Cassandra has moved. Ugo Bardi publishes now on a new site called "The Seneca Effect."

Monday, June 15, 2015

The coming "tipping point" of the climate perception: enough to solve the problem?

Recognizing the existence of world scale problems takes time. For instance, the above Google "Ngram" search show that world hunger was not recognized as a serious problem until relatively recent times. However, starting in the 1960s, considerable efforts were dedicated to increasing agricultural yields (the "Green Revolution"), with a certain degree of success. But was the problem really solved? Or was it only postponed - or even worsened - as a result of agriculture becoming totally dependent on fossil fuels? Something similar may happen in the future for the problem of climate change; it may be recognized, at last, but that doesn't mean it will be solved. 

Apart from a small number of diehard deniers, most people are perfectly aware that we have a serious problem with climate change. The public is just confused by a bombardment of contradictory statements pushed in the media, but probably that all what is needed to change the terms of the debate is just a push in the right direction. The pope's encyclic on climate - expected for this week - could do just that, reaching a "tipping point" in the general perception of the problem.

After the tipping point, a consensus may be reached that the idea that climate change doesn't exist or is not caused by human activity is not just wrong, but positively dangerous for society. Something comparable to such ideas as - say - that there is really no evidence that smoking causes cancers, that wearing a seat belt while riding a car is useless, and that crack is no more dangerous than coffee as a recreational drug.

Of course, we can't be sure that the pope's encyclic will have this effect; but, suppose it does, then what can we expect to happen? Optimistically, we could think that most of the work is done and that, from then on, something serious and effective will be done to stop global warming. Unfortunately, things will not be so easy.

How hard acting against climate change is likely to remain may be understood by considering another big and serious problem affecting humankind: world hunger. It had not been always recognized and it was only with the 1960s that it became a standard feature of our intellectual horizon. At that point, nobody would have dreamed to say that world hunger was a hoax designed by a conspiracy of scientists who wanted to keep their fat research grants to study a problem that doesn't exist. The debate was effectively over, but that, alone, didn't solve the problem.

Mainly, the attempt to eliminate world hunger was based on brute force; that is, on increasing agricultural yields. It was what we call today the "Green Revolution." As you know, the results of these efforts are often described in glowing terms, a triumph of human ingenuity over the limits of nature. It is also true, however, that the world hunger problem was never completely solved; it could not be if every increase in agricultural yield was matched by a corresponding increase in human population. And it may well be that the Green Revolution was not just a "non-solution," but something that made the problem worse by turning agriculture into an industrial activity wholly dependent on fossil fuels and artificial fertilizers.

Something similar could happen if we pass the turning point of the perception of climate change. The Google Ngram data, below, indicate that the interest in the problem is rapidly growing and we may be close to reaching the tipping point in perception that world hunger reached in the 1960s.

If we compare the result of the Ngram data for "world hunger" and for "Climate Change", we see that the perception of climate change trails that of world hunger by some 30 years. So, it may be high time for arriving to a general consensus on the climate problem.

The result, however, may not be as good it could be hoped. The sudden appearance of the dramatic reality of climate change in the mediasphere could lead to forget that the best (and probably the only) way to get rid of fossil fuels fast enough to avoid a climate disaster is to make them obsolete by means of renewables. So, we could see a mad scramble toward quick and dirty solutions; actually, non-solutions or solutions that worsen the problem.

One of these non-solutions is "geo-engineering" as it is normally described, that is spreading a reflective layer in the upper atmosphere. That would do something to reduce global warming, but nothing to avoid the acidification of the oceans and its regional climatic effects (e.g. droughts) are all to be discovered. Or think of carbon capture and storage: a desperate and expensive attempt to keep using fossil fuels ("eat the cake and still have it") by literally sweeping the problem under the carpet - where nobody can guarantee for how long it will stay. And what about biofuels? An excellent way to starve a great number of people in order that a small elite could keep using their expensive metal toys called "cars".

We all know that climate change is a wicked problem. Probably, in the near future we are going to discover how exactly wicked it is. Maybe the Pope himself would tell us not to expect miracles. We need to keep working hard at it, and we still have a fighting chance to avoid catastrophe.



  1. Thank you for the usual great insights. We hope that with the Pope speaking, the message will be rendered via MSM to a greater extent in spite of their machinery. I would, however, propose that the term 'geo-engineering' is a fait acompli (from roads, cities, farms, and mines, etc. etc) - perhaps a term that might more accurately reflect the issues of concern would be so called 'techno-engineering' solutions. thank you again for your always interesting and informative articles.

  2. The Pope's recognition of the gravity of the situation is better than I expected. It's almost as if he has some friends in the Club of Rome. Nevertheless, humanity has a nearly impossible task ahead to avoid a catastrophic die-off during the rest of this century.

    John Michael Greer wrote a weblog post awhile ago about how it would only take a slightly larger death rate compared to birth rate for the population to drastically decrease over a span of several decades. That may be true but if you check out the following websites , presumably with data supplied by the United Nations, you realize that we are rather a long way from stopping the "population explosion" :

    Birth rates are still more than double death rates. Without solving this problem, we cannot be expected to solve the other ecological problems either.

    The humane way to solve this problem is to severely reduce birth rates. The fact that so few people understand this simple fact does not bode well for our future.

  3. Ugo, thank you for a thoughtful post, as usual.

    The problem we face is a classic "technology trap". A technology trap is an application of technology that works well in the short term, is disastrous in the long term, and that cannot be reversed.

    An example from your Roman Empire is the irrigation works in North Africa. These greatly raised food production in the short term, but in the longer term destroyed the soil through salination. A few centuries of mangrove swamp cultivation might, perhaps, reverse the damage, but nobody can afford to do it.

    The Green Revolution likewise increased food production, but only by the excessive use of herbicides and fossil fuel that destroyed the natural ecology of the soil. And so, when fuel runs out, or when - as is even now happening - the weeds evolve resistence to the poisons, the effort will have to be abandoned, but there will be no way back to traditional, sustainable agriculture, not without first letting the soil lie fallow for centuries.

    The lesson we never learn: hubris is always followed by nemesis.

    1. Thank you Robert. Indeed, many people confuse growth with stability. It is not the same. The faster you grow, the faster you are condemned to crash back

  4. I doubt a change in perception makes much difference, even if everyone accepted the Pope's Encyclical as the Word of God handed down on Stone Tablets.

    The issue is we have many interdependent systems that require high energy inputs, and you can't transition off of them fast enough with causing tremendous political & economic dislocation. The recent Nigeria situation with fuel is a case in point here.

    Similarly, the Chinese can jawbone all they like about going off of Coal, but there is no way they can do it in under 20 years and maintain anywhere near their current standar of living, which of course is deteriorating rapidly along with their pollution issues.

    So it really doesn't matter what the Pope says or what the general perceptions and attitudes are. The system has its own inertia and momentum, and nothing can stop it from crashing now. Maybe 40 years ago something might have been possible to change just with an attitude adjustment, but I doubt it.

    BTW, we are at 200 Views on the Vidcast from Sunday already! :)


  5. I came across a lecture series on SPICE

    Stratospheric Particle Injection for Climate Engineering
    (Royal Society, Cambridge University etc etc...)

    I found it thought provoking and disquieting... this link is to the first of 9 lectures... IMO worth watching.

  6. Thanks for the analysis/report Ugo. Since the Pope has had a say on Climate Change I will not pontificate further.

  7. "The public is just confused by a bombardment of contradictory statements pushed in the media,"

    I disagree. They'd have to be complete morons to be confused, and i dont think that many people are morons, or they wouldn't be able to function at all in their everyday lives. Climate change is really not that difficult to grasp. About 10 minutes reading is all thats required to get the gist. Contrary to most people, who think most people are good, and only a tiny fraction are bad, I think its the opposite. When i look around me at all the cars everywhere, and people taking holidays every 5 minutes, its obvious to me that most people are totally complicit and fairly happy with societies criminal negligence and inaction. i'm just an ordinary bloke and i can effortlessly see through the lies and taboos of mainstream media. It does not correlate with the urgency with what science is saying, and that should ring immediate alarm bells for anybody with reasonable education and IQ as well. That it doesnt is very telling.

    So i fail to see how other ordinary people are innocently taken in by them. I just think most people just don't give a damn. As long as they have a car, job and toys, they dont care about the harm they do at all. they dont even think about it. This to me is immorality of highest order. They listen to the media that suits their worldview. if they didn't agree intrinsically (in not caring), it would be abhorrent to them, and the media would be forced to switch sides, and tell the truth.

    1. Well, what I said is that they understand the problem, but they don't understand how serious it is. If they did, I think they would give a damn!



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)