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

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Climate Change: How Desperate Can You Be?

The legend of the city of Ys has that it was swallowed by the sea. Many modern islands risk to suffer the same fate as the result of Global Warming (Image source). But their inhabitants tend to deny that, and for good reasons: they are desperate. 

Sometimes, what you read in the news really looks like the stuff legends are made of. So is the phone call that President Trump gave to the mayor of the island of Tangier, who had appeared in TV, worried that his island on the Chesapeake bay risked to disappear into the Ocean. Here is an excerpt from the "Washington Post".

Trump thanked the mayor and the entire island of Tangier, where he received 87 percent of the votes, for their support. Then the conversation turned to the island’s plight.
“He said we shouldn’t worry about rising sea levels,” Eskridge said. “He said that ‘your island has been there for hundreds of years, and I believe your island will be there for hundreds more.’”
 Eskridge wasn’t offended. In fact, he agreed that rising sea levels aren’t a problem for Tangier.
“Like the president, I’m not concerned about sea level rise,” he said. “I’m on the water daily, and I just don’t see it.”

Do you realize the eerie lunacy of this exchange? Trump who tells the mayor, "don't worry, your island will be there for hundreds of years" Does he think he is Moses who can command the waters? And the good mayor of Tangier who says, "I'm not concerned about sea level rise, I'm on the water daily and I just don't see it." Ahem... Mr. Mayor, do you really expect to see a sea level rise when you are "on the water"? And then the mayor goes on, saying that despite the fact that the sea is not rising, the islands are sinking. Absolutely fantastic. Is this madness or what? Maybe not or, at least, there is method in it.

In a previous post of mine, I described how the government of the Maldives Islands also denied that sea level rise was a threat I wondered "Is this an epidemics of brain disease? Or do the Gods really drive crazy those whom they want to destroy?" A question that applies also to the inhabitants of Tangier, in the Chesapeake bay.

But no, this is not an epidemics of madness. There is a perfectly rational explanation for what's happening. I wrote in my post,

Imagine that you are part of the elite of the Maldives. And imagine that you are smart enough to understand what's going on with the Earth's climate. As things stand today, it is clear that it is too late to stop a burst of global warming that will push temperatures so high that nothing will save the Maldives islands. Maybe not next year but in a few decades, it is nearly certain. 
So, given the situation, what is the rational thing for you to do? Of course, it is to sell what you can sell as long as you can find a sucker who will buy. Then you can say good riddance to those who remain. 
What we are seeing, therefore, is a game in which someone will be left holding the short end of the dynamite stick. When the elites of the Maldives will have left for higher grounds, the poor will be stuck there. For them, the Seneca Cliff ends underwater.

The same considerations apply to the islands of the Chesapeake bay. Imagine you are mayor Eskridge. Imagine yourself telling Trump over the phone, "Mister President, I believe that you made a big mistake when you decided to leave the Paris Agreement. Insteas, you should promote emission cutting and renewable energy development." Yeah, can you imagine that?

The problem is not so much that Trump wouldn't listen, but that it is just too late for that kind of actions being able to save the Chesapeake islands, just as the Maldives islands. The only hope for the inhabitants of Tangier is that Trump will tell the US army to build a wall around the island. He may; he seems to like walls. But if you want him to do that, you should be nice, very nice, to him. 

The human mind is a curious contraption that has been perfected to what it is today by hundreds of thousands of years of natural selection. The minds that made the wrong choices were ruthlessly eliminated when the bodies they inhabited were eaten by sabertooth tigers or suffered equally bad fates. So, it may well be that in the current climate change drama, people are making the best possible choices in order to save (or try to save) their ass. The rich deny climate change because they plan to save themselves and dump the poors. The poor deny climate change because they hope to court the favor of the elites and be among those who will be saved by them. And so it goes.

So, when you read some absurd form of denial of climate change on the Web, don't think that the people who write are stupid, or evil, or paid by the PTB (Powerst That Be). They may, but they may simply be more desperate than you. 

You can find the same concepts expressed in narrative form in "The True Story of the Fall of Troy"

See also this post by Gaius Publius "Finding the Greater Fool"


  1. One of the most original and interesting things I have read on the subject of climate change (and our response to it) in a long time!

  2. Ugo - your assessment of some peoples' motivations in denying climate destabilization is certainly correct - yet there are more agendas in play than this alone.

    One such, that has been assiduously promoted by those often seen as supporting climate action, is the diversion of the requisite effort for effective global regulation into hoping that the commercial 'free market' growth of non-fossil energies will resolve the problem.

    A post by Joe Romm at Climate Progress on a Bloomberg BNEF report gives a clear account of this con to those who assess the graphics rather than just reading the text. BNEF's analysts show the present growth of intermittent renewables plus batteries cutting the fossil fuels' global market share by just over half by 2040, while the ongoing growth of global energy use almost doubles. The upshot is that people receive a good news story encouraging activism on renewables' contested deployment, while the author ignores the fact that this free market approach would at best cut annual global electricity-production CO2 outputs by a mere 2.3% in 23 years time.

    From the perspective of those who want to see Climate Destabilization let rip, this deflection of activism into useless ineffective diversions is surely at least as important as pushing the propagandas of denial ?

    Another obstruction of effective effort is through the propagandas of apathy - essentially that there is no chance of success. Every person so demoralized is one less that must be countered by other means. Those propagandas take many forms as you know, from assuming that the political system cannot be re-harnessed to generate real change, to observing that the eight Major Interactive Feedbacks on AGW [MIFs] that are now accelerating cannot be controlled simply by ending anthro-emissions - and, crucially - assuming that we cannot develop benign and reliable means of geoengineering alongside emissions control to achieve their deceleration.

    As I understand your post, you don't intend to demoralize people but rather to inform them of a coming crash whereby some may make arrangements to save themselves. Yet this overlooks the clear scientific information that without radical mitigation action, the survival even of small numbers is very questionable.

    The core and proximate problem is the destabilization of agriculture, leading to serial global crop failures, geopolitical destabilization and accelerating damage to soils during a process of societal collapse. Professor Peirs Forster (an IPCC lead author) led a study in 2012 showing that such global crop failures are liable to begin within 10 years - i.e. by the early 2020s. The widespread assumption that societal collapse will reduce emissions and so resolve the problem is patently false; present temperatures are driving the acceleration of the MIFs, whose outputs are rising towards the point of fully offsetting a total end of anthro-emissions. For this reason there is no rational prospect of a global collapse allowing the emergence of a new non-fossil society.

    There is of course no certainty that the resolution of AGW can be successfully achieved - The only certainty is that a failure to try - applying far more strategic analysis and tactical skill than has been deployed to date - will most certainly fail to prevent an utterly ruinous collapse.

    A starting point for such a sea change is to ask just why the US far-right-led obstruction of action is maintained even when there is plainly no prospect of merely selling out of fossil fuels and building comparable wealth in other industries ?

    The only explanation I've seen covering the very wide evidence of a bipartisan covert US policy of letting climate destabilization rip is that the US has no preferable means of halting China's usurpation of US global economic dominance, on which the profitability of its corporations is centrally reliant. Putting the US good-cop/bad-cop climate circus into this context may well initiate some of the fresh thinking that is urgently needed.


    1. Hello, Lewis. I am not sure myself of how to best utilize the way I described the situation. I think mainly it is a question of understanding what drives people to behave the way they behave. Then, if we understand that, we are not yet desperate. That is, I am sure it is too late for islands such as the Maldives or Tangier. No matter what we do or don't do, they are doomed to sink. Still, there is still hope for the rest of the world. The stumbling block is the human mind - it is a gigantic challenge, but also an opportunity.

    2. "The stumbling block is the human mind" Indeed. But the human mind is not just a trillion neurons encased in a semi-globular shell. It is primarily a social construct, its content, scope, and limitations bounded by arrangements of biological drives, social behaviors and norms, and belief systems evolved over the entire brief human experience since we were nomadic hunter gatherers. Humans can indeed evolve and change, just not at the rate that their technology is capable of changing the physical world.

      The most extreme example of how we can change the physical world and biosphere overnight is through nuclear war. we are now at the most dangerous precipice since the Cuban Missile Cris, but virtually nobody in the US or EU/NATO is even aware of the danger. Certainly not the deranged elites in the US who are driving the world toward military confrontation with a formidable nuclear armed power.

      Climate destabilization is an equally dire threat, but one even less susceptible to effective action precisely because of the evolved characteristics of the human mind. We are tribal species, evolved to act out our personal survival imperative, overcome scarcity and transform it into accumulation. Unlike most other species who limit their breeding season to a brief time of the year, the males are testosterone-dominated for most of their lifetimes. The 24/7 drive to accumulate mates and propagate the species becomes transformed into a continual battle for dominance played out as warfare, social hierarchy development, or endless accumulation of the symbols of success. Again unlike most species, females are continually in heat, providing them with a means of dominance and control over males that enlarges their social role beyond that of mere child-bearers.

      The outlines of the planetary crisis are relatively clear to anyone with an inquiring mind.

      *Human-caused climate alteration at a rate unseen since the origin of the human species.
      **Tipping points in the dynamic biospehere that have unknown levels and states of interaction.
      ***Oceanic acidification that can potentially turn the seas into virtual deserts similar to the dead seas in which fossil fuel carbon deposits were created millions of years ago.
      ****A biosphere extinction event that threatens to exterminate 50% of the world's species.

      And dominating the actual state of the biosphere is a species which, however brilliant some individuals may be, is psychologically unable to change its very nature and acquire species wisdom at the pace necessary for the outcome of its technological success to not determine the future of the biosphere.

      Ironically, a catastrophe of titanic proportions that leaves only a few hundred thousand human survivors might be the only way for the species to survive if the forces now in motion continue unchecked. And by that I don't mean climate intervention by human Gods, but rather by natural re-balancing of the biosphere at some liveable condition.

    3. The human mind as a stumbling block indeed. I like to see these times as a punctuation in the evolution of the Naked Ape. Having learned upright walk and tamed fire (only to lose touch during iron age with the invention of the stove top) the Naked Ape now needs to learn upright walk of the brain. From Homo Sapiens Sapiens to Homo Sapiens Erectus. Cultural evolution, now. Who will win?

    4. Richard, your titanic catastrophe seems not very ironic to me. If necessary, that might imply species survival being the worst case scenario, not extinction: Leaving the global ecosystem in post collapse stasis, held down in a self-enforcing circle driven by the desperate struggle for survival of hominin descendants who gambled their chance to learn/evolve. The end of evolution, Nietzsche's Eternal Return cemented (and reduced ad absurdum) in eternal dementia of our species, leaving Mother Evolution no chance to recover before the sun grows too hot for plant life to sustain a greenhouse effect...

  3. I am not sure I agree with Ugo on this one (aside from the poor getting the rough end of the pineapple but it's ever been thus). Applying Ockham's Razor, I think they've genuinely convinced themselves by 1. talking in their echo chamber 2. peering over the parapets as to what the alternate is (immediate and massive societal/economic/polotical changes needed) and 3. complety ignoring the vast majorty of science, that climate change is not really a problem eg if they talk with Judith Curry, Bjorn Lomborg et al.

    The support for my hypothesis on this, comes from observing similar human behaviour in other areas. eg Religion etc. The ability for people to be self deluded is fairly ubiqutious.

    1. Or as I frequently comment, Delusion is the Opium of the People

  4. Shared with thanks to all who participated.

  5. 'Not rising just sinking' - on similar lines to the parrot; '... e's not dead just sleeping'. We need to develop a 21st Century sense of humour, it seems.

    1. I agree Phil ! But what is your grand plan for how to to get ALL of the 7 5 billions to adopt the new sense of humour that would save them from themselves? Or have you become so callous in my absence that you would exclude all the really smart ones and the politically correct? (nice to see that U R still alive and well) (it seems)

    2. Great to see you back Max,and I presume in fine fettle. My plan for the 7.5 billions? Seriously, it is a little behind schedule.

      I am still alive and well, thank you, and on looking back, in better form than I deserve. My carbon emissions about halved when I retired, along with my income, but still not low enough to bring me in line with the large majority of the planet. Could do better.

      I'm still eating better on the lower carbon footprint you recommended. At least a reassuring start, you think? I will tell you a joke if time allows sometime, about colon polyps - luckily not mine - and the low cost option. Smile.


  6. Very insightful post, Ugo! Thank you for this paradigm broadening perspective.

    Together for the future,
    ~ Michael Dowd (& Connie Barlow)



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)