According to the Prophet Al Gore, our planet is in a heap of trouble.
And it’s all our fault. Repent, ye in the industrialized West, for the
end of the world is at hand. The Gospel according to Gore is that
things were just fine for four or five billion years. Then, we in the
West developed choo-choo trains and hair spray. Now, the prophet claims
we’ve almost depleted the earth’s protective ozone layer, vastly
increased greenhouse gases, and are well on the way to turning the Blue
Planet into a hothouse like Venus.
Prophet Gore desperately wants you to believe that, too. He wants to
save souls more than he wants to be president. He claims he dropped out
of the 1988 race for president in order to write his magnum opus, “Earth
in the Balance.”
Now the Prophet Gore may believe that God has rewarded him for his
sacrifice in ’88 by giving him an even better shot this year at being
president. So you can bet that with that kind of heavenly support, the
first thing President Gore will try to do is to put some real
enforcement — some sort of Global EPA — behind the Kyoto Global
Warming Protocols he negotiated. He intends to save the planet from us,
the wicked Westerners, who are out to convert it to a hellish place.
How could Gore actually come to believe that our choo-choo trains and
hairspray could do in a few hundred years what billions of years of
comets and asteroids and solar flares could not do? Well, Vice
President Gore and his followers claim to believe a butterfly flapping
its wings in the Brazilian rainforest can cause tornadoes in Oklahoma.
If a butterfly can do that — they reason — then we millions in the
industrialized West can surely make the earth either freeze or fry.
Where, you ask, did Al Gore and his Butterfly Brigade ever get such a
wacko idea about butterflies? Well, they completely misunderstood —
probably deliberately — what a meteorologist named Lorenz discovered
and named the “butterfly effect.” Lorenz discovered that computer
models of such non-linear systems as the atmosphere sometimes have built
into them a considerable sensitivity to some — but not all — initial
conditions. That is, what you get out of a climatic model can depend
very much on what you put in.
Now, everyone knows the First Law of Computers: Garbage In, Garbage
Out. It doesn’t matter how fast or how accurately the computer is
capable of carrying out a calculation; if you give the computer garbage
to work with, it will turn out garbage. And if the computer model is
non-linear, if it has, for example, positive feedback mechanisms built
into it, then a little input garbage can result in a lot of output
Climatic models have to be non-linear because all sorts of non-linear
things really happen in the earth’s atmosphere. Water evaporates from
the oceans, turns into clouds and gets dumped back as rain, snow or
sleet. Winds sometimes become cyclonic: tornadoes and hurricanes.
The greenhouse effect is a real world example of a positive feedback
mechanism. You can easily check how a positive feedback mechanism makes
a calculation sensitive to initial conditions. If your pocket
calculator has a “square” command (which multiplies the number you input
by itself), input the number 2 and square it to get 4, then square that
to get 16, then square that to get 256 and square that to get 65536.
Now input the number 1.95 and then the number 2.04, both of which round
off to 2.0 to one decimal place. Do the same calculations and you get
43707.3 for 1.95 and 89966.9 for 2.04 — rounded off to one decimal
place — which are very different results from what you would have
gotten if you had rounded the inputs to one decimal place before you
began. And the longer you run your positive feedback calculation, the
worse it gets.
Now suppose that in your climatic model a single input value for
pressure is used, as sometimes happens, for an area as large as the
Amazon Basin. And suppose you run the calculation twice, once for a
pressure value increased ever so slightly as if by a forward flap of a
butterflys wings and again for a pressure value decreased ever so
slightly as if by the backward flap.
In the first place, it is important to realize that the model is
man-made. It is extremely unlikely that the climatic model used to
predict the weather in Oklahoma would be built to be sensitive to those
slight differences in initial conditions in Brazil. But, even if it
were so built, since there is only one pressure input for the entire
Amazon Basin, the model would have to treat the pressure differential as
having occurred over the entire Amazon Basin. That is, for butterflies
to have caused the pressure differential all over the Amazon Basin, the
air in Brazil would have to be literally filled with butterflies, all
flapping their wings in unison. So, even if it appears to do so in the
model, in the real world there is no sense in which a single butterfly
flapping its wings could have “caused” that pressure differential over
the entire Amazon Basin.
On the other hand, no one knows for sure what causes tornadoes in the
real world. All that is known is that under certain climatic
conditions, tornadoes are more likely to form than at other times. It
is conceivable that if atmospheric conditions are such that there is a
very strong, real-world feedback mechanism available at some time and at
some point in Oklahoma — and a butterfly happens to flap its wings at
exactly that time and at exactly that point — then, perhaps, the
butterfly can “cause” — trigger — a tornado.
After all, once a supercritical mass of Uranium-235 is assembled, a
very strong feedback mechanism called a nuclear fission chain reaction
is available and all it takes is one little neutron to come in at
exactly the right time to set off — trigger — a chain reaction that
will result in an explosion equivalent to about 10,000 tons of high
Now, butterflies are practically everywhere and, so far, tornadoes
are relatively rare occurrences. But if the Prophet Al Gore is right,
if earth really is “in the balance,” if we are right on the edge of
chaos, if the planet is going to fry any day now, oughtn’t we to do
something about all those pesky butterflies?