Saying it straight on climate change

The latest contretemps was sparked by a comment in Nature by Oliver Geden, an analyst at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. In it, he made a simple argument. Politicians, he says, want good news. They want to hear that it is still possible to limit temperature to 2°C. Even more, they want to hear that they can do so while avoiding aggressive emission cuts in the near-term — say, until they’re out of office.

Now models routinely show 4 or even 6 percent annual reductions, a rate of emissions decline that has never been achieved by anyone, anywhere, ever, much less consistently over 50 years.

It’s “possible,” yes, but at a certain point that term loses much meaning. Something that would require human beings to quickly and fundamentally change their collective behavior may not violate the laws of physics, but it is unlikely, given what we know about human beings, path dependence, and political dysfunction. This is what I once called the “brutal logic of climate change.”

Lots of things are physically possible that nonetheless require heroic assumptions about collective human behavior (like, say, aggressive mitigation policy, in the face of powerful vested interests, harmonized across the globe, sustained for decades … and also many gigatons worth of BECCS). The question is not whether 2°C scenarios violates laws of physical science, but whether they are reasonable given what we know about human beings.

No branch of science, certainly not climatology, can tell us what the humans of 2050 are capable of. We are all, on that score, making educated guesses, and a knowledge of history, politics, and economics will be just as important to that judgment as any knowledge of the physical sciences.

Humans are subject to intense status quo bias. Especially on the conservative end of the psychological spectrum — which is the direction all humans move when they feel frightened or under threat — there is a powerful craving for the message that things are, basically, okay, that the system is working like it’s supposed to, that the current state of affairs is the best available, or close enough.

To be the one insisting that, no, things are not okay, things are heading toward disaster, is uncomfortable in any social milieu — especially since, in most people’s experience, those wailing about the end of the world are always wrong and frequently crazy. [Link]

These are extracts from a long article in http://www.vox.com. I liked the article for many reasons.

(1) It shoots straight. It does not mince words. It puts it across as bluntly as possible. The core of the issue is that climate change is happening and the evidences are becoming too pervasive and too frequent to ignore. The politics of burden and cost-sharing comes later.

(2) It deals with behavioural aspects of how humans would deal with it and are dealing with it. I liked the point about how politicians would love to postpone making adjustments until they are out of the office. Let the deluge be after me.

(3) When dealing with complex subjects, we tend to avoid, deny and postpone. Climate change is too complex for humans to grapple with.

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