High confidence, robust evidence: report on a failed experiment in planetary engineering

For some time I ran a moderately successful blog (by internet standards) called Watching the Deniers, and early this year began the Generation Adaptation project.

But as it is apparent, it has been some months since I have written on climate change, climate change denial and the increasingly pressing issue of adaptation to climate change.

It was a break much longer than I intended.

Tim has been bravely forging ahead, patient with my lack of content generation – to which he has my eternal thanks. I had the very good fortune to attend Tim’s wedding a while back, and count him as a true friend.

So why my silence?

Because I could not write.

Every post, every draft seemed inadequate to the task.

Every idea – despite my initial enthusiasm – seemed to quickly ring hollow or trite. At first I thought it was a kind of “writers block”, the kind of hesitant stumbling and self-doubt anyone engaged in writing experiences at some point.

But it was not that.

I thought perhaps I was “exhausted” by the topic.

I asked myself if I was simply a dilettante. Climate change this week, tomorrow “Save the whales!” next?

Or perhaps I was slipping into my own kind of “denial” in choosing to not even think about climate change? I could barely read anything to do with climate change or the words for the denial movement. It prompted feelings of despair and anger.

But that was none of those.

What I needed most was to bathe in the deep, nourishing waters of silence.

Not the silence of non-thinking.

Nor the silence of not caring, or giving up.

No, it was the kind of silence that allowed my thinking to slowly evolve.

I needed to step away from the trench warfare of combating climate change denial and trying the desire to “keep up” with the scientific literature, blogs and articles on climate change. I needed to step away from Generation Adaptation.

Why?

After almost three years of immersing myself in the science, the politics and engaging the deniers of climate change I was lead to a very challenging conclusion. It was one that I needed to absorb, test and determine if I was talking myself into despair.

I needed to be silent, to observe and to reflect.

Silence is the sleep that nourishes wisdom – Francis Bacon

And now I believe I’ve arrived at a reasonably accurate reading of the situation.

It is one I think a number of other writers, bloggers, scientists and thinkers are also arriving at. I see hints of such thinking starting to emerge.

And in many ways the conclusion made me laugh.

The tale of the accidental geo-engineers

At its most simplest my thoughts are this:

  • We will not avert serious climate change
  • We are already feeling its impact
  • Within the next few decades temperature rises will top >2 degrees
  • Most likely we will see a 4 degree (if not 6) rise before century’s end
  • There is no genuine prospect of international co-operation on the issue
  • We will not implement “clean” energy sources on a massive scale
  • There is enormous strain on planetary boundaries
  • There will be more losers than winners

The thought that lead me to these conclusions was both terrifying and yet almost comical:

  • We have been inadvertent planetary engineers for centuries
  • We have only just learnt that fact a few decades ago
  • We are struggling to put into place mechanisms to regulate the climate of a planet.

Looked at from that perspective I think I laughed: not a maniacal “We’re all doomed! Doomed I tell ya!” kind of laugh, but more a chuckle at the hubris of our species.

“We need to manage a planet!” I thought to myself.

Collectively and with wisdom and foresight.

You can see why my response was laughter.

And it helped me understand the denial movement even better.

Why wouldn’t the mind recoil from such a thought? The responsibility it entails, and the certitude that would must likely fail. Can we blame more timid souls for wanting to reject not only the idea of climate change, but that we have become like gods?

That we are now planetary engineers?

Who would not be terrified at that thought?

And so I’ve been mulling on those thoughts for the last six months.

The political and scientific landscape: a house divided

A recent news story that reveals the depths of our failure:

“….Governments of the world’s richest countries have given up on forging a new treaty on climate change to take effect this decade, with potentially disastrous consequences for the environment through global warming.

Ahead of critical talks starting next week, most of the world’s leading economies now privately admit that no new global climate agreement will be reached before 2016 at the earliest, and that even if it were negotiated by then, they would stipulate it could not come into force until 2020.

The eight-year delay is the worst contemplated by world governments during 20 years of tortuous negotiations on greenhouse gas emissions, and comes despite intensifying warnings from scientists and economists about the rapidly increasing dangers of putting off prompt action.”

The Guardian, 20 November 2011

The current round of talks between nations at Durban (COP17) will produce nothing of substance. No-one believes otherwise.

Kyoto will not have an effective successor. “Rich” nations are abandoning the process – much to the anger of the developed world. We may get an agreement ratified in 2020. Or not.

Between our species dithering, the simple, elegant algorithm of more CO2 being pumped into the atmosphere will see an inevitable rise in global temperatures.

Last year saw a record 9 billion tonnes of CO2 pumped into the atmosphere – despite near universal acceptance of the science amongst the world’s governments. Coal usage is going up:

“…Global carbon dioxide emissions from fossil-fuel combustion and cement production grew 5.9% in 2010, surpassed 9 Pg of carbon (Pg C) for the first time, and more than offset the 1.4% decrease in 2009. The impact of the 2008–2009 global financial crisis (GFC) on emissions has been short-lived owing to strong emissions growth in emerging economies, a return to emissions growth in developed economies, and an increase in the fossil-fuel intensity of the world economy.”

The Hadley Centre in the UK has just released a report stating there are serious risk of catastrophic climate change with a temperatures rising up to six degrees:

“…This report highlights some of the very real dangers we face if we don’t limit emissions to combat the rise in global temperature. Life for millions of people could change forever, with water and food supplies being placed in jeopardy and homes and livelihoods under threat. This makes the challenge of reducing emissions ever more urgent.”

Note to readers, that’s catastrophic:

“…In Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet… Mark Lynas draws on the latest science to describe the world under warming scenarios ranging from 1° (bad) to 6°C (unimaginably bad). He sums up the task with brutal candour: “we have only seven years left to peak global emissions before facing escalating dangers of runaway global warming. I am the first to admit that this task looks hopelessly unattainable.”

However before we chastise our politicians for being “short-sighted” (or negligent) I think we should remember not one civilisation – let alone species – has learnt the art of planetary management.

Could we have really expected any better?

We’ve just witnessed the spectacle of politicians in the US almost allowing their country to default on their national debt.

The reports by individuals – now just emerging – present at COP15 in Copenhagen in that conferences final hours paint a picture enormous division.

Should we be surprised when we’re hopelessly divided on so many issues?

Tens of millions in the US and across the globe reject the basic findings of science (the age of the Earth, evolution, climate change and the effectiveness of vaccines).

Millions can’t agree that women are equal to those of us with penises.

And we’re asking our species to manage an entire planet for the collective well-being of seven billion individuals?

And the countless billions of other lifeforms?

It is more than likely beyond the capabilities of our political systems, science and our best intentions.

To paraphrase the language of IPCC reports there is “high confidence” based on “robust evidence” that will most likely fail in our attempts to act as planetary engineers.

Because there are limits that even our own god-like species cannot transgress.

Goodbye global agreement and “green revolution”, hello Anthropocene

“…Of many wheels I view, wheel without wheel, with cogs tyrannic
Moving by compulsion each other: not as those in Eden…”
– WIlliam Blake

I’m letting go of the Enlightenment belief that progress is inevitable and that a solution will be presented to us as a kind of dues ex-machina.

Why?

Because civilisations fall.

Species go extinct.

Because asteroids periodically slam into the Earth.

Because the Earth abides, but very little else.

Because fate is indifferent to our species.

Because we have now entered the anthropocene.

And so I could not write, because I was afraid to think or share that conclusion. Because such a view runs counter the attempts of so many others to remain upbeat and optimistic.

“Don’t sound pessimistic!” is the message that many in the “environmental” movement repeat like a mantra.

I understand why many activists – from grass-roots activists, GetUp!, Greenpeace and activist scientists – are focussed on being upbeat:

  • You can change the future!
  • If we switch to 100% renewable now, we’ll avoid climate change!
  • We need a revolution in people’s thinking!

As they rightly point out, apathy is a kind of death. Individuals will act if they feel that they are making an actual contribution. But now I find such messaging styles nothing more than a steady drip, drip, drip of faux cheerfulness that’s more about marketing a message than reality.

I appreciate the strategy behind such communication campaigns. They need to engage people, and inspire hope.

To which the central message I thought I needed to deliver was…what exactly?

What ever it is, it is the very opposite of the cheery-she’ll-be-right messages of activists and environmentalists.

After silence: Post-climate change Handbook

No wiser words have been spoken:

History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamour of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people
– Marin Luther King

So my “message” that we should give up: should I simply remain silent?

Did not James Lovelock recently declare we should just “drink and be merry” because there is nothing we can do?

“…The man who achieved global fame for his theory that the whole earth is a single organism now believes that we can only hope that the earth will take care of itself in the face of completely unpredictable climate change.”

Interviewed by Today presenter John Humphrys, videos of which you can see below, he said that while the earth’s future was utterly uncertain, mankind was not aware it had “pulled the trigger” on global warming as it built its civilizations.

Not quite: there are many things we can do. But it requires us to relinquish some modes of thought and fixed ideas.

It is something I’m trying to capture in what I’m tentatively calling the “Post-climate handbook”. What I’m arguing for is perhaps somewhat different – perhaps a little radical.

In essence I’m suggesting individuals and activist groups consider the following:

  • Seizing political control at the local level –both at the state government and local government level in order to have control over local resources and planning
  • Abandoning notions of global agreements and “revolutions” in clean energy. Instead, encourage a focus on the 10-20 kilometres around you in order to survive. It is now about the security of food and water supplies and the maintenance of critical infrastructure necessary to support an advanced technology society
  • Fostering the individual’s network within local communities in order to build resilience for climate, food and economic shocks
  • Planning for a less affluent lifestyle in developed countries, as “consumers” will have far less “choice” due to external forces
  • Acting as custodians of the “best” of our species culture: the scientific method, concepts of equality, democracy, our art and poetry: because they are worth preserving for future generations.

Chapter by chapter I hope to publish for open review and criticism of readers.

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5 responses to “High confidence, robust evidence: report on a failed experiment in planetary engineering

  1. “Individuals will act if they feel that they are making an actual contribution. But now I find such messaging styles nothing more than a steady drip, drip, drip of faux cheerfulness that’s more about marketing a message than reality.”

    Sadly, I’m in full agreement with you here. I’ve often been chastised for my pessimism; but from my point of view it’s not pessimism, it’s realism; and the optimism of others — the mode they internalise as ‘realism’, is simply a symptom of insanity.

    You are a member of the transition network, right?

    PS more typos:
    s/tomorrow “Save the whales!” next?/tomorrow “Save the whales!”?/
    s/and the certitude that would must likely fail/and the certitude that it would most likely fail/
    s/there are serious risk of catastrophic climate change/there are serious risks of catastrophic climate change/ (no shit)
    s/with a temperatures rising up to six degrees/with a temperatures rising up to six degrees/
    s/in that conferences final hours/in that conference’s final hours
    s/paint a picture enormous division/paint a picture of enormous division/
    s/that will most likely fail/that we will most likely fail/
    s/- WIlliam Blake/- William Blake/
    s/dues ex-machina/deus ex-machina/
    s/What ever it is/Whatever it is/
    s/- Marin Luther King/- Martin Luther King/

    s/So my “message” that we should give up/
    … not sure about this one; maybe:
    /So if my “message” is that we should give up/?

  2. Cheers for the kind words Mike.

    Focusing on any such problem does require time off to absorb / recalibrate. I’ve been there a number of times. The worst for me was one day when it dawned on me that I had no interest engaging with the die-hard deniers of reason; it was neither productive or entertaining. But I had been doing it for so long, I had no idea what I really wanted to say or how I felt about a whole range of topics I had been writing about.

    Time away from it reminded me why I started writing – sustainability. Researching on the subject further than my education had taken me, for my writing made me “pessimistic” about an eventual realisation and change in human activity.

    “I’m letting go of the Enlightenment belief that progress is inevitable and that a solution will be presented to us as a kind of deus ex-machina.”

    Exactly.

    The road ahead will be one of adaptation, not mitigation (species loss as well as climate change).

  3. Terrific post. Thank you so much.

    We can only predict the climate and ocean changes – we really have no idea how human civilization will fare. We can note civilization crashes of the past – they all seem to have a few stragglers that survive – — but that is the core issue right now – our actions today will determine how many survive 50 years from now – if we continue extravagant carbon combustion then it is likely game-over for most biological life form that might require regulated and moderate heat. If we reduce (self-sacrifice) then maybe our children and grandchildren have a chance to help the species and culture survive.

    The sadness is that our life styles of today are completely un-sustainable… and our future civilization may be unattainable – remember that most climate models are built around the year 2100 end date – but warming and destabilization will continue. .

    Certainly there is very little cultural change so far. Meaning when the big realization comes, it will be very chaotic.

  4. When I heard the word “Anthropocene” I went through a sort of religious conversion, it effected all aspects of my relationship with the world. Among other things, I realized that the world had become our garden. Where you seem to be retrenching, I believe education is the answer. I believe that the concept of the Anthropocene can be a nucleus for Progressive philosophy, which now seems to be disparate intuitions and ideas. The concept of the Anthropocene can change our understanding of individual behavior, group behavior, our relationship with ourselves, our planet, and our future. I want to hear what you think of my ideas and strategy. Like you, I have not produced much lately. I am trying to get a better understanding of how to achieve my goals. If a lunatic blogs and nobody reads it, does he make a sound? I suspect not. I believe the Anthropocene can change our culture and I want to make it happen. My blog is best read from the bottom to the top. WelcomeToTheAnthropocene.com

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