"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The Rolling Urgency Paradox

We have only ten years to act on climate! Four years ago we only had ten years to act! Ten years ago we only had ten years to act! Twenty years ago, the same!

This is very poor messaging, even though in a sense it is true.

Let me try to explain how this could be true in some sense. Then maybe we can consider how to say this better.

Different processes have different time constants. Suppose you are driving on an isolated mountain road and find yourself low on gas. This is an urgent concern. If you don't come across some fuel in the next hour or so you will be stranded. Then you go round a bend and see a truck barreling down toward you straddling the center line. This is an urgent concern, and you have three seconds to figure out what to do about it. See how the urgency is related to the problem?

The earth is a much larger system than those of our mundane concerns. Larger systems tend to have longer time constants associated with them. Remember how LONG it took for the World Trade Towers to actually fall? That's mostly because they are much larger than things we ordinarily see falling. To the earth, ten years is an instant. Much less than ten years doesn't really allow for a significant change in greenhouse gas concentrations. The climate, at least in its ordinary state, usually takes about thirty years to wander through its ordinary configurations. By ten years, in geophysical sense, we essentially mean "really really fast" though in political contexts it seems like eons.

In 1992, the world agreed that it was necessary to start getting a handle on CO2 emissions soon, such that they did not rise much over 1992 levels and returned to those levels by 2010. Had we achieved that, there would be substantially less carbon in the atmosphere now, and substantially less draconian cuts needed. 1992 was pretty much the last minute to deal with the problem cheaply and at modest risk.

Each decade that passes has increased the risk and the steepness of how fast the risk rises over time, especially given that our actual performance has been so far off what we agreed we needed to do. So we are now to the point that we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (especially CO2 and methane) as quickly as is feasible. Here feasibility is set by the sunk costs in existing infrastructure. As quickly as is feasible amounts to abandoning carbon emitting infrastructure in favor of other infrastructure whenever possible, and adding no new capacity.

Drill noplace, drill never!

It's incredibly counterintuitive to say this in Texas. It really is seen as close to insane. I understand this. I have friends and acquaintances for whom the spigot just turned on. I have a hard time wishing their good fortune to end.

And I understand that we still have all that automotive infrastructure to feed at the least, and the existing supplies won't last forty years, so, well, so it's hard to say exactly what activities to stop when. This is why we need to think quantitatively and collectively. And nobody with any stake in the fossil fuels will welcome such collective wisdom, I promise you that!

So we're stuck where we are, in a great hurry and caught like deer in headlights, if you'll pardon the cliche, motionless, paralyzed.

Yet we only have ten years to act. Ten years until what? That's the question.

Until the costs get substantially higher and the risks get substantially worse. It's always ten years. And that's longer than an election cycle. And so nothing gets done.

"We only have ten years to act" will remain true until we act, or until our inaction does us in, whichever comes first. But it sounds bogus and incoherent and inconsistent, just the same. We need another way of putting this.


Michael Tobis said...

Related (h/t KOtR):

Not a shortage of energy but a longage of expectations

James Annan said...

If it sounds bogus and incoherent and inconsistent, then maybe the correct conclusion is....that it actually is bogus and incoherent and inconsistent.

The real answer (as I'm sure you know) is that the risks and costs rise more or less smoothly, and imposing any deadline is primarily a political and rhetorical device.

Alastair said...


The cost of oil has not risen smoothly. Why should the cost of replacing it rise smoothly?

Of course it is possible to "prove" that it rises smoothly by drawing a trend line or considering only a small section of the curve. But that is just a trick used by mathematicians divorced from the real, at times chaotic, world.

We have been warned about "Inevitable Surprises". If we knew when they will happen or what they are then they would not be surprises, but that does not mean they are not still inevitable.

RW said...

The thing that's essential and often missing is the "otherwise..." Certainly, we always can say we have ten years to act. But the "otherwise" is always changing. If it's missed off, the statement looks incoherent and inconsistent, but if people had said ten years ago "we have ten years to act, otherwise X", and now were saying "we have ten years to act, otherwise Y" where Y is worse than X, then it would be totally coherent and consistent.

Michael Tobis said...

Alastair, I don't expect you to understand this, but the very fact that surprises are surprises means that the risk rises smoothly. Whether or not there are tipping points, if we don't actually know when they kick in, all the real deadlines are obscure, and we are, insofar as we can know, gradually worse off form year to year until we get a policy commensurate with the evidence.

Michael Tobis said...

James, yes it is a rhetorical device, but it seems to me that it replaces a conceptual framework that most nonscientists lack.

The problem really is urgent in terms of its own time constants. That those are long compared to familiar concerns does not mean we can neglect the problem for many e-folding times. How do you express that to someone unfamiliar with the concept?

(I note in particular that economists have no grasp of the principles of scaling.)

This sense of urgency seems to most people incompatible with the decadal time scale. "Ten years" is the amount of time it takes the situation to get substantially worse. We have delayed at least twenty years. Now the problem is substantially bad. Another ten and it will get dreadful, and another ten after that and we may be verging on overwhelming.

And of course, those are only guesses. Perhaps I am off by a decade or two on "overwhelming", but I doubt that it is much more than three decades of delay in the future, and find it perhaps as likely that it is upon us now.

Of course this uncertainty has little to do with climate science per se, and more with intuitions about impacts and costs. But the policy sector cannot cope. They want best estimates.

So the best estimate is what it always was. "You'd better get your act together in the next ten years or the problem will get substantially worse." It's quite possible for this to be true. But it doesn't ring true to the nonscientist.

Anonymous said...

@ James: "imposing any deadline is primarily a political and rhetorical device."

I can't say I agree here. (Although you do stick the "primarily" modifier in there!)

If you are looking to avoid some target level of atmospheric CO2 concentrations - arbitrary as that is - and say it is 450ppm for argument's sake. With concentrations rising at, what?, 1.7 ppm per year, it's inarguable that certain periods of delay on mitigation will preclude meeting such targets. Either we will simply blow past them if we wait long enough, or, if we wait a somewhat shorter time but then decide to act, we may need to be decarbonizing at some rate of 20% or more per year for an extended period of time, and that would be considered economically/technically/logistically infeasible.

I wouldn't characterize presenting these realities or trade-offs as "rhetorical".

I think Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows' papers on this are instructive, as is his presentation at the 4 degrees conference at Oxford in the fall of 2009. And as simple as they are, the implied mitigation curves for various start dates by the WGBU make the stark implications of delay apparent.

I realize that ultimately it is a question of choices and priorities, but I don't think that stipulating that "unless we act within the next 10 years, these are the implications" is rhetoric. I think it is simply laying out the bare facts of the situation...

Anonymous said...

Ok, catching up on some comments since I started typing my last.

RW makes a good point about needing to articulate "otherwise Y". AND it's not just that because we delayed for the last ten years that we are that much closer to damages, or that we have that much more difficult a mitigation "ask" to achieve certain targets. Consider just the update to the "burning embers" analysis over the last ten years. "Otherwise Y" is getting magnified along various vectors...

Tom said...

The beauty of a fact free argument is that there is literally nothing to dispute.

You win! We're doomed!

Umm, what was the climb in global mean surface temperatures in the last 10 years? Make it 30 years to provide statistical significance and smooth out some lumpy years?

What was the sea level rise in the past 30 years?

It's easy to panic about weather-related damages when you're living in the middle of a drought zone.

But damages due to climate change have not yet started, notwithstanding vehement claims to the contrary.

You can work yourselves up into a frenzy as much as you want. But because it is a fact free frenzy, pardon me if I don't participate.

Eric L said...

It's too late to prevent the problems we've already committed ourselves to by our inaction so far; it's never too late to prevent the problems ten more years of inaction will commit us to.

Michael Tobis said...

Tom, feel free to start not participating at any time. As far as I am concerned here, you are entirely welcome to turn your attentions elsewhere...

Tom said...

Ohhh, Dr. Tobis. So it is more in sorrow than in anger that I am evicted from this section of the Commons.

And you were doing so well over at Keith's.

Happy fretting and fuming. Your regulars will tell you waited far too long to do this. I will suggest that it's far too late.

Michael Tobis said...

(looks up obtuse in the dictionary, wondering if there's a picture of Tom there)

Gail Zawacki said...

It's not that hard to figure out. We have been screwed since the beginning. The only question, ever, was how long it would take for us to devour our primary sources of sustenance, since we exercise no restraint.


I know, it's depressing. The only question remaining then is, having acknowledged the inevitable, what should be our response?

That is where poetry, music, dance, painting and other forms of art become the answer.