In 1942, during the second world war, the Japanese army performed a wargaming simulation of the upcoming battle of Midway. In the game, the American side was winning until one of the Japanese admirals intervened, ordering two of the sunken Japanese carriers to be refloated. In this way, the Japanese side managed to regain the upper hand and win. But that was possible only in the simulation; during the real battle of Midway the Japanese lost those two carriers for real (and two more) and badly lost a battle that turned out to be decisive for their final defeat.
This story is only a partial account of the complex series of factors that led the Japanese to attack Midway in 1942; there were many other factors influencing their decision. But it tells you that the military decision makers ignored what the simulation had told them. If a miracle had been necessary in order to win the game, it was easy to imagine how difficult that would have been in the real world.
So, we can take this story as good example of the difficulties that leaders have in managing complex systems such as an army or a whole state. Often, they are victim of their own propaganda and they prefer to rely on their limited mental models rather than in models based on complex simulations.
This attitude is already a recipe for disaster but, in addition, leaders tend to “pull the levers in the wrong direction,” when they panic. That normally makes things worse. In the case of Japan during WWII, that led to deployment of suicide bombers, the “kamikaze.” The sacrifice of thousands of young men only postponed defeat, at best, while probably making it much worse for the Japanese people.
In our times, the climate threat is becoming so serious that it starts looking like a war (as Bill McKibben has argued). And, if this is a war, we are losing it.
The emissions of greenhouse gases seemed to have stabilized but, in 2017, they are increasing again.
At the same time, not only temperatures keep rising, but the planetary ecosystem is showing evident signs of distress, if not of impending collapse.
Our situation doesn’t seem to be much better than that of the Japanese after their defeat in the battle of Midway.
How did we arrive at this point? There was no lack of warning, nor of models showing what was happening. But our leaders made the same mistakes that the Japanese leaders made: they ignored the results of the models.
It doesn’t seem (yet) that a modern politician directly intervened to force climate models to give reassuring results, but the manipulation of the data is a common element of anti-science propaganda.
And now? Facing defeat, the next step can only be panic. That doesn’t seem to be happening yet, at least in public, but something seems to be already lurking below the official optimism.
If panic sets in, there is plenty of space to make colossal mistakes; equivalent to the Japanese deploying kamikaze fighters during WWII. For instance, relying on geoengineering, with all the associated risks and unknowns. It would be much safer to reduce and eventually stop emissions and that could be done by moving fast toward renewable energy. Yet, geoengineering is extremely attractive to our macho leaders who operate according to the statement by H. L. Mencken, “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”
Will we lose the climate war?
It is not yet unavoidable, but we must make the right choice — move toward renewable energy — and do it fast.