Monday, March 23, 2015

Climate Change: how to make the problem bigger. Lessons from the case of world hunger

Results of a search for "world hunger" using Google Ngram Viewer. Clearly, the perception of hunger as a major world problem is relatively recent: it peaked in the 1980s and it remains well entrenched in our collective consciousness today. Would climate change show the same trajectory in the future? And, if it does, does it mean that the problem can be solved? Or won't we only make problems bigger in the efforts of solving them?

Momentum is clearly building up for climate action, even though denial is still putting up a stiff resistance. So, in a way, things are going well, but is it enough? Do we still have time for significant action against climate change? And if we will engage in such an action, will we take the right decisions?

Normally, the key of the future lies in the past and we can examine our present situation with climate in light of an older problem: world hunger, which went through a path of perception and action which may go in parallel with the climate problem.

Famines have a long history and, in ancient times, they were often perceived as "acts of God." The idea that something could be done against hunger took time to penetrate humankind's consciousness and we can perhaps find a first glimpse with the satirical essay titled "A Modest Proposal" written in 1729 by Jonathan Swift (best known for his "Gulliver's Travels"), where he proposed that the Irish poor should sell their children as food for the rich English. In reading it, you get a feeling of the frustration that Swift felt for the way the problems of Ireland were perceived in his times and, clearly, that hunger was no concern of the elites of the time. One of the results was the slow and ineffective response of the British government to the Irish famines which came in later times, in particular to the great famine of 1845 that killed millions of people.

Perceptions about world hunger changed in mid-20th century and the interest in the problem rose up rapidly and peaked in the 1980s. Afterward, it went down, but remained a clearly visible problem, something that everyone agrees it must be acted upon. Can we hope for a similar evolution of the concept of climate change? If we use google Ngram viewer, we can compare the terms "world hunger" and "climate change" and here is the result:

We should not pay too much attention to the relative magnitude of the curves. What counts is that the "climate change" curve has not yet saturated, but the use of the term is growing rapidly. It may still take some years before the curve reaches a peak, but there may arrive a moment in which the importance of climate change becomes obvious and nobody will deny it any more.

These are good news; but there is a problem. Suppose that the moment comes when everyone agrees that climate change is a big problem and we have to do something about that. Then, will anything be done? Will something be done fast enough? And will the right things be done? On this point, I am afraid that there will be problems. Big problems.

Let's go back to world hunger: most people today seem to agree that it is a success story and that the problem was solved by the so called "green revolution" that is, greatly increasing food production worldwide. It was, surely, a remarkable technological success, but did it solve the problem? Or didn't it just create a rat race between food production and population? In this case, we only made the problem bigger, instead of solving it (a case of the "black swan" trap). And the green revolution is all based on the idea of turning fossil fuels into food. But if population keeps increasing, while the stocks of fossil fuels can only decrease, we are going to have big problems. Actually, enormous problems. We'll never solve the hunger problem if we can't manage to stabilize the human population.

The reaction of humankind to climate change could be the same. Once we finally recognize that it is a problem, we may look for some technological quick fix to solve it and that may only make the problem bigger. Think of the various proposals of climate engineering that involve at spreading reflecting substances in the high atmosphere. If some of these proposals were implemented, then we could keep emitting greenhouse gases without generating atmospheric warming; and we probably would. Then, with emissions going up, we'll need more screening of sunlight, and, with more screening, we would keep emitting. It would be another rat race between emissions and screening. And what if something were to go wrong with the management of solar radiation? Something we didn't predict or we didn't understand? Then we would be in deep, deep trouble (anyone said "black swan"?). We'll never solve the climate problem if we don't manage to stabilize the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Nobody likes to play the role of the catastrophist but, here, it is clear that we have a gigantic problem. It is not so much a physical or a technological problem, it is that we never developed methods to solve worldwide complex problems; we mostly tend to worsen them. It happens all the time (the political situation in North Africa and Middle East comes to mind as just another example). There have been several attempts to develop new and more effective ways to tackle big problems, such as focussing attention on the leverage points of systems. These methods are true game changers, but will any decision maker pay attention?


  1. Although it is rarely stated as such, the global human overpopulation problem is actually the biggest one of all. To make matters worse, it cannot be solved in a humane manner without the cooperation of most of the heavily populated regions. An international committee is needed to set limits on local populations in such a way that global population begins to decrease. What chance is there for such a thing to happen?

    William Ophuls writes on scarcity:,ecological_scarcity.html

    We are almost surely headed for figure 3.5(c) in Ophuls' article.

  2. The World Hunger problem will solve itself. Lots of Dead People.

    The Climate Problem not so clear. It may hit a Max temperature at around the PETM, or maybe it will blow by that and cook the planet and remaining Homo Saps.

    Geoengineering to solve the problem is likely to have worse blowback still. A good compromise might be to start building large underground cities. Great make work project!


  3. Great post, as usual. I'm afraid that only collapse and some Seneca cliffs can solve all our problems! [un]fortunately, they are coming ;-)

  4. The key point in history which set up a feedback loop for rampant overpopulation was the invention of the Haber-Bosch process. Peak people = Peak CO2.

    Dennis Meadows: "Forget the details. The basic formula for CO2 pollution consists of four elements. First, the number of people on Earth. Multiplied by the capital per person, so how many cars, houses and cows per man, to come to Earth’s standard of living. This in turn multiplied by a factor of energy use per unit of capital, ie, how much energy it takes to produce cars, build houses and to supply or to feed cows. And finally multiply that by the amount of energy derived from fossil sources."



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014)