Eco-campaigners hail Heathrow as a victory, but will it turn out to be one for the planet? | Margaret Heffernan

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On Thursday, when climate activists spilled on to the road, singing “We’ll take climate change seriously” to the tune of My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean, they felt confident of a big victory.

Heathrow’s expansion had been declared illegal because it is incompatible with legislation committing the government to zero carbon emissions by 2050. The proposal, which would have brought 260,000 new flights a year to the airport, was dead and campaigners celebrated because similar schemes were now doomed.

But are they? It’s tempting to forecast the future using simple cause and effect, assuming that the court of appeal ruling must now cause Heathrow and similar climate-busting projects to stop, thus accelerating Britain’s transition to a carbon-free economy. But sadly, that’s just one possible scenario. The effect of the ruling could be to expand smaller, regional airports. Most Heathrow flights are for pleasure; determined travellers could pile into Luton, Stansted, Birmingham. More might decide to drive. Even though the government says it won’t appeal, the transport minister, Grant Shapps, has also said, in principle, it does “want to see airport expansion”. Heathrow will appeal against the decision. It could win. Nature could still lose.

Anti-Heathrow expansion campaigners

The future is uncertain because cause and effect are rarely simple. A single cause can have any number of effects, some predictable but many unforeseen. Something can be generally certain – such as the law courts having to take the government’s commitment to the Paris accord seriously – but specifically ambiguous: because no two projects are identical, all future judgments may not favour the environment.

Minor differences in projects may result in widely varying outcomes. You can see the same difficulty with epidemics. That they will keep happening is generally certain, but it is risky to extrapolate from one to the other because there is no profile of an epidemic. We don’t know where or when the next epidemics will break out, or what diseases might cause them. They don’t repeat themselves. Expecting to see the future through a simple unfolding of cause and effect is easy but risky.

But simple cause-and-effect thinking has plagued forecasting since telling the future became big business at the end of the 19th century. One of the founding fathers of economic forecasting, Roger Babson, was adamant in his Newtonian view of the world. For him, every action had to be associated with an equal and opposite reaction. He not only assembled the largest collection of Newtoniana in North America, but based his entire economic theory on this premise, one of the first (but not the last) to believe he could develop laws of economics that had the same absolute certainty as the laws of physics.

His view of cause and effect had a boost in 1929 when, as he had predicted, Wall Street crashed. This, Babson argued, was because periods of wasteful exuberance always produce the need for sensible self-discipline. But he had been forecasting a correction for the previous three years. And when, in May 1931, he announced the market had bottomed out and it was time to get back in, he was wrong: the US economy didn’t recover for a decade.

Like most pundits, Babson was poor at reviewing his own forecasts; he continued to believe everything in life could be reduced to simple laws. As a young man, he was told he had contracted TB – at the time, the single greatest cause of death in the western world. However shattering, the diagnosis was nonetheless ambiguous: it could mean a quick death or that the disease would lie latent for decades. Not a man to stand by and wait, Babson devised a health regimen that he was convinced would keep catastrophe at bay.

He chose an office surrounded by windows, all of which he kept wide open, even throughout the brutal Massachusetts winters. He and his secretary wore mittens and hooded, floor-length wool cloaks as they worked, the secretary typing with wooden mallets and Babson wearing an electrically heated pad in his back. Was it these eccentricities that allowed Babson to live to 91? It’s impossible to know. He might not even have had TB, since no accurate test was devised until years later.

The same problem bedevils studies of leadership. It is fashionable to follow high-profile business leaders and draw from them lessons of success. Steve Jobs and Bill Gates created huge, valuable companies – but how far was their success attributable to them as individuals, and how far the result of other factors: the thousands of people who worked for them, the short-sightedness of their competitors, the wealthy ecosystem they inherited, and a growing educated populace? It’s impossible to do the experiment, Apple without Jobs, or Microsoft without Gates.

Seeing individuals as single causes of complex success is an attribution error routinely made when analysing politicians too: did Churchill really win the Second World War, or were Hitler’s unforced errors and the brute force of the Soviet Union more important?

Simple causes make memorable stories, but that doesn’t mean they’re true. The sheer complexity of life militates against straightforward narratives and it can feel as though the sides have come off the billiard table, balls dropping off or arriving from anywhere. You don’t know how many variables there are, where they may come from or which, if any, will matter. That’s why, increasingly, efficiency gives way to robustness.

When the stakes are high (as in epidemics) a bold response is safer than complacency. Which is why the campaigners celebrating last week’s appeal court judgment will have to return to their fight if they want to increase their chances of environmental success.

o Margaret Heffernan is the author of Uncharted: How To Map the Future Together

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