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, surprise is its own kind of fresh starting point, 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 (

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?

Misadventures by design

–Can there be any scarier phrase in all of public policy and management than “designing leadership”?

We are told we must design leadership because of these contortions:

  • Studies of actual project and policy implementation serve to ratify the status quo, claiming it is a miracle anything gets done as planned or designed (as if there were no design flaws in the first place); where also
  • Policymakers never have had time anyway for social science research findings (either the research finds nothing good to say or finds evidence-based interventions the only good worth saying); where also it’s been assumed that
  • Market-based instruments of management—outsourcing, vouchers, service level agreements, to name three only—determine the design of the public agencies responsible for their implementation, a rather unpromising assumption given the mountain of evidence that bureaucracy frequently determines policy; all of which is said to lead ineluctably to
  • Therefore, better policy and management require, by default, better leaders as our last line of defense; where, however,
  • Leadership looks more and more to be the unexplained variance after politics, dollars and jerks explain most of what is going on anyway. . .

So the fault-filled save-all of “designing” is shackled to the fault-filled catch-all of “leadership.” If we’re lucky, the contortionists will win the fight to be their own worst enemy.

–The promise to rid policy design of its flaws, or to ensure policy governs implementation on the ground, is an example of the magician’s misdirection. By drawing our attention to the problem of better policy design, we miss the fact that such design has always been a weak guide to policy management; and that policy implementation is where much of that management has to take place. The farmer plowing the field in the Brueghel painting was right in not attending to Icarus, all hubris, crashing into and flailing about in the sea behind.

–The father of artist Max Ernst is said to have painted a picture of his garden but was so upset at having to leave out a tree for compositional reasons that the he had the tree cut down in order to match the picture. I worked with project designers, engineers, ecologists and economists, who saw their worlds the same way. I still feel the shiver of shame of having had village trees cut down for a road that never came.

–I was involved in a college urban environmental project, where what students were taught and what they found on the ground were not just different but orthogonal:

  • Vacant lots were said to be ideal for community gardens but could not be used for gardening because prior use had rendered the soils toxic (that is why they were vacant);
  • Daylighting city creeks was recommended to improve public access to a restored natural area. Local residents preferred instead leaving creeks inaccessible rather than opening them to out-of-sight criminal behavior;
  • A clean-up campaign to reduce street litter became something more when the gloves distributed for the effort were pierced by discarded injection needles; and
  • Planting more trees along the street was touted as an ideal urban improvement, but in practice doing so raised liability concerns, ranging from tree roots buckling the sidewalk to cutting away those roots rendering the trees more prone to falling.

Teaching any ideal is worse than misleading if left on its own and not in the bright light of really-existing better practices.

–It is well and good we now understand better that the late 20th century development paradigm, termed the Washington Consensus, was “too formulaic” in its “standard package of free market policies – including openness to trade and investment, fiscal discipline, privatisation and deregulation”.

Nor by this point should it be surprising that the movement in understanding has been from macro-design “solutions” to contingency scenarios that temper the application of design principles across different cases. A World Bank Growth Commission argued, in this way, that there is increased understanding of the positive role that the public sector can play in economic growth, but that this varied case by case. As Michael Spence, Nobel economics laureate on that Commission, said, “No one set of policies will work in all circumstances. An effective strategy as far as I can tell is context specific, country specific, time specific”. So far, so good.

It is quite another matter, however, to acknowledge that some cases of economic growth have neither as sufficient or necessary conditions what the World Bank colleagues recommended by way of promoting economic growth. “Better practices” are always in need of further modification by new or more complex cases.

–As long as the design of laws, policies and regulations are based in a priori principles (inevitable to my mind) and as long as better practices that emerge across a run of cases cannot be distilled into principles without a paralyzing loss of context-rich information (inevitable to my mind), macro-design remains a starting point for reliable behavior in a messy world, but never its end. The sobering implication: Mess and reliability management doesn’t stop; it’s ongoing, always.

Politics, worth quoting

To my mind, even though his language is dated, The Endless Adventure, by Frederick Scott Oliver and published as three volumes in the 1930s, has many great quotes. The book is out of print, so here’s a sampler:

“No politician has ever yet been able to rule his country, nor has any country ever yet been able to face the world, upon the principles of the Sermon on the Mount.”

“Without bringing all the Christian virtues into this discussion, it is enough to say that a positive and strict veracity is impossible for the politician. For truthfulness even forbids you to allow the person you are dealing with to deceive himself.”

“…like water can’t be kept out of most things, so too morals can’t be kept out of human affairs. But it is an external factor not inward gyroscope.”

“A wise politician will never grudge a genuflection…”

“In the years of preparation for a revolution, and afterwards, so soon as order of some kind has been restored, politicians are always busy; nor is it often that the obscurity of either of these periods is dense enough to resist the searchlights of history. But it is different at the actual crisis of a revolution; for the current of events is then such wild and turbid water as to make it impossible either for us, the observers, or for the swimmers themselves to be certain how many of their acts are purposeful, how many purely undeliberate. If afterwards any of them presumes to set for a collected and consistent story we are safe in treating it as unworthy of belief. During this period of confusion the craftsmanship of the politician is out of action; for things are then directed less by self-conscious human agency than by blindfold and savage forces.”

“For surprising accidents and sudden changes are the rule of politics. It is not often that the circumstances of the world will let a statesman have his head. The situation into which he comes so confident of victory may be transformed in a single revolution of the globe. Thereupon all the schemes that he has framed so carefully for the service of his country will vanish hurriedly like ghosts at cock-crow. He will be forced at once to devise a new plan fit for the occasion, and he will be lucky if he produces one that does not involve a sacrifice of this consistency.”

“The wisest government must make mistakes; nay, sometimes when it has acted with most wisdom it affords the easiest target for plausible misconstruction.”

“The student of politics will not make a beginning till he has realized that in this art there are antinomies everywhere, and that it is no shame to a politician, or to the man who writes about him, if the opinions he utters are often in conflict one with another. The politician or the writer who succeeds in proving his life-long consistency is less an object of admiration than of derision.”

“Phenomena of this sort, phenomena in a continual flux, will not submit themselves to the methods of a land surveyor.”

“Politicians, like soldiers, are often obliged to guess at the motives, intentions, and movements of the enemy. As they often guess wrongly, their own tactics are apt to appear purposeless and foolish, or altogether evil and malevolent, to a later generation which looks wonderingly, after ‘the fog of war’ has lifted, at the hooks and bends of an ancient controversy. . . .If actors themselves saw less clearly than we do, it is partly because there are now far fewer things to be seen. Much has long ago fallen through the sieves of memory and written records, while the historian, of set purpose, has eliminated much of what remained.”

Oliver also talks about political imponderables and chance, as if they were the flow in that watercourse—the thalweg—at the lowest part of the valley along which we cross and whose waters run off into sand out of sight.

Frau Hitler, again

I should first explain the title and purpose of this entry. One of the staples of what’s been called “counterfactual history” is the thought experiment: What would have happened had Adolf Hitler’s mother been killed crossing the road while pregnant with him? The compulsion here is to think through the possible/probable consequences of such an event, and for types such as myself, the potential consequences of policy and management are a big thing to focus on. I want to tweak this counterfactual, however, not for what it may tell us about early 20th century Austria and Germany but for what it implies about contemporary risk analysis.

One obstacle to finding the “root cause” of any event for risk assessment and management is the inability to uncover what counterfactual accidents and disasters (think: contingencies) had been avoided by those accidents and disasters (again, contingencies) that actually did happen. We are talking about the sense in which “always having accidents to live through and by” can’t be pruned away from perceptions of risk, uncertainty and unstudied conditions.

How so? Are these two questions equivalent: (1) “Would one choose to be born if beforehand one were able to see all possible accidents and disasters that could befall one?” and (2) “Would one choose to be unborn if at the end of one’s life, one were able to see all accidents and disasters that would have befallen, had not he or she lived the accidental life lived?”

For me, the questions are not equivalent because the latter (#2) is more about the counterfactual “would” than the former (#1), which is more open to possibilities of “could”.  Would Frau Hitler have chosen to be born had she known beforehand all the possible accidents that could have befallen her, including the possibility of being killed while pregnant with Adolf, or would she have chosen to be unborn had she known at the end of her life all the accidents that would—not could or might—have befallen her instead?

Yet a choice between “would” or “could” is too narrow, isn’t it? Choosing “would” or “could” takes us to what each considers to be indispensable human possibilities. These include, most important, the possibilities that at times would is actually could, and could actually would.

To me, contemporary risk assessment and management are about the “could” of probabilities, uncertainties and unknowns when the “would” of counterfactuals is assumed to be incorrigibly more difficult to ascertain. Even here, though, would and could are conjoined. For these reasons, I should have preferred the preceding thought experiment had been one where Frau Hitler had the opportunity to ask both the would- and could-questions, not one or the other.

For those who worry about consequences of action, contemporary risk assessment spends far too much time on probabilities and not enough time on thought experiments and counterfactuals. Read through the human prism, it is impossible to tell if what’s written is live or love, hype or hope, could or would.

When high reliability is not a trade-off

Yes, of course, the reliability of financial services (or such) has been treated as if it can be traded off against some service attribute like the cost or frequency of transactions. In sharp contrast, the high reliability of critical infrastructures (for energy and water, by way of example) is a state condition without which there would be no markets in real time. Economics assumes a theory of substitutability, where goods and services have alternatives in the marketplace; infrastructure reliability assumes a theory of nonfungibility, where nothing can substitute for the high reliability without which there would be no markets for goods and services, at least for right now when selecting among those alternative goods and services. There is a point at which high reliability and trade-offs are immiscible, like trying to mix oil and water.

One way of thinking about reliability’s nonfungibility is that it’s irrecuperable economically in real time; it cannot be cashed out in dollars and cents in the here-and-now without it becoming different from high reliability. Real time, from this perspective, is an impassable, obdurate obstacle to monetizing tasks then and there by the control operators undertaking the managing. Which is to say, if you were to enter the market and arbitrage a price for high reliability of critical infrastructures, the markets transactions would be such you’d never be sure you’re getting what you thought you were buying. Not only is nonfungibility of high reliability anterior to and foundational for market competition; its real time is unstoppable and insurmountable presentism—and not constructed so as to be reflected upon for compensation’s sake at a distance and later on.


Focus on the three most frequent kinds of “good-enough” in public policy and management. One is “we’ve gone this far and that’s good enough.” We of the mid-twentieth century were told that an annual economic growth rate of 3% and an unemployment rate of 4%, while not perfect, were certainly good enough.

The second good-enough is the more common, “we’ve gone this far, but that’s not good enough; we must go further.” In a policy world of many unknowns, reducing uncertainty gets us part of the way, but we’ve also got to manage uncertainty that is not going away anytime soon. We recognize this need to go beyond “just coping,” even though many already know that a hundred year from now, people will ask, “How could they ever have been uncertain about that!”

The third type of good-enough is problematic in a different way: Sometimes we have to go too far in order to know what was good enough. (Or on the upside: “How can anyone settle for safety when they have never taken a risk?” early race-car driver, Hélène Delange, asked.) “We’re at the limits of our understanding of how monetary policy affects the economy,” an experienced banker tells us; “Sometimes when you test the limits you find out where the limits are by breaking through and going too far”. It has often been said that we have to risk their overutilization in order to establish just what really are sustainable yields of forests or fish. In a world where tipping points exist, such pushing to and over the edge understandably causes concern.

I want to suggest a fourth type of good-enough in public policy, though in my experience it rarely is taken as such. If, as Sartre put it in No Exit, “hell is other people,” then heaven is where other people don’t make hells for the rest of us. These others have been good enough in forestalling a failure that very likely would have happened, but were not or have not been able to go far enough to make it last longer.

Like others, I think here of Anwar Sadat, Mikhail Gorbachev, and Nelson Mandela (or the lesser known and on a smaller scale, Botswana’s Seretse Khama and Ketumile Masire)—each a very imperfect person, comrade and leader, but each preventing some fresh hell on earth. They were good enough to take us further than we could or should have ever expected, albeit we want to go further than they took us.

Who, anyway, can expect perfection in this life? That Christ was the first Christian doodler and painter—think John 8:6-8, where he bends down to draw something in the dirt, and Veronica’s veil upon which he wiped his exact image—neither makes him good-enough in either, even if, as some say, he was as good as you’re going to get—and even then, maybe just only.

Loose ends, #2

–Formal risk management frameworks are, in my experience, apt to reduce the complex of “reliability standard, system and possibility” to “risk, asset and probability”, and in the process commit a major category mistake. It’s as if in talking about water you’re immediately asked to think “H2O” and to separate out oxygen and hydrogen from each other along with best measuring each—while all along assuming that this analysis enables you to talk about water as water per se, e.g., having the property of “wetness.”

–“Safety culture” is a redundant phrase, and misleading so, I believe. “Safety” is its most problematic as a noun, when instead “it” is better thought of as a set of adverbial properties associated with really-existing behavior and practices, e.g., “the control room is managing reliably and safely at the same time.” Yes, the behavior and practices in question constitute a culture of sorts, but that culture is the set of practices and not something in addition to be fostered or prior to those practices.

In this way safety is no different from, say, democracy or intelligence. Here too democracy is not a noun so much as an adverb—“behaving democratically in that s/he evidences the following practices,  i.e., voting in elections, paying taxes and more—and intelligence is “thinking intelligently,” i.e., “s/he is doing so by virtue of behaving in x, y and z ways”). If I am right, this matters because to think of safety, democracy and intelligence otherwise is like thinking you make fish from fish soup.

–One very major problem with “start simple and then scale up” is that each scale/level is complex in its own right. The map smooths out shoreline, but visit the shore and there’s nothing so smooth for any such border there. To start simple and scale up makes as much sense as trying to pinpoint the shoreline through the eye of a needle.

In reality, there’s nothing more difficult than being simple about complexity. “A maximum of simplicity goes with a maximum of difficulty. . .Being simple is not simple; it is attempting the impossible,” wrote French writer, Georges Perros.

–What crisis scenario do I have in mind? The earth releases gases into the atmosphere that are then triggered by sunlight into storms, droughts and other natural disasters. No, not global climate change, but Aristotle’s theory of comets. I read that a new advance in science and technology threatens to set abroad grey goo. But which grey goo? The one predicted from recombinant DNA experiments at Harvard in the 1970s, the genetically engineered “ice-minus” bacterium for Berkeley strawberry fields in the 1980s, the genetically engineered crops of the 1990s, or the nanotechnology of the 2000s, or something newer?

You think I’m implying that we shouldn’t worry. Wrong. The point here is that we are once again back to a key narrative discrepancy in crisis scenarios—between the stated urgency to innovate and experiment on one side, and the stated requirement for reliability and safety on the other, yet both claims underwritten by demands of unpredictability at the same scale of analysis, the system level. This is a narrative discrepancy because it can’t be written off or talked out of; it however can be managed as one of the messes we are in.

–We hanker after the old language, like that of Baroque music or Mozart, and keep asking why we can’t have more of the same old good. But it’s not only that the language has changed, that we can’t go back, and that new language is needed for the new meanings once pushed further. They want more Bach because that way they don’t have to think about the new meanings nor the older changes.