Cover for Computing the ClimateAs my book has now been published, it’s time to provide a little more detail. My goal in writing the book was to explain what climate models do, how they are built, and what they tell us. It’s intended to be very readable for a general audience, in the popular-science genre. The title is “Computing the Climate: How we know what we know about climate change”.

You can order it here.

The first half of the book focusses on the history of climate models.

In Chapter 1, Introduction, I begin with a key moment in climate modeling: the 1979 Charney report, commissioned by President Jimmy Carter, which developed a new framework to evaluate climate models. The key idea was a benchmark experiment that could be run in each climate model, to study what they agree on and how they differ and offer insight into where the uncertainties lie.

Chapter 2, The First Climate Model, tells the story of Svante Arrhenius’s climate model, developed in Stockholm in the 1890s. I explain in some detail how Arrhenius’s model worked, where he obtained the data, and how well his results stand up. Along the way, I explain the greenhouse effect, how it was first discovered, and why adding more greenhouse gases warms the planet.

Chapter 3, The Forecast Factory, tells the story of the first numerical weather forecasting program, which ran on the first electronic programmable computer, ENIAC, in 1949, and traces the history of the ideas on which it was based. I then explore how this led to the development of “global circulation models”, which simulate the dynamics of the atmosphere.

Chapter 4, Taming Chaos, describes how experiments with weather forecast models led to the discovery of chaos theory, with big implications for predictability of weather and climate. Weather is a chaotic process, so inaccuracies in the initial measurements grow exponentially as a weather model runs, making it hard to predict weather beyond a week or two. Climate prediction doesn’t suffer this problem because it focuses instead on how overall weather patterns change.

The second half of the book describes my visits to a number of different climate modeling labs, and focusses on the work of the scientists I met at these labs.

Chapter 5, The Heart of the Machine, explains the key design ideas at the core of a modern climate model, examining the design choices and computational limitations that shape it, with the UK Met Office’s Unified Model as a case study.

Chapter 6, The Well-Equipped Physics Lab, explores the experiments that climate scientists do with their models, and how these have changed over their history. It features the Community Earth System Model, developed at NCAR in Boulder, Colorado as a case study.

Chapter 7, Plug and Play, explores why it is hard to couple together models of different parts of the Earth’s system – oceans, atmosphere, ice sheets, vegetation, etc. I describe how, with the right architecture, a climate model supports a new kind of cross-disciplinary collaboration in the earth sciences through shared models, and I use the Earth System Model developed at the Institut Pierre-Simon Laplace in Paris as a case study.

Chapter 8, Sound Science, explores how modern climate models are tested, and how modelers maintain software quality. I also explore how well they can simulate recent climate change, as well as climates of the distant past, and discuss how we know what the models get right, and where they still have problems. The Earth System Model developed at the Max Planck Institute in Hamburg features as a case study.

The last chapter, Choosing a Future, concludes the book with a summary of what climate models tell us about likely future climate change, where the remaining uncertainties are, and what pathways we might choose to avert catastrophic climate change. I also explore why action on climate change has been so slow, what we can still do, and why there are reasons for hope.

We held a 2-day workshop at U of T last week entitled “Finding Connections – Towards a Holistic View of City Systems“. The workshop brought together a multi-disciplinary group of people from academia, industry, government, and the non-profit sector, all of whom share a common interest in understanding how cities work as systems-of-systems, and how to make our cities more sustainable and more liveable. A key theme throughout the workshop was how to make sure the kinds of research we do in universities does actually end up being useful to decision-makers – i.e. can we strengthen evidence-based policymaking (and avoid, as one of the participants phrased it, “policy-based evidence-making”).

I plan to blog some of the highlights of the workshop, starting with the first keynote speaker.

The workshop kicked off with an inspiring talk by Jeb Brugmann, entitled “The Productive City”. Jeb is an expert in urban sustainability and climate change mitigation, and has a book out called “Welcome to the Urban Revolution: How Cities are Changing the World“. (I should admit the book’s been sitting on the ‘to read’ pile on my desk for a while – now I have to read it!).

Jeb’s central message was that we need to look at cities and sustainability in a radically different way. Instead of thinking of sustainability as about saving energy, living more frugally, and making sacrifices, we should be looking out how we re-invent cities as places that produce resources rather than consume them. And he offered a number of case studies that demonstrate how this is already possible.

Jeb started his talk with the question: How will 9 billion people thrive on Earth? He then took us back to a UN meeting in 1990, the World Congress of Local Governments for a Sustainable Future. This meeting was the first time that city governments around the world came together to grapple with the question of sustainable development. To emphasis how new this was, Jeb recollected lengthy discussions at the meeting on basic questions such as how to translate the term ‘sustainable development’ into French, German, etc.

The meeting had two main outcomes:

  • Initial work on Agenda 21, getting communities engaged in collaborative sustainable decision making. [Note: Agenda 21 was subsequently adopted by 178 countries at the Rio Summit in 1992. More interestingly, if you google for Agenda 21 these days, you’re likely to find a whole bunch of nutball right-wing conspiracy theories about it being an agenda to destroy American freedom.]
  • A network of city governments dedicated to developing action on climate change [This network became ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability]. Jeb noted how the ambitions of the cities participating in ICLEI have grown over the years. Initially, many of these cities set targets around 20% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Over the years since, these target have grown. For example, Chicago now has a target of 80% reduction. This is significant because these targets have been through city councils, and have been discussed and agreed on by those councils.

An important idea arising out of these agreements is the concept of the ecological footprint – sometimes expressed as how many earths are needed to support us if everyone had the same resource consumption as you. The problem is that you get into definitional twists on how you measure this, and that gets in the way of actually using it as a productive planning tool.

Here’s another way of thinking about the problem. Cities currently have hugely under-optimized development patterns. For example, cities with seven times more outspill growth (suburban sprawl) compared to infill growth. But there are emergent pressures on industry to optimize use of urban space and urban geography. Hence, we should start to examine under-used urban assets. If we can identify space within the city that doesn’t generate value, we can reinvent it. For example, the laneways of Melbourne, which in the 1970’s and 80’s were derelict, have now been regenerated for a rich network of local stores and businesses, and ended up as a major tourist attraction.

We also tend to dramatically underestimate the market viability of energy efficient, sustainable buildings. For example, in Hannover, a successful project built an entire division of eco-homes using Passivhaus standards at similar rental price to the old 1960s apartment buildings.

The standard view of cities, built into the notion of ecological footprint, is that cities are extraction engines – the city acts as a machine that extracts resources from the surrounding environment, processes these resources to generate value, and produces waste products that must be disposed of. Most work on sustainable cities frames the task as an attempt to reduce the impact of this process, by designing eco-efficient cities. For example, the use of secondary production (e.g. recycling) and designed dematerialization (reduction of waste in the entire product lifecycle) to reduce the inflow of resources and the outflow of wastes.

Jeb argues a more audacious goal is needed: We should transform our cities into net productive systems. Instead of focussing on reducing the impact of cities, we should use urban ecology and secondary production so that the city becomes a net positive resource generator. This is far more ambitious than existing projects that aim to create individual districts that are net zero (e.g. that produce as much energy as they consume, through local solar and wind generation). The next goal should be productive cities: cities that produce more resources than they consume; cities that process more waste than they produce.

Jeb then went on to crunch the numbers for a number of different types of resource (energy, food, metals, nitrogen), to demonstrate how a productive city might fill the gap between rising demand and declining supply:

Energy demand. Current European consumption is around 74GJ/capita. Imagine by 2050, we have 9 billion people on the planet, all living like Europeans do now – we’ll need 463EJ to supply them all. Plot this growth in demand over time, and you have a wedge analysis. Using IEA numbers of projected growth in renewable energy supply, to provide the wedges, there’s still a significant shortfall. We’ll need to close the gap via urbanrenewable energy generation, using community designs of the type piloted in Hannover. Cities have to become net producers of energy.

Here’s the analysis (click each chart for full size):

Food. We can do a similar wedge analysis for food. Current food production globally produces around 2,800kcal/captia. But as the population grows, this current level of production produces steadily less food per person. Projected increases in crop yields, crop intensity, and conversion of additional arable land, and reduction of waste would still leave a significant gap if we wish to provide a comfortable 3100kcal/capita. While urban agriculture is unlikely to displace rural farm production, it can play a crucial role in closing the gap between production and need, as the population grows. For example, Havana has a diversified urban agriculture that supplies close to 75% of vegetables from within the urban environment. Vancouver has been very strategic about building its urban agricultural production, with one out of every seven jobs in Vancouver in food production.

Other examples include landfill mining to produce iron and other metals, and urban production of nitrogen fertilizer from municipal biosolids.

In summary, we’ve always underestimated just how much we can transform cities. While we remain stuck in a mindset that cities are extraction engines, we will miss opportunities for more radical re-imagings of the role of global cities. So a key research challenge is to develop a new post-“ecological footprint” analysis. There are serious issues of scaling and performance measurement to solve, and at every scale there are technical, policy, and social challenges. But as cities house ever more of the growing population, we need this kind of bold thinking.

I picked up a fascinating book today – “The Handbook of Sustainability Literacy” edited by Arran Stibbe. It’s a set of short essays on each of a long list of skills needed for thinking about and achieving sustainability. The contents listing makes worthwhile reading on it’s own, covering many of the things I’ve been reading up on for the last few months. I wonder if it’s possible to design an education program that fosters all these skills:

  • ECOCRITICISM – the ability to investigate cultural artefacts from an ecological perspective.
  • OPTIMISATION – the art of personal sufficiency.
  • GROUNDED ECONOMIC AWARENESS – economic awareness grounded in ecological and ethical values.
  • ADVERTISING AWARENESS – the ability to expose advertising discourses that undermine sustainability, and resist them.
  • TRANSITION SKILLS – skills for transition to a post fossil-fuel age.
  • COMMONS THINKING – the ability to envisage and enable a viable future through connected action.
  • EFFORTLESS ACTION – the ability to fulfil human needs effortlessly through working with nature.
  • PERMACULTURE DESIGN – designing our lives with nature as the model.
  • COMMUNITY GARDENING – skills for building community and working within environmental limits.
  • ECOLOGICAL INTELLIGENCE – viewing the world relationally.
  • SYSTEMS THINKING – the ability to recognize and analyse the inter-connections within and between systems.
  • GAIA AWARENESS – awareness of the animate qualities of the Earth.
  • FUTURES THINKING – the ability to envision scenarios for the future and work towards bringing desirable ones into being.
  • VALUES REFLECTION AND THE EARTH CHARTER – the ability to critique the values of an unsustainable society and consider alternatives.
  • SOCIAL CONSCIENCE – the ability to reflect on deeply-held opinions about social justice and sustainability.
  • NEW MEDIA LITERACY – communication skills for sustainability.
  • CULTURAL LITERACY – understanding and skills for culturally appropriate communication.
  • CARBON CAPABILITY – understanding, ability and motivation for reducing carbon emissions.
  • GREENING BUSINESS – the ability to drive environmental and sustainability improvements in the workplace.
  • MATERIALS AWARENESS – the ability to expose the hidden impact of materials on sustainability.
  • APPROPRIATE TECHNOLOGY AND APPROPRIATE DESIGN – the ability to design systems, technologies and equipment in an appropriate way.
  • TECHNOLOGY APPRAISAL – the ability to evaluate technological innovations.
  • COMPLEXITY, SYSTEMS THINKING AND PRACTICE – skills for managing complexity.
  • COPING WITH COMPLEXITY – the ability to manage complex sustainability problems.
  • EMOTIONAL WELLBEING – the ability to research and reflect on the roots of emotional wellbeing.
  • FINDING MEANING WITHOUT CONSUMING – the ability to experience meaning, purpose and satisfaction through non-material wealth.
  • BEING-IN-THE-WORLD – the ability to think about the self in interconnection and interdependence with the surrounding world.
  • BEAUTY AS A WAY OF KNOWING – the redemption of knowing through the experience of beauty.

There’s a few things I’m might add (social networking and social justice spring to mind), and I see they’ve added some additional chapters on the website. But phew, this looks like an extremely valuable book.

James Garvey: The Ethics of Climate Change. Continuum, 2008.

One of the pleasures of teaching is that your students challenge your ideas, and push you in directions you might never have gone. In my graduate class on climate change informatics, I thought we would just focus on applications of computer science to addressing climate change. But my students insisted we spend more time understanding the rationale for action on climate change, and in particular, they wanted a seminar on climate change ethics. Which caused me to pick up James Garvey’s 2008 book, “The Ethics of Climate Change”. It’s such an eloquent statement of the moral case, that I will explore it’s contents in great detail, and quote from it at length. I hope to inspire others to pick up the book and read it. But short of that, at least I can summarize the key points.

Garvey’s thesis is that we need a clear understanding of the ethical dimensions of climate change, and that philosophers (especially those who focus on ethics) need to engage with this problem. As he gets going, he points out that existing approaches to ethics are inadequate, because they haven’t previously considered problems where the consequences of action are “smeared out across space and time”: the impacts of climate change will be felt in disproportionately in different parts of the world, often by the people who have contributed least to the problem, and the impacts will span multiple generations, and affecting people not yet born.

A key point is that although science can tell us what is happening and why, it cannot tell us what to do about it. For that, we need an ethical framework for action. He constructs such a framework based on the idea that the world’s natural carbon sinks are the limiting resource, and that over-using this resource results in suffering and death for very large numbers of people over multiple generations. In the past, this resource has been used disproportionately by the developed nations to achieve prosperity. Hence, there is now a moral imperative to design an equitable way of distributing whatever is left of this resource, in order to avert the worst consequences of climate change without denying the developing world the opportunity to achieve their own prosperity.

The book begins with a short chapter on the science, in which Garvey quickly dispatches any notion that there is a debate within the mainstream scientific community about the existence and consequences of climate change. He makes short work of the argument that uncertainties in future projections can be used as an excuse for inaction, and the myth that climate change is a distant future threat. And he doesn’t mince his words:

“We can expect a future with hundreds of millions, even billions of displaced, hungry, thirsty people in it, escaping not just sea-level rises but on the move away from scorched croplands and empty wells. It doesn’t take much to imagine conflicts happening over our planet’s diminishing or shifting resources. It also doesn’t take much to see that the world’s poorest will be the ones most adversely affected, as well as the ones with the least resources for adaptation. […] There is going to be a lot of death in the future, a lot of death which wouldn’t have happened had we and those before us acted otherwise. There will also be a lot of extra suffering, disease, thirst, hunger, violence and the like, horrors which wouldn’t have happened had we and those before us acted otherwise.” (p28)

In chapter 2, he then explains the role of philosophers, the importance of an explicit consideration of right and wrong, the values that allow us to separate them, and the basis by which we arrive at those values. Philosophy, he points out, “…is an attempt to answer three very large questions. What exists? How do we know? What are we going to do about it?” (p34). These three questions give rise to three kinds of philosophy, respectively, metaphysics, epistemology and moral philosophy. By way of introduction to the basics of moral philosophy, he explores the basis for our beliefs about questions such as why it is wrong to kill innocent people, and provides a starting point for answering through the notion of justice: “…unless some morally relevant considerations intervene, justice means that burdens and benefits should be distributed among people equally.” (p42).

The ability to identify a moral foundation for our actions is vital, because it is often easy to identify relevant facts that argue one way or the other for some action, and hence, such disputes cannot be settled by an appeal to facts: “Sometimes … pointing to the facts is the wrong thing to do, because the disagreement really is a moral one.” (p42) For example, if a neighbouring country has been annexed, going to war to fight the injustice might be expensive. But the cost is irrelevant if the our moral framework compels us to act: “Sometimes morality trumps the facts, and sometimes the facts are just irrelevant. (p45)”

Of course, consistency is important here. Garvey summarizes two major schools of thought as examples:

  • Utilitarianism, which says that the morality of any action should be judged solely on its consequences, and specifically on whether it brings happiness (or reduction of pain) for the greatest number of people;
  • Kantian morality, which says any principle that you apply, to determine what to do, should work as a universal law. For example, making a false promise is morally wrong, because if everyone did it, there would no longer be such a thing as a promise any more, and hence the action, when elevated to a universal law, generates an inconsistency.

Whether you apply either of these two approaches, or some other basis for morality, it’s important to test your moral framework through various thought experiments, to explore its consistency.

Unfortunately, the consistency principle can run into difficulty in environmental ethics. Most traditional approaches to moral reasoning focus on the effect of our actions on (other) humans. But as soon as we argue that animals feel pleasure and pain, it becomes hard to draw a distinct boundary, to argue that value to humans is the only thing that grounds our morality. Indeed, much of environmental ethics has focussed on expanding the boundaries that constrain our thinking about what harm our actions might cause: while in the past, some philosophers have excluded women, slaves, ethnic minorities, so today it seems wrong to exclude animals, and even entire ecosystems. Talbott points out a delicious irony here: we could argue that the human capacity for moral reasoning should not entitle us to a privileged status within the ecosystems in which we exist. But that argument is only possible precisely because of our capacity for moral reasoning. In other words, the very thing that makes humans special is used to argue that we are not special. To overcome this, some environmental ethicists argue that we need a new basis for how we think about ‘value’, one that is not anthropocentric. For example, Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis places value in the biosphere as a whole, with humans as just one element.

Having reviewed these approaches to environmental ethics, Garvey concludes that we don’t, in fact, need to re-think our ideas about human values to construct a compelling moral framework for action on climate change, and indeed that climate change already challenges our thinking about morality in so many other ways that perhaps it’s best to stick to a traditional human-centred ethics to reason about what we ought to do about it.

A big part of the challenge is in how we normally think about responsibility. If someone deliberately smashed a valuable vase, it’s not hard to ascribe responsibility for the action, to identify who is harmed by it, and perhaps what compensatory action might be necessary. But each of us contributes to fossil fuel emissions just by turning on lights, having hot showers, making toast for breakfast, driving to work, and taking the occasional well-earned vacation. So who is to blame for climate change, and who should address the harm that it causes?

“Our values grew up in a low-tech, disconnected world, of plenty. Now, cumulative and apparently innocent acts can have consequences undreamt of by our forebears. Further, the effects of actions, as well as the actions themselves, are smeared out in space and time in confusing ways.” (p59)

Worse, the global and inter-generational nature of the problems are entangled:

“There is a sense in which my actions and the actions of my present fellows join with the past actions of my parents, grandparents and great-grandparents, and the effects resulting from our actions will still be felt hundreds, even thousands of years in the future. It is also true that we are, in a way, stuck with the present we have because of our past. The little actions I undertake which keep me warm and dry and fed are what they are partly because of choices made by people long dead. Even if I didn’t want to burn fossil fuels, I’m embedded in a culture set up to do so.” (p60)

Couple this, then with our ineptitude at theoretical reasoning, and the result is a global moral failing, and a global self-deception, akin to the denialism of the alcoholic and drug addict:

“We’re not much good at thinking about our long-term future, non-human animals and nature, the value of persons who might never exist, spatially and temporally smeared actions and so on. We have been able to get about our business without worrying much about any of this, so now that it matters, we lack both the wisdom and the theory to cope with it.” (p61)

So what is the central problem in thinking about climate change? Garvey likens the problems to a tragedy of the commons (where is is each person’s interest individually to over-exploit a common resource, but collectively a disaster), or a prisoner’s dilemma problem (where cooperating with the police by ratting on your accomplice might get you the best individual outcome, but the best joint action is for all members of the gang to stay silent). Nations considering whether to stick to the commitments they made in the Kyoto treaty face this type of dilemma, whereby

“polluting and enjoying the benefits of untrammelled energy use, can seem like the individually rational thing to do – particularly if, so far as you know, that’s what the other guy is going to do. Exploiting a common resource, like the carbon-absorbing properties of the planet, can seem like a good idea too. Everyone shares in the loss of the common resource, but only the polluter enjoys the benefits.” (p64)

Thankfully, Garvey is quick to dismiss the cost-benefit approaches to this problem that are frequently advocated by economists. He does this succinctly by pointing out that

“a few economists have tried to calculate some of the “non-market impacts” of climate change, by assigning a value to human life in proportion to national per capita gross domestic product: You get solid and objective answers to your questions through this assignation, but you also have to think about a Chinese person as worth about one tenth of a European.” (p65)

So while economics matters, it cannot matter if we don’t first work out what we value, and that consideration of value has to happen long before we apply economics to the problem.

The core of Garvey’s approach then is that the world’s carbon sinks are a limited resource, and furthermore they are a necessary resource: for many people, burning fossil fuels is an essential part of getting food. Hence, using up someone else’s share of the carbon sink is as wrong as using up their share of food or clean water. Garvey presents the numbers that show we’re a long way from an equitable distribution of this resource. He also considers, and then dismisses arguments that there might be a moral justification for such an unequal distribution – for example, the argument  that an unequal distribution of a resource can result in benefits for everyone. The origin of this argument is often attributed to Locke, who, in the 17th century, compared the lack of property ownership among Native Americans with the unequal land ownership in England, and concluded that, since the poorest persons in England had more material goods than the Native Americans, that the inequality of ownership in England benefitted everyone. Although this particular comparison is rather dubious, similar arguments are common across many writers since, from Adam Smith who argued that the operation of markets guaranteed an optimal allocation of resources to those who could exploit them (hence benefiting everyone), through to the “trickle down” ideology of Reagan and Thatcher. Unfortunately, there’s no evidence that the exploitation of global carbon sinks by developed nations has benefited the poorer nations of the world in any way, as they cannot afford most of the products of our high energy  economy, and those that they can afford, they have paid for many times over in the flow of money and raw materials from the poor to the rich. Furthermore, as we face dwindling supplies of fossil fuel energy (due to peak oil and peak coal), and dwindling agricultural yield due to climate change, this lack of access to the benefits will likely get steadily worse:

“Burning fossil fuels, using the planet’s sinks, has partly made developed countries what they are – it has been a large part of securing the standard of life enjoyed by those in wealthy countries. The resource which helped the developed world to do this is now effectively used up. In using the atmosphere as we have, we have not just consumed a little more than the poor. We’ve taken a possible future from them and replaced it with something much worse.” (p73)

This might be enough to provide a compelling case that the developed world bears the responsibility for climate change, and hence ought to take on the bulk of the work of mitigating further damage, and the responsibility to help the rest of the world to cope with the impacts, all while still allowing the developing world access to whatever is left of the world’s carbon sinks, lest they be denied their own chance of development. But Garvey adds one more argument, of compelling simplicity, which he introduces as “You broke it, you bought it”. The developed world has broken our climate system, and therefore bears the responsibility for paying for the damage – a principle that’s enshrined in many countries’ legal systems as “the polluter pays”.

Garvey then considers a number of counter-arguments:

  • The argument that a causal responsibility doesn’t necessarily entail a moral responsibility, if an actor was unaware of the damage, and did not intend to cause it. The problem is with this argument is that in simpler cases, we still ascribe a clear moral responsibility. If, for example, I cause a car accident, even though I did not intend to, it would be immoral to drive away without stopping to check everyone was okay, help anyone who was injured, and pay for at least part of the damage. And there’s a problem with arguing that the developed world was unaware. A clear understanding of the causes and impacts of climate change dates back at least until 1990, with the publication of the first IPCC report, and yet emissions have grown unabated in the 21 years since then. The developed world certainly cannot claim ignorance for this period.
  • The argument that individuals in the developed world cannot be held responsible for the actions of their parents and grandparents. Garvey notes that this argument requires a shift in focus from the responsibility of nations to the responsibility of individuals. But even more importantly, we cannot argue that the activities of our grandparents have nothing to do with us, while enjoying the prosperity that is a direct result of those activities.

And even if we do develop some of these arguments further, and perhaps accept that we must ignore history, we can still construct an argument that the developed world bears the responsibility based just on the following observations:

  • Current per capita emissions. China may have overtaken the US in total annual emissions in the last few of years, but given it has nearly five times the population (and that it been more proactive than any other nation in containing population growth), as soon as you look at per capita emissions, it’s obvious that the developed countries still burn dramatically more than their fair share.
  • Room for reduction. Many of the emissions in the developing world are subsistence emissions – cutting them will remove some of the basic requirements for survival:

“Suppose that 50% of the emissions of the US Virgin Islands are luxury emissions and all of the emissions of Rwanda are subsistence emissions. It’s clear who has room for reduction and who doesn’t. Arguing the point is as good as saying that some Rwandans should die so that some Virgin Islanders can recharge their mobile phones.” (p81)

  • Ability to pay. However you look at it, reducing fossil fuel emissions and adapting to climate change will cost money. Because the developed nations can afford it, they should pay more, not just in absolute terms, but in relative terms as well. Say it costs a few percent of the world’s wealth to pay for a massive switch to clean energy. For poorer nations, a few percent on their meagre resources will have a disproportionately high impact on their wellbeing, while to a rich country, the impact might be negligible.
  • Technological capacity. The argument here is that those who are best placed to do what is right have the greatest obligation to do so. If you fail to act to save a drowning child as you stroll along the riverbank, you might have some explaining to do. If you’re a physically fit and well-trained lifeguard you’ll have even more explaining to do.

A particularly interesting aspect of Garvey’s framework is that it doesn’t rely on being able to come up with an adequate definition of environmental sustainability, nor of any idea of ‘stewardship of the earth’. When he does discuss sustainability, at the end of chapter 3, Garvey points out that most definitions of sustainability rely on us reasoning about a balance of the rights of the current generation with the rights of those yet unborn, and however you look at it, it’s hard to figure out an equitable division of resources with an unknown number of future earthlings. To argue that we must act to reduce avoidable suffering because of the impacts of climate change is one thing. But to argue that future generations must have equal access to resources as us is much harder. By way of example, he questions whether the people of developing nations, where life might only just be becoming tolerable, should pause to consider making sacrifices now for the benefit of subsequent generations.

Garvey spends chapter 4 demolishing the usual arguments put forward for doing nothing, or for delaying action. It’s eloquently argued, and makes a compelling case that those who spend time discussing uncertainties and costs are doing little more than self-interested vacillation. On uncertainty:

“The many things we still don’t understand all that well, the IPCC and others stress in various ways make us unsure of the timing and the magnitude and the regional patterns of climate change. What is not in doubt is the fact of climate change and the human role in it. […] The uncertainty, really, concerns only the timing and extent of the required cuts and preparations. We do not know how swift the changes to our societies need to be or how large they need to be. We don’t know how much longer we can get away with the high energy lives we’ve got. Maybe putting it that way makes our to-ing and fro-ing about action on climate change sound self-interested. Maybe that’s just what it is.”  (p95-6)

On costs:

“If you think a little about the causes and effects of climate change – our easy high-energy lives as compared to the suffering which greenhouse-gas emissions cause and will continue to cause – you can come to the conclusion that avoiding action on climate change just because it might be expensive amounts to harming people for money.” (p98)

On hoping for technological rescue:

“There’s no harm in wishful thinking, unless it stops you doing something effective when something effective needs to be done. When wishful thinking takes the place of recognizing moral responsibilities […] the harm becomes a moral mistake. The damage that might have been avoided becomes the wishful thinker’s fault. […] Opting for wishful thinking instead of action when there is so much at stake is something more like moral recklessness.” (p103)

On waiting for others to act:

“Ethical demands are placed upon the users of a scarce and valuable resource just because the scarce and valuable resource is being used. It does not matter whether a country signs a treaty, whether a country meant to deprive others, or whether other countries are pitching in too. The moral demand is there no matter what others do.” (p109)

And in summary:

“Not one of the reasons for delaying meaningful action on climate change is based on a principle. Certainly there are no moral principles to be found in the arguments. There is not much talk of justice or equity or fairness or the value of human life. This fact might give you pause, might make you suspicious, might make you wonder what the real motivation for delay might be. […] It is hard to escape the conclusion that selfishness is at the bottom of the arguments against action” (p110-111)

Having sketched out the rationale for this moral framework, Garvey then considers what action on climate change is needed. He suggests four moral requirements for judging any proposed international agreement:

  1. Historical responsibilities – any agreement must take account of how much of our shared carbon sinks each country has used up already;
  2. Present capacities – taking into account both inequality in current emissions (e.g. by comparing per capita emissions) and availability in each country of the capital needed to undertake emissions reduction.
  3. Sustainability – however we divide up the remaining shares of the carbon sinks it must be set up in a way that is sustainable over the long term.
  4. Procedural fairness – the process of arriving at and implementing an agreement must be open and transparent, as must be the measurement of compliance.

Garvey applies these criteria to assess the Kyoto protocol, and finds it seriously wanting:

“The individual targets set for countries in Kyoto are based on self-interest, not moral principle, certainly not in the recognition of past injustices or present inequalities.” (p122)

And of course, given the bullying that went on in the Kyoto process by certain powerful countries, it certainly wasn’t procedurally fair:

“A process certainly cannot be called ‘just’ if those landed with large burdens have little say in the process. There is a sense in which the poor and the weak, those least able to adapt to climate change, were landed with the worst of the burdens: rising tides, drought, failing crops, more disease, water shortages, and on and on. That fact should have secured certain countries a much larger role in negotiations. It didn’t.” (p123)

And he makes short work of the argument that we might forgive the moral failings of the Kyoto agreement on the basis that at least it was a first step, on which we can build:

“To buy into this sort of view of Kyoto, […] at the very least you have to think that the desired end is now on the cards. You have to think that future rounds of deeper cuts with more industrialized countries taking part now stands a good chance of being a reality because of Kyoto. Further you have to have good reasons for this thought; it can’t just be wishful thinking. […] It has to be true that Kyoto was the only way to secure the future good end of a meaningful treaty with substantial and binding emissions cuts. There is at least one other way to get such a treaty, and that’s to start with it.”

Which then brings us to the question of what ought to be done. Garvey draws on the paper by Bodansky et. al., which surveys more than 40 different proposals. Using his criteria, he throws out many on the basis that they only tackle part of the problem, and boils the remainder down to two basic approaches:

  • Equal per capita shares, of which the best known example is contraction and convergence. Such proposals satisfy the criteria of moral adequacy, but might not be directly implementable, because, if we take past emissions into account, the developed countries, in effect, have already used up their per capita shares entirely (plus a whole lot more). Pushed to the extreme, this is then an argument that the developed nations aren’t even entitled to subsistence allowances from this point onwards. This could be addressed by some sort of monetary compensation for past emissions, instead of deducting them from future allocations. But then there are other wrinkles to sort out: the problem that people in some parts of the world (e.g. cold climates) could justifiably insist they need a bigger share than some others. And of course, the scheme might be seen to encourage population growth, and if you try and deal with this by pegging the per capita shares to population at some fixed date, you then penalize countries with younger populations who can’t immediately avoid significant population growth.
  • Comparable burdens, in which the countries of the world agree to share out equally the burden of action on climate change. While this is clearly not morally adequate, according to Garvey’s criteria, he considers a number of reasons to take such proposals seriously, the chief of which is that the developed world is far more likely to sign up to an agreement that forgives them for past emissions, and perhaps also a sustainability question: each nation is less likely to defect if it can see that everyone is shouldering an equal burden. As he puts it:

“Suppose, instead, that we say that the right thing to do is to hold on to principle, even if it means that we end up with no agreement for meaningful action on climate change. Maybe this stand is admirable, until you think a little about the people who are going to suffer for it […] You can die for your own principles, if you like, but can you really insist that others die for them, too?” (p133)

In the end, Garvey doesn’t advocate for one or other of these approaches, but he does offer a clear yardstick by which to judge them. I think he’s saying, in effect, that equal per capita shares is what we ought to strive for (on the basis of moral adequacy), but that comparable burdens is the best we’re likely to achieve (in the basis of political acceptability). Of course, right now we have nothing, so there’s a lot of work to do.

Garvey’s final chapter is on individual action. He points out that what we do as individuals (e.g. worrying about how to reduce our own personal carbon footprints) is important, but isn’t going to save the planet. However, he addresses some hard truths about our personal moral failings. For example, he describes the moral outrage many people feel towards America: this is the nation that historically has done the most damage to the climate: with only 5% of the world’s population, it is responsible for 24% of global emissions, and yet America has done so little about climate change. And moral outrage because, as the world’s only superpower, America can most afford to take serious action, but does not. And more moral outrage because it’s a country where the vast majority of emissions are for luxuries rather than necessities. And even more moral outrage because other countries are taking stronger action on climate change, incurring immediate costs, while America acts as a freeloader, pursuing its short-term interests without caring about the consequences to the rest of the world.

And yet, if we’re capable of such moral outrage against America, we should, for moral consistency, also direct it against ourselves as individuals. For we, as the beneficiaries of a high-carbon lifestyle in the rich developed nations, are just as much to blame as any nation or government:

“If you find America’s failings morally outrageous, maybe you should find your own failings in the same connection morally outrageous too.” (p140)

And all the same arguments apply. If America is best placed to take action on climate change (because of its riches), then we as individuals in developed countries are too: we each have vastly more wealth, and vastly more choice than anyone in poorest half of the world. We should each be smart enough to figure out what we should do. We might reason that the effect is tiny when we take long hot showers, when we fail to insulate our houses, when we eat strawberries flown in from abroad, when we fly to exotic locations for vacations. But morally, the only difference between our individual actions and those of America or Exxon is one of scale. It’s still morally wrong.

To explain why so few people take a strong moral stance on individual choices, Garvey points out the psychological tricks we play on ourselves:

“When you hunker down over a drink and actually talk through climate change with real live people, when you follow debates in the media, and elsewhere, what you find are not arguments. What you bump into, again and again, are not reasons advanced for carefully articulated positions, but something closer to psychological defence mechanisms. What you find is denial.” (p143)

Garvey runs through Hillman’s list of ten defence mechanisms that people use for failing to take individual action, and points out that many of them were evident in the study of attitudes conducted by Stoll-Kleeman et al. They are all forms of denial, commonly found in dealing with addiction and anti-social behaviour:

  1. “I don’t believe in climate change”, which is straight denial of the facts;
  2. Technology will be able to halt climate change”, which is a kind of reckless wishful thinking;
  3. “I blame the government, or the Americans, or the Chinese”, which is a kind of psychological projection, used to avoid facing up to personal responsibility;
  4. Various ad hominems directed at people calling for action, which is just an attempt to kill the messenger;
  5. “It’s not my problem”, which might just be straightforward dissociation, given that the evidence is all around us that it is (and will be) everyone’s problem;
  6. “There’s nothing I can do about it”, which is patently false, given that the way we choose to live our lives is the cause of the problem;
  7. “How I run my life is my own business”, except that it isn’t when what we do causes tangible harm to others;
  8. “There are more important and urgent tasks to tackle”, which might be true, but is hard to argue. It’s therefore likely to be another form of misdirection;
  9. “At least I’m doing something”, which again is a form of denial when the “something” consists of easy, cosmetic changes that don’t address the real, substantive changes that are needed;
  10. “We are already making a lot of progress on climate change” which sounds to me like the alcoholic insisting he is cutting down.

Garvey ends the book with a compelling argument that what we do as individuals matters a great deal, and that reflecting on climate change, and the moral choices it demands of us, should make us more reflective, driving us to a kind of living deliberatively:

“Reflection on climate change, and what to do about it in your on life can feel like something in between a moral problem or question and a crisis – better, it can seem to have some of the properties of both.” (p148)

His final section is on civil disobedience, and the inevitable conclusion that if you take a moral stance on climate change, and bear witness to the failure of governments over the last two decades to do what’s right, it leaves little option but that radical action is in order. Of course, by the logic of his arguments about individual action, if we protest, to some extent we’re protesting against our own lifestyles:

“In more than a token sense, a campaign of civil disobedience undertaken for meaningful action on climate change is nothing other than a campaign by us, against us. Civil disobedience certainly has a history of individuals standing up for their own lives or the improvement of the lives of others, but has anyone anywhere insisted that she be given less? Will we chain ourselves to airplanes and demand more expensive airport taxes?” (p152)

Luckily there is something positive here too:

“Collective action on climate change might be the demand for less stuff, but it is also the demand for more of something else: maybe justice, or goodness or whatever it is about us which is best. There is nothing irrational about insisting on a more humane world” (p153)

In pulling together my thoughts for a workshop last week on systems thinking, I’ve realised how much systems thinking has affected my approach to climate change, and how systems thinking is an essential tool for understanding the different responses people have to climate change. For systems thinking offers not just a way to think about and understand the interactions that occur in very complex systems, but also a way of understanding how people relate to systems, and how our conceptions of systems affect our interactions with them.

A simple introduction to systems thinking usually starts by pointing out how familiar we are with the idea of “a system” – for example we use the word as a suffix in many different ways: an ecosystem, the transport system, the education system, a weather system, the political system, a computer system, and so on. [Note: The use of the definite article, “the … system”, is a little unfortunate here, as we shall see].

Most people are used to the idea of identifying different aspects of a system they wish to describe: inputs and outputs, a control (or management) mechanism, a boundary that separates the system from its environment, a possible purpose or function of the system, different elements or subsystems, different states that the system can be in, and so on.

This then leads to insights about the dynamic behaviour of a system, especially in terms of stocks and flows, and positive and negative feedback loops. For example, John Sterman has a simple demonstration of stocks and flows in an atmospheric system, with his bathtub model of greenhouse gas emissions and concentrations.

But where systems thinking really gets interesting is when we include ourselves as part of the system we’re describing. For example, for the climate system, we should include ourselves as elements of the system, as the many of our actions affect the release of greenhouse gases. But we’re also the agents that give some aspects of the system their meaning or purpose – the fossil fuel extraction and production system exists to provide us with energy, and one could even argue that the climate system exists to provide us with suitable conditions to live in, and that ecosystems exist to provide us with food, resources, and even a sense of wonder and belonging. The interesting part of this is that different people will ascribe different meanings and/or purposes to these systems, and some would argue that to ascribe such purposes is inappropriate.

Which leads us to the next level of insight, which is that these descriptions of systems are really just ways of looking at the world, and different people will see and describe different systems, even when observing the same parts of the world. As Reynolds points out, systems thinking starts when we begin to see the world through other people’s eyes, and the idea of multiple perspectives is a central concept. In this sense, systems don’t really exist in the world at all, they only exist as convenient descriptions of the world. Moreover, when we choose to describe some part of the world as a system, we make explicit choices about where to draw boundaries, and which things to ignore, and these choices themselves are important, because they reveal our biases and interests, and certain choices may help or hinder our attempts to analyze a system.

Taking this even further, we can then conceive of the system that consists of a group of people and their descriptions of the systems they are interested in, and we can study the dynamics of this system: how people affect one another’s perceptions of the systems, and how those perceptions shape their interactions with those systems. For example, we could describe climate change primarily in terms of the physical processes: carbon emissions, the radiative balance of the atmosphere, average temperatures, and impacts on human life and ecosystems. The leads to a view the problem of climate change as primarily about reducing emissions (and many people who write about climate change take this view). Alternatively, we could describe climate change as one aspect of a system of human growth (in population, energy use, resource use, economic activity, etc) and the many ways in which that growth is constrained on a finite planet. Which then leads to a very different characterization of the problem in which carbon emissions are really just a by-product of a cheap energy consumerist society, and the problem isn’t to reduce emissions, it is to restructure our entire societies (and our conceptions of them) so that we no longer depend on growth in resource consumption as our definition of human progress.

A key term here is second-order cybernetics. Cybernetics (of the first order) studies the ways in which processes can be controlled, and the engineering of process control systems. Second order cybernetics studies how our perceptions of systems affects our ability to design ways of controlling them. In other words, there are interesting dynamics in the interplay between our understanding of systems, and our attempts to design controllers for them. Much of the problem in understanding and responding to climate change is due to a failure by most writers to appreciate the dynamics in second order cybernetic systems.

I’ll write more about the application of systems thinking to climate change in the next few weeks. In the meantime, here’s some recommended reading – two excellent introductory books, which I think might appeal to different audiences:

If you’re not sure, read both. It will be worth it.

Stephen Schneider‘s book, Science as a Contact Sport, makes fascinating reading, as he really gets his teeth into the disinformation campaign against climate science. However, the book was written before the denialist industry really cranked things up in the last few months, and now he’s angrier than ever, as is clear in this report yesterday about threats of violence against climate scientists (h/t to LG). By coincidence, I spoke to Schneider by phone yesterday – we were interviewing him as part of our analysis of the use of models such as C-ROADS in tools for online discussion, such as the collaboratorium. He’s very interested in such tools, partly because they have the potential to create a new generation of much more well-informed people (he noted that many of the people participating in the discussions in the collaboratorium are students), and partly because we need to find a much better way to get the science into the hands of the policymakers.

One of the things he said stuck out, in particular because it answers the question posed by Andrew Weaver at the end of the article above. Weaver says “good scientists are saying to themselves, ‘Why would I want to participate in the IPCC?'”. Steve Schneider told me he has a simple response to this – scientists have to keep doing the assessments and writing the reports, because you never know when they will be needed. When we get another climate shock (like Katrina, or the heatwaves in Europe in 2003), the media will suddenly look for the latest assessment report, and we have to have them ready. At that moment, all the effort is worthwhile. He pointed out this happened for the crisis over the ozone hole; when the media finally took notice, the scientific assessments were ready to hand, and it mattered. That’s why it’s important to keep at it.

A few more late additions to my posts last month on climate science resources for kids:

  • NASA’s Climate Kids is a lively set of tools for younger kids, with games, videos (the ‘Climate Tales’ videos are wonderfully offbeat), and even information on future careers to help the planet.
  • Climate4Classrooms, put together by the British Council, includes a set of learning modules for kids ages 11+. Looks like a very nice set of resources.
  • And my kids came back from a school book fair last week with the DK Eyewitness book Climate Change, which is easily the best kids book I’ve seen yet (we have several other books in this series, and they’re all excellent). It’s a visual feast with photos and graphics, but it doesn’t skimp on the science, nor the policy implications, nor the available clean energy technologies – in fact it seems to cover everything! The parts that caught my eye (and are done very well) include a page on climate models, and a page entitled “What scares the scientists”, on climate tipping points.

When my children grow up, the world they live in is likely be very different from ours. There’s a small chance that humanity will rapidly come to its senses, start massive program of emissions reductions, and avoid the worst climate change scenarios. The Hadley Centre gives us about a 50/50 chance if carbon emissions peak by 2015, and then fall steadily at a rate of 3% per year (They are currently rising by nearly 3% per year). If we manage to pull this off, and also win the 50/50 bet, our children and grandchildren will ask us how the hell we managed it.

If we can’t stop emissions growth in the next five years, things look much more grim. Perhaps the simplest way to explain it is the picture painted by the New Scientist: How to survive the coming century: a world that is 4°C warmer, 90% of the human population wiped out, the rest relocated to dense cities in Canada, Scandinavia and Siberia. Uninhabitable deserts across the subtropics. Virtually no life in the oceans. And that’s the good part. The New Scientist article glosses over the climate wars that are almost certain if large parts of the world become uninhabitable. If they survive, our children will demand to know what the hell we were doing: we knew it was coming, we knew how bad it would be, and still we did almost nothing to prevent it.

What did you do in the war?When my kids ask me these questions in decades to come, I need to be ready with an answer. I’d like to say that I did everything I could possibly do. I’d like to say that what I did was effective. And I’d like to be able to say that I made a difference.

Okay, here’s a slightly different modeling challenge. It might be more of a visualization challenge. Whatever. In part 1, I suggested we use requirements analysis techniques to identify stakeholders, and stakeholder goals, and link them to the various suggested “wedges“.

Here, I want to suggest something different. There are several excellent books that attempt to address the “how will we do it?” challenge. They each set out a set of suggested solutions, add up the contribution of each solution to reducing emissions, assess the feasibility of each solution, add up all the numbers, and attempt to make some strategic recommendations. But each book makes different input assumptions, focusses on slightly different kinds of solutions, and ends up with different recommendations (but they also agree on many things).

Here are the four books:

Cover image for Monbiots Heat
George Monbiot, Heat: How to Stop the Planet from Burning. This is probably the best book I have ever read on global warming. It’s brilliantly researched, passionate, and doesn’t pull it’s punches. Plus it’s furiously upbeat – Monbiot takes on the challenge of how we get to 90% emissions reduction, and shows that it is possible (although you kind of have to imagine a world in which politicians are willing to do the right thing).

Joseph Romm, Hell and High Water: Global Warming–the Solution and the Politics–and What We Should Do. While lacking Monbiot’s compelling writing style, Romm makes up by being an insider – he was an energy policy wonk in the Clinton administration. The other contrast is Monbiot is British, and focusses mainly on British examples, Romm is American and focusses on US example. The cultural contrasts are interesting.

David MacKay, Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air. Okay, so I haven’t read this one yet, but it got a glowing write-up on Boing Boing . Oh, and it’s available as a free download.

Lester Brown, Plan B 3.0L Mobilizing to Save Civilization. This one’s been on my reading list for a while, will read it soon. It has a much broader remit than the others: Brown wants to solve world poverty, cure disease, feed the world, and solve the climate crisis. I’m looking forward to this one. And it’s also available as a free download.

Okay, so what’s the challenge? Model the set of solutions in each of these books so that it’s possible to compare and contrast their solutions, compare their assumptions, and easily identify areas of agreement and disagreement. I’ve no idea yet how to do this, but a related challenge would be to come up with compelling visualizations that explain to a much broader audience what these solutions look like, and why it’s perfectly feasible. Something like this (my current favourite graphic):

Graph of cost/benefit of climate mitigation strategies

Graph of cost/benefit of climate mitigation strategies

As my son (grade 4) has started a module at school on climate and global change, I thought I’d look into books on climate change for kids. Here’s what I have for them at the moment:

Weird Weather by Kate Evans. This is the kids favourite at the moment, probably because of its comicbook format. The narrative format works well – its involves the interplay between three characters: a businessman (playing the role of a denier), a scientist (who shows us the evidence) and a idealistic teenager, who gets increasingly frustrated that the businessman won’t listen.

The Down-to-Earth Guide to Global Warming, by Laurie David and Cambria Gordon. Visually very appealling, lots of interesting factoids for the kids, and a particular attention to the kinds of questions kids like to ask (e.g. to do with methane from cow farts).

How We Know What We Know About Our Changing Climate by Lynne Cherry and Gary Braasch. Beautiful book (fabulous photos!), mainly focusing on sources of evidence (ice cores, tree rings, etc), and how they were discovered. Really encourages the kids to do hands on data collection. Oh, and there’s a teacher’s guide as well, which I haven’t looked at yet.

Global Warming for Dummies by Elizabeth May and Zoe Caron. Just what we’d expect from a “Dummies Guide…” book. I bought it because I was on my way to a bookstore on April 1, when I heard an interview on the CBC with Elizabeth May (leader of the Canadian Green Party) talking about how they were planning to reduce the carbon footprint of their next election campaign, by hitchhiking all over Canada. My first reaction was incredulity, but then I remembered the date, and giggled uncontrollably all the way into the bookstore. So I just had to buy the book.