Saturday, July 18, 2009

The Power of Positive Pessimism

One of my fellow bloggers very respectfully asked if my environmental posts weren't too pessimistic? It's a question I ask myself a lot. Most of the information and opinions I post here are obviously much darker, far more pessimistic than anything you're going to hear from our political leadership and most of what you hear from contemporary media outlets.

In terms of relative pessimism, however, they are pretty close to the unfiltered opinions coming from leading climate scientists and experts in related fields including biology, botany, epidemiology, geology and hydrology among others. They also closely parallel a lot of the concerns shared by military experts from, among others, the Pentagon and the British Ministry of Defence.

Is it pessimistic to accept these opinions as most probably true? Isn't life itself a constant weighing of probabilities, a process essential for us to evaluate options, priorities and trade-offs and then make decisions, often very difficult decisions?

I have accepted that these opinions are probably right. These writings are aimed at getting this information in front of people to get people thinking and discussing and reading so that they too can decide whether to accept these opinions as probably correct. Because once you've evaluated the information and decided these opinions are probably correct, it gives you a compelling reason to begin to evaluate options, priorities and trade-offs and then reach your own conclusions.

As I pointed out, we're very good at this process even if we're not always successful. We use it at the individual, community and societal level all the time.

Having come to accept these scientific opinions as probably correct, it gives rise to a couple of other thing we've learned to do fairly well - risk management and risk avoidance. There is no way to avoid all risks so long as you draw breath. What you can do is work to improve your odds by figuring out what threshold of risk is acceptable and what risks can be avoided. It's a trade-off.

Fly across the ocean or the polar cap today and there's a good chance you'll be in a modern, twin engine airliner. It used to be we demanded four engines for this sort of thing (think Constellation, 707, DC-8) but then engines became not only more powerful but, most importantly, more reliable. At that point the risk management people inside our various aviation authorities decided twin engine aircraft could probably carry passengers across vast stretches of open ocean in relative safety.

Everything in an aircraft is a trade-off. A big trade-off is the extra expense, especially in fuel consumption, we accept to maintain a minimum redundancy standard. Two engines to keep your jetliner flying aren't enough. We demand that those engines be big and powerful enough that the aircraft can be flown on just one far enough to probably be able to reach a runway somewhere.

Now for something completely different - the Cold War. During the standoff between the Western nations and the Soviet bloc everyone accepted the threat of a global, nuclear exchange. As British economist Nick Stern pointed out, many Western nations considered the threat serious enough that they were willing to invest up to 4% of their GDP into their military forces, their deterrence. (Stern, as an aside, believes we can avert catastrophic climate change by accepting a GDP reduction of less than half that)

Thanks to that investment in deterrence, and a good bit of luck, that world ending nuclear exchange never happened. For a while top generals would debate survivable nuclear war, a madness based on pre-emptive attack. The thinking went, "If I launch everything at him without any warning, I'll be able to wipe out all his cities and most of his nuclear arsenal. Then, at worst, he'll probably only be able to wipe out 70% of my cities, so I'll have 30% of my cities left, enough to rebuild and I win!" Fortunately we got past that to the point of MAD or Mutually Assured Destruction, nuclear Armageddon and rode that out to the end of the Cold War.

Now consider it this way. Is the risk of catastrophic climate change more or less probable than was the threat of nuclear annihilation during the Cold War? If you fall back on your acceptance that the views of these climate scientists and military experts are probably right, the risk of catastrophic climate change is considerably more probable than nuclear annihilation ever was during the Cold War. A logical conclusion, even if dire, is not pessimistic.

So, if you have climbed down off the fence and accepted that catastrophic climate change will probably occur the way mankind is going, then you either bury your head in the sand or engage the risk management and risk avoidance mechanisms that have served us well in the past - well enough at least that you're still around to read this.

The Brits (bless them and their horrid, greasy food) aren't afraid of probability. That's clear from the report recently released by the British environment secretary detailing the amount of warming Britons can expect by 2070 based on the existing state of carbon emissions. They've been told there'll probably be two degrees of warming in most parts of Britain and possibly as much as six degrees in some southern areas, including the City of London. Now, if you accept that as the probable outcome based on the existing situation, it's a no-brainer to see that things are probably going to get worse, much worse, unless the community of nations accepts that they must do whatever it takes to decarbonize their economies and get it done very, very soon.

Why do we need immediate action now? Because replacing a carbon-based economy is a decadal job. According to America's leading climate scientist, the Goddard Institutes James Hansen, the latest research shows the onset of global warming is happening at a pace they could not have imagined just a few years ago. Hansen sees smoke billowing out beneath the door and wants to pull the alarm. He now says, quite unequivocally, that we have no more than 20-years to completely give up our dominant energy source, coal. Twenty years, that's it. If we don't give it up, Hansen warns that we will very probably be unable to avert truly catastrophic global warming.

Now I think it's logical enough to assume that we're probably not going to decarbonize our economies without drastic action by all the major emitters. This is where "think globally, act locally" comes in. Any hope of meaningful action is being blocked by the dissenters, the heel-draggers. How do you know who they are? Easy. They're the guys who've fallen back on the disingenuous claim that they'll cut their own emissions only when everyone else agrees to do the same.

What's disingenuous about this "all or nothing" tactic? Among other things, it throws us right back into the arms of MAD or mutually assured destruction. It's like a scene from a western where all the bad guys are gathered around the poker table, holding their cards in one hand and a six-shooter in the other hand underneath the table. It's really, really hard to step down from that mentality because it fosters suspicion, delay and inaction.

Then factor in logical inconsistency. How much credibility on the global scene can either of Canada's two major political leaders hold when both are openly committed to the expansion of the Athabasca Tar Sands? They want China to do what, shut down its coal plants?

The Copenhagen summit is coming up in December and the climate science community is doing everything in its power to convince the world's leaders of the very real, very high probability of runaway global warming if they don't commit themselves now to radical action over the next decade or two. That's a very high bar to clear and I really don't think they're going to make it.

Now back to probabilities. If you believe that catastrophic climate change is probable unless we act quickly to do whatever it takes to stop emitting greenhouse gases and if, following the Copenhagen summit it appears probable that the collective will to act effectively, globally and in time hasn't been achieved, then it's probably time to reset our risk management and risk avoidance parameters accordingly and, as James Lovelock has been urging lately, prepare for the worst.

Why prepare now? Because we're lucky enough that we can, that's why. We're not Africa, and we're not the Middle East. We're not eastern Europe or Central, South or East Asia. We're not South or Central America. If you believe these top climate scientists and military experts are probably right and you're not willing to bet the farm that the world leaders are probably going to act quickly and radically enough, then we had better begin looking at what that probably means for Canada, for us and begin evaluating the unique options - call them blessings if you're so inclined - that are open to us, how we can take advantage of those and even what we may be required to do to protect them.

That's not pessimistic. That's simply logical. Okay, if you want you can call it "positive pessimism."


LMA said...

With the U.S. on board the climate change bandwagon, there is still a slim chance that we can avoid the worst case scenario of catastrophic global changes. I wouldn't say it's pessimistic to be thinking about preparing for the worst, but it may be more useful right now to focus on taking action to develop a green economy.

Canada's leaders should also be paying a lot more attention to what is happening right now in the Arctic. We need to ensure the MSM reports regularly on changes that are underway as the ice and permafrost melt. We need a plan to increase surveillance of our continental shelf and the ports that will be opening to accomodate international shipping once the Arctic Ocean is ice free.

LeDaro said...

Yes during cold war the danger of nuclear war, resulting nuclear winter and destruction of life on the globe was real. It is also heartening that cool-heads prevailed at the end and nuclear winter was avoided. People like Gorbachev deserve a lot of credit.

Now when you say
“Isn't life itself a constant weighing of probabilities, a process essential for us to evaluate options, priorities and trade-offs and then make decisions, often very difficult decisions?
(moreover we need) risk management and risk avoidance.” If we do that then there is a clear hope for the avoidance of pending environmental catastrophe.

Think globally and act locally is also essential in this case. The optimism aspect is that it is happening. Since Al Gore started this crusade the awareness around the world has risen. Lot more world leaders now agree to the existence of the serious climate change dilemma than before the campaign of Al Gore began. Even some big corporations and big polluters are falling in line. I read while ago that … “some large corporations, including United Technologies, Boeing, and British Petroleum, have worked through the International Climate Change Partnership to offer critical support” and that was a decade ago. Hopefully there will be more. So there is a hope.

We were able to avoid nuclear winter and let us hope we will weather this storm too. However we cannot afford to be condescending and be idle as individual members of society, countries, its leaders and globally.

Chris Brown said...

Take heart in your awareness. You are far from alone. The tipping point was a sociological event we passed decades ago, not a future conjunction of facts in environmental science. As Limits to Growth said in 1972, "Because of the delays in the system, if the global society waits until those constraints are unmistakably apparent, it will have waited too long." You might recognize some references at

Anonymous said...

LD, you're missing my point. You're focused on "hope." I appreciate the value of hope but it's irrelevant to risk assessment or risk management. What I hope isn't going to affect the possibility or probability of something, anything happening.

During the Cold War I grew up within a mile or so of an American Nike missile battery. Every Saturday at noon the air raid sirens would sound on the American side and those missiles would be raised from their horizontal bays until each was vertical in the firing position. About 10-minutes later the "all clear" would sound and those missiles would be slowly return to their bays, one at a time.

Now we "hoped" there wouldn't be war but we knew the threat was real and so we prepared for it. The climate change threat is far more real. It's no longer even a threat, it's happening, and yet we continue to rely on future good intentions and hopes instead of recognizing it and preparing for what is coming no matter what - the "best case" scenario.

Here on the island you can't escape the face of climate change. I rode up to Port Hardy at the far northern end last month. To travel there on a motorcycle you keep a close eye on the short-term forecast for a sunny window because it's a ridiculously wet place.

As I rode up there I was shocked. It was 90 degrees and bone dry along the highway. I stayed overnight at a new hotel. It was like an oven. The desk staff said when the place was built no one imagined they might ever need air conditioning. There was no central air in the hallways, no air conditioning of any sort in the rooms.

People in town were worried. The local forests were under an extreme fire hazard warning. That meant the logging crews had to be pulled out. No logging, no income. No one expected that in Port Hardy.

A few days ago I rode over to Port Alberni on the other side of Mount Arrowsmith. Again, hot and bone dry. On the way back I caught a few glimpses of the higher elevations of Mount Arrowsmith and the snowpack was completely gone!

That snowpack is what keeps forest life going here during our dry summer months. It provides the essential flow of cold mountain water for our salmon spawning streams. If there's not enough water when the salmon return, they stay out to sea. If the water flow drops after they spawn the roe die off from the heat. The spawning salmon give the bears, the eagles and other creatures the fats they need to get through the winter. It's a very linear food chain.

These are just a couple of things that are appearing right now. What we need to know is how much more warming is expected, on a reasonable probability, 10-years, 20-years and 30-years from now. Just give us a "best case" scenario so that we can at least begin the risk assessment, management and aversion processes now.

There's a wide range of options and there used to be a lot more. The best of these passed in the 1960's when we didn't understand what was happening. There has been a succession of "next best" options that has come and go in the decades since then. Today's best options aren't nearly as good as those in the past but they're in all probability far better than the options we'll have ten years from now. Sooner or later we'll be compelled to take some option but if we wait much longer it probably won't be very pleasant or particularly effective.

I'm saying let's deal with a "best case" scenario and let's do that today. And while we actually do something tangible to help ourselves, to try to prepare for what's coming, we can still continue to "hope" we can avoid the "worst case" scenario. Does that really sound pessimistic to you?

LeDaro said...

Anon, judging by your reasoning I believe you are Mound. Primarily we do not disagree. All I am saying is that humans will take appropriate action to avoid or at least minimize the looming environmental disaster. Yes we need to keep at it as individuals, as a society and as a global community.

However, if you feel that end is near and nothing can be done. Then I do not know how to respond to you other than that there is a beginning and end to everything and earth and life on it may meet the same destiny.

The Mound of Sound said...

I have your point LD but just when do you think we're going to begin to "take appropriate action to avoid or at least minimize the looming environmental disaster"?

While I really hope your hope is well grounded I would like to see some sign that it's more than a hope.

You misread me if you think I'm suggesting that "nothing can be done." I have tried to emphasize that Canadians have one of the very few countries that will afford options for remediation and adaptation - if we're willing to take them in time.

It's a fundamental rule of life that you hope for the best and prepare for the worst. That's why we send those annual cheques in for our home insurance. What I'm asking is that we take the same approach to climate change but, in order to do that, we first need the government to release reliable forecasts of what we must expect and what we can hope to avoid. The Brits are doing this, why shouldn't we?

Anonymous said...

I suggest that the writers here on this blog take a couple of months and visit China. When a person can only make out the outline of a building the third street over from air pollution laced with chemicals that can be tasted in the mouth....that is no exaggeration,been there seen it, tasted it.... then you wouldn't be talking about a person presenting themselves in their writing as being "too pessimistic" regarding climate change. It is a fact not a maybe that something needs to be done "now" but those who can do something about our problem are not listening. I've become fedup with the attitude of governments in North America who only care about corrupt corporations and their money. It's the same old, same old. A. Morris

LeDaro said...

I wrote in my previous comment,
"Yes we need to keep at it as individuals, as a society and as a global community."

I hope that clarifies my postition.