Friday, 25 February 2011

Scenario 3: Police World

In this scenario the nations collaborate against climate change but not in time to prevent catastrophe.

By 2030 China will be suffering from water shortages and the USA from increasingly severe hurricane damage. Every government will have recognised the direction and pace of change. Corporate lobbyists who currently deny the reality of anthropogenic change will have shifted to demanding government help in adapting to that change (whilst denying any meaningful responsibility). It will also be clear that even geo-engineering schemes cannot reverse the trend.

Climate change will already have reduced the area under cultivation and the availability of water for irrigation causing starvation in areas, such as those south of the Sahara, where governments are already weak. The reduction in global food production will make it impossible to provide enough food aid leading to major population movements and wars.

Governments will recognise that the Earth cannot support its current population and that existing human institutions cannot survive the huge population movements that these changes will provoke. (In Collapse Jared Diamond has described a variety of precedents for social collapse due to overuse of natural resources.)

Once the inevitability of this collapse becomes clear governments will shift their focus from mitigation to survival. The worst governments will seek their own survival – the best that of as many of their population as they think feasible. Most countries will adopt a ‘war footing’. Specific policy responses will vary according to geography and political feasibility but will typically include:
  • Bans on immigration – enforced by tighter borders and internal controls
  • Central direction of food production – including use of genetically-modified crops and lower animal welfare standards.
  • Forced relocation of people from threatened areas – sometimes to farmlands where human labour will replace diesel engines.
To deal with the inevitable resistance to these measures most governments will suspend many civil rights. Some will suspend elections ‘for the duration of the emergency’ – a suspension that will become permanent.

Even so, most governments will realise that these measures can provide only temporary relief. With large parts of many countries becoming permanently uninhabitable and new farmlands becoming available in the under-populated north the only long-term solution will be a wholesale northward relocation of people and industrial facilities coupled with a reduction in total numbers.

The inevitable strategy will be to identify the territories remote from the equator where the prospects are best and then limit and direct migration into these refuges. The rest of the Earth will be progressively abandoned together with a large part of its population. International institutions will be redirected or created in order to manage the transfer and, more critically, the abandonment and starvation of many millions of people.

This process will play out over many decades and its reality will be generally denied at first.

By 2050 the temperature rise will have exceeded two degrees and major positive feedback effects will be visible. Major floods and severe hurricanes will be much more common making and major habitat changes have already occurred, eg in the Sahara and Amazon basin, leading to a marked reduction in the Earth’s carrying capacity. An increase of at least four degrees will now be certain.

Beyond 2050
The refuges will take on a life of their own. Life in these refuges will be hard but life outside them will become literally impossible; most of those outside them will die. These deaths will be spread over many decades and will mainly be from starvation, though natural disasters and warfare will contribute.

Resistance to the new world order will be severe but the multinational authorities will take large-scale military action to maintain the borders of the refuges. This scenario assumes that the multinational authorities succeed in maintaining law and order and an industrial base but this will be at the price of human rights and ordinary human compassion. The need for vigorous military action against those outside the refuges and direction of labour within them will lead to severe rationing of almost everything and a police state covering all the refuges; in effect a Police World.

If the authorities are unable to maintain law and order and an industrial base we will get scenario 4.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Is the IPCC fit for purpose?

There’s no doubt that the IPCC’s analysis of climate change has been one of the most impressive scientific efforts of all time, comparable to the Human Genome Project. This was recognised by the award of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007.

But there have been mistakes. The best known is probably the exaggeration of the threat to the Himalayan glaciers. But the most serious are the IPCC’s understatements of both the severity of the problem and the confidence we can have in the reality of the problem.

The IPCC has done a remarkable job, in the face of considerable hostility and criticism, of describing the problem but its very success has changed the situation. The IPCC was set up to analyse a threat seen as serious but long-term. We now know that the threat is urgent, becoming critical, and what’s needed now is action.

So is the IPCC still fit for purpose? Do we need a scientific body that is able to react faster and describe the necessary policies as well as the problems?

In my view we still need the IPCC – but we need new institutions too.

The government link
It’s important to remember that the IPCC is the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change. It was created by the world’s governments to provide independent advice. (And to provide excuses for inaction!) This connection to the world’s governments prevents the IPCC from acting as a critic but makes it more likely that governments will listen to what it says.

The link is therefore functional to the degree that governments remain key actors.

The delays
The IPCC seeks to provide authoritative analysis. To do this it has decided to look only at evidence published in the peer-reviewed scientific literature. It also imposes a cut-off date many months prior to the publication of each report. Papers published after that date are not considered. The IPCC thus has time to consider the meaning and importance of each paper.

But this has consequences. It takes time to write a scientific paper – especially if it’s the work of multiple authors based in several countries. Such authorship is particularly important when dealing with a global phenomenon. It then takes time for the paper to pass peer review and be published. This whole process may easily take two years – and can take much longer.

And then there’s the data. The paper cannot be written until the data has been collected and quality checked. This takes time. Then again trend data is typically most valid for the mid-point of the period in which it was collected – pushing the timing back yet further.

Thus the data considered in the 2007 IPCC report (still the most recent) mostly relates to a period ending in 2003 and sometimes to much earlier dates. This compares unfavourably to the reporting of company performance to the stock markets or of military developments to commanders (if not to the public) or of competitive intelligence in most industries.

The need for additional reporting
Delay is the price of the IPCC’s authoritative voice but it’s clear that the world community needs faster reporting; something intermediate between individual scientific papers and the current style of IPCC report.

Two additional kinds of report would be valuable:
  • Periodic, often annual, publication of measurements that have been pre-agreed to be reliable and important, eg world average temperature, the extent of Arctic ice. These would provide tracking of phenomena that are already reasonably well understood.
  • Selective alerts on other measurements or research findings. The alert would say something like: This is credible and appears important. It’s more like the judgment formed by an intelligence officer than by a scientist

These reports need an understanding of the science but each needs something additional; process design and management in the first case and good judgment in conditions of uncertainty in the second. Scientists may possess these skills but they aren’t in themselves scientific skills. These kinds of reporting might benefit from the contributions of experts from other fields, notably business and intelligence.

Since the reputation of the IPCC remains strong amongst governments and diplomats these reports should be produced under the oversight of the IPCC rather than of any other body but perhaps by newly-established specialist bodies or committees.

Preparing for action
It’s increasingly clear that an effective response to climate change will require actions by governments, businesses and individuals. A low-carbon economy will require new technologies, eg for power generation and geo-engineering, and changed behaviour from both businesses and individuals, eg less flying and driving. These will have to be encouraged by government and by public opinion and motivated by carbon taxes and new standards for energy-using processes and structures.

There will be plenty of scope for honest disagreement about the relative advantages of the various options and there will therefore be needs for authoritative, independent assessment of the options. The skills required include a variety of sciences and engineering disciplines as well as law and expertise in social change. This certainly goes beyond the scope of the IPCC and may well be beyond the scope of any one body.

Work of this kind has already started, for instance the Royal Society report on geo-engineering published in 2009, but a great deal more will be needed. Although the UN would be the best home for such studies the difficulty of getting agreement and the almost inevitable politicisation of the resulting studies makes this an unattractive approach. It may be better to ask governments, or possibly individual philanthropists, to sponsor learned societies to collaborate on suitable evaluation projects. Suitable international might emerge over time.