" />
Building a world of
resilient communities.

MAIN LIST

 

"In all likelihood, events are now set to run their course"

A few days ago Roger Pielke Jr. pointed to a paper (PDF) by Tim Dyson of the London School of Economics called "On development, demography and climate change: The end of the world as we know it?" Pielke called it "refreshingly clear thinking on climate change." That's true, if by "refreshingly clear" he means "weep-silently-aplogize-to-your-children-and-throw- yourself-out-a-window depressing." Abandon hope, all ye who download PDF here.

Dyson's argument unfolds in several stages, but the brutal conclusion is simple: "In all likelihood, events are now set to run their course."

Here are the five main points made, quoted directly from the abstract:

  • First, that since about 1800 economic development has been based on the burning of fossil fuels, and this will continue to apply for the foreseeable future.

  • Second, due to momentum in economic, demographic, and climate processes, it is inevitable that there will be a major rise in the level of atmospheric CO2 during the twenty-first century.
  • Third, available data on global temperatures ... suggest strongly that the coming warming of the Earth will be appreciably faster than anything that human populations have experienced in historical times. ... Furthermore, particularly in a system that is being forced, the chances of an abrupt change in climate happening must be rated as fair.
  • Fourth ... the range of plausible unpleasant climate outcomes seems at least as great as the range of more manageable ones. The agricultural, political, economic, demographic, social and other consequences of future climate change are likely to be considerable - indeed, they could be almost inconceivable. In a world of perhaps nine billion people, adverse changes could well occur on several fronts simultaneously and to cumulative adverse effect.
  • Finally, the paper argues that human experience of other difficult 'long wave' threats (e.g. HIV/AIDS) reveals a broadly analogous sequence of reactions. In short: (i) scientific understanding advances rapidly, but (ii) avoidance, denial, and reproach characterize the overall societal response, therefore, (iii) there is relatively little behavioral change, until (iv) evidence of damage becomes plain. Apropos carbon emissions and climate change, however, it is argued here that not only is major behavioral change unlikely in the foreseeable future, but it probably wouldn't make much difference even were it to occur.

Ugh.

There are only a few places to find some wiggle room in this argument.

It's true that historically, prosperity has been tightly correlated with use of fossil fuels. But it's at least theoretically possible that fossil fuel use could decline sharply, through a mixture of efficiency and other, cleaner sources being brought online. It's also true that much of the damage has been done -- the greenhouse gases already heaped on the climate will continue to have effects for many decades to come, even if we completely halt CO2 emissions tomorrow. But perhaps if we quit adding CO2, the climate changes will be slow enough for us to adapt without catastrophic disruption. Of course, both these would rely on the fifth point being wrong, or rather, describing a pattern that we might be able to break this time. Perhaps the impacts of climate change are obvious enough in far-off regions like the Arctic for us to get a head start on dealing with it.

Anything could happen. The future is unpredictable. But Dyson's paper is a stark, cold reminder of just how high the odds are stacked against us.

(For a little counterbalancing optimism, read Mark Bahner's comments under Pielke's post, or just, you know, go read Worldchanging.)

Editorial Notes: The 23-page paper is available as a 244-KB PDF file: "On development, demography and climate change: The end of the world as we know it?" by Tim Dyson of the London School of Economics. Dyson recently addressed a world population conference on the subject (see World faces massive increase in CO2 emissions as population grows from AFP.) According to an online learning website: "Tim Dyson is professor of Population Studies at the London School of Economics. His specialist areas are global population trends; world food and agricultural production; famines; the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the developing world; past, present and future population trends in India; fertility trends and family planning programmes." Good find, Dave Roberts, and good write-up. -BA

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

Sign up for regular Resilience bulletins direct to your email.

Take action!  

Make connections via our GROUPS page.
Start your own projects. See our RESOURCES page.
Help build resilience. DONATE NOW.


Living in the Anthropocene?  

Richard Heinberg discusses the difference between what he has dubbed the …

On Earth Day, an Economics for People and Planet

Much has changed since the first Earth Day in 1970. Not only have our …

Landscapes Transform With the Arrival of the Colorado River

The Colorado River returns to the delta - in photos.

Momentum on Fossil Fuel Divestment Grows as Harvard Professors, Desmond Tutu Call for Action

"People of conscience need to break their ties with corporations …

Years of Recapping Dangerously

Just like on Game of Thrones, where winter is a destabilizing force on all …

Use Your Climate Credit to Ask for More

In the next month, millions of Californians will receive their first …

The Buzz Tour: walking across England to pollinate change on climate

“What can I do about climate change?” “Very little. What …