Climate change, like quantum physics, will strain language

One of the defining features of quantum mechanics is that it shows up human language, and thought supported by that language, to be insufficient and limited. Many of the most popular languages of the world, including Tamil, Hindi and English, are linear. Their script reads in a line from one end of the page to the other, and their spoken words compile meaning based on a linear sequence and order of words. It is possible to construe these meanings in turn only after word after another, through the passage of time. If time stops, so does language.

Such linearity is incompatible with the possibilities in quantum mechanics for simultaneity, in both space and time. Quantum superposition is not exactly a system in two states at once but in a linear combination of states, but without the specialised knowledge, language can only offer a slew of metaphors, each of which hews asymptotically closer to the actual thing but never captures it in its entirety. Quantum entanglement, similarly, causes one particle to affect another instantaneously, over hundreds of kilometres, defying both the universal information speed limit and the ability of human minds that remain constrained by that limit, as well as a human language that has no place for, and therefore can’t identify, simultaneity. All we have something after another, effect after cause, the first step and then the second, and never both at once.

Indeed, the notion of causality – that cause will always precede effect – is one of the load-bearing pillars of reality as we strive to understand it.

But while quantum mechanics is so kooky, it is also excusably so, considering it represents a paradigm shift of sorts from the truths of classical physics (it plays by different rules, that is). It is almost simply natural that our languages do not encompass the possibilities afforded by a phenomenon we didn’t encounter until the 20th century, and still don’t except through specialised apparatuses and controlled experimental conditions.

However, there is another system of things that plays largely by the rules of classical physics – our interactions with and formalisation of which paralleled the evolution of our languages – and yet increasingly defies the ability of our languages to describe it faithfully: climate change.

True, weather and climate patterns include aspects of chaos theory, which explains how minute differences in initial conditions can lead to vastly different outcomes. But chaos theory still only takes recourse to non-linear effects, which, while harder to conceive of than their linear counterparts, are easier than to grapple with non-locality and non-causality. Of course, climate change doesn’t violate any of these or other similarly foundational principles, yet it complicates interactions in the global weather system and intensifies the interactions between the elements and human culture, technology and biology – both to such a degree that they have consequences both different and new.

For example, to quote from an article The Wire Science published this morning:

Climate change will further exacerbate marine heatwave risks in the [Indian subcontinent] region, according to [Ming] Feng. This could suppress coastal upwelling – the process by which strong winds move surface water in the ocean, permitting water from below to surface – and reduce the amount of oxygen in the water. This in turn could have a “great impact” on fisheries.

A big part of climate change’s (extant as well as impending) devastation is in the form of surprise – that is, of the emergent phenomena that it makes possible. Expounded most famously by the brilliant physicist Philip W. Anderson, especially in his 1972 essay ‘More Is Different’, emergence is the idea that we cannot fully describe a large system only by studying its smallest components. Put another way, larger systems have emergent properties and behaviour that are more than the sum of the ways in which systems’ most fundamental parts interact. Studying climate change is important because the additional complexity it imbues to existing weather systems are ripe with emergent effects, each with new consequences and perhaps more effects of their own.

At the same time, the bulk of these effects, taken together, anticipate such a large volume of possibilities that even though they certainly won’t defy reality’s, and human languages’, assumption that causality is true, they will push it to extreme limits. Two events are still at liberty to happen at the same time, each with a distinct and preceding cause, but even as the ways we communicate wait for cause before composing effect, climate change will confront us with a tsunami of changes – each one reinforcing, screening or ignoring the other, rapidly branching out into a larger, denser forest of changes, until the cause is only relevant as an historical artefact in our grammar of the natural universe.