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We are not Thinking Big Enough with our Solutions to Climate Change

We are not Thinking Big Enough with our Solutions to Climate Change

Climate change presents us with a pressing challenge. A global consensus accepts that human activity is responsible for climate change and its associated dangers. However, there is disagreement on how best to address this challenge. The essay argues that leading proposals are unsatisfactory, such as the ecological footprint and polluter pays principle. The reasons include that they do not effectively manage climate change and may contribute to further problems. We require a new approach to address climate change.

Even if you don’t accept the consensus on AGW, I suspect that few of you would say with confidence that there is zero chance of the IPCC being correct, and zero future risk.  With that starting point, consider this paper by Thom Brooks of the University of Newcastle Law School “How Not to Save the Planet.”  Full paper is available online via oneclick download.

From the Introduction:

Our challenge is not to consider whether there is climate change, but how best to respond to it. While a global consensus accepts the existence of climate change, there is wide disagreement on how best to address this challenge. Mainstream proposals generally support one of two competing approaches. Both approaches aim to effectively manage climate change to ensure its associated dangers do not lead to the planet becoming inhospitable for human beings. One approach is largely conservationist. Its goal is to reduce carbon emissions in order to end further contributing to climate change and, thus, better manage associated dangers by decreasing continued climate changes. A second approach is more focused on adaptation strategies. The goal is to better adapt ourselves to the environment so we become more effectively protected from the associated dangers of climate change. Whilst most proposals are to some extent impure and incorporate both conservation and adaptation measures, there remains a clear division between these approaches in the greater priority given to one measure over the other.

I will argue that existing proposals are unsatisfactory. The reasons include that they fail to offer satisfactory proposals for future sustainability and lead to additional problems. My hope is to provide a more clear understanding of where existing proposals have gone wrong in order to demonstrate how future proposals may improve.

From the Conclusion:

These strategies share in a common mistake concerning the nature of the central problem. Both conservation and adaptation proponents claim their approach can solve the problems associated with climate change. Conservationists argue that adopting a policy based around ecological footprints or a polluter pays principle will lead to a sustainable future. Adaptation proponents claim we should focus our efforts on adapting to future climate change along with modest reductions in carbon emissions to ensure a sustainable future. Both approaches aim to offer an end-state solution to the problem of climate change: ‘The world now has the technologies and financial resources to stabilize climate’.

This is a mistake because there may be no happy ever after. It is false to believe that only human activity influences climatic changes or that human activity might end it. The problem is that we cannot stop the climate from changing. Our climate will change regardless of human activity and it has changed many times before human beings evolved: the problem is not that the climate is changing, but that it is changing so quickly. End-state solutions to the problem of climate change may be doomed to fail. Environmental catastrophe is not something to be avoided, but rather an event at best postponed.

Does this ultimately hand victory to the strategy of adaptation? No, it does not. The fact that our climate will change is not reason to exacerbate the arrival of unknown future conditions and our doing nothing will only make the situation much worse. Instead, we might approach climate change from a new perspective. Our focus should not only be on how we might reduce our environmental impact, but we should extend our focus to other questions: How to save the planet? Does it matter if an ice age is inevitable?

Philosophers have been mistaken to believe a sustainable future is an end-state and our primary focus. Instead, this may only be the beginning. If the climate may continually change, then we must change with it. This is the daunting challenge we face. Saving the plant may require more effort than we have thought.


JC comment:  IMO, this paper frames the challenge in a way that should spark some useful dialogue on the topic.

By. Judith Curry of Climate Etc.

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  • Thom Brooks on January 31 2012 said:
    Many thanks for posting my paper. For more information and contact details, see http://thombrooks.info
  • klem on January 31 2012 said:
    "Our challenge is not to consider whether there is climate change, but how best to respond to it"

    Correct, and as the climate changes over the next 1000 years I think we'll have sufficient time to prepare for it.

  • funglestrumpet on February 01 2012 said:
    Judith Curry is well recognised as one of the 'denialati' on the issue of climate change and this paper is just another wriggle by that motley bunch as they desperately try to defend their ‘it’s not us gov, so we don’t need to do anything!’ stance. In other words, ‘let’s have a business as usual approach as best we can so that those with a vested interest, such as the fossil fuel industry, can continue to make profits and fund those scientists who are up for sale as far as their opinions are concerned.’ (And reduce the chances of their facing criminal charges for all the hindrances their efforts have had in attempts by the human population to save itself from what all the evidences says will likely be a very dire fate.)

    Arguing that because the climate has changed before there is a reduced need to be alarmed now is just the ‘same old same old’ that we get from them. Ocean acidification is just one major problem with business as usual that will have a major impact that must be avoided if we possibly can. The climate isn’t just changing at high speed, it is changing at warp speed. As things stand, it is unlikely that the planet will be able to support even half the population that it supports now, so one has to have concern for future generations who will grow up in a world with half as many more people on it than there are now.

    Ms Curry would do the world a favour is she showed some courage and admitted that her side of the argument has lost. The climate is changing, it is changing fast, and we humans are largely to blame. Even if we were only a minor cause of the warming, we know that greenhouse gasses warm the planet and so dire are the alternatives, and thus so desperate the need, we simply have to reduce our production of them. What ship captain would refuse to change course because the iceberg dead ahead is not human in origin? Yet that in essence is what people like Ms Curry and her fellow travellers really want and it is about time they faced up to their responsibilities.

    Anyone who argues against fighting climate change, and from the outside it seems like that includes the majority of Americans, has no right to claim to be a Christian and that God blesses their country, and certainly no right to describe other countries as being in an ‘axis of evil.’ Talk about the pot calling the kettle black.
  • Gillian on March 22 2012 said:
    The fact that Judith Curry thinks this bit of nonsense frames the challenge in a way that should spark discussion shows her limitations.

    Does anyone (other than a first year philosophy student) take an either/or approach to solving the problem of rising global temperatures?

    Conservation and adaptation are not competing approaches, they are two of the three types of action being undertaken worldwide.

    > reduce consumption
    > switch to low-carbon alternatives
    > adapt to negative impacts

    No wonder it's not sparking any discussion.

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