Friday, October 23, 2020

Taboos and illusions in the environmental question: The viewpoint of a physician

Physicians have a view of the world that makes them especially able to understand the concept I called the "Seneca Cliff." Here, Lukas Fierz, Swiss physician, provides some basic principles that apply to collapses of complex systems, it doesn't matter if we deal with human bodies or entire civilizations. The basic behavior is the same: collapses start slow and often unnoticed, and then strike hard by a combination of mutually reinforcing factors. The final result may be that someone dies, or that an entire civilization goes down to the dustbin of history, or even that an entire ecosystem is destroyed. It happened, and it will happen again.



A painting by Holbein, presently at the Kunstmuseum in Basel. It was one of the sources of inspiration for this post by Lukas Fierz


Guest post by Lukas Fierz


Taboos and illusions in the environmental question

I am not a climatologist, but as a physician, you only master certain areas and otherwise you listen to various other specialists. We are also used to deal with uncertainties: e.g. If you are considering an operation, you estimate the chance of success based on the patient's age, nutritional and physical condition, morale, heart health and previous illnesses such as hypertension, diabetes etc. Every risk factor reduces the chances of success. Inability to calculate anything precisely does not release you from making an estimate.

Similarly, the uncertainties in the climate discussion do not release one from making an assessment. There we are unfortunately hindered by some taboos and illusions, but let’s try:

I grew up in Basel where in the museum hangs a picture of the dead Christ, painted by Holbein 500 years ago.

This made a deep impression on me and I had it above my desk for years: A mercilessly realistic view of our God, his passion and the end of us all. We have to measure our actions against this end. Until then we must do, what we do as well as possible and not lose time. And there is already the first taboo, death. Death being repressed in the prevailing consciousness, much that is related to it cannot be seen.

Later I studied medicine and learned some principles:

1.     Illnesses often begin in secret: First symptoms are often not the beginning, but the last act. A drunkard or a smoker take decades to ruin their liver or lungs; this goes unnoticed because the organism compensates. Once jaundice or shortness of breath occurs, the further course is not in decades, but rather years. Similarly, if our bees die, this is not a beginning but the end, because they have been poisoned already for a long time.

2.     Risk factors for disease can more than add up: E.g. depression occurs in one percent of the population every month. A serious stress factor (death of family member, loss of workplace, illness, etc.) adds two percent more. Two stress factors add three percent. With three stress factors, one could assume depression in nine percent, but it is 24 percent: Suddenly the risks multiply. Similar mechanisms may apply in other situations.

3.     Patients and insurances want forecasts. Diseases often remain true to themselves: A patient with multiple sclerosis who is only slightly disabled after ten years, will probably not be in a wheelchair after another decade.

4.     This is only true in the absence of self-reinforcing mechanisms: The most dreaded example is the narrowing of the aortic valve, the valve of the main artery. The heart adapts, uses more energy, generates more strength and pushes enough blood through the valve; patients can even practice athletics. But when the heart can no longer get enough blood for its own energy requirements, heart failure and death occur within seconds, We physicians are terrified of such self-reinforcing and uncontrollable mechanisms.

5.     In our profession there are authorities: If a physician repeatedly has made diagnoses missed by everyone else, he will get a fabulous reputation. You believe him with advantage, even if you don't quite understand his reasoning.

6.     Cheating is useless: If the patient dies you are dealt with by the pathologist or the coroner. They are merciless.

Let's apply this wisdom to the environmental situation:

In 1972 the Club of Rome fed whatever one knew into a computer and he predicted that if we don't stop economic growth and limit the population at four billion, ecosystems will destabilize in the middle of our century. They even mentioned the greenhouse effect hoping for a timely solution. The limiting factor was pollution, not scarcity of resources or of land. Whoever pretends that the Club of Rome is discredited because it incorrectly predicted a resource shortage tells a lie or has not read the report. Later, the Club of Rome corrected, that perhaps even a population of 8 billion could be sustainable, but they explicitly stated that the consequences of human aggressiveness could not be modelled.

In 1988 James Hansen first demonstrated that the greenhouse effect was happening while predicting the future warming with great accuracy to this day. Hansen is an authority. If he questions official forecasts and measures, this must raise concern.

James Hansen is taken away by police in shackles

The Paris Treaties of 2015 wanted to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 or 2 degrees. And this brings us to the illusions

First illusion: The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) takes 1850-1900 as the starting point which gives a temperature rise of more than one degree. But industrialization started 100 years earlier, and starting from the lower pre-industrial values we have already reached the 1.5 degrees.

Second illusion: From the start it was clear that the Paris 1.5-degree target would be missed. James Hansen speaks of a fake deal. If it were kept, the temperature would rise above 3 degrees, over land twice as much. Moreover, the Paris Agreement assumes large-scale sequestration of CO2 from the air, which Hansen describes as illusory.

Third illusion: Hardly anyone keeping the Paris Agreements we are underway to global warming of 4-5 degrees by 2100, again meaning about the double over land.

This is official mainstream, i.e. the predictions of the IPCC.

The fourth illusion assumes that this is hysterical alarmism. Even the greenhouse effect is denied although he has been proven more than 150 years ago.

But in fact, all statements made so far are not alarmistic, but rather too tame,

Fifth illusion: Many think that the temperature increase is linear. But it becomes faster, as one sees with the naked eye:


Even the IPCC suffers from this illusion: Before 2015 they talked of limiting the increase to 1.5 degrees by 2100. In 2018, the IPCC moved this to 2040. American climatologists immediately objected: The IPCC had forgotten that greenhouse gases continue to rise which takes the 1.5 degrees to 2030, a shift of 70 years in  some years.

The sixth illusion holds that the greenhouse mechanism is the whole story. This would be bad enough, but the many positive feedback mechanisms are even worse  because according to Hansen they were always match-deciding in the previous history of the earth and they can cause tipping points.

The IPCC neglects these feedbacks, because precise predictions are impossible. However for a physician, they are more frightening than anything else: All go in the wrong direction, each can become uncontrollable, and their effects can not only add, but possibly multiply. And then, developments can be shortened to years.

The seventh illusion imagines that the CO2 concentration only depends on how much we blow into the air. However almost a third of the CO2 emissions have been absorbed by the ocean and a warmer ocean no longer absorbs, but releases CO2.

Similarly with trees and vegetation: So far, they also absorb almost a third of the CO2 emitted. Most CO2 compensation programs work with actual or alleged reforestation. But we are already losing forest through logging and fires. And with a temperature increase of four degrees by the year 2100, the trees will die off over large areas, like the coral reefs, and thus trees will change from being a CO2 buffer to CO2-production. The German Climate Pope Schellnhuber says: "We kill our best friends". CO2 emissions will increase, even with zero emissions by humanity! Not counted by the IPCC either.

In the eighth illusion the ice melts slowly, but things accelerate in the Arctic. Wadham, the Pope of Ice, believes that without snow and ice, the reflectivity of the earth decreases and warming becomes 50 percent greater. That may bring us to six degrees by 2100, twice as much over land. Not counted by the IPCC.

The ninth illusion was that the permafrost would not thaw until the end of the century. But it is already thawing, and methane is bubbling there and elsewhere and rising rapidly in the atmosphere. This short-lived but very powerful greenhouse gas can acutely accelerate warming with self-burning becoming a matter of years. Not counted by the IPCC.

The tenth illusion: At a higher temperature, the air stores more water vapor, also a greenhouse gas. Several models predict a decrease in cloud cover, which could further accelerate warming. Not counted by the IPCC.

The eleventh illusion is that everything goes slowly. But geologically, the pace of the current changes is unprecedented, ten times faster than the fastest changes in the last 65 million years.

Twelfth illusion: It’s not only the climate that endangers us, but also the extinction of species, at an extraordinary pace in terms of earth history. It’s still rather climate-independent, mainly caused by hunting and by the loss and poisoning of habitats due to expanding human population and activity. E.O. Wilson thinks that half of the earth should be reserved for wildlife if one wanted to stop this extinction.

Let’s summarize, like a surgeon before an operation:

The first symptoms of disease are omnipresent: droughts, fires, glacier retreat, loss of species, not a beginning, rather the beginning of the end. The biosphere can no longer compensate.

The effects of causal factors - CO2, methane, water vapor, forest fires, cloud loss, ocean acidification, pesticides, habitat loss - don’t necessarily just add up, they sometimes multiply with unpredictable results.

But a physician panics above all about the multiple self-reinforcing feedbacks: ice melt, methane release, forest fires, CO2 release from soil and ocean. There is little handle against such self-reinforcing mechanisms, even if they occur individually, and even much less if they work together.

The 1,5- or 2-degrees goal is out of question. The Paris Agreement is fake, the governments reactions inadequate or contra productive. Only with luck will we reach four or five degrees at the end of the century, but this is improbable, because the self-reinforcing feedbacks have already all kicked in. Some experts expect six or seven degrees, meaning twice as much over land, which human civilization cannot survive.

For Johan Rockström from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, with four degrees of global warming the earth can only feed four billion people. This means widespread wars for a living space that will become increasingly scarce.  

Because death is tabooed in our consciousness we are unable to see him, even if he stares directly into our eyes. I don't blame idiots like Trump. But rather the climatologists, who do not tell the whole truth. And the Greens, who are raving about the 1.5 degrees, a lie to the voters.

Last but not least, we come to the second taboo: Nobody wants to see the fact that we are too many. We are reproductive machines and reproduction is programmed into us as the most sacred goal. Therefore many - e.g. our benevolent Greens – prefer to believe into the illusion that reduction of consumption is enough.

Admittedly, only the wealthy produce the pollution: The ten percent of the wealthiest probably fifty percent, the 50 percent of the wealthier almost all the rest. But a large part of resource consumption and pollution is forced because we have to live in megastructures, which need energy-guzzling transports.

Some want to solve the problem by eliminating the privileges of the top 10 percent or even - according to old revolutionary customs - by eliminating the top 10 percent of the privileged, guillotine. But even half the burden is too much. Therefore one would have to guillotine the wealthier half. This would work if the remaining half would not want to multiply and become wealthy, with industry, meat consumption, cars, airplanes. This they are already trying to do all over the world, e.g. in India, for the noble savage is just another illusion.

Many whose birth is not avoided by birth control will be killed by manslaughter, starvation and disease. That’s the reality we should face. Two generations of one-child family would be more humane.


Lukas Fierz (79), from a Swiss family of musicians and scientists became a physician and neurologist. Shocked by the report of the Club of Rome together with others he founded the Swiss Green Party for which he sat in the national parliament without any effect. He fought the resulting depression as an amateur cellist with music once played on the Titanic (live recordings on playlist “Music for Titanic”). Moved by the climate youth, he began to participate in the discussion again with his Blog  “Letting down humanity”.


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)