Hoping for a warning shot

by Milan on May 11, 2011

in Climate change, Climate science

The idea that people are smart enough to foresee hazards and take steps to avoid them is a comforting one; certainly, it holds more appeal than the idea that we are doomed to blunder into disaster after disaster. That being said, the task is a distinctly challenging one, and one that brushes up against the limits of knowledge and even of what can be known.

Evaluating how dangerous something is is a challenging undertaking, particularly when the thing being considered is new and novel. In many circumstances, it is only when an individual, state, or firm has been substantially harmed by some new phenomenon that they begin thinking seriously about how to deal with it. It is possible that climate change will offer such an opportunity, but only if some specific criteria are met:

  1. There needs to be a ‘warning shot’ that alarms people
  2. It must be clearly attributable to climate change, not just among scientists but among politicians and the general public
  3. It must come soon enough that it allows people to start on the long road to decarbonization, before we have emitted enough carbon to commit the planet to far worse warming effects

Quite possibly, this combination will never transpire. It may be that the effects of climate change creep up gradually while the public debate remains confused and that, by the time the effects are clear enough to motivate action, it will be too late to prevent radical and dangerous changes like the disintegration of ice sheets.

Overwhelmingly, human beings behave like an uncoordinated flock of birds or school of fish. Each one responds to its local environment – what it can see, and the incentives presented to it – and the behaviour of the mass emerges from the accumulation of those small choices. While there are mechanisms for large-scale organization, such as national governments, their priorities are often defined by short-term concerns, and designed according to an imperfect understanding of what was going on.

All that was adequate when the challenges facing humanity were relatively short-term and manageable: cold winters, failed harvests, hostile animals and microorganisms, etc. When it comes to complex global problems that unfold on the scale of decades, centuries, and millennia, there seems to be much less reason to be optimistic that humanity will cope. Here’s hoping we manage to rise above that pessimistic appraisal, and that nature gives us a nudge in the right direction in the next few years. Otherwise, we may find ourselves a regretful collection of billions in a few decades’ time.

The logic of inaction is very powerful. I feel it myself. When voters again and again reject the option of taking action on climate change, it becomes dispiriting and exhausting to keep advocating policies to decarbonize the economy. At the same time, personal commitments like avoiding flying can be hard to maintain when nobody else is making similar sacrifices, as well as when opportunities to see interesting parts of the world are slipping away.

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Byron Smith May 11, 2011 at 8:16 pm

You are not the only one making personal commitments that cost (in the short term). But I like the metaphor of the school/flock. It points to why such commitments are important: each of us are local to various others, and exert a small influence on those who will, in turn, influence their neighbours as well. In such ways are flocks turned.

Milan May 11, 2011 at 10:30 pm

For most of my life, I have aspired to travel all over the world. Now, I feel a bit frustrated to avoid flying while others do so excessively for trivial reasons. Furthermore, I worry that the opportunities that exist now won’t exist in the future. I may be more tied down with obligations, less healthy, or otherwise restricted in my ability to travel. The international political climate could also be more hostile to tourism, and it’s possible that fossil fuels will become prohibitively expensive in the decades ahead.

As such, I feel anxious that I am making an irredeemable sacrifice that will be rendered meaningless, since it is the actions of everybody in aggregate that will determine how bad climate change will be, and my own contribution is so minuscule as to not be noticeable.

Robert May 12, 2011 at 12:24 am

Hi Milan,

Your newly elected government is making oil from sands a priority and the US is licking its chops. How far ahead can people really see a problem. I would encourage you to fly selectively. As you say, there are trivial reasons and good reasons. The best reasons are to learn and experience things that can change your life. Do it. Avoid shallow tourism as it contributes little to your aggregate understanding of life. Go for the gold! The real depth of understanding. Anyway, that’s my two cents.

. October 21, 2012 at 9:48 pm

Seminal Study Finds ‘Climate-Change Footprint’ In North America, ‘Continent With The Largest Increases in Disasters’

By Joe Romm on Oct 21, 2012 at 12:21 pm

“Climate­-driven changes are already evident over the last few decades for severe thunderstorms, for heavy precipitation and flash flood­ing, for hurricane activity, and for heatwave, drought and wild­-fire dynamics in parts of North America.”

So concludes Munich Re, a top reinsurer, in a major new study that, for the first time, links the rapid rise in North American extreme weather catastrophes to manmade climate change.

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