Thursday, 28 August 2014

On the impossibility of dialogue

In the busy thread below, this extended comment appeared. It contains some thinking which requires extended response, so I’ve done a lift and here it is up front.

The context is that the correspondent is a regular presence on the internet, commenting on climate change and global warming. His view and mine are different.

In the comment, he tries to explain why he thinks the way he does, to which I offer my efforts to understand.

Please note that his first language is not English, and make allowance that some of the expressions, which might sound abrasive, may be a function of linguistic difference, not necessarily aggression.

Here we go:

Let me suggest something: Pull back and consider that I am convinced you act in good faith and are honest, but you have been brainwashed.
I too have been brainwashed. The only difference is that I´m aware of the brainwashing and you seem to be oblivious (like 99 % of the population).

This is not a promising start. You set out by claiming your intellectual superiority to me, in that you have a privileged (and superior) epistemic status, because I am not aware that the world as I understand it is relative. I might be inclined to disagree with this.

The brainwashing isn´t the result of an overarching conspiracy. Some of it is genetic, some of it is deeply ingrained culture, some is early education, and some of it is impressed on you by the media, your friends, and your enemies.
Being brainwashed seems to be a positive survival trait in homo sapiens. Although many brainwashed populations were defeated and driven to extinction, others which practiced brainwashing as a higher art form, or got a bit luckier seem to have survived more often thanks to this brainwashing, which aligned most of society with the leadership, and moved them to perform as requested.

This is somewhat helpful. You are trying to describe your hypothesis, that our perception of reality is conditioned. In particular, you emphasise the social context of individual development (or call it the means by which I form my Weltanschauung (‘World-view’).

Thus my position is that a lot of what we believe is real isn´t really there. As my grandchildren would say, it´s all bogus.

Though your expression is a little clumsy, what is coming out seems to be a much simplified version of the ideas of Paul Feyerabend, for example, in ‘Against Method’. Feyerabend’s views are well summarised in Wkipedia (here).

So how does this impact the way I absorb information about global warming? First, I know there are actors trying to manipulate me to behave in a certain way. Why? Because whenever an issue arises which involves government decisions, subsidies, taxes, putting a drilling rig on the public library grounds, and moves like that I have to be manipulated to accept such decisions.

The position gets a bit more complicated here. This is because you introduce the Political realm. What you seem to be saying is that the information which is available about global warming has the same epistemological status as the information which we get from politicians or their employees. I think some people might object to this.

Do you see why you really can´t change my mind? As far as you are concerned I´m a ghost. I live in a different universe. You are trying to debate global warming, and I debate the way "they" manipulate us.

A part of the complexity is that you seem to have thoroughly mixed your resistance to political manipulation and your view of the nature of scientific endeavour. To you, these are manifestations of the same phenomenon – the untrustworthiness of given knowledge – and therefore they are the same thing. You reject Science as a whole, wholesale.

And why do you think you avoided the subject when I tried to use Kosovo and Iraq as talkng points? Because your comfort zone is in global warming and the associated science. You want to feel comfortable surrounded by your friends, sitting in a tall stone tower from which you can fling arrows and stones at the enemy trying to scale your walls.

Here, you are making presumptions about me which are not justified. I avoid discussing Kosovo or Iraq because I do not believe I have sufficient knowledge or understanding to comment on these subjects; I have no expertise or opinion which I trust.

And your characterisation of me in the second sentence is laughable. I have spent considerable time addressing your point of view and defending your right to express yourself, even when you have been illogical and inconsistent, yet you accuse me of attacking you. If you still see me as your enemy I would suggest that the problem lies not in my attitude but in yours. You have already decided that we must be enemies, so I cannot have any understanding of you or any human compassion. This means I cannot win. Your mind is closed to my humanity and identity; to you, I am just ‘one of them’. So who is acting in bad faith, you, or me?

On the other hand, I see this behavior as normal, quite human, and also misguided.
How very patronising and wise of you.
Almost everybody is the same. And this is why in the 21st century we see children being slaughtered with laser guided bombs in Palestine, and we look the other way. We have been brainwashed to accept this, and we can´t even bring ourselves to discuss it. And the odds are this post may even be censored, isn´t it?

Since I have both permitted every statement you have made on this blog, and defended your right of comment, even when it pushed libellous status, you have no grounds whatsoever to imply I might censor you, so this is just a personal insult.

To sum things up as best I can. You claim to be my intellectual superior. You set out a view of how the world (of understanding, or knowledge) is constructed. In this, you explicitly reject Science wholesale; to you, it is just as much in error as political propaganda. You frequently draw parallels between political events and scientific knowledge. You then remind me of why I am ignorant and accuse me first of being your enemy, then of repressing you, in spite of the visible contradiction of these in this blog.

Where does this leave me? If, as you say, all science is deception, then we cannot talk about science – not at all – by your terms there is nothing meaningful to say about it. But neither can we talk about anything which we might think of as being a shared human experience. So we cannot have any dialogue. Besides this, you have demonstrated that you do not respect me as an individual or as a human being; in particular, to you I am an inferior being. So you deny me any motivation to continue the effort to engage with you. Finally, you have established that, whatever I say and however I say it, you have determined that I am your enemy. I don’t need enemies, I want friends.

In conclusion, by your terms and rules, since there is nothing ‘true’ to say about science, every comment you make on science is a piece of hypocrisy. Furthermore, on your terms, nobody understands how things really are better than you, so you will never consider the possibility that you might be wrong, or the possibility that anyone else might have anything valid to say. This, too, given your views on propaganda, is hypocrisy. You deny the subject, the means, and the motivation to engage in dialogue. You have determined that discourse is impossible, so, unless you give me some reason to believe otherwise, I can do nothing better than remain silent.


For now, that is all I have to say on the subject.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Whistling at a different pitch

Having exorcised Mrs Merkl’s Swabian housewife, let’s get back to some more thinking.
I want to explore a sample explanation of why the Farmer and the Cowboy can’t be friends. Obviously, this is apropos of my concern over the effective communication of climate issues and environmental issues in general.
We recently discussed Truth – it’s easy to agree that this takes us in tricky directions. It can be hard to agree what makes a truth, and hard to agree the specific cases of whether something is true or not. So I’m going to move the focus on to the notion of Understanding, instead.
However and whatever forms of ‘knowledge’ we acquire (or, reducing it further, form of meaningful communication with which we agree), we tend to come to an understanding of reality, truth, fact, whatever, from two distinctive and often contradictory ways of understanding things. This is what Wikipedia says about Reason:
Reason is the capacity for consciously making sense of things, applying logic, for establishing and verifying facts, and changing or justifying practices, institutions, and beliefs based on new or existing information.[1] It is closely associated with such characteristically human activities as philosophy, science, language, mathematics, and art, and is normally considered to be a definitive characteristic of human nature.[2] The concept of reason is sometimes referred to as rationality and sometimes as discursive reason, in opposition to intuitive reason.[3]
Reason or "reasoning" is associated with thinking, cognition, and intellect. Reason, like habit or intuition, is one of the ways by which thinking comes from one idea to a related idea. For example, it is the means by which rational beings understand themselves to think about cause and effect, truth and falsehood, and what is good or bad. It is also closely identified with the ability to self-consciously change beliefs, attitudes, traditions, and institutions, and therefore with the capacity for freedom and self-determination.[4]

You’ll note that the article distinguishes between DISCURSIVE and INTUITIVE reason. This is what the Wiki says about Intuition:
Intuition is the ability to acquire knowledge without inference or the use of reason.[1] The word intuition comes from Latin verb intueri which is usually translated as to look inside or to contemplate.[2] Intuition is thus often conceived as a kind of inner perception, sometimes regarded as real lucidity or understanding. Cases of intuition are of a great diversity; however, processes by which they happen typically remain mostly unknown to the thinker, as opposed to the view of rational thinking.
Intuition provides views, understandings, judgements, or beliefs that we cannot in every case empirically verify or rationally justify. For this reason, it has been not only a subject of study in psychology, but also a topic of interest in various religions and esoteric domains, as well as a common subject of writings.[3] The right brain is popularly associated with intuitive processes such as aesthetic or generally creative abilities.[4][5][6] Some scientists have contended that intuition is associated with innovation in scientific discovery.[7]
Both Reasoning and Intuition are legitimate ways of reaching understanding. Further, there is often reasoning embedded in intuition, and intuition likewise informs reasoning.
Science in general, say Mathematics as a paradigm, is basically rational; it has rules, structure, processes, precedents and checks. Without necessarily being complete or absolute, Mathematics is a profoundly rational activity. If you have learned the rules and the conventions, you can apply them to any number of problems of increasing complexity. It is largely consistent and logical. The ‘truths’ of Mathematics are results derived from within the syntax and semantics of the system, and their value is a function of their formulation, which is neither arbitrary nor contradictory. In other words, within Mathematics, 2 + 2 always = 4. The only way you can change this ‘truth’ is to change the rules or convention by which you understand the expression.
On the other hand, many people have an understanding of their world from an intuitive perspective, of which religion is an example. Let’s consider Buddhism as the paradigm. A person who ‘understands’ the underlying truths in Buddhism, the ‘Four Noble Truths’, does not necessarily understand them in a consciously rational manner. But this does not imply that her understanding is inferior to the understanding of a mathematician of the truth of the axioms of number or addition.
These are different ways of ‘understanding’. But they may not be quite so contradictory as you might think. For example, to reach a new solution or hypothesis, the mathematician may well start by having an intuition that something is wrong, that a certain type of procedure might correct the error, or have an insight into the nature of a problem which informs new possible resolutions. And the four noble truth of Buddhism can be laid out in a strictly formal logical ‘proof’, which suggest that, though understanding them may be intuitive, their meaning has a formal structure which allows them to make sense to our thoughts.
Religions have a long history of Reasoning associated with them in East and West. Some of the great thinkers in history were dealing with problems arriving not from science, but from a religious, intuitive source. But many religions also recognise, implicitly or explicitly, that understanding, or wisdom, about the world in the context of the religious system concerned, comes to the individual from a deep personal insight or understanding. Furthermore, this understanding is often opaque to communication; ‘The way that can be spoken of is not the true way’. Can we argue that wisdom is impossible under these conditions? Can we argue that the understanding of the Buddha is a false understanding? We can’t, for two reasons; firstly, because we have not nor can we ever strictly reach the same understanding that the Buddha has. Our insight must be our own, a personal understanding which might parallel what we have learned or experienced. Secondly, because the full detail of the nature of the understanding is beyond language (any language); it is a lived experience.
What am I getting on to? Well, obviously, people ‘understand’ Global Warming in different ways. A lot of people reach their understanding by reasoning, analysis, interpretation and evaluation of evidence, argument, and by testing the mechanisms and processes. Why would anyone look at it any other way?
I am speculating that one of the reasons why people might look for a different way of understanding Global warming is because they don’t trust what science is. Sometimes, the contradiction of the science is simply fuelled by ignorance – it is easy to distrust what you don’t understand, especially if you feel threatened by it. Sometimes a person can have such a strong negative prejudice about a message that they choose to contradict irrespective of understanding – this is why such behaviour is often labelled as ‘denial’.
But there are other people who are otherwise reasonable who turn away from the evidence and the arguments because they believe that science is something they cannot trust.
The problem is, Science is an institution as much as anything else. It works in relation to rules and conventions, exists within other institutions, is paid for by institutions. Science, it seems, has authority because it is an Authority – in this sense, it is a part of the ‘System’. More than this, Scientific argument is often derived from an apparent appeal to authority –precedence, existing assumptions, previous work, peer-review. It is an ‘Institution’ par excellence.
And a lot of people don’t trust Authority, They don’t trust Institutional models or processes, they see an underlying circularity in the self-justifications of scientific ideas, and they believe that, since Science is about authority, it suffers from the same weaknesses as other forms of authority.
This association is the problem. A person who is consistently ‘let down’ by a social or legal system, who is not protected but persecuted, who experiences injustice or repression at first hand by the hand of the System, learns in real experience that Authority and The System are inherently untrustworthy. This understanding is intuitive as well as evidential, so it has a strong force in the understanding. For such a person it is probably quite natural to mistrust and be cynical about anything which makes claims to authority. The natural default based in the understanding which exists is that first you assume the authority is either wrong or is lying, then you assume the authority has a self-serving intent and is indifferent to you, and is therefore fundamentally corrupt.
For young people, who often have an innate mistrust of the system in some form, or for those whose experience has led them to believe that no-one can be trusted, asking them to see things from a rational point of view has limited use. It is not the way their understanding has been formed. For ignorant people with strong prejudices it has no use, because they cannot even acknowledge the possibility that another understanding can exist at all. But it doesn’t mean that discussion is impossible.
Even the most intuitive person recognises the underlying formal structures which allow meaningful discourse to happen. They can accept the idea that an effect must have a cause, that if you add something to something you end up with something ‘more’. An ‘intuitive understander’ can be quite sophisticated, and even see the logical inconsistencies of their understanding. Simple logic and simple reasoning can work within a discourse to the point where a person can recognise contradictions and inconsistencies and acknowledge that these might undermine their understanding, so that, even if they sustain their understanding from intuition, they can agree that their understanding is irrational. It doesn’t mean, to them, that they are wrong.
So, can the Farmer and the Cowboy ever be friends? I would suggest yes, this is possible, but first they need to accept that what is already understood does not rest on mutually agreed conventions. But for a discourse to happen at all, there must be the possibility of logic. To start a discourse, to establish the conventions and terms of dialogue, the most important thing is to listen first, and avoid passing judgment based on your own conventions or understanding.
Possibly there will be more on this later, it depends.


Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Wealth comes from not spending, but saving


British MP Chris Huhne put in an interesting article last week in The Guardian: 'Don't fear Growth, it's no longer the enemy of the planet...' (link here).

Among the take home points were:

"For centuries, the rise of GDP has gone hand-in-hand with the burning of fossil fuels. But technology has now broken that link" ...

"For the first time in history, we are growing richer while using less energy."

"...This is why so many green thinkers have rightly been suspicious of economic growth: the curve of rising living standards has been tracked by the curve of rising energy use from coal, oil and gas. The simple answer was green puritanism: change our lifestyle. Don the hair-shirt..."

"Businesses are bound to be early adopters of energy-saving technologies, because retailers and distribution firms can spend a fortune on energy. They are used to assessing investment and returns, whereas householders are often put off by the higher initial cost, and poorer households simply cannot afford the switch of energy efficient products even though they pay back quickly. Poorer householders simply cannot afford the up-front cost. That is why it is so crucial for government to encourage household energy saving.

It is also why one of the most short-sighted decisions of this government was to halve the amount of support for energy saving through the Eco subsidy, and just this summer to end the cashback scheme for the energy-saving green deal because it was too successful. The £120m budget allocated until next spring was exhausted in six weeks."


None of this is news to yours truly: having worked in an engineering firm supplying energy-efficient systems for lighting and air conditioning, and for several years in Renewable Energy, one of the key selling points of our services was that the cost-return equation could be highly advantageous for the adopter, though this often depended on the existence of other benefits to the client, including tax breaks and subsidies.

An important feature of the decision-making process for businesses was confidence - many clients were suspicious of the technology and highly risk-averse about the processes and potential returns, not least the banks who ended up lending the money for the work to be done. Not a problem which exists in several EU countries, or among large institutional energy users, but particularly prevalent at smaller scales and where the returns were more marginal or more dependent on 'pure' subsidies.

For me, the important message is these figures demonstrate that reducing energy use is NOT harmful to Economies and NOT a threat to a way of life in itself - in fact, the truth is quite the reverse. This means that there is no credence to be given to ideas that living/ doing business more effectively somehow commits us to the 'hair shirt, greeny, degrowthy' future that seems to scare some people so much.

But, whilst Huhne's article makes its points well and emphasises an important feature of the relation between economy and energy, it doesn't address some deeper issues such as sustainability, pollution, trade equity (TBF, it isn't meant to). There is the ongoing presumption that 'growth is good', difficult to argue against for the whole globe, but problematic.

If economic growth can be achieved while using fewer resources and making less waste and pollution, without putting the planet and future generations in resource-debt, then it looks attractive. In a sense, it is inevitable, as population rises, that markets will grow naturally. The argument for energy efficiency also applies to resource efficiency, hence the popularity of schemes like Ellen MacArthur's Circular Economy, which focuses on the whole product life cycle and the resource life cycle, rather than the 'Stuff' approach, where resources are inputted, processed, sold, used, then trashed.

But it is important not to be naive about the problems of Consumerism and Markets. The products of large corporates such as P&G, Unilever and Nestle (the 'big three') are not always amenable to recycling - soaps, oil-based products, luxury foods, etc - these can have potentially toxic outputs on large scales (constituent chemicals sent into the water supply, packaging...). The social impacts are sometimes significant, for employees in some countries, for outcomes such as obesity and landfill.

It is important to see that the world does not need to be overthrown by bloody revolution in order to move in a better direction for society and the environment, and useful to recognise that our fortunes are not tied to energy in the way some have suggested, but the other bottom line that should be pushed here is that, in the real world, we make and buy a whole lot of crap - genuinely useless, unhealthy, unnecessary 'stuff' - and for individuals, getting past the efforts of marketing to convince us that we 'must have' this stuff for our own well-being, is still important. The example from the larger economy should inform our personal economies; more judicious use of our resources (earnings), less profligacy and a bit of prudence, these qualities will make our income 'grow', give us more resources to put aside, or use to create our own capital, and, as a result, make us 'happier', wealthier people with cleaner consciences.

Friday, 22 August 2014

Open invitation

I've frequently argued that there are reasonable and rational people out there who are nonetheless skeptical about the AGW, IPCC, Policy nexus, and that it is worthwhile trying to engage in sensible to-and-fro on these matters. Many of my co-bloggers disagree, and think that giving air-time to trolls is counter productive.

So, in response to a thread on the Guardian today where my comments suddenly and inexplicably got moderated out (not the first time this have happened, though I don't know how I breached the community guidelines), and response to persons such as Fernando Leanme, who frequently pops up with things to say, some which are very nearly interesting, and who seems like a decent chap at the bottom, if I really have found his blog, please come and make your case here.

I have my own opinions and prejudices; show me why I am wrong. Explain what I seem to be missing. Give your own opinion and your reasoning.

I won't moderate comments unless they are truly offensive or illegal. I'll even tolerate obvious trolls for a short time, but since the aim is discussion, people who have nothing to contribute will probably get left behind, eventually.

So, please comment...

Friday, 15 August 2014

What next for Humanity and the World?

This entry is really going to be mostly a note - a work-in-progress, reflecting my recent research and interests, and responding to stimuli from various sources online. It may be necessary to follow this up with more detail, but I'm thinking of the content as a starting-point for discussion rather than a fixed view. So, please feel free to discuss...

Two related matters have come up recently which are related. The first is the shape of our future. This is a subject I have been informally researching for many years, and studying in more detail for the last eight years, off and on. Having spent much of this time exploring avenues of possibility focussed around climate change and global warming, more recently I have extended my study to include social, political, economic and ethical considerations.

Which leads neatly in to the second matter - the question of values, which has come up directly at Tobis's place, and is an ongoing personal fascination. I still maintain that unless we have a clear sense of the ethical foundations for action - what we want, or what we think is good for the future, then we cannot properly determine the optimal course of action. This is not to say that some actions are not already, in principle and in practical terms, evidently necessary, such as emissions reductions and environmental protection.

Back to the future (sic.): what do we expect the future to look like? A number of Futures Research groups have been exploring this question, some since the 1960's, more since the Club of Rome report in 1972. In addition, the themes and consequences of some of the possibilities have been extensively explored in literature, specifically in Science-Fiction, or speculative fiction writing, but also in recent literary fiction, such as David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas or more directly, John Brunner's 'Club of Rome Quartet'.

One such group, the Tellus Institute (With the Stockholm Environment Institute), has helpfully categorized future scenarios into three broad divisions, which I reference here simply because they resemble vaguely my own imagined scenarios; these are depicted below:
Taxonomy of the Future

The group's emphasis is on the contrasts between the 'Conventional Worlds' (which elsewhere might be equated to 'BAU' scenarios for climate, for example) and the 'Great Transitions', which is characterised by: "...new socioeconomic arrangements and fundamental changes in values. They depict a transition to a society that preserves natural systems, provides high levels of welfare through material sufficiency and equitable distribution, and enjoys a strong sense of social solidarity. Population levels are stabilized at moderate levels and material flows through the economy are radically reduced through lower consumerism and massive use of green technologies..."

It may be worth noting here that the 'eco-communalism' pathway vaguely resembles the 'degrowth' meme which is currently fashionable.

The problem I have with these is that they are filled with good intentions but may be unrealisable - just a bit too idealistic and vague. The other problem with them, as with many other scenarios, is that they are strong on 'what we want', but weak on 'how we get there'. They also make presumptions about the values which lead us to see them as preferable objectives.

A third problem I have with the scenarios is that they deal more in what is possible (hypothetically) and desirable, than with what is likely.

During my study, I came across several pieces of speculative work from within the UK government framework, under the auspices of the Foresight projects. These are useful in that they are based as much as possible on evidence, they avoid exaggeration, and they are broadly pragmatic - in other words, they make sense to me.

<One such report, headed by the Government's Chief Scientist, from 2011, is about global migration in relation to climate change. In the contect of their work, the group produced a scenarios outline which covers the major drivers of migration and their relative significance, as well as outlining plausible world-views out to 2060. Why do I say plausible? Because they are, where available, derived from other, important, credible and well-researched sources, such as the IPCC, WHO and UNEP, and because they avoid both pre-evaluation (there's no discusion of 'better' or 'worse' futures) and they are not unduly alarmist (which is not to say they are not alarming in some ways).

I also present them here as a backdrop, because I think they find a useful balance between several factors which are consistently discussed on the blogs I frequent, and in the Guardian, for example.  The scenarios are described in detail here, the report itself is here.

In our extended discussion on Natural Capital (is it a good idea?), here, in relation to how we place a value on Nature, or move beyond concepts such as Sustainability, which appears to have been completely redefined by Corporate and Political interests to mean almost the opposite of what it  was originally supposed to mean, MT expresses the wish: "..
My wild hope is to join or nucleate some conversation that would come to some well-thought-out alternative...(to a Natural Capital  agenda)"

Some time ago, I suggested that 'Resourcefulness' might function as a better criterion, but I now believe that this is too close conceptually to the problem that 'Natural Capital' raises, the evaluation of the natural world in terms of its pure utility to humans (though it might avoid the purely econometric issue of putting a price on nature).

In response to the various scenarios of possible world futures and the problem of balancing the relative values placed on the drivers of change, I am currently suggesting that the world we are heading closer to is somewhat closer to the Tellus Institute's 'Fortress Worlds' scenario, though with significant differences. Broadly, I see a world more divided, not more integrated, with greater inequities, but with distinctive geophysical boundaries defining the disconnects between the largely Urbanised and progressive 'modern civilization', the largely agrarian  and protected 'supply zones', rural environments with connections to the urban, and the 'lost places', wastelands where social, political, environmental and ecological damage has resulted in insufficiently productive, isolated and borderline uninhabitable zones, occupied by a sub-underclass of humanity fighting for survival; in other words, a world a bit like ours, but more so, with the differences exaggerated rather than ameliorated. One such imagined world is described in David Wingrove's Chung Kuo series of books, though climate change is not incorporated as a factor. Though it diverges from my own vision, it contains some useful speculations and themes in the early volumes which make it worth exploring.

One main reason for imagining this kind of future scenario is a concept which undoubtedly exists in the literature but which I have not yet seen described, which is that of the inherent inertia of the Global Society, generated by the presence and influence of institutions (governments), corporations, economy and markets, habits, apathy, caution, and history. In other words, I think that, in spite of our best intentions, it is most likely that change are going to come relatively slowly (unless there is a Force Majeure which intervenes), too slowly for some people and parts of the world, and that a complete breakdown into a Fortress World scenario is improbable (though not impossible).

Furthermore, I fear that we have already passed the stage (in relation to development over then next 50 years) where we can hope for anything much better than this; the same inertia which is likely to mean avoiding total annihilation is also likely to result in irreversible changes, desertification, drought, regional famine, political instability, local wars, etc., which will leave a residue of inequity and damage for the generations beyond to address.

This then has already gone beyond an idea of what sort of world we want, to a speculation about what sort of world we are likely to end up in. Which is where the challenges, questions and arguments might begin. Is this a vision you believe is plausible, or do you see things differently? Is this the kind of inheritance we would wish for? Is there anything we can do to reduce the inequities, damage and risks? Can we do better, realistically, given the timeframe and the problem of inertia? Is my vision too conservative in your eyes, or too radical? 

I'd really enjoy feedback if this has stimulated your imagination. As for Michael's wish for a new pathway to get us beyond sustainability - well, if we can work out what we want and what we expect, we can start to defines a value (or set of values) which will help get us somewhere a little better... 




Friday, 8 August 2014

Confirmation that ocean circulation produces weather impacts (maybe)

I sometimes post about odd papers which attract my attention, thinking the content or meaning is interesting, only to be put in place by those in the know. However, I think this paper is worth a bit of outreach, and I have some thoughts about it.

Bryden et. al. Impact of a 30 % reduction in Atlantic meridional overturning
during 2009–2010 describes a recent hiccup in the AMOC (not identical to, but can be referred to in connection with the Thermohaline Circulation, or Gulf Stream, which are connected concepts), and goes on to link the event with its effects in Northern Europe and the ITCZ subsequently.

The paper is interesting to me for three main reasons: 

There's no surprise to hear that a slowdown of the AMOC in the North Atlantic should result in colder Winter seasons for NW  Europe, or enhanced hurricane activity in the ITCZ, since this have been modelled for some time and is, anyway, a reasonably logical inference to make. But it is unusual for a scientific paper to be so clear and unequivocal about its findings, and the paper here leaves little room for alternatives. I find this interesting because, to me, it is a further validation of model output and a clear indicator that a changing climate has real effects down-the-line.

This is also the second reason the paper interests: One frequently heard dialogue of doubt is the argument that, since model output and projections are uncertain, mitigation and adaptation in response to AGW should be put on hold. Whilst the paper is meteorological rather than climatic, to the extent that it deals with a phenomenon which is related to some of the modelled output of GW, it serves as an indicator that messing with the system is a bad idea. This is something some people seem to struggle with; in some ways, the real-and-present effects of GW are too abstract, distant or unclear to get a handle on and really come to terms with. Here is a real case scenario which may or may not be a signal for what is to come down the line in the future: the slowdown of the AMOC has measurable and connectable effects. And so it can serve as a warning; look, the risks from a changing climate are not imagined, they are being played out, and bad things will happen...

The paper does not look for a long-term climate signal in the data or the phenomenon, but neither does it find a causal agency for the slowdown - they know what it did, but not where it came from. Some people might be irritated by the statement in the paper 'The ocean has a mind of its own', as being unconstructive, but this is to ask more of the paper than its authors' set out to do. In other words, it's material for a different piece of work to find any kind of larger signal in the slowdown as it happened at the time.

The third interest is related to the unknown element of the piece; what is the likelihood of the phenomenon being repeated, when might this happen, under what circumstances, and with what effects? Living in the UK, there is a vested interest in me knowing whether to plan for an increasing frequency of cold winters, as there is for those in the USA and Caribbean who are likely to be effected by 'busy' hurricane seasons in the future. One 'Sandy', or 'Katrina' was disastrous and very damaging, and the repair of damage done has still not been completed. What if there were three or four such hurricanes in a single season? What would the impacts and damage look like, and would the effected areas ever be able to recover?

So, finally, this is the message from me, not the paper, about Bryden et. al. and their sterling work: in a world where we continue to destabilise weather patterns through persisting in our emissions patterns, it is rational to expect that such possibilities are actual risks, and we are increasing the risks by inaction on all levels. The paper serves to remind us that we are now past the time where uncertainty is an excuse for inertia; the more time we waste now, the worse it's going to get, and more fool us for not reading the signs.

*Note: in the light of William's comments below, title adjusted...

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Backwards

Recent talks with certain folk have focussed on all the bad stuff which is (without argument) going on in lots of places, to lots of key systems, in the name of wealth.

Today's blinding insight is that this is getting us nowhere in particular.

A lot of bloggers and commenters are well-educated on the problems we face as a vulnerable species on a vulnerable planet, and are looking for, or asking for, leadership, guidance, ideas, ways forward to move us away from the MAD path we seem to be currently walking.

Here's a suggestion.

As a species, we are often destructive, selfish, greedy and stupid. But we are also creative, imaginative, brilliant and determined. While it does often appear on the surface that our leaders are either unwilling or unable to bring about the kind of changes we feel are necessary, and while it seems that many individuals who have the choice to behave in different ways persist in their old ones, both these appearances should be viewed with caution. There is another side to the coin.

Considerable resources are already being expended in attempts to find an optimal path through the mire into clear water beyond. Though a lot of these resources will produce little of value, they are necessary because they form the platform on which a sensible way forward will be found.

It is commonly observed that we are, in the first time in our history, in a position to overwhelm the natural world and damage it irreparably, thus threatening our own survival. But this power also exists in our ability to respond to risks on relevant scales and direct ourselves onto a pathway which could be, in part at least, of our choosing.

Collectively, we have the means to help shape the future. We have the motivation. What remains is the opportunity. The question is how long it will take for the right direction to be found, and whether our actions are timely enough to avoid appalling harm.

Science is very good at showing us what is, and reasonable good at showing us what is a likely consequence if we do x to y. Long may this continue. We need science more than ever, not least because it is fundamentally rational, and reason is what is needed as much as anything.

So, my suggestion is that we have been tending to look at this problem backwards. As well as seeing what we are doing wrong and trying to stop it, we should be paying attention to what we we can do which is more resourceful, constructive and productive to the natural environment. We should be looking at the climate, environment, ecology, oceans, atmosphere, industry, society, as systems which we can help make better.

This doesn't mean we can ignore the obvious. Screwing up the oceans of the world is a bad idea, and stopping screwing them up requires positive action to avoid doing certain things, like throwing all our shit in them, warming them up and acidifying them, and overexploiting the resources which come from them.

So here's a thought: we have the brains, the information and the opportunity; let's start worrying less about where we went wrong, and more about what we're going to do to fix it.