Knowing we’re doomed…

OK, so there’s this is a journal called “Global Environmental Change.” By academics and for academics, sadly. But we need to get outa our comfort zones. There’s a recent piece;

Policy responses to rapid climate change: An epistemological critique of dominant approachesby two academics called Mark Charlesworth and Chukwumerije Okereke. They have both written great stuff in the past, but policy wonk is speaking unto policy wonk. Me, I’m here to translate.

“rapid climate change or at least more rapid change of systems that may affect the climate, than had been assumed (NSIDC, 2005; NASA, 2006; Walter et al., 2006; ESA, 2008, 2009; cf. Pearce, 2006). It can reasonably be argued that the climate and climate related systems are already rapidly changing. Schellnhuber et al. (2006) does not robustly dispel this possibility. This is not evidence of runaway climate change, but might be seen as an indication that a rapid cascade of climate change may become than has previously been ‘assumed’ (cf. IPCCWG2, 2001, p. 129).”

Boiled down that means- “this shit we are in is deeper, smellier and stickier than anyone thought. The creek we are up is full of alligators, and we don’t have a hull without holes, let alone a paddle.”

“However, extant approaches appear to embody critical assumptions that might lead to the development of grossly inadequate policies; or at a minimum should be subject to global public debate.”

Translated: “And our plans are based on the shit being shallower, there not being any alligators, and the market providing paddles.”

The authors then look at the predictive models that imply gradual change and being able to turn the Earth’s temperature up and down like a thermostat. There’s a section (2.1.1) on Predictability of the Earth System?

The point being that a little humility and caution might not go amiss. And that brown and black people are probably thinking we should be a little more careful, good planets being hard to come by and all…

“It is at least apparent that, in assuming management as the correct response to uncertainty (as opposed to for example precaution), the IPCC makes a normative assumption with which a large section of the global population might not necessarily agree.”

After all,

“A recent synthesis and assessment report on abrupt climate change produced by the US Climate Change Science Program supports the possibility of abrupt change. But like the IPCC, the report, on the one hand, considers abrupt change unlikely in the next few years, but on the other hand emphasises profound ignorance and current limitations of predictive approaches. Again like the IPCC and other high profile reports before it, makes no obvious attempt to address the profound philosophical questions about persistent limitations of prediction that is acknowledged.”

“Indeed, the report takes a strongly reductive approach in the sense that it considers individual examples of abrupt change, but makes little effort to consider if one form of abrupt change should happen then whether this could trigger further abrupt changes. One example could be the rapid melting of the Greenland ice sheet that then triggers a rapid reduction in the Gulf Stream (e.g. AMOC). This limitation, in our view, underlines the difficulties of a predictive approach more than a lack of effort on behalf of the authors (cf. Allen and Frame, 2007; Stainforth et al., 2005). page 123”

In English, that means “Nobody is looking at the big picture and seeing how one card toppling over in the house of cards could cause all manner of mayhem.”

“The persistence of predictive approaches led Shackley and Wynne (1995) to suggest that a conclusion of low probability of extreme events might be as much conditioned by the answers policy-makers would like as by what science on its own can justify. The ingrained dislike of unpredictable events may largely stem from the realisation that policy-makers standard tools, particularly economic cost–benefit analysis, find it difficult to respond to this possibility. A number of different authors have also argued that maintenance of a 1.5–4.5 8C climate sensitivity is as much a result of its social convenience as of the science itself (Shackley and Wynne, 1995; Morgan and Keith, 1995; Demeritt, 2006). ” page 123

Translation: “Policy-makers (who ultimately are the people who pay the piper and therefore call the tune) don’t want to hear about problems that don’t have solutions.” Laurie Garrett, a good journalist, went to Davos one year and captured it precisely.

C and O then site Steffen and Tyson (1991) who claim that “the nature of changes now occurring simultaneously in the Earth System, their magnitudes and rates of change are unprecedented.”

C and O say “If then, as it seems, we cannot confidently rule of [sic] abrupt change, one would think it makes sense to have serious discussion about what the response option should be.” page 124

Yes, one would think that. If you assumed we are sapient (wise) and don’t want to die horribly. Both assumptions can be challenged.

C and O then talk about “thresholds and the epistemology of the Earth System” meaning how close we are to setting off an unstoppable chain of events, and how we might know about it.

They then examine “the quest to dominate nature”

“Other well known examples of rapid change at critical thresholds include avalanches, anaphylactic shock, heart attacks, multiple organ failure, volcanoes, domino effects, economic crashes and political revolutions.” page 124

For once C and O do their own translation. Keep this up and I shall be out of a job:

However, with the exception of Jamieson (1996) the equally problematic epistemological assumptions have hardly been seriously discussed. That is, they tend to be critical of an ethical assumption in favour of exploiting ‘nature’ rather than questioning human ability to sustain societies on the basis of controlling nature. More bluntly, they ask whether we should control nature rather than whether we can ultimately control nature or know the limits of our control.” (page 125)

Similarly, Brunner (1996) offers one highly relevant discussion of how policymakers have required prediction for climate policy and argues that this has led to inaction to reduce reasonable causes of climate change (Brunner, 1996, pp. 121–127, 140–141). The Economist (1994, 85), for example, warned that ‘‘A global change science that prefers fiddling with ever more complex number-crunching models to the fuzzier assessments of human risks and impacts will eventually forget about saving the planet and lose its political support.’’ (cited in Brunner, 1996, p. 124).

Now, as Hugo Chavez said, if the climate was a bank, it would have been saved:

“More recently Steve Rayner has compared the approach used by governments to deal with the global economic crisis and the one with which they deal with climate change. He noted that no lengthy debilitating cost–benefits analysis was done before the nationalization of the Northern Rock (UK) and Fannie Mea and Freddie Mac (US). However when it comes to climate change, policy-makers appear bent on the search for accurate predictions and pristine cost–benefit analysis which serve as excuses for inaction. Perhaps, however part of the reason for the lack of progress on less prediction-focused models of policy is perhaps that most of the authors critiquing predictive approaches have not clearly articulated alternative epistemological and ethical frame-works for policy-making. page 126”

Translation: “When our short term interests are threatened, we can act. When it seems long term, we are happy to kick the whole damn thing into the long grass.”

In the final section, “Alternative policy responses to rapid climate change” Ca nd O

“highlight the promise and limits of five approaches”

One – “modest” incremental adaptive model

Two – Adopt technical solutions that are believed, on the basis of a lifecyle assessment (ISO 14040) or similar, to reduce stress to the Earth System

Extraordinarily,within this, C and O then suggest what I have waited years to hear an academic say- that money matters to what counts as science

“Permaculture (Mollison, 1988) as a technical system may be less affected by these difficulties than more industrial approaches because it is, in effect, a system where individuals (and communities) apply a virtue of prudence (even wisdom) in order to minimise stress on the earth, but maximise material welfare or even happiness through a broader virtue scheme including moderation. That permaculture is not industrial, and that it would be difficult for industry (rather than small businesses) to make profits by promoting it, is arguably one key reason for the lack of adoption and awareness of permaculture.” page 126

Three – Precautionary Principle

Four – Virtue ethics and epistemology with emphasis on moderation, prudence (wisdom) and hope.

“As classic virtue theories suggest, hope may be a key idea if humans are to avoid despair when they realise that humanity cannot control nature. Hope can be defined as ‘the object of hope is a future good, difficult but possible to obtain’ (Aquinas, Summa Theologica), this may be a valuable orientation in the face of unpredictable abrupt change.”

The last of the five responses is “discursive democracy”;

“Democratisation of policy could mean that decisions take more time, although lack of action to address climate change over the last 20 years suggest that economic methods are little better at achieving action. Nonetheless, there is perhaps a need to focus participation in climate policy on specific questions; suggest that the utilitarian assumptions on which dominant notions of economics and current climate policy are based should be a key focus for democratic scrutiny for analytic and democratic reasons.”

Translation “The rich arrogant stupid bastards running the show have comprehensively cocked it up. We need to start from scratch.”

Their conclusion is written in more or less English:

“It is typically assumed by policy-makers that science can tell us what level of stress to the Earth System consumerism can ‘get away with’. This appears connected to a desire by policy-makers to use economic cost-benefit analysis. The huge or even ‘infinite’ possible ranges of economic costs from rapid climate and Earth System change, which current Earth System science suggests are plausible, means that economic cost-benefit analysis can be methodologically questioned. It can also be criticised for normatively favouring a particular notion of utilitarian ethics that appears widely contested or even globally undemocratic. There are alternative rational epistemological and ethical assumptions. These should be considered and debated by makers of global policy and citizens worldwide. Natural scientists have a responsibility as citizens and human beings with significant ‘authority’ to promote and facilitate these debates, in particular by repeatedly making clear the current limits of scientific prediction. Some may wish to become involved in such debates.”

So what do we learn from this? That academics are under no selection pressure to communicate with Joe and Jane Public. Oftentimes that doesn’t matter- most academic production is banal wank. Occasionally though, real insight is made. That’s happened here, and a translation is called for…

About dwighttowers

Below the surface...
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4 Responses to Knowing we’re doomed…

  1. Pingback: Who’s SURI now? «

  2. Mark Charlesworth says:

    Dwight, as one of the authors I found your post very funny and am glad that someone read the paper. I have just finished a first draft of a follow-up. If you are interested I would be interested on your thoughts before submission.

  3. Mark Charlesworth says:

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