Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Climate change: why Bjork explains that Clive Hamilton is wrong.

So let's begin with an extract from Bjork's great song "Human Behaviour":

"If you ever get close to a human and human behaviour be ready to get confused

there's definitely no logic to human behaviour but yet so irresistible

there is no map to human behaviour"

Then let's continue with a couple of questions:

In the Gaia theory of James Lovelock, which characterizes the planet earth as a giant intelligent organism, is the species known as human included as part of this organism, or does it stand apart somehow?

Is human behaviour capable of modifying the macro environment of the planet ?

In modelling the 100 year future of the planet, how should we model the influence of humans on that environment ?

I really like that question about Gaia. I watched Virginia Trioli try to put that question to Tim Flannery at a public event. The question went straight past him. Hey Tim, wake up, it is the central question.

This is not a book review of James Lovelock "The Vanishing Face of Gaia: a final warning". It's not a book review of Clive Hamilton's "Requiem for a Species". But I've just finished reading these two books, and I thought I'd reflect on them. This after I'd finished reading Tim Flannery "Life on Earth."

Why did I read James Lovelock? Well Tim dismissed his views as being those of an older person. Sort of hinting that he sees things as dying because obviously he is near the end. This was just after he'd described James as a friend. Remind me not to become friends with Tim.

Of course the influence of greenhouse gases shows that we as a species are modifying our environment. But what of the future?

Well Clive Hamilton's book is not going to be prescribed reading at depression clinics, that is for sure. It is a sorry tale of the history of human ruination of the planet. Together with a well considered argument as to why it is extremely unlikely that anything that happens from this point onwards is going to remedy the situation.

Lovelock shows that it is not just the models that are frightening. It is the data. Looking at the last thirty years of data is not going to cheer you up. There are absolutely no signs of anything other than a ruinous path leading to a four degree warmer world. Seas rising by 50 metres? The occupants of my house will have a beach frontage. Hard to imagine.

Surely the dark view of humanity is too easy. All you have to do is sit in a shopping centre for a while to think the worst of people. Greedy, selfish. Hopeless. No, the interesting point is precisely the opposite. Even with all our failings, people do the most incredible things. At the moment there are people getting shot at on the front line in Afghanistan simply because they have signed up for a cause. I'm not going to argue the merits of the war, but in Clive's view of humanity such things are not possible. Selfish, hopeless people don't sign up to get shot at.

But of course Clive would say at this point that the models show that it is already too late. No matter what changes we make, the models indicate that we are heading for a "tipping point". That beyond a certain concentration of greenhouse gases the climate moves into a new mode. That it will continue to deteriorate regardless of what actions we take. If you read the major scientific papers on climate change, they are very careful not to extrapolate too far ahead. Of course the further ahead you go the more difficult it is to get the model right.

Consider models of the financial system. How complex is the financial system? Well it is considerably less complex than global climate. How well did computer models fare in understanding and modelling the system at the time of the global financial crisis (GFC)? According to almost all models the GFC has a probability so close to zero that it could never happen. Is it possible that all banks will default on their obligations? Never happen. Until it did.

The public perception of climate models is suspicious and cynical. So it should be. Yes, they are useful in understanding the problem. But as tools for predicting the future they are fraught with error. How accurately can we model human behaviour? That is the question.

Consider the people greening their houses. Turning vegetarian. Riding around on bicycles rather than taking the car. Where are they in Clive's picture? Just a marginal movement. Never going to be mainstream. Not in 100 years? Big call. Who knows? Could these become the dominant force? Or even things as simple as China building a vast number of nuclear power stations. That would change the picture dramatically. I think Bjork's view of humanity is much more realistic. We just don't know.

This is the central issue I have with James Lovelock and Clive Hamilton. They under-estimate both human influence and the human possibilities. So, amazingly enough, I find myself lining up with Tim. There is hope after all.

No comments: