Predictions. Our society runs on them. How much will a gallon of gasoline cost a week from now? Which industry will grow the fastest? How many tons of wheat will Americans consume this year? What will the Dow Jones average be?

Or maybe a little closer to home: How long will I be on this class waitlist? Where will I work after graduation?

Accurately predicting the answers to these questions is vital to processes from structuring national policies to the decision making of both business leaders and college students.

All things on the predictability scale, however, are not created equal. For this reason, we employ individuals to act as masters of prediction in their fields. I’m not talking about fortune tellers. I’m talking about mathematicians, social scientists, natural scientists, politicians, economists and the like.

After they spend years pouring over textbooks (sound familiar?) and weighing all possibilities, these specialists publish their findings, their predictions. If we follow their logic well enough, we adopt their ideas and structure decisions around them.

So, why do I raise this point? Lately, I’ve found myself scratching my head at the weather, and have the feeling a lot of you may have been, too. Though normally I would predict the need for a winter jacket when walking outside in the heart of a Michigan winter, this has recently resulted in overheating.

This brought to mind many published predictions that claim that extreme climate irregularities — events from heat waves and cold fronts to tsunamis and tornadoes — may be a consequence of human-induced climate change. The insurance group Munich Re reported that 2011 endured the highest total damage costs due to natural disasters in recorded history — $380 billion. This may be attributed to increasing population and value of development in storms’ paths, but the possibility that this trend may be following climate scientists’ predictions can’t be ruled out. So, are the weird weather woes of 2011 attributable to the dynamics of anthropogenic climate change?

In Enviornmental Protection Agency’s report Climate Change Indicators in The United States the term climate is defined as “the average weather in a given place, usually over a period of more than 30 years”. Day-to-day weather is inherently variable. So, climate scientists focus their predictions on climate trends instead of weather observations. If you don’t believe me, just track the accuracy rates of a weatherman’s predictions.

For this reason, it’s difficult to correlate day-to-day occurrences with climate change, and, unfortunately, harder for us to contextualize its impacts. Contrary to popular belief, this does not demonstrate a lack of credibility or evidence. It’s a more complex issue — the average person can’t accurately draw conclusions about climatic trends without knowledge of greater records.

The American political system breeds us to believe many issues have two distinct sides: pro or con, red or blue. This is a dangerous mindset to apply to climate change. One should avoid pledging to simply believe or not believe in the all-published angles of the phenomenon.

Why is the global climate such a big deal? It’s not just a matter of which jacket to wear or air conditioning unit to install. It’s a matter of where and how food is produced, which regions may be habitable in the future, where resources may shift and which organisms, including humans, may or may not survive on this planet.

Climate scientists are still unsure exactly how all of earth’s ecosystems and organisms will respond to an increased presence of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Still, it’s a complex and severe enough question to justify continuation of and respect for their research. Whether you support every last detail or not, an abundant set of data and predictions on the topic of climate change will help us come closer to the reality of our situation, and continued research on climate change is more important than ever.

Human nature urges us to make decisions based on predictions for a reason — so that we can prepare for the future as best as we can. I don’t know about you, but I’d like to be prepared for this one. It’s kind of important.

Kristen can be reached at kkiluk@umich.edu or on Twitter @Kristen_Kiluk.

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