Monday, 14 June 2010

The Ash Cloud: A Victory for Computer Modelling - Now why can't we apply the same logic to climate change?

The ash cloud from the Eyjafjallajokull volcano has caused havoc, millions of dollars in corporate losses, and untold hilarity at its mispronunciation (it's pronounced AY-yah-fyah-lah-YOH-kuul according to the Icelandic embassy in Washington, apparently - All this, based on a computer model that has an informed but nonetheless imperfect idea of its whereabouts and density, combined with widely varying estimates as to the damage it will do to the aircraft that would probably/possibly/almost certainly encounter it. Fortunately I wasn't planning on flying anywhere, which means I am something of a bemused spectator to the media ruckus that occurs every time the cloud 'moves' (I don't like 'move' as an adjective for clouds, it makes them sound too athletic; clouds 'drift' or 'saunter' or 'meander' in a manner that is vaguely whimsical and for the pleasure of those with time to cast an eye to the sky on a warm summer evening with a glass of cider in one hand and rapidly melting strawberry-split in the other, surely). What does interest me though, is that the authorities have taken what appears to be relatively immediate and drastic action on the basis of modeling estimates that tell them they probably should - estimates that are precisely the same in nature as our best sophisticated forecasts on climate change. Yet on the latter issue, they continue to do nothing.

Why, in actuality, are governments and associated federations willing to penalise and annoy British Airways and Ryanair but not BP and ExxonMobil (ignoring the fact Ryanair is run by a obnoxious self-publicising man from the British Isles who has a penchant for unsubtle and ill-advised comments in the face of major crises, oh wait...)? BAA claims that the restrictions on flights cost it £28bn, the city of London supposedly saw £100m lost from reduced tourism, and even little East Midlands Airport claims the cloud cost it £1m in revenue (BBC News). These are not insignificant amounts, and represent a good hack off the profit margins of those who rely on flights and tourism for their businesses. Yet, while making decisions on climate change - a problem that will cost considerably more to confront than the ash cloud and increases significantly the longer we wait - those with the power insist on delay in the face of corporate opposition. Loathe am I to describe the until-recently-unheard-of Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) as 'brave'; but it seems that this is precisely what they were. In the face of a natural challenge with immediate consequences and very apparent costs, they chose action in the name of safety rather than inaction in the face of market opposition. Yes, Mr Bureaucrat in your grey suit and unnatural interest in air pressure, yes you; take a bow.

The ash cloud example shows us something more, though, than just how officials can act on the best information available to them if they so choose. It shows us how the public will respond when - grounded, stranded, and grumpy - they are presented with no other option. Yes, they will whinge, moan, question the decision and blame everyone 'foreign' (to the point where poor old Iceland were forced to put what can only be described as a year-7 papier-mache art project model of a volcano filled to the brim with baking powder in front of them while performing on Eurovision in the hope of garnering some empathy/sanity when the votes came in). But, ultimately, they will relent; they will understand and intelligently question, rather than belligerently disobey. After all, when there is no other option, what can Little Sammy stuck abroad really do other than accept that his fate is in the hands of nature, and that by being born on this planet he implicitly agreed to abide by Mother Nature's occasional whimsy.

The worst is over; the decision was made, the immediate effects were felt, and the fallout has all but passed. People have now accepted that if they want to fly abroad then they have to account for the small risk of an angry Scandinavian mount spewing its guts. Corporations have started to go quiet realising that no-one unnecessarily dieing is probably more valuable to their long-term financial security than their immediate quarterly losses. And the CAA - bless them - have dismounted thier shiny white horses, taken off the chainmail, and returned to grey-suited drudgery; happy that tomorrow will involve spreadsheets rather than press releases. I can't help but feel that if the equivalent officials showed the same faith in the science of climate change as the CAA did in the met-office - and, frankly, had some kahunas - then we would be much closer to radical and effective action on the greatest problem of a generation, any generation, than we currently are.

No comments: