Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Connect the dots

I offered a few thoughts back here on the connexions between extreme weather and climate change. This topic continues to be the subject of much investigation and the links are many and complex. Nonetheless, a few metaphors are becoming commonly accepted by scientists attempting to communicate their findings.

The first is the image of a baseball player on steroids. Adapting it for use in Commonwealth nations, let's talk about a cricketing batsman on steroids. Taking the drugs improves his muscle condition and makes it possible for him to hit balls harder. While it is not possible to say whether this or that six is the result of drug-enhancement, it is nonetheless possible to see that the player is now hitting more sixes than he was before he started taking drugs. The odds have shifted in favour of bigger shots. In the same way, we're getting weather on steroids, with greater odds of dangerous extremes.

The second commonly-used analogy, mentioned in this video, is the idea of "loading the dice". Weather is always variable, just as rolling a pair of (six-sided) dice will give you results ranging from 2 to 12, with 7 being most common. But if you take one of those dice and add a dot to each side, so that it now ranges from 2 to 7, then you'll still see a lot of variation, including the occasional low number. But 8 will now be most common, and it will be possible to roll a 13. Some of the events we've seen in the last handful of years around the globe have been the equivalent of 13s, standing as much as six standard deviations above the average (using the period 1950-80 as a baseline). Indeed, if we just look at events that are three standard deviations or more above the average, then statistically on an unchanging planet, we'd expect (on average) just 0.3% of the globe's surface to be experiencing such conditions at any one time. Yet over the last decade, the average has been about 10% of the planet's surface facing such extreme conditions. In fact, if we want to be a little more accurate, then rather than painting an extra dot on all the sides of one die, it is as though we have taken one of our pair of six-sided dice and replaced it with an eight-sided die. The point is not only has the average increased and upper extreme become more extreme, but the range of possible weather experiences has widened, leading to greater variations in temperature and precipitation. Not only are the extremes hazardous to human health and ecosystems (both natural and managed), but greater variability is now also becoming more widely accepted as harmful.

All our weather now occurs in an atmosphere increasingly shaped by human activities. There is no "natural" weather any more. We are moving into a new regime that includes higher numbers, and 13s will not be the end of it. We've only warmed about 1/5th the projected warmth of our current trajectory within my daughter's lifetime and perhaps 1/10th of the likely long-term warming.

The chances of the ball being hit out of the park keep increasing.

UPDATE: After posting this, I came across this post that examines this topic in more detail and includes the following very helpful video.


byron smith said...

Part One of that video is here.

jessica smith said...

Very informative and helpful. It's nice to see people explaing what is going on and bringing the science to non-sciencey people like me.

byron smith said...

Another discussion of the same phenomenon, with references to another recent paper drawing similar conclusions.

PJtheoLogy said...

Hey Byron, hope all is well. Thanks for this post. I think the linking of the dots is helpful but in the first vid blaming big oil when we live in a complex system of consumerism may be a unhelpful. Sure I think there are issues with how the big compabies behave but at the micro level I still drive a care and just bought an iPad. Just finished Paul Gilding's book "The Great Disruption", I think he is a little too hopeful. Any thoughts?

byron smith said...

You're right - the story is indeed more complex than simply big oil as baddie, though it is worth noting that a long-standing and well-funded misinformation campaign has been a significant enabling condition for most people to remain ignorant of where we currently stand and so able to continue in our hyper-consumption. See for instance Merchants of Doubt, Scorcher, Climate Cover-Up and Heat for some accounts that trace the history, funding, strategies and development of this campaign. Consumerism is the engine driving climate change, but cynical and/or ideologically-driven misinformation has helped to weaken one of the potential brakes (namely, our capacity to notice and respond appropriately to emerging threats).

I haven't read Gilding's book yet, though from reading his blog, seeing a few talks and interviews, I can see how he gives the impression of optimism. Yet there are enough clues in there to make me wonder whether that is not a deliberate strategy in order to be heard and to slip in some pretty serious qualifications on his optimism. The impression I get is that he optimistic in the long term, but that he assumes we're going to go through "the great disruption" now whether we like it or not, and that this is going to involve some pretty heavy nasty stuff before things start getting better. I'm interested to read his book to see just how bad he thinks things are likely to get.

Since you've actually read it, can you say a little more about his hopefulness?

PJtheoLogy said...

Gilding uses the response of the "Allies" in WW 2 as his chief example of how people will do 'what is necessary' once the crisis becomes real for them. I suppose the question to take his analogy is when will the climate change Poland be invanded? His argument is that once the damm breaks there will be a swift and comprehensive response as we go to war on climate issues. From memory he epxects this some time piror to 2024. He thinks once the dam breaks on the opinions about climate change research already occurring will pour forth supported by gvernment funding and regulation. The remedy for the 'addiction to growth' stuff will be further down the track in his opinion. Whilst he acknowledges the 'disruption' will include armed conflict, massive loss of life and refugees he sees us as 'pulling through'. This involves warming hedging just over 2 degrees before fulling below that mark. My concern is the incapacity of people to see past the blame game and seek their own ends first, as well as the length of time it takes goverments to act. I might be wrong but my Calvinistic tendencies and study of history does not give me a lot of confidence in humanity to 'pull together'. I don't feel I am enough of an expert in this stuff but I think he is right to say that the next decade will beging to see things really begin to bite but from what I have read on links, especially from your blog, keeping warming below 2 degrees appears to geeting to be a bridge too far.

byron smith said...

Thanks - I wasn't aware of the specifics of his view (his predictions for dates and temperature paths). The WWII analogy is used a lot in my experience of climate discussions. In the US context, rather than the invasion of Poland, it is of course Pearl Habor that is referenced. It is a powerful illustration because it demonstrated the capacity for a very rapid cultural and infrastructural change in major world economies, virtually overnight, when the political and social will is present.

My own expectation is, as you indicate, more pessimistic, given some of the very theological assumptions and disanalogies between WWII and ecological crises that you mention (as well as a few others). Yet I think it is important to hold open the genuine possibility of radical social change. It is indeed possible that Ninevah repents in sackcloth and ashes and the city (and its livestock) is saved, or at least avoids the worst (at this point, "saved" might look something like the relative optimism of Gilding and so still include very significant disruption). It's important to never become fatalistic, since the freedom to repent is at the root of all other human freedoms. We are indeed already too late to avoid a certain measure of difficulty, but not too late to avoid far worse. Personally, I expect "far worse" but pray and work for things only being "very bad".

One of the issues is that it is becoming increasingly difficult to see just what kind of event might play a function analogous to Poland or Pearl Habor, if the recent succession of extreme weather and ever more ominous scientific reports does not. An "ice-free" Arctic summer melt (where total sea ice extent is under 1 million sq km) would be very symbolic, but most people would still not connect the dots (even though the loss of Arctic sea ice may well be behind some of the very unusual northern hemisphere weather of the last couple of years). A sudden break-up of a major Antarctic ice shelf would probably be similarly emotionally distant for most. Years and decades of record-breaking heat have become mere background noise. Direct experiences of extreme weather continue to be spun by pundits and ideologues (for instance March in the USA was truly jaw-droppingly strange, yet only a few media outlets even mentioned the words climate change or global warming).

What can wake people up? Perhaps the words of a strange and reluctant preacher (or two) might still be used by God to see miraculous mass repentance. Perhaps. Cultural change is complex, and sometimes, I suspect that hoping for "the great breakthrough" might be a distraction from doing the hard yards of slowing building a new cultural norm through every means available, always aware of its fragility and likely ineffectiveness. Too little, too late - but surely facing our situation with eyes open and hearts broken is better than sleepwalking blindly over a cliff?

PJtheoLogy said...

Thanks Byron. I agree fatalism cannot be our stance, especially as preachers. To borrow a book title, Hope in the face of a culture of despair is our task. Whilst the repentance that counts in my mind occurred in Jesus baptism the possibility of Ninevah is always before us. As a preacher trying to put my own hair shirt on has to be the start - whether it is deciding to eat vegetarian, sell one of our 2 cars, stop buying stuff or whatever. The role of the King, leader, of Ninevah in leading the repentance seems vital to others getting on board. Peter

byron smith said...

Yes, you're absolutely right. Even repentance can be moralised if it becomes disconnected from the gospel of grace.

byron smith said...

(In case it is not clear to others, Kairos Uniting Church = PJtheoLogy = Peter Lockhart. All the same lovely guy.)

Anonymous said...

Byron: "Perhaps the words of a strange and reluctant preacher (or two) might still be used by God to see miraculous mass repentance."

Alan Wood: To reach for another perilous disanalogy, I think one of the things we need is an F.W. de Klerk - someone to be the truly reluctant preacher, so that their sincere repentant leadership brings nations with them. And we may need more than a few Nelson Mandelas as well, who can live out their eventual vindication with grace.

Byron: "Even repentance can be moralised if it becomes disconnected from the gospel of grace."

Me again: I think there are folks within our diocese who are approaching climate moralism. Because it is in reaction to the personal moralism of a previous generation, I think many won't see that danger until too late.

I think that if I preached climate (and other 'Green') repentance to my current congregants, I would have to work so hard to convince them of the rightness of the cause that they, too, would hear the moralism but not the gospel.

byron smith said...

Hi Alan,

Some climate Mandelas and de Klerks would certainly not go astray. Though remember that Mandela embraced violence in the pursuit of his political goals prior to being imprisoned. So some Desmond Tutus would be nice as well - oh wait, he's already speaking out... ;-)

Can you say more about your experiences of climate moralism (without naming names, of course)? I'd be very interested to hear what things are like in your neck of the woods (Port Mac, right?).

As for preaching green repentance, I wonder whether the way forward might be to start with a focus on greed and consumerism, and bring in mention of ecological effects as one consideration amongst others in the importance of rejecting the idolatry of consumerism. That said, I do think that some sermons on the scriptural and gospel bases for taking ecological responsibility seriously as a non-negotiable component of Christian discipleship might well be worthwhile as well.

As for addressing climate, I wonder whether an analogy may be helpful. Since you raised South Africa: For much of the last couple of decades, the official South African government position has been to deny the science behind the link between HIV and AIDS. As a direct result, tens of thousands have been needlessly infected due to the absence of effective government programmes to combat the spread of the disease, with obvious and heartbreaking social consequences. In that context, what were churches to do? Would it have been prudent to leave the issue to one side as too divisive and a distraction from the gospel? Or would it have been better for preachers to accept that the mainstream science indicated that there was very likely a serious problem here and that Christian discipleship requires us to love our neighbours using our best knowledge as to their situation and needs? I don't think it would have been the job of preachers to become experts in the medical science, but I also don't think it would have been responsible to put the issue to one side when it has such a significant effect on the life of the congregation and their neighbours.

Climate change is a significantly larger and more difficult (morally, politically, economically and scientifically) problem than AIDS. I don't think we can stay silent, even if it is not the responsibility of the preacher to be able to answer every sceptical objection or to advocate a particular policy response.


byron smith said...

Oh, this post on ecological legalism might also be relevant. When addressing these matters from the pulpit, it is of course crucial to do so from the only basis we have to proclaim good news, the death and resurrection of Christ. All Christian ethics finds its life (and death) here.

byron smith said...

Bill McKiben: While Colorado burns, Washington fiddles.

"If we play politics for a generation, then weeks like the one we've just come through will be normal, and all we'll be doing as a nation is responding to emergencies. As one scientist put it at week's end, the current heatwave is "bad by our current definition of bad, but our definition of bad changes." Another way of saying that is: there are disaster areas declared across the country right now, but the biggest one is in DC."