Surprising climate change

–Am I taking complexity’s chief effect, surprise, too seriously? “The Riddle we can guess/We speedily despise–/Not anything is stale so long/As Yesterday’s surprise–,” Emily Dickinson put it. Even so, each surprise is its own kind of fresh start, isn’t it?

–Surprise start(le)s the possible. For G.L.S. Shackle, British economist, possibility inverts surprise: The larger one’s surprise that something will happen, the less possible it is from the perspective of the person concerned. To ask what would be the biggest surprise in Global Climate Change (GCC) is to ask what would be the most counter-expected or unexpected event with respect to it.

When I ask, I’m told the most surprising eventuality would be things become far worse far faster, but in unimaginable ways. But wouldn’t the total surprise be, namely: Most everyone most everywhere benefits as a result of GCC? This would have to mean more than producing local sites of net benefit, i.e.,  some countries, regions or people benefit in aggregate from climate change, while most do not. Rather, the greatest surprise here would be that “business as usual” in intervening in climate change makes things better for far more people and the planet than currently supposed. The real surprise would be if we managed our way through GCC with no more than the counter-measures already underway or in the pipeline (note: business as usual does not mean do-nothing).

For Shackle, the more surprising, the less possible. How then could such a counter-expected event about GCC even be possible? One such possibility is that the complexity of global climate change—it’s complex because the planet is complex—not only produces surprise, but also unpredictable options and strategies with which to ride the surprise. Luck, as they keep saying, favors the well-prepared. “Luck is not chance–/It’s Toil–/Fortune’s expensive smile/Is earned–” Emily Dickinson also wrote. No guarantees, of course.

–In what sense, though, is GCC that complex? One possible answer is that of well-known philosopher of science, Roy Bhaskar: While the world is real, it is more complexly real than humans with their instruments can cognitively grasp. Should climate change be real in the Bhaskar scientific sense, its reality must as well be more differentiated than uniform, unknowable and not just unknown, more immanent or emergent than fixed, right? In this view (and again it is a possibility only) knowledge isn’t static and it is unrealistic to assume surprise (and so, necessarily, knowledge) is all negative, or even on net, negative.

Against this backdrop, insistent catastrophism over GCC reduces to a permanent critique of a complexly surprising reality: It is permanent because it asserts reality does not have any such possibility and it is critique because no possibility could be anything but negative (or, in aggregate, negative). What then to do, when there is no possibility (meaning no surprises), because it already is a matter of being too little, too late?

But has GCC become sufficiently simple to understand as catastrophism? In complexity, luck is possible everywhere, ranging from the “inevitable” bad luck of climate change contingencies to the “unexpectedly” lucky breaks and happy accidents climate change brings about.

–“Excuse me,” you respond: “What ‘lucky breaks and happy accidents’ are you talking about when it comes to GCC!”

To see how, let’s focus on a recent major review of the published research on the impacts of climate change: Mora et al (2018). “Broad threat to humanity from cumulative climate hazards intensified by greenhouse gas emissions.” Review Article in online Nature Climate Change (https://doi.org/10.1038/s41558-018-0315-6).

Here is what the article concludes in its main text (full text given): 

“Our assessment of the literature yielded a small number of positive and neutral responses of human systems to climate hazard exposure (reviewed in Supplementary Note 2). We surmise that the reduced number of positive or neutral impacts may be real, but may also reflect a research bias towards the study of detrimental impacts (discussed under Caveats in the Methods). This small set of positive and neutral impacts, however, cannot counterbalance any of the many detrimental impacts that were uncovered in our literature search, particularly when many of these impacts are related to the loss of human lives, basic supplies such as food and water, and undesired states for human welfare such as access to jobs, revenue and security.” (my italics)

Now go to the Caveats section for further details (again, no edits):

“Although our survey of the literature yielded some case examples of adaptations, positive and differential impacts (Supplementary Note 2), these are unlikely to reflect the full scope of the adaptations, opportunities and trade-offs associated with climate hazards. The large array of cases that we uncovered with a systematic literature search on only climatic impacts suggests that a better understanding of those issues (adaptations, positive and differential impacts) will require their own comprehensive analyses.”

The reader’s curiosity, being piqued, will then lead to the Supplementary Note 2, where this passage is found (this lengthy passage of examples edited only for cited references):

“Although the majority of reported impacts were deleterious to humanity, some climate hazards led to beneficial impacts and in other cases no observable responses. Reduction in malaria transmission in Senegal and Niger was attributed to loss of mosquito breeding habitats brought about by drought and habitat loss. Drought and storms occasionally increased nutrient content in surviving crops, whereas drought in neighboring countries increased availability of game animals in Namibia. Drought and natural land cover change were in some cases reported to improve water quality due to decreased nutrient runoff into streams. Warming reduced seasonal affective disorders, and mortality during winters, although the latter is controversial and unlikely to outnumber increases in heat-related mortality. Flood exposure increased social trust, and the likelihood of people to vote. Changes in ocean chemistry altered the distribution of marine organisms increasing availability in certain fisheries. Warmer temperatures have increased tourism flow toward colder destinations in the UK and the Alps. The Alaskan whale watching industry benefited from changes in ocean chemistry leading to changes in whale migration patterns, allowing for longer viewing seasons. Since the 1970s, there has been significant sea ice reduction in the Arctic providing increasingly navigable waters and shortening the shipping distances between ports. There were also cases where changes in climate hazards did not result in observable responses. For instance, societal impacts of floods and storms have not been found to contribute to the onset of civil conflict as changes in other hazards have.”

At this point, step back and undertake a thought experiment. Reverse the order of the passages, so that passage from the supplementary material precedes that from the caveat, both of which in turn are now said to lead to the original conclusion, as follows:

“Although the majority of reported impacts were deleterious to humanity, some climate hazards led to beneficial impacts and in other cases no observable responses. These [case examples] are unlikely to reflect the full scope of the adaptations, opportunities and trade-offs associated with climate hazards. The large array of cases that we uncovered with a systematic literature search on only climatic impacts suggests that a better understanding of those issues (adaptations, positive and differential impacts) will require their own comprehensive analyses. This small set of positive and neutral impacts, however, cannot counter-balance any of the many detrimental impacts that were uncovered in our literature search.

Now it’s my turn to say, “Excuse me?” Where did that “cannot counter-balance any of the many detrimental” come from? Isn’t something lost when reducing the “large array” of case examples to a “small set”? Isn’t the conclusion of the re-ordered passages that the researchers need to do more research—and more comprehensive research at that—before concluding as they did?

–Am I saying this article is representative of climate change meta-analyses? No. Am I saying GCC is a Good Thing? No.

What I am saying is that luck is and will be an important part of GCC response, and for luck to be good, the prepared have to be ready and there. Where then are all those ecologists making the real-time decisions in infrastructure control rooms on whether to open the gate now and save the manatee or shut it and put the other aquatic habitat at risk? Where are all those atmospheric scientists making the real-time decisions in infrastructure control rooms about whether to use this generator or that generator in order to meet prevailing ozone standards on this day and this hour? Where are all those fish biologists making the real-time decisions in infrastructure control rooms to adjust facility temperatures within this or that bandwidth without jeopardizing nearby spawning populations?

How else but managing better in real time are we expected to determine if catastrophism’s too-little-too-late actually holds?

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