The Challenge Network

   go back   

Big systems issues

Big systems issues

The fundamental assumption behind the scenarios as they now stand is that we have to surpass, if that is the right word, some major issues that are connected with the world's systems. I want to challenge – or at least expand upon - these.

There seem to be two intrinsically different types of system that we shall need to manage. One group are connected with human activities. The other comprises the normal functioning of the systems that drive the natural world - what people vaguely term the environment. The natural systems paper is written by a guest editor, and is her personal view.

Comments here.

Natural systems

It is not my intention to play the skeptic. However, I am not at all happy with the way that completely different things are pushed together, as "systems issues". They are not the same thing: urban pollution is not the same thing as exhausted natural resources, for example. To bundle them together as being a symptom of excess, as the signs of a general failure is, in my view, more a matter of personal taste than practical policy. People are welcome to their tastes, but not welcome to force them on others.

It would be too much to go through all of the 'systems issues'. If there is not enough copper, then we need to recycle and price rises will make sure that we do. World demand for aluminium is about 40 million tonnes. Only 8 million tones of that is 'primary' at the time of writing, and all the rest is mined from old buildings, or from recycled containers and so on. That is, we are well on the way to doing all of this already. Urban air is cleaner than it was a generation ago, rivers less polluted, beaches cleaner.

There are also problems. We have fished the seas dry, and something needs to be done about this. However, it is not "a crisis in sustainability" but a problem about licensing fishing. Indeed, nine billion people are going to be hard to support in wealth. But if the issues are as acute as some people suggest, then they will just not get that wealth. An equilibrium will emerge, managed by prices and mitigated by policy and invention. The solutions will be specific, probably local, and almost certainly as powerful as our prospective astounding technologies will permit.

The greatest problem lies in the means to achieve collective decision taking, and the mechanisms that allow experiments to yield solutions. When the UK state had a monopoly of telephone lines, the Internet, mobile 'phones and everything we now take for granted was simply impossible. It was not that the technology was out of reach, but permissions and law, It is not enough to recognise potential and need, the state has to generate the framework in which good things can be developed. However, most states think about "systems issues" very much in terms of mandated grand solutions, and we know that these almost always fail.

Biodiversity is a catch all phrases referring chiefly to the loss of natural habitats due to human expansion. This is indeed a major issue, and one on which I personally feel very strongly. However, I also realise that it is open to being managed only at the level of the specific. If you want to preserve the coral reefs off the Virgin Islands, there are measures to be taken – to deter the specific causes of their erosion, to demonstrate or develop their economic potential in others ways – that is not portable to other situations.

One technical issue that is hard to address is that of climate change. That is because it is intimately tied up with energy provision, where costs are vast, dangers considerable and many pawns are pinned. Most 'renewable' energy sources are of low thermodynamic potential – that is, they do not transform easily into useful forms of energy, such as electricity – and so require vast and expensive plant to support them. Solutions – such as covering large tracts of the Sahara and other deserts with solar power arrays, building what I know is your favourite option, ocean thermal systems – come with political and huge financial implications.

Broadly, a watt of conventional energy supply capacity costs USD3 to install and another dollar to connect to the reticulation system. Current commercial energy consumption is 16 terawatts, so the installed capacity is worth about 60 million million dollars. Renewables are more capital intensive (but have lower fuel costs) but one is plainly talking about immense sums if incremental growth is to come from them, plus of course at least some extant capacity has to be converted to a renewable base. The incremental growth comes from the industrialising societies, which may not have the savings to make this investment. They seldom have the implied discount rates that make an up front expensive but long-run cheaper choice appropriate. If hydrocarbon import prices rise, or supplies become uncertain, then the likelihood is that they will develop indigenous fuels such as coal or biomass, the latter from poor land that holds the remaining biodiversity.

Only if the rich world markets levy embodied carbon tariffs on their exports will these countries invest seriously in renewables. They may need help in financing this. Poor nations certainly will need such help, as they do on a whole range of issues against which this will have to compete. As ever, the generic issue for a private investor is how to get repaid, and how to be sure of margins (and ownership) in the longer term.

There are, therefore, formidable obstacles that lie across the full spectrum of commerce, politics, values and technology. If the matter was merely costly, and not mission critical and cripplingly costly, I would be prepared to acquiesce with a default mode of 'do something, anything'. However, as things stand and in common with many who think about this from outside the charmed circle of grant-fed academics, I am inclined to wonder how real the issue truly is. Let's look at the physics.

I want to discuss a very genuine uncertainty that, if it is valid, has the potential to undermine the entire concept. The greenhouse affect undoubtedly exists, for otherwise the Earth would have much the same surface conditions as the moon. To remind readers, incoming sunlight heats the Earth, which glows in the infrared. Gases in the atmosphere trap some of this glow, thus retaining heat much as does a glass house. At issue is how much of this infrared glow that the atmosphere is capable of absorbing is in fact already taken up. It turns out that we do not know the answer to this with any precision, and that it is a very crucial parameter indeed to estimates of future warming.

Consider a glass of water. Most light passes directly through it. Add a drop of ink, and it becomes darker. However, further drops of ink have progressively lesser affects, and a deeply inky glass will not become perceptibly darker for an incremental drop. This is known as Beer's Law. Such murky water is said to be 'saturated' in its capacity to absorb light. The relationship between the concentration (of ink, carbon dioxide or methane) and the consequent degree of absorption is a universal and fundamental property of matter. If one is at the 'dark' or saturated end of the scale, adding more ink or carbon dioxide has minimal impact, but if one is at the 'light' end, then the affect is much stronger.

Not all of the outgoing infrared can be absorbed by carbon dioxide. Rather like coloured glass, it takes up some frequencies - 'colours' - but not others. There are, however, some frequencies which are most strongly absorbed, and it is important to know whether these are saturated and so dark, or not saturated and thus vulnerable to being darkened by further carbon dioxide additions to the atmosphere.

It appears to be the case that the atmosphere is extremely dark at these important frequencies. That is, the atmosphere is already almost completely opaque to infra red at the wavelengths which carbon dioxide is capable of absorbing. The downfall of many early Star Wars defence prototypes was that the carbon dioxide laser beams on which they relied were strongly attenuated by even short paths through the air. (It is a necessary physical truth that a carbon dioxide laser emits at frequencies which carbon dioxide can absorb.) This shows that the air is already much like a glass of water that is dark with ink. One has to ask whether adding carbon dioxide will have that much affect.

Most climate change models - which produce all of those ominous red maps of the world of 2050 - assume linear atmospheric heating with added carbon dioxide. The outcome is therefore built in as an assumption which may not be justified.

What of the evidence that the climate is already changed, or has already been seen to change in history as a consequence of carbon dioxide variations? An irrefutable measure that shows that low carbon dioxide implies cooling is the consequences of the growth of the Himalayas. When India collided with Asia around 60 MYBP, the impact threw up these mountains, which promptly started to erode. As the contain substantial Magnesium and Calcium, they fixed carbon dioxide as carbonates, most of which now lie under Bangladesh. The air was virtually scrubbed of carbon dioxide - best estimates are that only 50-80 ppm remained,a quarter of current levels - and the climate chilled. That is, at these concentrations the air is like an only slightly inky glass of water.

But what happens when the glass is quite a bit darker? One of the more telling figures that are produced to support the affect of carbon dioxide is this:

The climate is shown as very unstable, and tracking or tracked by carbon dioxide levels. Which is the lead variable? The Earth does not follow a perfectly circular orbit around the Sun, and the result of this is that one hemisphere or the other has its Summer particularly close to the Sun. There are other related effects, together producing cycles of that have periods in the order of 40,000 and 100,000 years. Additionally, the Sun itself goes through a twenty two year cycle, during which its emission changes and sun spots appear and disappear.

Taken together, these astrophysical cycles strongly predict the observed climatic instabilities. However, we do observe a linkage between carbon dioxide levels and the state of the climate, and this begs the question as to which factor is leading the other. Plainly, the astrophysical factors are independent of what is happening on Earth, and shape it. Is the level of carbon dioxide a passive variable. one that follows such changes as are imposed on the climate? There has been considerable research on this, and the results are not conclusive. What is clear, however, if that warming after a period of cold releases a large amount of greenhouse gases, and that these add a "snap" action to the astrophysical clock.

Short term temperature measurements are extremely hard to interpret. First, as noted, the climate is innately variable, and has several superimposed short-term fluctuations built into it: the sun spot cycles, the intermediate North Atlantic oscillation and the 2-3 year el Niño process. Second, long run measurements have been made from locations which have changed markedly over time. Urbanisation means that weather stations that were once rural are now embedded in cities, which have temperatures which often average 5°C more than their surrounding countryside. This has to be corrected, and making the correction is less a science than an art.

That said, heroic assumptions aside, the global atmospheric average temperature does seem to have risen by about half a degree in the twentieth century, doing so in a single surge in the 1950-60 period. It has not, however, risen in the past 15 years. Historical studies suggest that this can be explained by natural variation, but one should recall that in 2009 we are in the very unusual third year of a period without sun spots, at the bottom of the cycle that was described above. That means that the Sun's output is significantly higher than it was 11-15 years ago.

Equally, the currents that flow into the Arctic and Antarctic have altered somewhat in the last twenty years, warming those seas. In the case of the Antarctic, the temperature has increased by 2°C whilst air temperature has changed much less. One can assert that this has happened as a result of CO2-driven climate change, but the causative evidence for that is non-existent and currents do alter continually.

One striking observation is that atmospheric CO2 has increased enormously since the first direct measurements of its concentration. In 1850, it stood at around 285 ppm, and today is at about 390 ppm. What systematic temperature changes that have been observed are confined to the end of this period, and are very slight, whilst CO2 concentration has risen by over a third. If we did not have abstract reasons to suppose that CO2 ought to cause warming, then observation of cause and affect would certainly not lead us to consider its role as being very important. Indeed, work by Qing-Bin Lu suggests that the concentration of chlorofluorocarbons provide a better explanatory variable of observed temperature change than does CO2. The extreme lag between temperature changes and the much longer time frame of CO2 emissions is also hard to explain if CO2 is a major culprit in temperature increases. Indeed, the paper referenced above argues from satellite and other data that the CO2 emission window is virtually wholly saturated at much lower concentrations. This allows for correlations between temperature and CO2 when the levels are low, but which are essentially negligible once concentrations have risen to even preindustrial levels.

There are, of course, other unfortunate aspects of carbon dioxide. At high concentrations, it acidifies the sea and may push insoluble carbonate towards soluble bicarbonate. That will melt the shells of plankton and eat away at corals. There are clear limits to the economic hydrocarbon resource, although very little limit to the amount of coal that exists. Oil and gas are concentrated in politically unstable places. There are good reasons to change to other systems. However, we need to be honest about the issues that confront us.

The figure shows an estimate of the various systems-related issues that confront us, and an estimate by the author of their approach to the sustainable limit. This is shown by the orange ring, whereas the red lines show the current state of play. Please note that the scale is logarithmic.

Whatever your views on the specific issues around carbon dioxide, there are plainly many other systems and cycles upon which we have to keep an eye, and probably come to manage. The previous chart, which showed the long run temperature, tells us one very deep fact. That is that for whatever cause, the climate is extremely variable. Human civilisation and settled civil society rose with the Holocene, the 10,000 year bubble of warmth in which we currently live. It will vanish if that bubble bursts. What has made the Holocene warm are ocean currents, and we understand very little of their variability or the factors which make them vary. The direct affect of the Earth's orbital variations and the consequences for solar intensity are certainly the most important factors. Nevertheless, if that engine become unstable, settled civilisation is probably doomed.

Human activities as a system

Characteristic of systems that have grown up without the intervention of conscious design is their self assembly. They don't have external rules but generate regularities – which we call 'rules' – from many, many small interactions. There is nothing to say that a regularity has to be helpful in establishing order or chasing optima and, indeed, we see many examples where systems lock into the worst possible situation that they could create. Dog fights and war are examples.

Structures that have slightly different properties will create slightly or grossly different rules. If such structures compete they are naturally screened for the rules which promote success in competition. If they reproduce and spread – socially, by biological reproduction – then the effective rule generators quash the rest. However, that does not make the rules excellent in some broader sense, just good at quashing.

Human generated systems – economies, for example – show regularities that can be related to the optimal use of scarce information in the pursuit of advantage. That pursuit may be rational, may be rational within uncertainty or irrational in regular ways. Provided the behaviour is widely replicated, the outcome will appear to be guided by a coordinating principle, and where the coordination is subject to feedback, the coordination will seem quasi-rational. That is, negative feedback tempers extremes and maintains equilibria, positive feedback creates surges and collapses; and where the two are at war, more complex but still predictable behaviour.

It is now a commentator cliché that the recent financial crash ended a period when we had confidence in the wisdom of markets. Indeed, some economists believed that markets efficiently parsed all of the data available to them into relative prices for assets. Most people who actually worked in markets did not really believe this, particularly after seeing brokers at work in a bull market. Pay 200 times earnings for Cisco? Madness, but contagious madness.

Let's apply this to the world at large.

We are connecting stuff up that has never been in serious feedback before. Consequently, new rules and behaviours can be expected. By definition, emergent structures cannot be predicted, only understood once they have established themselves. So we shall get surprised.

There are two ways to get surprised: not to understand the system, and not to foresee a twist that the system may take. Both situations can generate huge surprises, but the second ought not to do so. It shows that we are being lazy. For example, if we connect economies together more closely, we will get shocks that propagate further and more intensely than before. The impact may be great but the surprise should not be. However, if we connect societies together you get something quite different. All sorts of weird new things emerge that may or may not have impacts, but are certainly surprising.

One view is that the world is being made more similar wherever you go. Shopping malls pop up everywhere, all selling the same thing to the same kinds of people. Global brands are dominant, manufacturing systems are set up to maximise scale by making output uniform. Housing conforms to the tower block of apartments and the usual steps up from this. Traffic conforms to standard patterns, and the streets are loud, crowded and smelly. Everywhere urban is just like everywhere else.

Or not. Set against this is the search for identity within the tribe. Nationalism is unattractive as being to big, too coercive and too much intended to serve the elite or the Leader. Part-time tribalism is much more attractive. I can be uniform for most of the day, and then bring out the tribal colours in activism, religion, multi-user immersion games. The extent of these tribes is only served by better communications. The relative isolation of electronic media allow people to be more extreme than they would be in physical situations – just look at flame wars on Internet sites, for example.

So what one gets is superficial homogeneity and conformity to a global culture of wealth generation and consumption; and under this, a rapidly expanding set of linked, autarchic social movements into which people dip for a few hours at a time. Nothing new in that, except for its scale, extremes and increasing lack of inhibitions. Suicide web groups start by discussing death in solemn tones and end by mobbing an individual to Do It! And they do.

What does this mean? Well, under the surface, a very large number of experiments are being tried out that were impossible or unthinkable hitherto. Stuart Kauffman talks about the endless and boundless creativity of nature as it explores possibilities, testing them for relative fitness. It maps the fitness surface, and appears to climb up it to optimal fitness. What we see is the same thing happening in social space.

This is far from confined to trivial social diversions. All industrial countries hunt for best practice in the most microscopic aspects of public service. Politicians look for what their peers are saying in other countries. People benchmark in industry, explicitly to catch up with best practice. So the successful experiments spread quickly. Dawkins talks about 'memes', which may or may not be helpful. However, social learning moves around quickly, propelled by professional advisors, media and the forces of competition.

Not everything comes up from the bottom. Often, as I said earlier, there needs to be a framework. Health is a good example. Few who are not mentally disturbed want to be sick. The rational therefore work to stay healthy and they use the available facilities. That will only be possible if there are such facilities, if the water is clean and the food uncontaminated. They will need access to the required information. The state has a role in the second, people undertake the first for themselves.

Here is a microcosm of the social experiments discussed earlier. The mad, and those who have so little self-control that they eat until they encounter metabolic syndrome or engage in other self-destructive activity, will want state support and the situation has the potential to become a burden on the rest of the society. One state will decide to mother – endlessly support and cosset - such individuals, whilst another regards them as delinquent, and explains plainly that it will not support them if they do not mend their ways. One model will be seen to work and, in a modified form, will propagate itself as the new orthodoxy.

These dynamics are universal and expanding. It follows that social and institutional evolution will speed up very greatly in the next few decades. Deference is gone and so to a great extent is the power of the central narrative ("all Japanese working men are like this. You are one of these, so here is your life all planned out for you.") In its place are more or less covert experiments, replicated in their billions. In place are the means to propagate successful experiments, as something to copy literally or as a paradigm to be implemented indirectly.


Response 1: Ice mass loss is the poster for global warming. I want to show with some simple calculations that this cannot be due to warming through the air.

GRACE is an experiment that measures changes in the Earth's gravitational field gravity through the alterations of satellite orbits. It reports mass loss in Greenland, of 224+/-41 cu km/annum. That is a lot of ice: as shown below, about 20cm averaged overall. However, there are three interpretations which can be put on this:

I want to test the first of these three to see if it is physically possible, given what we know about climatic conditions over Greenland. Because a known quantity of melting ice requires a known quantity of energy, we can calculate this.

The latent heat of ice is 333.6 j/g, so melting 224 cubic kilometres of ice at constant 273K needs:

2.24^17 grams x 3.336^-4 MJ = 7.47^13 megajoules.

Now we need to know how rapidly this amount of heat has to be applied. Assuming that melting happens 18 hours a day over the four months in the Arctic summer - 7.9^6 seconds - that gives a mean, continuous net inflow of 9.48 terawatts. Total human energy consumption in 2008 averaged 15 terawatts, for comparison.

Let's find out what that implies on an averaged square metre basis. The surface area of the Greenland ice sheet is 1.17^6 square kilometres, or 1.17^12 square metres. That gives us a net thermal inflow q = 8.1 watts per square metre.

What kind of temperature difference is needed to drive a flow of q watts across a square metre? That depends on the thermal conductivity and the distance the flow has to run. As noted above, the mass loss is about 20 cm on average, so that is the distance that the flow has to penetrate (L = 19.2 cm = 224 / 1.17^6 kilometres.)

The surface is a mix of compact snow and ice. The thermal conductivity of ice k = 2.18 W/mK; whilst snow is a better insulator, k = 0.16; so let's use the average k = 1.17 W/mK. That allows us to make the necessary calculation, because the equation that gives heat flow per unit area q across a temperature gradient deltaT over distance L is:

q = k deltaT / L ; so that:

deltaT = L q / k

The required temperature differential is 0.2 * 8.1 / 1.17 = 1.38 C

That difference has to be over and above the "equilibrium" temperature at which mass loss is zero. That is, if Case 1 is true, then we should see temperature increases on that scale. We do not. The guys doing this have to have done these same calculations, and they must realise the implications of them. But you don't get a grant by being negative.

Response 2: Interesting. The retreat of the glaciers is another one that is frequently cited. Both the Andes and Himalayas now receive less net precipitation, due to aerosols which make rain drops form more easily and fall sooner. So that looks like mechanism (2) at work.

Also, I was talking to some USN guys the other day who said that the currents in the North Atlantic had changed a bit, and that hotter water from the Gulf stream that used to swirl around and sink by Newfoundland now flushes up North, which is why the Arctic cap is smaller. That is, it's not air warming but under floor heating, so to speak. What it is not is atmosphere driven, but ocean driven. Maybe the current changed because of different winds of something, but my bet would be that they thrash around like a hose in a swimming pool and that this is just 'one of those things'. But I could be wrong. Truly, though, if you go looking for latent problems you will find them, whether it's attitudes in villages in Afghanistan or glaciers in the mountains.

Response 3: I tend to buy into the global warming concept, but I do not like the attitudes that I see displayed around it. Dissent is sinful. Well, that's authoritarian personalities at play, of course. But at the state level it has two affects. First, the tax people get excited because it is a perfect tax: easy to collect, and vaguely virtuous at the same time. Second, the "don't you know there's a war on?" style comes out of the closet and starts bludgeoning legitimate opposition - to nuclear power, for example. Third, there is a total disregard for how fantastically expensive all of this is going to be.

Don't tell me that it will save money or create business opportunities: I do venture capital investment in this area and I can tell you that there is not one technology that is both "sustainable" and which can pay its way without subsidy. Solar cells? Currently USD 2000 for a 200 watt panel, ten bucks a watt plus installation charges, inverter costs. Wind? We don't have the faintest idea how much it will cost to maintain an offshore wind farm, or what its life will be. But break even for offshore looks like four times baseload electricity prices today. So, the energy companies all say: if the regulation is there that gives us a profit, then we will do it like good boys. But if it isn't, then we won't. As the state has no idea what the right technology is to back - probably because there isn't one - then cannot or will not give that guidance. So we sit on our thumbs.

Response 4: The second part of this paper was about bottom up versus top down systems construction. (I think it may have got this muddled at times with equivalent sources of 'control', rather than systems structure.) It asked, but did not answer, an important question for the scenarios. That is, do the new control systems that we need self assemble, or do they result from top down design?

The fashionable answer is that top down design makes the framework from which bottom up solutions emerge. That is, the state sets up a market based system, and companies respond with competing solutions that operate within this. Response 3 seems to be saying that this works only if the state is more or less informed about the sorts of solutions that it wants to see emerge, and if the population are prepared to take on the cost of doing so.

This suggests to me that there is a missing link in the whole argument. (And in public debate around climate change, which as already mentioned, is too ready to jump from equivocal science to populist drum beating for my taste.) What is missing might be called 'journalism' - or perhaps think tank work - whereby the four elements at play are going to be brought together:

Each of these groups seem to act in virtual isolation of the others, and often with limited internal debate. Wind power companies have little to say to solar energy enthusiasts. As we have heard, enthusiasts are quick to quench dissent.

Response 5: I wanted to put up a quickie about the East Anglian e-mail hack. This shows that scientists are very human and as prone to team spirit as much as any other group. What interests me is how their supporter group has since responded. The Nature editorial is extraordinary: it seems that these poor souls have been continually "harassed" by "Denialists", a new class of enemies of the Right and the Good who can be dismissed without consideration. The querulous, self-righteous creepy tone of the thing is very concerning, given the reputation and prominence of the journal in question. No one denies that hacking private correspondence is illegal. However, as a note to the same week's Economist said, the discovery that peer review is painfully incestuous and that those peers have a psychic and career-related interest in seeing certain outcomes does diminish one's confidence in what they have to say. When that material is filtered through layers of supporters - as with the IPCC, in which body please show me a single balancing climate change skeptic - you really do have to ask how free from scripting it really is.

Response 6: This is turning into a skeptical love-in, and I am not sure that this is a good thing. Our concern is the scenarios, not the climate or the motives of the IPCC scientists. However, there is a scenario-related point that I want to table, because I find it both outrageous and typical of the sorts of horse trading that the scenarios will have to portray.

It has been clear to developing countries that at last they have something that the rich world truly wants and is prepared to pay for. That is, of course, carbon abatement and carbon sequestration. Discussion of this has been running for decades, and the pressure in negotiating forums is to make the most of this. A 'non-aligned' group has formed specifically to address this. Fine. So much, so predictable: self-interest perhaps at its best.

But here is the bit that has me gnawing the desk. If you look at the long run climate records for the industrial world, they all - all - show essentially flat profiles. Yes, I know that heat islands are a problem, but believe me, people have tried and probably succeeded in calibrating these out. The upshot is flat. Where do the rising temperatures show up? In records from developing countries, is where.

Response 7:  My, aren't we all busy? This paper just lay there for months, and now off we go. Media canaries. I want to make a technical point. It is indeed true that the pure carbon dioxide windows for outgoing infra red radiation (IR) are essentially already blocked by the CO2 already present. The central absorption peaks for CO2 are virtually fully saturated and IR is fully captured in hundreds of metres from the emission point.

That is not the full story, however, because the absorption peaks have "shoulders" that are not fully saturated. They are, under most circumstances, mostly irrelevant because they are masked by water vapour absorption. (Water vapour is the most powerful of the greenhouse gases, of course, because if its great concentration in most of the atmosphere.) However, whilst that is true where water vapour is a major feature of the atmosphere, if this is absent, then CO2 addition can have a significant affect.

Where does this happen? In (some) atmospheric highs, where cold dry air is descending, over deserts and at the poles, water vapour does not saturate the outgoing IR and that "de-masks" a window that carbon dioxide has not yet saturated. The potential for increased greenhouse capture of IR is limited to such locations as a result.

This is, of course, truly difficult to model, and usually is not modeled. I don't think that GCMs (global climatic/ circulation models, Ed.) have this built into them, as the poles are largely irrelevant - not much IR, huge albedo - and modelling highs is essentially impossible. Equally, assuming that the deserts stay in the same place rather misses the point of the model. Finally, many deserts are humid but still dry, whilst many non-deserts have dry periods - eg Africa, monsoon Asia. It is too non-linear to model properly.

Response 8: But, but... that's terrible. I'm just a lurker who likes this scenario process and I haven't commented about what you say before. Response 7 comes from an insider, I think. Why do I have to learn this from here? Why are we not treated like adults? And is Response 6 true?? I mean we're talking about trillions of dollars here.

US continental climate shows temeprature fall 1895-2005

This seemed interesting and I went data-searching. The figure is US NOAA data (Dec 2009) for US continental weather stations. I have averaged these in two ways. One the left, find the monthly time series for the period 1895-2008 for all weather stations. On the right, years are shown superimposed to give the annual temperature cycle. There is no pronounced upward trend at the end.

US continental mean annual temperature shows a sharp fall after 1955

Indeed, there is no upward trend, as above. There is a suspicious wobble around 1955, which looks like to badly merged data series to me, but them's the data that the world's premier weather monitoring organisation chooses to publish. (If you look closely at the data, this wobble not a discontinuous change like a bad series merge, but is scattered across the stations and seasons between 1948 and 1958 or so.)

So it looks like the assertion in Response 6 has a lot going for it. What that has to do with your scenarios I don't really know, except to show how politics and group-think undermine proper science, perhaps. Less "State Shapes Society" than something darker.

Response 9: We should not forget the issue of particulates. Very large amounts of elemental carbon - essentially, soot - is ejected into the atmosphere from agriculture-related burning, cooking and, of course, the inefficient use of coal and hydrocarbon fuels. These quickly attract a shell of other chemicals, particularly sulphate, nitrate, and organic carbon compounds. Some of these are natural, others created by human activity. The shell is formed by photochemical reactions, and a particle is covered in a few hours of daylight. The shell increased light absorption by about 60% over that of pure carbon.

This black gunk absorbs sunlight. Measurements show that the amount of light energy hitting the Earth's surface declined considerably between 1950 and 1990. The measured impact is extremely variable with geography. India, with huge amounts of particulate emissions, feels a drop of up to 25% in Winter. However, the monsoon washes the particulates out of the air until September, when the dimming begins to increase once again. The US has seen a fall of about 10% (some of which is due to jet contrails, a different issues) but Europe and Russia also show similar or higher figures. Some sooty areas in Russia report up to 30% Winter loss of sunshine, 15-20% in Summer. Antarctica receives about 10% less sunlight, but it seems that the snow absorbs about 3% more, as particulates have made it less perfectly white. This may have a lot to do with observed patterns of ice melt.

This is pretty interesting in its own right. However, one particular implication is that incoming sunlight that would previously have hit the Earth, been absorbed and then (mostly) re-emitted as infra red instead now sticks in the atmosphere. It hits a particle, and is absorbed by it. That heats the atmosphere, of course.

If the carbon is located high up in the stratosphere, the resulting infra red is easily emitted out to space. The net effect of that is to cool the Earth. If the carbon is located lower down, however, then the infra red has to pass up through the sooty higher layers, which of course will tend to block it. The result is then net atmospheric heating.

Which of these is true depends on the season and where you happen to be. However, it seems to be the case that globally, net warming wins out. This is because the particles tend mostly to be located low down in the atmosphere. This occurs because particles are short lived in the atmosphere - they wash out in the rain, or just sediment out. That means that most tend to be recently emitted, and therefore low down.

This whole process can, of course, be modelled. What we find is that the 1950-90 period generates about 1-2C of net global atmospheric warming just through this mechanism, all on its lonesome.

That is, carbon particulates alone explain more than the observed levels of warming.

They also explain why the affect is concentrated in the poorer countries, which generate more gross soot. Their populations - and urbanisation, deforestation and so on - all took off in the post WWII period, just as measured. In other words, the carbon particulate story completely removes the need for a carbon dioxide term in explaining observations on the recent global climate.

Response 10: I am a bit boggled over all of this. I have just read Lee Smolin's book, The Trouble with Physics (Houghton-Mifflin, Sep. 2006/Penguin (UK), Feb. 2007 Ed.) in which he argues that science is at least as affected by the pursuit of peer regard (and peer filtration of what can be said, what gets a grant and what is published) as it is the pursuit of truth. Leaks and so on may suggest that the climate "community" are at least as affected by such social forces?

But I want to avoid us getting hooked on climate issues. Look, there are undeniable *systems* issues to fix - for financial bubbles to mutual security. It seems to me that climate may be important but it is just one of lots of things that need fixing. If we fix just a few, the others will get us. So the scenarios should mot (must not) major on whether these is a specific problem to fix, and must think about the general issue of "fixing stuff".

Why would we not be in a fixing mood? Because we do not trust the others, because the world is a mess, because we have to give up too much - political pain, simple power - to get others to change. Obviously there are geopolitical situations in which institutional DIY will work, and others where we choose to "watch TV".

But that doesn't make the problems go away. In fact, it makes them worse. So a bad situation is going to get worse - just watch TV, and the roof collapses. So, the scenario logic should have this in it. Bad world gets worse, good world doesn't necessarily get completely good, but at least not that much worse.

Response 11: This may be a bit irrelevant, to scenarios, but I think fascinating. Response 10 is interesting ,but readers should note that carbon particulates, even dust grains, have another interesting property.

CO2 - like any simple molcule - can emit only at highly specific wavelengths. Other CO2 molecules absorb at the same frequency. A parcel of energy is therefore passed back and forth a huge number of times before it leaves the atmosphere. Adding CO2 makes the equilibrium temperature higher, because the system needs to chatter faster - which is what being hot means - in order to get the same number of photons out of the top of the atmosphere.

Carbon is black across pretty much the whole relevant spectrum. Therefore, it can absorb photons that were emitted by CO2. But it emits the energy that they carried like a perfect black body. That's what my picture shows:

Carbon particles allow infra red to 'bypass' carbon dioxide absorption

At the bottom, a sketch of an emission spectrum, with its sharp peaks. Above, a carbon particle absorbs a photon from one of these peaks. It gets hotter, and so tends to emit photons, following a black body curve (top). The yellow under the curve shows the photons that it emits that are not going to be re-absorbed by CO2. (The white bars are the CO2 absorption wavelengths.) That means that the carbon and other opaque particle offers a bypass to the CO2 greenhouse - it translates CO2-relevant wavelengths into ones that CO2 cannot block.

Voila - the solution to climate change? And will you bet that this is not represented in GCMs?

Comment- Ed.: Interesting thought, but I think your spectroscopy may be incorrect. Carbon dioxide emits in a lot of continuum modes, due to e.g. translocation and tumbling. It follows - and be measured that - the model of "just bands" is not correct. The thought that carbon black could disperse into other frequencies holds, but the result may be less dramatic than if there were just emission spikes?

I am all for open debate - although our web readership does seem to contain a fair number of people who disagree, and want this page removed as heresy - but could we please focus on specifically scenario-related issues?

Response 12: I feel that the second half of the main paper has been ignored. The comments on superficial uniformity and the search for local identity seems to be a profound issue. If Europe is to work, it has to work as a patchwork that makes people fell more at home than they do in their nation or in the overall Union. I do not have data on the US, but for all the hand of heart patriotism, my experience is that outside of the big cities, it has a profound sense of neighbourhood. Can you feel more than abstract solidarity with more than a few thousand people? What is the right size of the human tribe?

I think this matters for two reasons. One of them is about the nation, politics and welfare. The other is about competition.

My guess is that we have seen the high tide of the welfare state. Governments have a limitless capacity to spend money. There is always going to be another group to help, another possible problem to avoid, a capability to buy or "human capital" to invest in. The state has achieved a mind set in which it and only it is capable of making the sun rise for the majority, whereby people are individually feckless and helpless unless taken into state custody and "brought up properly". It is perpetually shocking to such people that 'half the population are below average'.

This cannot go on. State spending, in parts of Europe, have reached Soviet proportions. It approaches three quarters of all money flows in the Northern midlands of Britain, for example, and averages over half of all spend nationally. Much the same is true in the rest of Europe, and most rural parts of the US.

What is going to overthrow it? Reality, perhaps - the reality of a competitive and rapidly converging world. There are two issues here. First, as noted above, competition is met locally, with local specialisation - at this factory, through that cluster of skills and knowledge - and not "nationally". The US does not produce microchips - AMD, Intel, Motorola and a few others do so, and perform this task with a work force that is under 1% of the US total, located in limited number of places. Indeed, US schools, roads, defence and law have a role to play, but is it a distinctive, definitive role? Might India not be able to do much the same in a few decades?

So the issue is: what scale and features go to make up a defensible competence in the world that we face. Not, I suggest, "the nation".

The second issue is that of political power. This is presently focused at the national level, with vague gestures upwards - "Europe" - and some devolution down, to states, regions, what have you. In part, this geographical focus is due to history. In part, it is the only division that seems to leave nobody out: if I am a citizen, I have rights and a stake in the government of this territory. Other forms of power - such as commerce - are not democratic: they may be right on my door step but not include me, or may suddenly exclude me. They do not obviously have my best interest at heart. (There is no guarantee that territorial government will feel this way, either, but at least it pretends to do so.)

The trouble with this way of thinking is that it is essentially arbitrary. It is inclusive if you happen to have the right passport, but not if you come from Africa. The lines on the map - whatever Woodrow Wilson may have said about 'sovereign peoples' - are essentially arbitrary. Most European nations are less than eight generations old, and the US was united by force more recently than that. Belgium, Britain, Canada all seem likely to fall apart in the next generation. The US might acquire England, bits of Mexico and so on, but lose - who knows? - California.

So? Well, if territory A wants to get something from Territory B, is either has to trade, politic or fight with it. The rich nations used to be able to treat the rest of the world like a mafia Godfather holding court, dispensing favours and occasionally calling these in.

That is not going to be true in the future.

Consequently, if the old rich engage over long periods and about complex issues with the new powers, then they will have to integrate their politics with them. When they do this, a whole new flood of claimancy will begin. Not directly, of course, but through concessions about work permits and visas, investment and ownership. Gradually - or not so gradually - new alignments will arise that skew the allegiances of the sub-national clusters, pointing towards other interests. It may seems a quit ereasonable political question, 15 years from now, to ask why Londoners should be expected to pay for welfare in the North of England. If that region yields 5% of the skilled work force that London employs - less than Bangladesh - and provides no facilities that Londoners habitually use - then what use is it to the city? New Yorkers may feel closer to the Dominican Republic or Mexico City than to Washington State, Wisconsin or Oregon.

National machine politicians have a career structure that is predicated on national politics. They will fight like crazed mink to retain the ability to distribute pork and bribes to the electors. That money has to come from somewhere, and the tax landscape makes this an exercise in both churning - taxing the same people who get the bribes - and redistribution.

The capable have well over half of their earnings taken from them by the state in most industrial countries, and this is spent chiefly on welfare that benefits them not at all. They have put up with this, from habit, good will and as least bad alternative to either of the two flavours of totalitarianism on sale in the early part of the last century: that is, leveling or oligarchy. Against this, however, the capable now do not now need the electoral masses, or at least, do not need those who are unable to riot on their doorstep. I am inclined to wonder where this dynamic will take us.

 to the top