between the 1920s and the 1950s, scientists around the world worked integrate their work into one theory of evolution. It became known as the Modern Synthesis, and is what elementary students are taught in schools today.

The Darwinian revolution, which continues to this day as evolutionary scientists update and revise their theorems, teaches us an important lesson about science.

It begins in fragments, often only partially right. But it eventually become consistent, generally-accepted doctrines: matter is composed of elements, living things can be organized into a tree of life and human-driven greenhouse gas emissions is exacerbating climate change on our planet.

Of course, the stakes are higher when science is examining homes, lives and millions of dollars, rather than the evolutionary history of pigeons. In the best case scenario, a poor climate change model means a government put aside a hefty portion of their budget and didn’t use it. In the worst case scenario, hundreds of families lose their homes, their jobs and their lives.

It’s a balancing act that no-one wants to play — but we have to play it if we want our communities to survive.

In his column, Fletcher said we should take a look at the history of localized disasters in our province: forest fires, floods, winter storms. And he’s right. But we should remember that not everything is as it once was, and scientists must do their best to peer into the foggy future as well.

Governments and policy makers must take predictions and act on them. The B.C. government’s “Preparing for Climate Change” implementation guide for local governments outlines how politicians can handle this gargantuan task.

Step one: Accept that you have to make a decision one way or another. Doing nothing is still a decision after all.

Step two: Use the information available to see how climate change could impact your community.

Step three: Accept the information might be wrong, and adjust accordingly.

“It’s important to view [climate change] adaption as a process,” the guide reads. “As new information becomes available, or certain physical changes become apparent, actions can be re-evaluated and updated.”

In short, the models could be wrong, and likely will be wrong. But the soul of science is there, searching for the closest truth we can find as erring humans taking on a godly task: predicting the future.

Grace Kennedy is a reporter and columnist for the North Delta Reporter.