Decent Democracy
About | Acknowledgements | Contact | | Follow site activity RSS 2.0

Climate Chaos

First published December-2013
last update 17-May-2014

Global warming does not appear in the forefront of the main text of Decentralized Democracy. This is because it is impossible to understand global warming as a problem without first understanding the problems of soil erosion, water depletion, deforestation, ocean death and species extinction, among others. Global warming is a problem for humanity as it affects these systems and exacerbates the problems we already face in these domains. However, our soil, water, forestry and land practices are already completely unsustainable, and so it is pointless to discuss mitigating the consequences of global warming without first making our forest, agriculture and ocean practices sustainable. And in doing so, then it is most likely the problem of global warming will be resolved as a consequence: soil and water allows forest to grow, healthy forest absorb pollutants and stabilize the atmosphere; the oceans are as or more important than the forests and the problem of ocean acidification alone demands a radical reduction of carbon dioxide pollution. We also know that fossil fuels is a finite resource, so burning it is by definition unsustainable. So, though global warming is a great problem, essentially any sustainable economy we could think of would resolve the issue.

Thus, the global warming debate should not be framed as a question of needing to do a few things to stabilize the atmosphere, but rather, with or without global warming, we need to do a lot of things to maintain the ecosystems we depend upon, and on top of all these obvious problems with relatively obvious solutions, global warming could amplify all of them completely out of control and render us extinct if we don’t do something soon — to resolve soil erosion, water depletion, deforestation, ocean death, and mass species extinction.

However, once these primary problems are understood, it becomes possible to understand the problem of global warming in a relevant context.

Much contention of course exists around what precisely are the causes of global warming, how much global warming will occur, and what the consequences of this global warming will be. Since the climate is a complex system it is difficult to understand all three. As for predictions, models range from showing it is possible that global warming could feed itself and run out of control, heating the planet 15 degrees or more, to models showing it could trigger a new ice age.

The only thing that is certain is that the climate will change in some way due to our modifications of land, water bodies and the atmosphere, as all complex systems change when factors affecting them change in a significant way. Thus, the term climate change (a climatology term covering any and all changes of climate) was taken to refer to this entire issue (at the institutional level at least). However, climate change isn’t a very good name as it does not connote how big this change might be or whether it is for better or for worse.

A much better name is climate chaos. For, when we understand the climate as a complex system we immediately know it is foolish to try to determine with a high degree of certainty what precisely will happen, as the very nature of complex systems is that we cannot predict any event at all with certainly. Rather, what we can know is that currently the climate is in a stable state and our actions risk pushing it into a chaotic state. By definition the outcome of a chaotic state of affairs cannot be predicted with certainty, except to stay that it is unpredictable.

Though it is important to try to understand and predict as much as we can, to first be aware that a chaotic state may be approaching and second understand events better as they unfold, the ethical imperative and reasonable course of actions can be formulated without any complex modelling and little scientific understanding.

To put this is perspective it is useful to take an example far from the atmosphere, in fact underground at the CERN particle accelerator. While CERN was being built, there was a debate in scientific circles of whether it was ethical to turn it on, as there was a chance CERN would produce black wholes and/or exotic particles and a chance we have no idea what these black wholes and exotic particles would do. Though the risk was agreed to be very small, what was less clear was how much risk is acceptable. Is it ethical to risk destroying the planet with a 1% chance for a scientific experiment, a 0.1 % chance, 0.001%, and so on ? Where must the line be drawn between relatively irrelevant scientific experiments (irrelevant to most if not all the problems humanity faces today) [1]) and the safety of the entire earth?

Where exactly this line is to be drawn is difficult to place (especially with an inapplicable ethic), but essentially anyone would consider scientists to be mad if they risked the entire world in an experiment with a 50 % chance or even 1 %, and most I think would agree 0.1% or 0.001% is still fairly high, considering how many times experiments must be repeated to have significance.

By thinking this though we arrive at the understanding that any action entails the responsibility of all the possible outcomes, regardless of its probability. For instance,we view drinking a mysterious liquid as irresponsible since there is a chance it may be poisonous. When a potential outcome is absolutely unacceptable, then the action becomes unacceptable.

In the case of the mysterious liquid, if there is no need to risk death then there is no reason to drink the liquid, regardless of whether we surmise it has a 50% or 1% or 0.1% chance of being poisonous.

The only time when it becomes reasonable is when the chance of death from not drinking the liquid in question is greater than the chance of death from drinking it. For instance, the water I drink everyday I cannot know with 100% certainty is safe, but I do know with nearly 100% certainty the consequences if I don’t drink any water at all.

Likewise, the only reasonable way to risk the entire planet is if there was an even greater risk to the planet from not doing it.

In the case of CERN it may or may not be reasonable that the chance a particle accelerator would save the planet directly or indirectly, is greater than the chance a CERN exotic particle would destroy the planet, but, if so, this reasoning can only be be supported in a bubble, as there are other risks to the planet significantly more dangerous — namely soil erosion, water depletion, deforestation, ocean death, and species extinction — that are a far greater priority than asteroid defence programs or space travel (though this does not mean such programs should not exist, only that their respective funding should be proportional to their priority in these troubled times).

The CERN budget maybe relatively small, but what CERN scientists should ask is whether other more immediate problems are being adequately addressed?

Applied to climate chaos, it is irrelevant whether the risk of catastrophic warming and/or cooling is 90%, 10%, 1%, only that common sense tells us dumping billions of tons of waste into the atmosphere and modifying the ecosystems in profound ways entails risk to the global ecosystems.

This risk is unacceptable as there is no greater risk to the planet and humanity that the modern economy addresses: There is no reason to risk destroying the planet to maintain frivolous consumption, and therefore there is every reason to reverse soil erosion, water depletion, deforestation, ocean death, and mass species extinction through simple things such as non-consumption, direct solar energy, planting a lot of forest gardens, local production and management of essential goods and services, more vegetarian diets (as in not meat at every meal), and stopping the acidification of the oceans by not wantonly burning things in superfluous pursuits.

The participants in the CERN risk debate all agreed that the risk of globl destruction for pure scientific experiments should be very small, on the order of 0.0001 % or less. The debate was in what miniscule number in particular should be chosen, who had the right to set this number, and how exactly calculating what level of global risk CERN presented should be carried out.

Yet, nearly all ecological models show there is a far greater level of risk than 0.0001% for a truly catastropic events if we continue to destroy ecosystems, release novel and unstudied chemicals, discupt ocean and atmospheric chemistry, melt large ice-masses and so on; so I fail to see how any competent scientist (who agrees a 0.001 risk to the planet should be avoided [2]) could be seriously concerned with anything else.


[1Nuclear fusion and space exploration is not a solution to our problems. Though we could imagine a world were it’s both ethical and reasonable to build CERN, it’s certainly a world were equal effort and resources are but into more basic problems, like ensuring we have clean water, healthy soil and functioning oceans, first, which is far from being the case. And until it is the case CERN represents the sanitized principles of scientific insitutionalism.

[2Of course, if someone doesn’t give a fig for the general safety of the planet then building CERN or other toys is a completely reasonable allocation of sparse intellectual ressources.

Written by Eerik Wissenz.

Table of Contents

*Chapters in grey are in progress.

About | Acknowledgements | Contact |
Built with | template | | Follow site activity RSS 2.0