Rhetoric of Irreversible Climate Change

The concept of irreversibility in the context of climate change is semantically ambiguous in that it has a different meaning in scientific and public policy discourse. In scientific discourse, the question of irreversibility depends on the different observed phenomena and on the time scale of observation. The current prevalent estimate is that global-scale warming will persist for thousands of years, depending on the level of CO2 emissions while the sea level rise associated with the warming will persist even longer. Compared to the time scales on which societies plan and conceive information, this time scale could be said to be effectively irreversible.

Solomon et al., define irreversibility in the following way: “Future carbon dioxide emissions in the 21st century will hence lead to adverse climate changes in both short and long time scales that would be essentially irreversible (where irreversible is defined here as a time scale exceeding the end of the millennium in year 3000.”

In public discourse, the concept of irreversibility, together with attributes such as catastrophic, abrupt, tipping point, point of no return, etc. is used as a rhetorical device to express a sense of urgency and to stimulate the advance of particular policies. It is, in effect, a risk communication strategy that aims to transform public perception of the long term processes of climate change (usually equivalent to low risk perception) into signaling immediate danger and consequently increasing public risk perception and influencing behavior. In scientific discourse, while rapidity and abruptness of change is acknowledged in events such as glacier retreat or melting Arctic ice, irreversibility is emphasized as likely but not considered definitive.

Not all public discourse is unanimous when it comes to the message of irreversibility for the purpose of defining a threshold for danger. Proponent arguments maintain that there is a lack of suitable sense of urgency in public opinion on the issue of climate change, which leads to a dangerous false sense of security. Those who argue against the so called alarmist rhetoric of irreversibility claim that it leads to fatalism and cynicism, manufacturing anxiety over the possibility that climate change could pose problems outside of human control or incapable of human solution. This, in turn, has been used to justify a comparison between the proponents camp and an un-scientific, religious “cultification “of the climate change debate. In reviewing the recent December 2009 Copenhagen summit, Caroline May – policy analyst for the National Center for Public Policy Research in the US – writes: “Faith is belief without verifiable evidence. This unquestioned adherence to the theory of Global Warming bears all the markings of what traditionally would be recognized as a religion. Complete with sin (the emitting of carbon dioxide), scriptures (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assessment reports), commandments (drive a Prius, use Compact Florescent Light bulbs, do not eat meat etc.), indulgences (carbon offsets), proselytism, prophets (Al Gore), priests (scientists), prophecy and apocalypse (floods, hurricanes, dead polar bears), infidels (Warming skeptics), and salvation (the halting of carbon emitting industrial progress) the religion of Global Warming fits the mold.”

The concept of irreversibility is clearly laden with moral, political and psychological implications – areas traditionally in the realm of social debate. But as can be seen from the above Biblical analogy, it has also succeeded in bringing to the table the age-old dichotomy between science and religion, showing that in debates involving natural phenomena and natural hazards, God is far from having said his last word. This brings us back to the point of the role of science in the discourse of irreversible climate change. The question then arises should scientific writing use words such as irreversible, catastrophic, urgent and chaotic to denote climate change phenomena and some of their key impacts to avoid getting bad press with the popular press, and if not what are appropriate ways of communicating information about the degree of threat or changes in the public understanding of the threat without obscuring the message in scientific jargon that is inaccessible to non-scientists. The establishment of some standard criteria in the language of risk communication on (irreversible) climate change is, therefore, an important preliminary step in the concrete discussion on how we deal with the problem and its consequences as well as implications for policy. Failing the ability to find a common discourse, the climate change debate risks the doom of silence as the fallen tower of Babel.

In the paper “Irreversible climate change due to carbon dioxide emissions” Solomon et al. offer a quantitative analysis of carbon dioxide concentrations that have already occurred or could occur in the coming century, implying that dangers related to climate change are already irreversible (according to their scale) and argue that policies about discount rates of economic trade-offs are not a sufficient mitigation mechanism precisely because they ignore the issue of irreversibility. They make a similar claim with regard to the efficacy in trading greenhouse gases on the basis of 100-year estimated climate changes, pointing to the significantly longer term effects of carbon dioxide. Yet while exposing these alleged policy shortcomings, they stop short of offering different policy recommendations.

As an economic problem, it is important to consider implications of climate change on national and international policy decisions about the control of greenhouse gas emissions or investment in measures to reduce the cost of change. The main policy response options for climate change are mitigation or adaptation. Mitigation usually refers to action that reduces the cost of an event thereby implying action before the event. Adaptation, on the other hand, may involve actions taken before, during or after the event, and usually implies actions that reduce the expected damage (e.g. adoption of building standards that minimize earthquake damage), but it also includes actions that pool or transfer the risk of an event (e.g. insurance). Perrings argues that action as a result of a mitigation policy is only possible under the assumption that mitigation will affect the probability of climate change, i.e. the acknowledgment that anthropogenic emissions of green house gases significantly contribute to climate change and that consequent reductions in their concentration would yield a favorable outcome. Examples of mitigation policies include carbon and other energy taxes, energy policies to reduce dependence on fossil fuels, multilateral environmental agreements to reduce emissions (FCCC, Kyoto), and actions to increase absorption of CO2 (afforestation).

Adaptation, on the other hand, is a defensive strategy of reducing the cost of climate change if it happens. Examples of adaptation include construction of coastal and estuarine defenses to adapt to sea-level rise; strengthening or relocation of infrastructure and industrial, commercial or domestic structures to adapt to the increased threat of storm damage; the relocation of threatened populations; and the use of financial instruments to spread the risks of climate change through insurance, securitize the risks (e.g. catastrophe bonds) or reduce the cost of adaptation.

According to Perrings, the optimal balance between mitigation and adaptation as response options to the prospect of climate change depends on their relative costs and benefits. While adaptation is shown to substantially lower the cost of climate change at the global level, it may not be an affordable strategy for many low-income countries which are disproportionally affected by extreme climatic events such as hurricanes, cyclones, storms, floods and droughts not so much because of their geographic location as their limited coping capacity and poor or non-existent infrastructure.

Another policy strategy of consideration, which is particularly salient under conditions of uncertainty, potential irreversibility and generally unknown outcomes, is the so called precautionary approach. Essentially, it advocates the commitment of resources to safeguard against low probability high impact events while ‘buying time’ for the decision-makers until further evidence becomes available. A characteristic of such low probability high impact events is that they often lack historical precedents, which makes it difficult to back up decisions by quantitative analysis. Identifying knowledge gaps is, therefore, a preliminary task of a precautionary approach.

Finally, it should be acknowledged that the choice of strategy for policy-makers is dependent on political circumstances at national, regional and international levels. National policy responses tend to focus on adaptation measures. Under conditions of higher uncertainty and more abrupt climate change and extreme events, the pressure might increase to put more focus on mitigation or at least precautionary strategies. However, since mitigation of climate change is a global issue, a successful implementation of a mitigation strategy will necessitate global cooperation. As demonstrated at the Copenhagen summit in December 2009, such global cooperation is at present a mirage; hence adaptation remains the only current realistic alternative.

Crisis Alerts: Chad, Kenya, Lebanon, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Yemen, Zimbabwe

According to the new Crisis Watch No. 54 report, released 1 February, seven actual or potential situations have deteriorated around the world in January 2008.

Post-election violence in Kenya escalated, increasingly along ethnic lines. Over 900 have reportedly been killed since the 27 December presidential poll. At the same time, mediation efforts led by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan gathered momentum.

In Chad, 300 rebel vehicles under apparent unified command advanced towards N’Djamena at the end of the month. Zimbabwe’s SADC-sponsored mediation initiative between the government and the opposition MDC collapsed when President Mugabe set elections for 29 March despite MDC insistence they be postponed until the country adopted a new constitution. The Islamist-led insurgency in Somalia spread beyond Mogadishu, while continued fighting in the capital intensified.

Deadly clashes between Yemeni government forces and Al-Houthi Shiite rebels killed 30 and signaled an end to the June 2007 ceasefire. The political and security situation in Lebanon deteriorated further with the 25 January assassination of Captain Wissam Eid, deadly fighting between the army and Shia protesters in southern Beirut on 27 January, and still no president. In Sri Lanka, the government formally ended its ceasefire with LTTE rebels, and military operations intensified with heavy losses.

For February 2008, CrisisWatch identifies Chad, Lebanon and Pakistan as Conflict Risk Alerts, or situations at particular risk of new or significantly escalated conflict in the coming month. It identifies Uganda as a Conflict Resolution Opportunity. Kenya is identified as both a Conflict Risk Alert and a Conflict Resolution Opportunity.

WEF Global Risks 2008 Report Adopts Vocabulary from Complexity and Systemics

wef.jpg WEF is convening its annual session in Davos next week (24-26Jan), and have just put online their 2008 risk assessment report, which covers the topics that will be discussed at the various panels.

The report is very interesting, not least because of the 2nd appendix, which features a table of predicted risks and their likelihood and severity in numerical terms – a topic of central concern to my last two courses in intelligence analysis. Further, what I personally find rather fascinating is the emergence (sic) of a homogenized vocabulary to talk about what we label these days “new risks”. This vocabulary, stems entirely from subjects like complexity and network sciences, as well as some of the more metaphysical parts of physics and mathematics. Now, I’m no financial risk specialist, nor do I have any knowledge other than popular explanations of Physics and Math theories, but when I read a report, whose audience is primary in the finance sector, make repeated use of words  such as emergence, uncertainty, aggregation, resilience, systemic finacial risk, interconnectedness, diffusion, complexity, “tail events”, etc., etc., a bell goes off in my ears. Is this current mania toward homogenuity, assimilation, the universal, and big picture telescopization not blinding us to what lies immediately before our eyes? I find something grotesque and almost cannibalistic in this process.

Nonetheless, the report is well worth reading, if not for its linguistic “anomalities” than for its forecasting methodology (complete with a  fashionable SNA -social network analysis). This is not to say that I dislike WEF’s assessments. On the contrary, I find many of the observations and the parallels drawn between finacial risk evaluation and geopolitical risk assessment, as well as the discussions on food security, supply chains, and the role of energy, highly informative. In fact, I buy a large part of the arguments. I’m slightly surprised but pleased to read such humble conclusions (contrary to conventional wisdom, which looks at two aspects of risk – likelihood and severity and traditional prevention and mitigation measures of countering them)  as acknowledgements that in the face of “new risks”, which are entirely unforseeable, such strategies fail.

It is refreshing to read a report produced mainly by financial analysts (notoriously conservative) that: “It may not make sense to attempt to eliminate risks which ultimately represent a source of opportunity as well as hazard. Rendering the global financial system as flexible and resilient (my emphasis) as possible by improving early indicators, enforcing more stress testing, enhancing understanding of tail risk and requiring better contigency planning may be more effective.

Ultimately, strategies to deal with systemic financial risk must reflect the fundamental shift in the global financial system to a market-driven model. There is considerable scope for increased public and private sector collaboration on stress testing, liquidity management, risk assessment and prevention.”

I welcome such initiatives from the private sector as I truly share their opinion in the value such collaborations can bring. The question is, has the public sector woken up to the idea that this might be its most viable strategy in fullfilling what its ultimate purpose is supposed to be: duty to its electorate?

I’ll be covering more news from the 3 day WEF session in Davos on my blog next week.


Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Black Swan – a Brilliantly Irreverant Attack on Bildungsphilisters*

For some time now I have had a second-hand exposure to Black Swan theory but this weekend I came face-to-face with Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s brilliant writing – a most hedonistic Saturday and Sunday, when uninterrupted by worldly social or work distractions, save a short school assignment, I read Taleb’s The Black Swan cover to cover.

“Erudite” is a word Taleb is fond of using throughout this book in reference to the likes of Benoit Mandelbrot, Sextus Empiricus, Friedrich Hayek, Pierre Bayle, Pierre-Daniel Huet, Michel de Montaigne, etc. to distinguish them from idiot savants from a gamut of disciplines, ranging from mathematics to economics to the social sciences to philosophy to “professional” risk and – ouch!- intelligence analysts.

All this name dropping might make one think that Mr Taleb falls into the category of the latter, but nothing could be further from the truth (my version of it). This is an author – philosopher by vocation, mathematician and trader by profession – with some remarkably fresh ideas and a sense of humour that is more aesthetic than cynical.

I will not attempt to describe what this book is about beyond the standard reference to Taleb’s Black Swan theory, i.e. low probability high impact events. Chance is something that impacts life on all levels, hence the book can be of interest to just about anyone: writers in temporary Starbucks jobs, 9-5 accountants, the great great great son of one of Catherine The Great’s 12 lovers, high-brow-brown-nosed-self-perpetuating academics, gamblers or crooks or entrepreneurs, the military (any), Casanova wanna-be’s, testosterone-ridden overachievers (either male or female), Muslims, Christians, Greek Orthodox, mystics, sceptics, Richard Dawkinseans…ad infinitum.

Thank you, Mr Taleb, for the exquisite pleasure of reading your book! Of course, given your disregard for blogs, the probability of your stumbling upon this review of not your book, but its impact on a random reader, is sadly negligible. Yet, the inspiration it has aroused might well have a deeper impact.

* A Bildungsphilister (a neologism: Bildung + philistine) is “a philistine with cosmetic, nongenuine culture. Nietzsche used this term to refer to the dogma-prone newspaper reader and opera lover with cosmetic exposure to culture and shallow depth. I extend it to the buzzword-using researcher in nonexperimental fields who lacks in imagination, curiosity, erudition, and culture and is closely centered on his ideas, on his “discipline”. This prevents him from seeing the conflicts between his ideas and the texture of the world.” NNT

INTSUM: Afghanistan – a New Migration Destination for Kyrgyz Workers

While the majority of Kyrgyz economic migrants still seek better opportunities in the booming economies of northern neighbors Russia and Kazakhstan, some are turning instead to conflict-ridden Afghanistan, where higher security risks are compensated with higher wages. A major source of employment for south-bound Kyrgyz migrants are US private contractors in Afghanistan. The US State Department has stated that it employs some 29, 000 private contractors there, many of whom are neither US nor Afghan citizens, but third country nationals (TCNs), who despite harsh and often dangerous conditions, are lured by the much higher wages.


Given the small number of Afghanistan-bound Kyrgyz migrants, it is unlikely that this trend will have any severe short-term impacts on Kyrgyz economy. In fact, those returning to their homeland with accumulated capital, are likely to have a positive impact in the area of SME development in Kyrgyzstan. However, given the general trend in migration causality from politico-ideological to economic, such a trend is likely to have more long-term consequences, which would be difficult to predict, and may even fall under a Black Swan category. One likely psychological outcome may well be a diminished sense of risk aversion in the segment of population that is facing exceedingly gloomy employment prospects at home.

Source Reliability: 8

Analytic Confidence: 8