Saturday, April 06, 2013

Why I don't worry about climate change

I used to work in the environmental field back in 1990s. I used to worry a lot about the field, I gave up worrying about it. It wasn't because I didn't believe it's an important issue worthy of study, it is. The consequences are likely to be catastrophic but there's no point worrying about it.

Our technology, economics and nature is full of punctuated equilibriums. Periods of gradual change, followed by a rapid divergence. In technology and economic systems the interplay between evolution of the system and inertia creates this. In this case they create cycles of change that we call ages.

The problem is always with prediction because in this case we can often know why it will happen and what will happen but not when. The when is always imprecise. However that's the problem because the past time (and we are prisoner's of our past experience) will tend to lull us into believing the change will be gradual and things aren't going to suddenly go all crazy on us.

An examination of financial systems, technology and economic systems, biology or nature will tell you that's a false assumption. On a trivial sense, the move towards cloud computing was a highly predictable change in terms of what almost 40 years ago. Companies will still die as a result of this predictable change because they failed to prepare, to move themselves out of the way of the storm. This is an issue of leadership.

I used to work in the financial sector in 2000. I can honestly say that I didn't met a single person who didn't believe a major economic crash was heading our way. Everyone pointed to the excessive debt, the OTC instruments but no-one knew quite when it would all unwind. They all hoped it wasn't going to be on their watch. Higher up the organisations this hope was more denial, everyone was ignoring the issue.

The same can be said with climate change. We knew back in the 1990s of numerous tipping points, we knew that the consequences were likely to be dire and the cycle of change would be rapid. There's plenty of past data for this (just look at ice cores). We could strive to explain the why it would happen (and people do, good for them) in ever more detail but it will almost be impossible to say the when. 

We'll only be able to say the when when the weak signals scream now and by which time the change is upon you.  A decade ago the weak signals of economic collapse were screaming now, people ignored it, we got the collapse and companies went bust. Just less than a decade ago the weak signals of cloud computing were screaming now, those with inertia ignored it, we got cloud and companies are going to go bust. I could ask my friends in the environmental field what are the weak signals screaming but I don't want to know. I already know that they're no longer talking in social circles about when but instead how to survive, so I can guess it's coming soon.

There's no point in knowing because we won't react in the way that we need to until it's upon us. Our leaders have always been too weak to move us away from the storm, trapped by the economic and other systems we have created. Climate change will hit at some point and the population of this world may well be decimated twice over as it has been before. When? Who knows. Even if you model the change (the why and the what) then the when is always going to be imprecise and probabilistic and for that one reason alone, through a tragedy of the commons and our past experience we will do nothing until it is upon us.

If we're really super unbelievably lucky then climate change will somehow turnout to be linear, the models will be wrong or we'll get a lucky break and some novel technology will resolve the problem, well that's what we're going to tell ourselves anyway. Actually we're going to convince ourselves that this is the case until we find out it's not. Maybe we will imprison some scientists for not being right, as if they had any chance. They tell us what they think and we call them alarmist. They give us the more "reasonable responses" that we desire and then we send them to prison when they're wrong. Well it's always more comfortable to point the finger somewhere else.

So climate change will probably hit us, it's impact is likely to be dire, the change is likely to be rapid and no, we don't know when (we will never know precisely when) but you can guess it's not far off - five years, a decade, a few decades, a hundred years - who knows. If I said to you that there's a chance the vast majority of people reading this blog will die as a result of climate change, you would shout alarmist and it won't happen. Nothing has changed since the 1990s except our understanding of how many tipping points there are and how the model works. But we will ignore it or at least pay it lip service until it hits us and so there's no point in worrying about it. No different with how we reacted to the looming financial crash in the early 2000s ... we pretended it wasn't going to happen.

And I suppose that's the point, if something worries you then you should do something to stop it but if you're not going to do anything ... why worry? Instead we could plan for what we should do when it hits us. There's lots of thorny and tough questions that need to be discussed - how many do we think we can save, how many do we need to save, what should we aim for and who gets saved? We might not make a serious effort to prevent the change but at least we can plan for it.