Climate Change and Theoretical Man

I have been wondering for the past year or so, how could I possibly deal with climate change in my grand old theory.

Getting my head around climate change is a challenge, but then so is anything to do with the financial markets. The latter had me not at all surprised when the latest subprime crises popped, leading me to the short-circuit conclusion that I had been right all along: I did not understand, because indeed the system was flawed and made no sense to me. Take that last sentence as on exercise in arrogance; as an exercise arrogance is not to be ignored. Problems with arrogance only arise when the arrogant believe that their conjectures constitute any sort of irreducible absolute truth to which the rest of the world has to bow to.

However the climate change issue is a very different issue. Somewhere along the line the two issues shake hands on the topic of trust, then again they meet at carbon certificates and trading, but that is about it. The financial world is a virtual conceptual world that we invented not too long ago, and for which we have yet to come up with a solid game plan. Climate change, is here, measurable and real.

The buzz is going up as the Copenhagen climate change conference zooms onto our attention. This one piece really caught my attention: World’s largest reinsurance company: something must be done. What the smart actuarians (1) at the insurance company have noted is that indeed weather-related catastrophes have risen on the average by 11 percent per year since 1980. Sometimes there is nothing better than a good economic argument to generate action towards remediation of whatever the problem seems to be. Ah! When business is hurting, it could be that we are all hurting. The reasoning goes, that there go the jobs, and that the best of all unions and social thinking is just not going to help you; time for action. When the dog is dead, it is dead; let’s keep the dog alive. What if the insurance and reinsurance companies go out of business because in order to be maintained as viable business they will need to increase their premiums to levels that makes them unafordable?

They are right, the climate reacts slowly. So how bad are things going to get before they get better, or at least stable?

And then these two unfathomable words meet again – finance and climate change – and I am starting to get worried. Here I quote (copy and paste) from Nature (2) as the original source may not be accessible to all without subscription.

Debate on the carbon-credit system known as REDD (‘reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation’) has focused on technical and methodological obstacles and on sourcing carbon finance. The impact of the system on the world’s 350 million tropical forest dwellers calls for closer scrutiny.

Without careful planning, REDD stands to create large numbers of ‘carbon refugees’ as governments curb financially unrewarding deforesting activities such as those of small-scale agriculturalists and fuel-wood harvesters, who mostly pay no taxes on what they produce. Forest dwellers could become excluded from their means of subsistence to preserve carbon.

A similar situation has occurred during previous attempts to conserve tropical forests. Last year I worked in Liberia’s forests bordering Ivory Coast, and heard of park guards in the Tai National Forest, a well-protected Ivorian biodiversity conservation area, shooting local hunters dead. I met Ivorian subsistence hunters, excluded from their ancestral lands, relocating to Liberia to maintain their livelihoods. The journal Conservation & Society is investigating the possible displacement of thousands of people in Africa by biodiversity conservation projects.

However conspiracy theories, and religious fanaticism, are still on the rise, and for all that I can see, they often dominate many discourses that if we were capable of sustained reason, would purge of such irrationality. Just in the last days, another item has hit my radar, and that is the debate or polemic over the climate change scientists e-mail theft case (3) that can fuel all sorts of denialist hopes for proving the said climate conspiracies. Now, access to data, and interpretation of data, are issues here, but so is the messy process of scientific discourse and debate that to an outsider can seem not daunting, but doubtful. So, here another quote (3):

In the end, what the UEA e-mails really show is that scientists are human beings — and that unrelenting opposition to their work can goad them to the limits of tolerance, and tempt them to act in ways that undermine scientific values. Yet it is precisely in such circumstances that researchers should strive to act and communicate professionally, and make their data and methods available to others, lest they provide their worst critics with ammunition. After all, the pressures the UEA e-mailers experienced may be nothing compared with what will emerge as the United States debates a climate bill next year, and denialists use every means at their disposal to undermine trust in scientists and science.

Where does all of this leave theoretical man? I am not sure. I am thinking. I just know that trust is involved.

Call me a pessimist, cynic, depressed, but at the rate things are going in this debate, in all likelihood if we get it right with climate change mitigation, it might all be for the wrong reasons. As a practical person, I have no problems with this. Action, is action and reason, is reason. More often than not these are not connected, or have a schizophrenic relationship to each other. Why is it that fragmentation and disconnect is part of the dynamics of the system? Perhaps it is the way it is because it is so. Reason, I have always had my troubles with.

(1) Among bean counters, nobody can beat acturians at counting things properly.

(2) Nature 462, 567 (3 December 2009) doi:10.1038/462567a; Published online 2 December 2009.

(3) Nature 462, 545 (3 December 2009) doi:10.1038/462545a; Published online 2 December 2009