Climate Emergency

Not looking forward to more surprises

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Science  13 Sep 2019:
Vol. 365, Issue 6458, pp. 1132-1133
DOI: 10.1126/science.365.6458.1132-d

Planning for future climate “surprises” requires forethought not hindsight.


Adaptation of human organizations to changing conditions tends to be motivated by the expectation that past conditions provide insight into future conditions. However, as the climate heats up, the frequency of extreme “surprise” events, such as flash floods or heat waves, is increasing. In their analysis of temperature spikes experienced in the oceans, Pershing et al. found that before 1940, surprise events were rare. The number of surprises accelerated after 1998, following a powerful El Niño. Unlike most other organisms, humans can change their life strategies and with some insight might be able to adapt their associated economies. However, the models show that relying on past behavior is an inaccurate guide to the future. Although the immediate rewards might be lower, it would profit humans to take a forward-looking strategy to spread the risk across surprise events—an adaptive strategy that, the authors warn, may require more “surprises” to motivate humans to adopt.

Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 10.1073/pnas.1901084116 (2019).

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