The political anticlimax of climate change

Our planet is warming up. Scientists agree that global average temperature is about 0.6oC higher than it was a century ago and that atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide have risen by about 30 percent over the past 200 years, mostly because of the burning of fossil fuels. Although the causal link between the increase in greenhouse gases and global warming cannot be unequivocally established, there is widespread consensus amongst scientists that global warming is man-made. There are data that contradict this consensus; for example, satellite measurements of the upper atmosphere where temperatures have remained virtually unchanged and deep ocean temperature measurements which indicate that oceans are in fact cooling. Other factors may be attributing to global warming too, such as atmospheric soot, land-use change, and solar variations, as well as natural processes which we do not understand yet. Scientists, in trying to understand disparate data and thus explain global warming, build so-called models, which are mathematical simulations of measured facts and logical hypotheses. These models are run on powerful computers and their efficacy is tested by means of their predictability. Current climate models are quite sophisticated and most of them predict a rise in global temperatures of around 10C in the next 50 to 100 years.

It is important to understand that although few disagree that global warming is real, the interplay between anthropogenic climate forcings and natural processes is a difficult one to establish. Our planet is an extremely complex system of natural feedback systems in constant interplay and, therefore, in unremitting change. For example, the history of climate on Earth, as revealed by science, shows that 500 million years ago temperatures were 80C higher than today; and levels of carbon dioxide many times higher too. Antarctica glaciated around 30 million years ago, probably due to plate tectonics that caused a restriction in the flow of ocean currents. Temperatures started falling below today’s average around 3 million years ago and the world entered into alternating ice-age cycles, the last one ending 10,000 years ago. Since then we live in what has been called “the long summer”, and it is no coincidence that farming and civilization arose around the same time.

Faced with undoubted scientific facts as well as scientific uncertainties, pressured from environmental groups who see their day, overwhelmed by media hype that feeds upon the theme of climatic apocalypse, western political thinkers have devised policies to avert climate change. The main premise of such policies is to “fix” future climate by reducing the burning of fossil fuels today. The argument for such policies is economic; climate change according to certain economic analyses will be devastating and, therefore, action should be taken today to avert future consequences.

Both the premise and the argument are debatable. Earth’s climate is always changing and the world can only accept change, embrace it and prepare for it. “Fixing” is an engineering term that assumes a deterministic understanding of the system to be fixed; something which does not apply to Earth’s climate. We are simply too ignorant, and too arrogant, to want to fix Earth’s climate by twiddling concentrations of carbon dioxide over the ensuing decades. Suggestions for “positive Geo-engineering” (altering Earth’s climate towards a “preferred” state by disrupting natural processes) reflect the logical extend of such a misled, potentially dangerous, and much criticized, approach.

Although there is widespread scientific consensus on the anthropogenic causes of climate change, economic analyses on the future impact of climate change are very disparate. For example, the Stern Report to the UK government, which estimated the cost of carbon dioxide at 86$ per ton, has been challenged as too overblown; most economists estimate it between 2 and 12$. Other economists argue that funds spent to fix climate will be withheld from other, more crucial and more urgent causes such as world poverty, tropical diseases or the spread of AIDS.

Proposed climate policies are also under scrutiny. “Market-based” greenhouse gas reduction schemes, such as cap-and-trade, promote the development of a carbon cartel seeking to exploit the system to make profits. Political considerations affect carbon markets and carbon lobbyists are having a field day. The carbon markets can never be truly open, and therefore market forces will be perennially superseded by politics and political corruption. “Green tax” schemes, although more effective, will be extremely unpopular to enforce, not only in the US but also in the EU where petrol prices are already heavily taxed by governments. It is no coincidence that, despite big talk from European leaders, Kyoto targets have not been met by the majority of EU members. Everyone knows that reducing the burning of fossil fuels, or increasing fuel taxes, will adversely affect economic growth and jobs in developed countries, particularly in times of economic downturn and recession; it will also put in peril economic advancement of the energy-hungry developing world. It is a dismal sign of our media-weary times that not one western politician seems brave enough to contradict global groupthink.

And yet the world ought not to remain inactive. Dependence on fossil fuels is politically and economically precarious for the West, as the case of Iran, the deliria of Chavez and the conflict in Georgia amply demonstrate. Continuing global economic development and prosperity needs vast amounts of environmentally-benign energy that must be found and made available to all, without the threat of blackmail by cartels and dictators. The long-term solution will have to come from massive public and private investment in research on renewable forms of energy, such as wind and solar, as well as safer nuclear. Climate change is an unavoidable part of living on a planet with an atmosphere. Future generations will be better prepared to face it – and better off – if we, instead of alluding to ineffective policies, we tap humanity’s greatest asset: our inner world of ideas.

This article was commissioned for the Athens News

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The roots (and futility) of conservation

The modern idea of conservation was born in 19th century evangelical United States and has its roots in literary – i.e. anti-evolution – Christian ideas about life on Earth and the age of our planet. According to these ideas, life on Earth is static and does not evolve. It was created ex nihilo by an omnipotent designer a few thousand years ago. The last of the Designer’s creation, mankind, was bestowed the obligation of presiding and preserving Earth’s Garden of Life, God’s Creation. Hence, the creation of Yellowstone, the first national natural park of the world, was vociferously argued by Theodore Roosevelt on the basis of Christian duty, thus swinging the republican vote in favor of spending a considerable sum of federal money on the project.

Since then, natural conservation has an aura of sanctity about it. This sanctity has an appeal for many, and brings together very disparate groups of people under one umbrella, namely the “saving of the planet”. Such a premise is misled, unscientific and dangerous.

I have already argued the reasons for being misled. It is unscientific because to try to “preserve” a dynamic system such is life on Earth is simply futile. It is like trying to preserve a sunny day for ever. The difference is one of time scale only. Our “sunny day” is the Pleistocene (plus Holocene – for those who like making the distinction) Era. We, today, see the world in an evolutionary, geological and climatic snapshot of its last 1.8 million years. However, the film reel so-far is 4.5 billion years, or 4,500 million years. “Conservation”, in the sense that is currently dominant, is the unscientific attempt to stop the film of evolution.

That is why conservation can be also dangerous. The current climate debate is an example. The idea that humanity can somehow “stop” the planet getting warmer, and somehow” return” to a pre-industrial time of low CO2 levels, is not only unscientific and futile, but diverts considerable global resources to the wrong kind of project.

So what can the “right” project be? Certainly not to lay waste on Mother Earth by polluting the air, the ground and the sea, and killing every living species! The idea of conservation must undergo serious scientific overhaul. The emphasis should shift from static to dynamic, and should encompass three main action areas:

Increase our understanding on Earth’s systems and their interplay. Instead of studying systems separately, we need a cross-disciplinary approach to include the concurrent study of geological, climatic (i.e. atmospheric and oceanic), space and life feedback systems.

  • Develop monitoring systems to observe and measure human interference with Earth’s feedback systems.
  • Develop technologies that can support a comfortable and healthy life for all human beings, which operate in harmony with Earth’s feedback systems.

The current political, and dominant scientific, agenda must change.

Temnothorax de Condorset

How the collective intelligence of social animals can provide a new paradigm for ecological decision-making (notes of a lecture at Panteion University)

Marquis de Condorcet (1743-1794) was a pioneer in applying mathematics to the social sciences. His jury theorem states that if each member of a voting group is more likely than not to make a correct decision, the probability that the highest vote of the group is the correct decision increases as the number of members of the group increases. The sum of information available per juror is also proportional to the probability of the correct decision, which means that the more individuals jurors know (or understand) the more likely is that a correct decision will be reached. Democracies are thus theoretically, or potentially, better than dictatorships because they can solve problems better by means of collective decisions. However, as a recent article in the Economist correctly pointed our, human societies are prone to groupthink which neutralizes the benefits of the jury theorem.

Groupthink is typically found in modern parliaments where members vote along party lines, regardless of information available. In societies at large groupthink often manifests as a result of brainwashing by the media. For example, once the financial crisis became headline news terrorists “disappeared”. Terrorists and terrorism, was the mainstay of media output since 9/11, as if the world was at the brink of being blown up by a mad suicide atom-bomber. Groupthink in the western world meant that citizens conditioned their political thinking under the spectre of terrorist threat, mainly coming from so-called Islamo-fascists dreaming of resurrecting the caliphate of the Middle Ages. All that has disappeared now, and replaced with a new enemy of the people: the amoral bankers. The new fear is losing everything, job, savings, home in a black financial hole.

Along with the terrorists global warming has also disappeared from the foreground. Who cares about the melting of arctic ice when there is a meltdown of financial institutions? And so on.

So the question arises how are we, the human race, become able to deal with global problems (poverty, ecology, financial institutions, epidemics, etc.) when we are constantly swayed by the forever trembling cyclopic eye of the media? How can we, the jurors, arrive at the best possible decisions, when information is restricted, or conditioned by groupthink?

A possible answer may come from evolutionary biology. Darwinian sociobiologists studying the behaviour of social animals such as bees and ants, are beginning to understand the way those creatures chose between various options. The ant species Temnothorax albipennis, studied by Nigel Franks of the University of Bristol, establishes a new nest by attenuating information-sharing of best routes amongst scouts. When a suitable place is identified the scouts begin to lead other scouts to the new site. To speed things up, the ants have developed a strategy whereby efficiency is increased by means of leading scouts back to the nest via the quickest route during the phase of migration. Thus, by going to and fro, more scouts become familiar with the route and the speed by which migration takes place increases. This type of dynamic – termed by the researches “reverse tandem runs” – resembles the loading of connections in a network.

Perhaps then, the ants shows us the way too. Human networks may provide the answer to getting over groupthink, and utilizing human collective intelligence and collective decision-making. There are two main characteristics in human networks: firstly, that most individuals have few connections (some friends and family members only) and only a few are highly connected (the “connectors”); secondly, networks are clustered, i.e. they tend to build around specific social groups (e.g. sharing the same profession, or hobby, etc.). If we manage to find strategies in human networks whereby we connectors increase the load of connections by means of increased information, then we may be able to get over the groupthink problem. Connectors have an obvious evolutionary motive to perform this task, namely to safeguard – or increase – their prominence and status in the network. To validate information passed to a network by the connectors, one may use the power of clustering. In clusters, peers are able to perform instant validation of information. This is apparent in readers’ commentary in news websites, as well as wikis.

Collective decisions are complex but so are the problems that currently face humanity. Current global institutions, such the UN, or the IMF, or the G7, are built on 20th century ideas and technologies. We must now develop new technologies and ideas in order to tap on the collective intelligence of human networks. The democracy of the 21st century will have to be less representative and more direct, in a totally new way.