The collapse of inherent uncertainties

Currently I am in Berlin, the last day 😦 of a five day vacation. I am not really much of a book reader, but this time I actually had a book with me … wait for it … “The Collapse of Western Civilization A View From The Future” of Naomi Oreskes and Eric Conway. Not exactly the most uplifting book to read during a vacation, I know, but I was curious about it.

The authors have a very pessimistic view. Okay, I expected nothing else. Just look at the title plus its authors and you know what you will get.

It is in part about the future (chock full of catastrophes, one even worse than the other), but it is mainly about the present (and the past) as an explanation of the origins of the issue. That was my goal of reading this book, seeing the reasoning needed to come to such a view.

There were a lot of things that raised my eye brows, so there will probably other posts about the book in the future. Not as some kind of rebuttal, but I will write about things that caught my attention, some of my thoughts and some things the authors forgot to write about. If there is anything that is missing in this book, it is balance. It is written in a very one-sided way.

Reading it, three things jumped out on me.

First, they turned around the situation by painting alarmists as being the underdog… I found that a particularly humoristic element in the book, but that is maybe just me.

Second, they seem to rewrite history in numerous cases in the book. It is a strange thing seeing historians REwrite history in stead of writing about history.

Third, they seem to have no shred of doubt they are right and largely overstate the knowledge we have about the climate system, more specifically the role of our emissions in it. It is this one that I want to take as the subject of this post.

For example, on page 1 and 2 where they compared the analyses of the collapse of the Roman and Mayan civilizations with the, according to them, imminent collapse of the Western civilization:

[…] The case of Western civilization is different because the consequences of its actions were not only predictable, but predicted. […] While analysts differ on the exact circumstances, virtually all agree that the people of Western civilization knew what was happening to them but where unable to stop it. Indeed, the most startling aspect of this story is just how much these people knew, and how unable they were to act upon what they knew. Knowledge did not translate into power. […]

This was much repeated in other parts of the book as well,so it is not just an isolated case.

I am not sure whether we talk about the same Earth? I my world, climate is a incredibly complex, coupled and chaotic system. It would be a downright miracle to state anything with high certainty about the effects of one specific element in such a system. Yet we hear that we know the consequences of our actions.

Are they really sure that we KNOW that? Sure, we can assume things from the greenhouse gas theory, but even when knowing that CO2 has a warming effect on its own, that is entirely different from stating with certainty that it will cause catastrophes. Anyone stating with certainty that catastrophes will be the outcome of our emissions, is ignoring the inherent uncertainties within the climate system and is overstating their case.

That’s for sure.

2 thoughts on “The collapse of inherent uncertainties

  1. manicbeancounter

    It seems you spoiled a good holiday by reading this book. But thanks for sharing your thoughts.
    If Western Civilization is on its last legs, then there may be multiple causes and there will be even more potential theories, all of which might seem plausible on their own with a sufficiently narrow perspective. But it is not relative to other crises. Any historian would try to compare the current situation with dark days of the past.
    For instance, what about the oil crisis of the 1970s, high inflation and labor discontent. From a British perspective those days were certainly bleak.
    Another is in 1940 to 1942. For many who lived through those it seemed the end. Even worse than the horrors of the Great War.
    As you point out, the book is based on a prediction. I like to get a perspective on this. If the models are correct, then visible human-caused warming is less than 1C so far, as against 5-7C of warming without policy. But the catastrophic effects are not in the warming alone, nor in the sea level rises. The catastrophic effects are in making the climate far more extreme, and variable. That means that although the climate system is extremely difficult to model at the moment, the climate system is predicted to become impossible to model in the future. To cast it in economic modelling terms, the climateers are effectively saying climate has been in a (highly approximate) equilibrium state for decades. It is being moved rapidly out of that equilibrium state. Once out of that state the climate will never re-establish itself in a new, but different, equilibrium state.
    Another way of looking at this issue is to follow the lines of economics professors William Nordhaus and Richard Tol. Nordhaus has long assumed that the relationship between temperature rise and the costs of that warming is a quadratic. So as temperatures rise 1,2,3,4,5… the costs rise 1,4,9,16,25. Tol thinks it could be raised to the power 6, but with net warming benefits up to about 2C of warming. I estimate that Nicholas Stern used a quartic function in his 2006 review for the UK Government. That is as temperatures rise 1,2,3,4,5… the costs rise 1,16,81,256,625. Why the predictions of catastrophe are not credible scientifically is that we cannot model accurately at present; if catastrophe happens it will be become impossible to models, yet to say that catastrophe will be insurmountable means being able to extrapolate from very small changes so far.
    PS – apologies for getting off the point here. Look forward to your next installments.


    1. trustyetverify Post author

      I had a wonderful holiday in Berlin and reading the book (luckily) didn’t change that. It is not that thick, 79 low density pages (and that is including a lexicon and an interview with the authors). It was my intention to read the book in a holiday mood, so I took it light-hearted anyway. And as I said in the post, it made me laugh many times.

      No problem with getting off the point. Your thoughts are appreciated.



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