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

Friday, August 26, 2016

The earthquake in Italy and the silliest comment ever received about climate change

It is hard to take precaution against events that are difficult or impossible to predict. That holds for all kinds of "systemic shocks" which include earthquakes, economic crises, climate-related events, and more. 

Italy may be an especially vulnerable place for earthquakes. It is a country located in a highly seismic zone where a large number of  buildings have been erected just by piling up bricks, without worrying too much about safety. The results can be seen in the earthquake of a few days ago and in several other earthquakes of the past decades. (see the image above, source). But, if Italy is a bad place in terms of precautions against seismic events, it is normal that everywhere large earthquakes strike, the damage is enormous. Even Japan, although a country that places a lot of attention on earthquake safety, was badly hit by the 2011 tsunami and by the 1995 earthquake near Kobe.

The discussion about the recent earthquake in Italy raised up some comments on my Italian blog, one of which I found especially silly. Summarizing it, it said, "If earthquakes cannot be predicted, how can you pretend to predict climate change? We should just wait and see."

I think that the logic of this comment doesn't need to be deconstructed but, at least it is further evidence that human beings are not rational creatures. Nevertheless, it raises an issue worth discussing about the predictability of climate change. Much of the debate on climate turns around the often raised objection against the need of doing something that says, "if you can't predict exactly what's going to happen, then we should just sit and watch". Obviously, nobody would even dream to raise such an objection against reinforcing buildings against earthquakes, although in practice the idea is often resisted. Nor, anyone would maintain that you shouldn't wear seat belts in your car because you can't predict exactly when an accident will occur.

So, why is the debate on climate change so special? In one sense, it is the sheer vastness of the problem. While you can always think that the next earthquake will strike somewhere else, there is no escape from climate change: it affects the whole planet and that surely makes people tend to react by disregarding even the most elementary rules of logic. In another sense, it I think that the problem is in the very concept of "predictions". Geologists know a lot about earthquakes. but they have wisely abstained from trying to make predictions about them. Climatologists, instead, have made a big effort to develop predictive tools and they keep publishing diagrams telling us what temperatures we should expect for 2050 or 2100. That has led to a heated debate about the validity of the models which, as all models, can only be approximated (the map is not the territory).

Don't make me say that there is anything wrong in climate models. They are sophisticated, physics-based tools, perfectly valid within the assumptions that they make. There is, however, a problem. Climate change and seismic phenomena are, at the most basic level, similar in the sense that they are both about the accumulation of energy in a reservoir. Geological faults cause the accumulation of elastic energy in the earth's crust. Greenhouse gases cause the accumulation of thermal energy in the atmosphere and in the oceans.

Now, it is known that the release of elastic energy in the crust is not a linear phenomenon and that, as a consequence, it generates sudden and catastrophic events. How about the release of thermal energy in the atmosphere/hydrosphere system? Mostly, we tend to think that it is a linear phenomenon: higher concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere cause rising temperatures and, indirectly, rising sea levels. But, unfortunately, that's not the whole story and it cannot be.

Complex systems tend to react to forcings in strongly non-linear ways, something that I termed the "Seneca Effect". And the rising temperatures may create plenty of sudden catastrophes when linked with the other elements of the ecosphere and also of the human econosphere. Just think of the effect of a sudden increase in the sea levels on the world's economy, largely based on marine transportation. And think about the effects on agriculture: much of the recent turmoil in North Africa and the Middle East may be seen as a non-linear reaction to rising temperatures and droughts.

But the most worrisome sudden transition related to greenhouse warming is known as the "runaway greenhouse" or the "Venus catastrophe." It is the planetary equivalent of a major earthquake; something like what happened to the city of Amatrice, in Italy, completely razed down a few days ago. Of course, we may say that such a transition is "sudden" only in terms of a different time scale in comparison to earthquakes, but it may still be rapid enough to cause gigantic damage. We don't know for sure if such a catastrophe can occur on the Earth but, according to some recent studies, it seems to be possible. And make no mistake: a runaway greenhouse effect is not just a hotter earth, it involves the extinction of the biosphere.

In the end, the main problem of this whole story is that we don't know how to convince people about the risks related to non-linear phenomena, earthquakes, climate change and the like. Should we emphasize the risk? That has the unwanted effect that people tend to run away plugging their ears and singing "la-la-la." Or should we sweeten the pill and tell them that there is nothing to be really worried about; just a few minor adjustments and everything will be fine. That has the effect that nobody is doing anything, surely not enough. Will we ever find the right strategy?



  1. Human beings are rational animals, yes, but they are not spontaneous rational animals, or in other words, not just because they are human they know how to think rationally from birth.
    They have to be taught to think.

    It took many years of difficult teaching to turn you into a thinking, rational human being. Not only passive teaching, active learning too, hands-on laboratory work.

    Just think on what people believe on religious matters, any religion.
    I am sure you don't spend several hours a day praying the rosary, passing the beads, mumbling the prayers.

    Or look at the great Protestan civilization in America -great according to them- or the Muslims and others. What the people believe, beggars belief.

    This Sunday any big church hall in the USA (or in Brazil or Nigeria) will have more people there in a frency than all the rational human beings in the planet put together.
    It is hopeless, but the task needs to be done.

  2. Responding to: 'In the end, the main problem of this whole story is that we don't know how to convince people about the risks related to non-linear phenomena, earthquakes, climate change and the like. Should we emphasize the risk? That has the unwanted effect that people tend to run away plugging their ears and singing "la-la-la." Or should we sweeten the pill and tell them that there is nothing to be really worried about; just a few minor adjustments and everything will be fine. That has the effect that nobody is doing anything, surely not enough. Will we ever find the right strategy?'

    I think the problem is worse than that. I do not believe that the scientific community can present a coherent picture of what future it is we are trying to adapt to. For example, Alice Friedeman (energy skeptic), the author of When The Trucks Stop Running, has recently posted very negative assessments of battery storage for wind and solar, and for the prospects of methane hydrates, at Peak Oil. Com. And here, very recently, Louis Arnoux published a series of articles stating that crude oil is sinking rapidly. If the future is no crude oil and no grid-scale wind and solar, then some sort of 'neo peasant' society awaits us. If that is the truth over the next decade, there is no point in worrying about CO2 emissions.

    So...I do not believe that 'science' has made a compelling case about what the future holds with enough specificity for people to do anything other than what feels good. They will continue to rely on Kahneman's 'fast thinking' and not attempt his 'slow thinking'.

    Don Stewart

    1. Unfortunately there is enough oil, cola, gas to have BOTH a strong climate change AND a collapse due to shortage of fossils. We cannot have a clear picture of the future, but we have glimpses of what must be done. Renewables may be not enough to preserve the BAU scenario, but help on both sides of the problem. Enough? Cannot tell. But I cannot tell whether some reinforcing will prevent my home to collapse on the next quake, even if it will be hopelessly damaged by it. I cannot tell if my safety belt will save me on some car crash. I can tell it is worth trying

    2. Gianni Comoretto
      A current quote from BW Hill on the Peak Oil website:
      'Another $15 down and the Middle East will burn. They will turn on each other like a pack of starving dogs. Each one blaming the other for over producing. That is about three years from now:
      and about the time that their SWFs have run dry.'

      Hill is a consulting engineer, whose group constructed a thermodynamic model which predicted, before it started, that oil prices would decline because the ability of the society to afford the oil would decline. Dr. Louis Arnoux, in guest posts on this website, strongly seconded the Hill's Group model.

      So, nobody doubts that there is an enormous hydrocarbon resource remaining. But some people predict that we will never be able to actually get and use most of what remains. If, as Hill states above, the OPEC countries will have collapsed inside of 3 years, then why is anyone worried about negotiating agreements limiting CO2 emissions?

      My point is NOT that Arnoux and Hill are guaranteed to be right, merely that the science is not at all clear to the man in the street.

      Humans are designed with two decision making systems, according to Daniel Kahneman. The first system, which handles the vast majority of the decisions we make, is basically about what feels good or natural. The second system, which handles a tiny percentage of the decisions we make, is a laborious exercise in logic. I submit that using fossil fuels to drive cars, buying products produced from raw materials using diesel fuel, and having children all feel good. In order to persuade a significant number of people to override the System One instincts, a compelling case in favor of System Two must be presented. I just don't think that has happened with enough specificity to tell people exactly what they need to do.

      Don Stewart

  3. Ah Don science is about testing a hypothesis and observing the results, over time you get enough results to develop some theorems and a some very interesting facts, theorems beget models so the model is an attempt to test the theorem based on known facts and deduced laws or rules. The laws of thermodynamics are well known as laws that have been deduced from the behaviour of chemicals and gases. So we know enough to know that in a general sense what will happen. To become more specific you develop a model that takes data from what is happening or being done to the earths gases and our use of the earths chemicals but a specific prediction will be impossible, too many variables. Now if you know enough about what scientists have already discerned you know that we are collectively conducting a very interesting experiment and we are living that experiment, but we know enough before the model is adapted and changed based on observations to refine the theorems to know that it will go BANG! Now whether it is a little bang or a big bang is beside the point, it will go bang - get it? On a more arcane level if your happy living the experiment then more sensible folk are not because that bang may be non linear and it is probably best not to find out.

  4. We can not predict the exact time of an earthquake. That which depends on human stupidity is even more unpredictable.

  5. Here is another example of the inability of science to lay out a persuasive case for what the average person needs to be doing.

    First exhibit. Some Economist says that fear of the future is simply irrational. (I didn’t have the heart to get beyond the headline.)

    Second exhibit. A commenter at Peak Oil had this to say to shortonoil (BW Hill):
    Short, I’m sorry, but this comment doesn’t make a lot of sense, based on your previous remarks:

    “Our projections put conventional at 57 mb/d by 2020, and 49 mb/d by 2030.”

    Where will all this production come from? Of course, primarily from the Middle East producers, who have production costs well below $20/bbl. They will not burn; the bulk of the world’s remaining production will come from them. The rest of the world’s attention will be trained on them, and they will have formed alliances with every major government in the world whose interest is in either keeping them in power or perhaps worse, however, they will be the latest producers standing and will be just fine.

    Hill responds:

    'At $46 Saudi Arabia has a $51 billion annual shortfall. At $35 it will be $113 billion. With a government budget of $231 billion their lights are going to go out. Your optimism is sweet, but completely unrealistic.'

    As we try to unravel this discussion from the standpoint of the average person, we have one authority claiming that all the shenanigans about negative interest rates and destroying cash are necessary because people are in the grip of irrational fear. Then we have a model which claims that demand and supply curves no longer work for oil, and that some crazy thing labeled ‘thermodynamics’ is in charge and we can no longer generate enough money to cover the cost of producing the oil products. Most experts, of course, dismiss the thermodynamic model as crazy. But even if we accept the thermodynamic model’s curves, it turns out that they lead to some very painful experiences, and the author of the model believes that the self-destructive aspects of humans will come to the fore and the middle east will be ‘in flames’, and the theoretical downslope production will not, in fact, be realized.

    Relative to that last point, anyone who watches supposedly adult governments destroying the middle east will not dismiss the fear out of hand.

    Don Stewart

  6. EROEI
    The $ cost of production and $ profit doesn't count if the EROEI profit doesn't work out, Anything anyone says to the contrary is a scam.
    If the EROEI works out, it will be done.
    Technology advancement may allow a lesser profitable EROEI to be practical but at some point there is a lower limit that will allow some semblance of our modern civilization and industry. Renewables probably don't yet exceed that limit. Fossil fuels of most sorts seem to be falling toward that limit in general and the number of sources exceeding the limit by a lot are declining quickly.

  7. I appreciate the comparison of earthquakes to climate change, both being accumulations of energy in a reservoir. It might be worth observing as well that both have local and global effects, though the global effects are relatively weak -- until they aren’t anymore. That’s the nonlinear and runaway scenario. So measuring carbon in the atmosphere in terms of parts per billion looks like a weak effect on its face, but it has serious ramifications when one zooms out to geological time (as distinguished from human history).

    Delving deeply into the hard data and models in search of support or invalidation is certainly part of the scientific process, but laypersons like me often find it too technical. The broad strokes are enough. Discussions of what constitutes the natures of science, rationalism, and human psychology founder quickly on disagreement and ignorance (if not outright stupidity). Add in political and economic agendas, et voilà, the narrative is confused to the point where most throw their hands up and refuse to engage on the topic. Even among those of who still pay attention, fruitful response is elusive if not entirely pointless when one considers our aggregate behaviors. Meanwhile, scoring rhetorical points seems to be the dominant behavior -- a version of fiddling while Rome burns.

  8. According to Brutus, both of them are related. Both of them are not predictable. But we can manage some weapons (as urbanism and a change the structure of society, cities, an transport) to avoid further impacts. We know how to cause (trigger) earthquakes, but not how to stop them. Every time we break more records, they are becoming more violent and increasingly, and we stay indifferent, no matter that tens of millions of people call our doors or are swallowed up by the sea, dead under the rubble or hunger in our Western cities. We need to believe that we need their oil.

  9. A week-long snowstorm is predicted to hit the mountain from tomorrow.



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)