One of the biggest challenges in understanding climate change is that the timescales involved are far longer than most people are used to thinking about. Garvey points out that this makes climate change different from any other ethical question, because both the causes and consequences are smeared out across time and space:
“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.” (Garvey, 2008, p60)
Part of the problem is that the physical climate system is slow to respond to our additional greenhouse gas emissions, and similarly slow to respond to reductions in emissions. The first part of this is core to a basic understanding of climate change, as it’s built into the idea of equilibrium climate sensitivity (roughly speaking, the expected temperature rise for each doubling of CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere). The extra heat that’s trapped by the additional greenhouse gases builds up over time, and the planet warms slowly, but the oceans have such a large thermal mass, it takes decades for this warming process to complete.
Unfortunately, the second part, that the planet takes a long time to respond to reductions in emissions, is harder to explain, largely because of the common assumption that CO2 will behave like other pollutants, which wash out of the atmosphere fairly quickly once we stop emitting them. This assumption underlies much of the common wait-and-see response to climate change, as it gives rise to the myth that once we get serious about climate change (e.g. because we start to see major impacts), we can fix the problem fairly quickly. Unfortunately, this is not true at all, because CO2 is a long-lived greenhouse gas. About half of human CO2 emissions are absorbed by the oceans and soils, over a period of several decades. The remainder stays in the atmosphere There are several natural processes that remove the remaining CO2 from the atmosphere, but they take thousands of years, which means that even with zero greenhouse gas emissions, we’re likely stuck with the consequences of life on a warmer planet for centuries.
So the physical climate system presents us with two forms of inertia, one that delays the warming due to greenhouse gas emissions, and, one that delays the reduction in that warming in response to reduced emissions:
- The thermal inertia of the planet’s surface (largely due to the oceans), by which the planet can keep absorbing extra heat for years before it makes a substantial difference to surface temperatures. (scale: decades)
- The carbon cycle inertia by which CO2 is only removed from the atmosphere very slowly, and has a continued warming effect for as long as it’s there. (scale: decades to millennia)
For more on how these forms of inertia affect future warming scenarios, see my post on committed warming.
But these are not the only forms of inertia that matter. There are also various kinds of inertia in the socio-economic system that slow down our response to climate change. For example, Davis et. al. attempt to quantify the emissions from all the existing energy infrastructure (power plants, factories, cars, buildings, etc that already exist and are in use), because even under the most optimistic scenario, it will take decades to replace all this infrastructure with clean energy alternatives. Here’s an example of their analysis, under the assumption that things we’ve already built will not be retired early. This assumption is reasonable because (1) its rare that we’re willing to bear the cost of premature retirement of infrastructure and (2) it’s going to be hard enough building enough new clean energy infrastructure fast enough to replace stuff that has worn out while meeting increasing demand.
So that gives us our third form of inertia:
- Infrastructural inertia from existing energy infrastructure, as emissions of greenhouse gases will continue from everything we’ve built in the past, until it can be replaced. (scale: decades)
We’ve known about the threat of climate change for decades, and various governments and international negotiations have attempted to deal with it, and yet have made very little progress. Which suggests there are more forms of inertia that we ought to be able to name and quantify. To do this, we need to look at the broader socio-economic system that ought to allow us as a society to respond to the threat of climate change. Here’s a schematic of that system, as a systems dynamic model:
Broadly speaking, decarbonization will require both changes in technology and changes in human behaviour. But before we can do that, we have to recognize and agree that there is a problem, develop an agreed set of coordinated actions to tackle it, and then implement the policy shifts and behaviour changes to get us there.
At first, this diagram looks promising: once we realise how serious climate change is, we’ll take the corresponding actions, and that will bring down emissions, solving the problem. In other words, the more carbon emissions go up, the more they should drive a societal response, which in turn (eventually) will reduce emissions again. But the diagram includes a subtle but important twist: the link from carbon emissions to atmospheric concentrations is an accumulation link. Even as emissions fall, the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere continue to rise. The latter rise only stops when carbon emissions reach zero. Think of a tap on the bathtub – if you reduce the inflow of water, the level of water in the tub still rises, until you turn the tap off completely.
Worse still, there are plenty more forms of inertia hidden in the diagram, because each of the causal links takes time to operate. I’ve given these additional sources of inertia names:
For example, there are forms of inertia that delay the impacts of increased temperatures, both on ecosystems and on human society. Most of the systems that are impacted by climate change can absorb smaller changes in the climate without much noticeable difference, but then reach a threshold whereby they can no longer be sustained. I’ve characterized two forms of inertia here:
- Natural variability (or “signal to noise”) inertia, which arises because initially, temperature increases due to climate change are much smaller than internal variability with daily and seasonal weather patterns. Hence it takes a long time for the ‘signal’ of climate change to emerge from the noise of natural variability. (scale: decades)
- Ecosystem resilience. We tend to think of resilience as a good thing – defined informally as the ability of a system to ‘bounce back’ after a shock. But resilience can also mask underlying changes that push a system closer and closer to a threshold beyond which it cannot recover. So this form of inertia acts by masking the effect of that change, sometimes until it’s too late to act. (scale: years to decades)
Then, once we identify the impacts of climate change (whether in advance or after the fact), it takes time for these to feed into the kind of public concern needed to build agreement on the need for action:
- Societal resilience. Human society is very adaptable. When storms destroy our buildings, we just rebuild them a little stronger. When drought destroys our crops, we just invent new forms of irrigation. Just as with ecosystems, there is a limit to this kind of resilience, when subjected to a continual change. But our ability to shrug and get on with things causes a further delay in the development of public concern about climate change. (scale: decades?)
- Denial. Perhaps even stronger than human resilience is our ability to fool ourselves into thinking that something bad is not happening, and to look for other explanations than the ones that best fit the evidence. Denial is a pretty powerful form of inertia. Denial stops addicts from acknowledging they need to seek help to overcome addiction, and it stops all of us from acknowledging we have a fossil fuel addiction, and need help to deal with it. (scale: decades to generations?)
Even then, public concern doesn’t immediately translate into effective action because of:
- Individualism. A frequent response to discussions on climate change is to encourage people to make personal changes in their lives: change your lightbulbs, drive a little less, fly a little less. While these things are important in the process of personal discovery, by helping us understanding our individual impact on the world, they are a form of voluntary action only available to the privileged, and hence do not constitute a systemic solution to climate change. When the systems we live in drive us towards certain consumption patterns, it takes a lot of time and effort to choose a low-carbon lifestyle. So the only way this scales is through collective political action: getting governments to change the regulations and price structures that shape what gets built and what we consume, and making governments and corporations accountable for cutting their greenhouse gas contributions. (scale: decades?)
When we get serious about the need for coordinated action, there are further forms of inertia that come into play:
- Missing governance structures. We simply don’t have the kind of governance at either the national or international level that can put in place meaningful policy instruments to tackle climate change. The Kyoto process failed because the short term individual interests of the national governments who have the power to act always tend to outweigh the long term collective threat of climate change. The Paris agreement is woefully inadequate for the same reason. Similarly, national governments are hampered by the need to respond to special interest groups (especially large corporations), which means legislative change is a slow, painful process. (scale: decades!)
- Bureaucracy. Hampers implementation of new policy tools. It takes time to get legislation formulated and agreed, and it takes time to set up the necessary institutions to ensure they are implemented. (scale: years)
- Social Resistance. People don’t like change, and some groups fight hard to resist changes that conflict with their own immediate interests. Every change in social norms is accompanied by pushback. And even when we welcome change and believe in it, we often slip back into old habits. (scale: years? generations?)
Finally, development and deployment of clean energy solutions experience a large number of delays:
- R&D lag. It takes time to ramp up new research and development efforts, due to the lack of qualified personnel, the glacial speed that research institutions such as universities operate, and the tendency, especially in academia, for researchers to keep working on what they’ve always worked on in the past, rather than addressing societally important issues. Research on climate solutions is inherently trans-disciplinary, and existing research institutions tend to be very bad at supporting work that crosses traditional boundaries. (scale: decades?)
- Investment lag: A wholescale switch from fossil fuels to clean energy and energy efficiency will require huge upfront investment. Agencies that have funding to enable this switch (governments, investment portfolio managers, venture capitalists) tend to be very risk averse, and so prefer things that they know offer a return on investment – e.g. more oil wells and pipelines rather than new cleantech alternatives (scale: years to decades)
- Diffusion of innovation: new technologies tend to take a long time to reach large scale deployment, following the classic s-shaped curve, with a small number of early adopters, and, if things go well, a steadily rising adoption curve, followed by a tailing off as laggards resist new technologies. Think about electric cars: while the technology has been available for years, they still only constitute less than 1% of new car sales today. Here’s a study that predicts this will rise to 35% by 2040. Think about that for a moment – if we follow the expected diffusion of innovation pattern, two thirds of new cars in 2040 will still have internal combustion engines. (scale: decades)
All of these forms of inertia slow the process of dealing with climate change, allowing the warming to steadily increase while we figure out how to overcome them. So the key problem isn’t how to address climate change by switching from the current fossil fuel economy to a carbon-neutral one – we probably have all the technologies to do this today. The problem is how to do it fast enough. To stay below 2°C of warming, the world needs to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by 2030, and achieve carbon neutrality in the second half of the century. We’ll have to find a way of overcoming many different types of inertia if we are to make it.