Looking through history, especially the history of thought, you often come across pronouncements of profound limitations. Only for a paradigm shift to leave these notions in the dust.
The “Malthusian Trap” may be the best example of this. It shows how easy it is to get caught in modern paradigms, extrapolating only from what is currently possible or emphasised.
But are these limits always transitory, or can they actually be more fundamental?
I’ve been wondering this after a recent interview where Vaclav Smil posits that we are on the cusp of the limits of energy efficiency:
If you look at the fundamentals of human existence, the yield of crops, the energy which we save by making materials, the energy we save by making better converters, no matter if it’s turbines, or cars, all these things which run our economy are basically improving at a rate of one, or two, or at best about 3 percent a year…
It’s actually becoming more and more difficult to wring out even those 3 percent, because there are many things here. We are approaching thermodynamic or straight pneumatic limits with many of these things. This idea of dematerialization, decreasing the energy intensity — fine, you can keep doing it, but you cannot do it forever. If I built a house, I can make it lighter, but I will still need some steel, some lumber, some tiles, some glass. I cannot make it not using material. This is another kind of false god — dematerialization and decrease of energy efficiency. Energy efficiency is helpful, it’s happening all the time, but it has its own thermodynamic and material limits.
Can we simply innovate our way past continued consumption growth and trust compounding efficiency to make up the difference? Or are we up against something more fundamental?
Building my daily news emails, it’s staggering the dearth of good climate coverage. It’s few and far between, and much of what exists is caught up in prevention.
Absolutely we need to reduce emissions and avoid 2 degrees. But we have also already locked in a certain amount of pain that will need to be managed.
This is especially true in countries like Sri Lanka that have (relatively) negligible per person emissions and little scope for further reduction. Many of these areas will also bear the brunt, thanks to geography and economics etc.
One example of it being done well is The Guardian reporting on a heatwave that shut down some Scottish distilleries for up to a month last year. The quotes towards the end suggest this is just the beginning of a shift.
Experts fear that last year’s conditions may not be unusual in future. This week the environment agency is hosting a “drought summit” in London with water company bosses, as fears grow over similar temperatures this summer. Research has shown that last summer’s heatwave was made about 30 times more likely by the human-caused climate emergency. Some estimate that such heatwaves could be happening every other year by 2050 if emissions continue to increase…
…Helen Gavin, who researches climate breakdown and drought at the University of Oxford’s Environmental Change Institute, said such extreme events place stress on the environment and the economy. “There’s an impact already,” she said. “It’s not just hot and dry summers, but strange weather like we’ve just had – 18C in February, that’s just weird. And that messes up biological and agricultural cycles.”
This isn’t isolated. And, interestingly, some distilleries appear to have foreseen and planned for this. That can be replicated as long as the problem is made salient.
Around the world we’re already seeing the impact of increased climate variability in droughts, floods, heatwaves etc. We have to start dealing with it, and that means drawing attention to the increased probability of weather events.
It means highlighting what policy makers should do about city planning and building codes, helping people and businesses that are disproportionately affected, sorting out food and other supplies etc. etc.
We have to stop treating the 2 degree limit as if it’s the finish line of a race that hasn’t started.
As usually my emphasis
A consequence of the last decade-plus of mindless, saturation media is an endless parade of “experts” and “pundits” who have little at stake and pay no price for mistakes.
The very loud people who oppose action on climate change, for instance. Even business lobbies are often add odds with businesses, many of which are already planning for a changed climate.
There’s a brilliant article on VoxEu about the people who do have money on the line:
In our recent paper (Schlenker and Taylor 2019), we look at weather derivatives in financial markets to assess beliefs about climate. We find that traders have been pricing in a warming trend that is closely aligned with the projections of scientific climate models, as well as the observed weather outcomes during that time…
…Futures prices closely follow the predictions of climate scientists, which, on average, appear to have materialised, thus validating the climate models. This close agreement between markets and models implies that traders are taking into consideration the scientific consensus on climate change when making trades. Overall, we find that the market has been accurately pricing in climate change, largely in line with global climate models, and that this began occurring at least since the early 2000s when the weather futures markets were formed.
There are plenty of liquid markets where someone with a contrarian take on climate change or the housing market (etc.) could make a lot of money.
It isn’t enough that you were “right last time”. That could have been a fluke. That might have been one correct prediction after many wrong ones.
In the real world that batting average doesn’t work. So, journalists should ask for receipts.
If an expert or pundit makes a bold claim they need to put their money where their mouth is. Otherwise it’s just hot air.
The title is from a tweet by Kate Mackenzie, although I’m unsure if she was referencing someone else.
It highlights a central problem in tackling climate change.
By now most educated people around the world are at least aware of anthropogenic climate change. Even if they refuse to accept it.
So the problem is not really one of education, but salience. Even if most are aware of, and intellectually accept, the phenomena, it’s just not present in their day to day lives.
Climate change is already devastating farmers with increased variability and hammering certain exposed communities. But for most it only really exists in the periodic news report. It’s like a far away war or natural disaster – easy to miss in an increasingly comfortable and abstracted day to day.
Given both the looming catastrophe and what we know of the health impact of pollution, it’s insufficient to simply “inform people” and sit back – the most comfortable mode for the news media.
Accurate reporting and discussion of climate change is more than highlighting the results. We have to engage with the process. The currently invisible must be made unmissable.
The question is – how do you turn something that takes place subtly and slowly, often only visible in the varied probability and intensity of “normal” events, into something that can’t be missed? That affects their day to day?
How do you increase salience?
For the last several years, Whitham said, he and his colleagues had used a series of experimental gardens to study how plants are being affected by warming temperatures—in near real-time—and how their populations might evolve due to climate change…
…In these gardens, located in various ecosystems and elevations around the Southwest—from deserts to alpine forests—Whitham planted different genotypes of the same species… Preliminary results from his experimental gardens, 10 in total, suggest that species have already shifted their range in response to changing temperatures.
This is from an article that is almost three years old.
I recently wrote a script to surface old articles from the bottom of my Pocket queue. For years I have added more articles than I’ve read, creating a time capsule of sorts.
This is one of the first articles it spat out. But there’s been a pretty clear oeuvre – the variation, unpredictability and changing extremes associated with climate change have been presented to us consistently, over a long period.
We’ve now known about anthropogenic climate change for an entire generation. And yet there is somehow still a debate about the suitability of alarmism.
There will of course be winners and losers to whatever action is taken, making resistance and motivated scepticism completely rational. But the clear lack of panic among those not already directly affected is not.
There is something broken among both our informational environments and our public discourse that we can continue to treat all of these instances as discrete events, rather than as of a whole. We should all be alarmed.
As always my emphasis.