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Climate Change: What the scientists don’t tell us

11 April 2024

Nick Lyth, April 2024

Rethinking Climate Change Predictions: Insights from Simon Sharpe

I was recently lucky enough to hear a talk by Simon Sharpe, author of the radical and fascinating Five Times Faster (Pub. April 2023, Cambridge University Press). I recommend it to your attention unreservedly.

He shared a fundamental observation that transforms our perspective on Climate Change science. We are operating in an analytical framework by virtue of which the scientists have demonstrated the impact of carbon concentrations on global temperatures. These are now observable and measurable. So far, so good. However, they have then extrapolated from the trends to predict how these will affect the world’s climate over the next years, decades, and even centuries. They have been doing this for more than thirty years. While the predictions have largely been right, sadly for all of us, they have always been more optimistic in judging the effects of their predictions than was born out by subsequent events. One example has been the risk of passing tipping points in the climate system. We have seen repeated revisions in the IPCC assessments of higher risks at lower temperatures, showing the tipping points closer to us than previously expected each time.

Simon Sharpe shows us that while predictions of this kind are useful, these repeated revisions are an indication of what scientific method is missing. It makes no allowance for risk, or risk assessment, which is the tool to help us decide what we want to avoid, and how much we want to avoid it. Science is much less effective in considering variables. It uses empirical observation to predict, from which conclusions are drawn. I bounce the ball on the ground nine times, and it reaches a height of two feet. I conclude that it will reach the height of two feet when I bounce it a tenth time.

The scientific process is useful and has helped in the development of some of our world’s most effective and useful technology. Science should not be castigated for its methodology.  But it should not be used as the prime guide to strategic decisions in circumstances for which the methodology is incomplete, and lacks an important dimension.

The Role of Risk Assessment in Climate Change Planning

Risk assessment is critical to Climate Change plans because it introduces variables to the discussion, variables both in terms of the input dynamics or what is happening to cause climate change; and variables in terms of the consequences or what might happen as a result of climate change. The wind may rise and blow my ball down the pavement before it has risen more than one foot. Risk assessment necessarily uses the concept of a range, or spectrum, of likely outcomes, where prediction can only isolate individual outcomes. Risk assessment allows for much greater nuance, much deeper penetration, a broader choice of options to take account of the dangers exposed by the assessment.

This is much more the field of Economics rather than Science, although here too Simon Sharpe exposes a problem. Economics prefers the study of a system and a comparison of one system to another. This in itself is predicated on steady state, as you cannot compare one system to another if either is in flux.

The problem of this is immediately obvious. Climate Change, whether it is considered in Economic, Scientific, or Environmental terms, is not in a steady state. Assessment of its status and future impact within an Economic framework is troubled from the outset.

But there is a deeper problem. The concept of a system relies on measurement, in terms of efficiency, or in terms of finance, or in terms of output, or indeed any other metric which seems suitable. The crucial point is that a system is analysed, its performance measured and judged, in some way that can be quantified. This allows the Economist to decide whether the system might succeed or fail, and to compare it to other systems.

Unfortunately the concept of failure has great difficulty in the context of Climate Change, not least because if you are to treat the climate as a system, you are considering the entire planet and activities upon it, animal, plant, marine, human and all others.This takes on an order of complexity that is intensely difficult.

But this, perhaps, can help us. Complexity. Theories of complexity abound, and the way it (or they) can provide a framework for understanding, analysis and decision making. They allow for the interaction of disparate and unrelated forces, or pressures, on one another. They overturn any concept of a steady state, whether it be economic, political or environmental, and provide for the possibility of uncontrolled events. Chaos Theory is a related branch of thought that contributes to Complexity Theory.

Can theory even help us here? It is useful in many realms, helping to guide plans. In politics, the left-wing especially has been doctrinaire from Karl Marx onwards, with much interesting economic and social theory and dogma. In finance, there have been many theories of financial management from a microscopic level to a major investment level. In health, of course, theories drive the practice at every level, depending on science and research. But Climate Change? 

Rethinking Compartmentalised Perspectives

Climate Change is a different challenge. The theories we have found most useful in application to our world have tended to relate to specific, defined problems with observable boundaries and limits. The problems of Industrialisation, for example, with its dependency on finite fossil fuels, and the consequences of burning them; or the social problems it created in terms of migration to city life, and the health problems created by poverty and pollution. The problems of agriculture and food production caused by an expanding population, soil degradation and chemical fertilisers. And, of course, the problems of the environment, which started to emerge in the post-War years, with increasing attention paid to habitat and species loss.

This wish to compartmentalise problems is not necessarily a natural human trait, it is associated with societies whose habits and beliefs were dominated by the Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – all developing from the same roots. Eastern religions do not display the same tendency to divide the world into separate functions and systems. The causal links between the Abrahamic religions and a tendency to isolate and constrain thought, as against the Eastern tendency towards a holistic vision, are questionable. However, its impact on attempts to address climate change is unarguable.  The Industrialised nations responsible for global warming were all Western nations until China’s recent economic growth started to make an impact in the 90’s (and has now become cumulatively one of the largest emitters). Our patterns of thought have guided our failure to address the problem.

This has been a disaster for our attempts to fight climate change. They have been consigned for a large part to something called the “Environment”. But the problem with the “Environment” is that it does not include us. Humanity was not participating in the problem, even though it might be understood to be causing the problem. If humanity was not affected by the problem, solving it was seen to be a discretionary option. You could choose to be a Friend of the Earth, or you could choose to stick with the Friends you’d got. The Earth might be sorry, but it would not make much difference to you.

The language with which we have approached the problem of climate change betrays our failure. It is not just the mockery with which our mainstream media tolerated “tree-huggers”, or laughed at Jonathon Porritt for cycling to work, mockery which explicitly marginalised their intentions as being eccentric, and of no relevance or use for the real world; but it was far deeper than that, embedded in our education systems throughout the West. History and Natural History were – and still are – treated as two separate and self-contained streams of events in our world. The one concerned with humans, separate and distinct and unrelated to the other, which is concerned with nature.

Climate change cannot be separated, sub-divided and boxed off into a system, or systems, with problems of its own, unrelated to one another and unrelated to us. Our World is The World, and it’s also The Same World of the animal kingdom, and The Same World of all plant life, The Same World of all insect breeds, The Same World of all marine life. Should I go on?

Practical Solutions for Climate Change

Simon Sharpe does not dismiss the value of all theories. While being dismissive of economic theory based on a steady state, as based on unfounded assumptions, and hence unreliable, he is a supporter of more complex and nuanced economic theories. In his own words, “Keynes, Schumpeter and others created disequilibrium theories, which I believe are much more useful; these are being further developed in what some people call evolutionary or complexity economics. I find those theories useful – they help explain why some sorts of policies are more effective than others. Across economics and diplomacy, I’m arguing for a shift from a static / reductionist / equilibrium-based set of theories and concepts to a dynamic / disequilibrium / evolutionary set.”

In the end, his conclusion is to treat it as a practical problem, not a theoretical problem. In exposing the weakness of the theoretical frameworks being applied to mainstream work on climate change, he has an entirely practical set of recommendations, as his title – Five Times Faster – implies.

In essence, they are simple. Speed of change is their goal, and he shows how two factors, interacting on one another, have already proved themselves to be the driving force for the change, and the speed of change, which we need. They are Government regulation, providing policies, frameworks and subsidies to incentivise the required changes; and investment, public and private, in the technology innovations which enable those changes.

Enlightened and informed Governments have the levers within their grasp to make this happen. We need to make sure they pull the levers. And, most important of all, to use the stimulus to drive the pace of innovation and change at a rate never before seen in the history of humans, or the natural history of the world we occupy.


Image by Melissa Bradley on Unsplash