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Measuring the wrong thing
April 8, 2010 - 3:34pm

There's an old saying among good managers: "Be careful what you measure, because that's what's going to improve." Which is not to say that any form of "improvement" is necessarily a bad thing, but rather that what we measure is both a result of and a continuing input to how we (and those to whom we communicate) see any problem.

So it is with "global warming". That unfortunate phrasing, accurate though it may be as far as it goes, causes people to frame the climate disruption problem in terms of temperature. And it's not really about temperature -- it's about an increase in the amount of energy in the global climate system and the resulting shifts in system behavior. All different kinds of system behavior -- some of which we think of as "weather" and some of which we don't, but all of them have impact life as we have known it.

I was reminded of the broad range of impacts by an item about an upcoming journal article in Global Environmental Change. It spoke to the ways Inuits in the Canadian Arctic have perceived and described weather patterns (often in ways your local TV meteorologist might not even recognize), and how these perceptions highlight patterns -- and thus significant changes -- that climate scientists really haven't been paying attention to.

You see, climate scientists from developed cultures (like many well-disciplined scientists and engineers) apply a mostly quantitative set of lenses to the climate problem. So it's natural that emphasis has been placed on temperatures, and air pressures, and humidity levels, and event frequencies. Quantitative lenses highlight what happens, and how much it happens, and how often it happens. And quantitative lenses can (given a good, comprehensive baseline) sometimes highlight what is no longer happening.

But typical quantitative lenses aren't particularly good at foregrounding shifts in how something happens, nor disruptions in complex patterns which no one ever thought to measure (baseline) in the past. The global climate system has exhibited a lot of complex patterns, and the shifts in how those shake out can be highly instructive.

It's not about how many words the Inuits have (or don't have) for what we call "snow". It's about broadening the way we all look at the world in which we live. It's about taking a step back and looking at the big picture (always a good idea, unless you're working on a ladder), so that we can see what's really going on. And about how our traditional, convenient, metrics have been entirely inadequate to capture that information.


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