Tag Archives: climate change

Institutional Dynamics and Emergent Patterns in Global Governance

Can environmental regimes really be viewed as complex dynamic systems? Oran Young makes a nice effort in his latest book “Institutional Dynamics – Emergent Patterns in International Environmental Governance” (MIT Press, 2010). While the study of environmental and resource regimes certainly has a strong track record in political science and international relations, Young makes a novel and detailed analysis of what he calls “emergent patterns” – patterns of institutional change that arise over time from the dynamics of complex systems (pp. 8). Young observes, and unpacks five patterns:

Progressive development: this patterns starts with a framework convention followed shortly by one or more substantive protocols that are amended and extended to accommodate new information. Example: stratospheric ozone, and the Montreal Protocol.

Punctuated equilibrium: this pattern occur in cases where regimes encounter periodic stresses which trigger episodes of regime building and change. Example: The Antarctic Treaty System.

Arrested development: here, regimes get off to a promising start but then run into barriers or obstacles that block further development. Example: climate change and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Diversion: this pattern includes regimes that are created for one purpose, but later are redirected in a manner that runs counter to the original purpose. Example: International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling.

Collapse: this pattern includes cases where regimes have been in operation for some time, but then encounters external or internal stresses and transforms into a “dead letter”. Example: North Pacific Sealing Convention.

Young recently published an article [PDF] for Global Environmental Change on this topic. You can also listen to an interview with him here.

Homer-Dixon on Risk, Uncertainty and Crises

Think Globally Radio recently posted a number of great interviews. Here is one interesting one with political scientist, and renown author Thomas Homer-Dixon from University of Waterloo (Canada) – one of the world’s leading scholars on the intersection of environment, security and crisis.

Direct link to the interview can be found here.

Planning for climate catastrophe

Thomas Homer-Dixon, author of the Ingenuity Gap and other books on the social response to environmental change and now a professor of global systems at the Balsillie School of International Affairs at the University of Waterloo and Wilfred Laurier University, argues in a recent New York Times op-ed Near the North Pole, Looking at a Disaster, that societies won’t make significant changes to address climate change until there is a crisis, but that people should prepare for such a moment for security reasons (an idea that fits well with the policy analysis related to the adaptive cycle).  He writes:

… Scientists aren’t sure what will happen when a significant portion of the Arctic Ocean changes from white, sunlight-reflecting ice to dark, sunlight-absorbing open water. But most aren’t sanguine.

These experts are especially concerned that new patterns of air movement in the Arctic could disrupt the Northern Hemisphere’s jet streams — which are apparently weakening and moving northward. This could alter storm tracks, rainfall patterns and food production far to the south.

The limited slack in the world’s food system, particularly its grain production, can amplify the effects of disruptions. Remember that two years ago, when higher oil prices encouraged farmers to shift enormous tracts of cropland from grain to biofuel production, grain prices quickly doubled or tripled. Violence erupted in dozens of countries. Should climate change cause crop failures in major food-producing regions of Europe, North America and East Asia, the consequences would likely be far more severe.

Policy makers need to accept that societies won’t make drastic changes to address climate change until such a crisis hits. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing for them to do in the meantime. When a crisis does occur, the societies with response plans on the shelf will be far better off than those that are blindsided. The task for national and regional leaders, then, is to develop a set of contingency plans for possible climate shocks — what we might call, collectively, Plan Z.

Some work of this kind is under way at intelligence agencies and research institutions in the United States and Europe. Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government has produced one of the best studies, “Responding to Threat of Climate Change Mega-Catastrophes.” But for the most part these initiatives are preliminary and uncoordinated.

We need a much more deliberate Plan Z, with detailed scenarios of plausible climate shocks; close analyses of options for emergency response by governments, corporations and nongovernmental groups; and clear specifics about what resources — financial, technological and organizational — we will need to cope with different types of crises.

In the most likely scenarios, climate change would cause some kind of regional or continental disruption, like a major crop failure; this disruption would cascade through the world’s tightly connected economic and political systems to produce a global effect. …

If so, a Plan Z for this particular scenario would help us make the most of the opportunity. It would provide guidelines for regional and local leaders on how to respond to the crisis. We would decide in advance where supplies of water would be found and who would get priority allocations; local law enforcement and emergency responders would already have worked out lines of authority with federal agencies and the military.

Then there are the broader steps to mitigate climate change in general. Here, Plan Z would address many critical questions: How fast could carbon emissions from automobiles and energy production be ramped down, and what would be the economic, political and social consequences of different rates of reduction? Where would we find the vast amounts of money needed to overhaul existing energy systems? How quickly could different economic sectors and social groups adapt to different kinds of climate impacts? And if geoengineering to alter earth’s climate — for example, injecting sulfates into the high atmosphere — is to be an option, who would make the decision and undertake the operation?

Looking over the endless, empty horizon of the Arctic, I find it hard to imagine this spot being of any importance to global affairs. But it is just one of many places now considered marginal that could be the starting point for a climate shock that plays a central role in the evolution of human civilization. We need to be ready.

See previous RS posts on Homer-Dixon’s work here.

short links: open data, candian census, and merchants of doubt

1) An Open Data Litmus Test: Is There a Download Button from Off the Map

In order for any data to be open you need to be able to download the data so that you can remix, reuse and share the data. Data and the government agency that supplies it are not transparent if you can’t download the raw data. PDF’s and web services don’t count. They can be useful additions to the raw data, but they are not a replacements.

2)  Idiotically the Canadian government is planning to stop collecting detailed census data.  As the Toronto Globe and Mail explains:

For the first time in 35 years, the census will not feature a detailed, long form that Canadians are obliged to send back to the government.

Users of census information, including myself, are not happy and somewhat puzzled as to why this decision was made.

3) Historians of science Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway’s new book  Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming, describes how politically connected scientists have operated effective campaigns to skew public opinion towards the denial of well-established scientific knowledge over four decades, now has a website – merchantsofdoubt.org – that links to a bunch of the documents supporting the books arguemnet. I linked to a lecture based on the book earlier this year, and they recently wrote an article based on their book for Yale360 Global Warming Deniers and Their Proven Strategy of Doubt.

Malaria, public health, and climate

Peter Gething, from the malaria atlas project at Oxford, and others have a paper in Nature, Climate change and the global malaria recession (doi:10.1038/nature09098) that examines at changes in global malaria distribution.  While the world warmed in the 20th century, the distribution of malaria shrank.  From their examination of this change they argue that development and public health measures have much stronger impacts on malaria distribution than expected climate change.

Change in P. falciparum malaria endemicity between 1900 and 2007. Negative values denote a reduction in endemicity, positive values an increase.

From looking at these changes and their causes they find that:

1) widespread claims that rising mean temperatures have already led to increases in worldwide malaria morbidity and mortality are largely at odds with observed decreasing global trends in both its endemicity and geographic extent.

2) the proposed future effects of rising temperatures on endemicity are at least one order of magnitude smaller than changes observed since about 1900 and up to two orders of magnitude smaller than those that can be achieved by the effective scale-up of key control measures.

Predictions of an intensification of malaria in a warmer world, based on extrapolated empirical relationships or biological mechanisms, must be set against a context of a century of warming that has seen marked global declines in the disease and a substantial weakening of the global correlation between malaria endemicity and climate.

SciDev.net has a news article that includes some responses from critics of the study.

Volcano and global environmental surprise

Volcano eruption is certainly one, but which are other possible global surprises? In 1994, the Aspen Global Change Institute organized a two week workshop on global environmental surprise. The results from this workshop can be found in Stephen H. Schneider and colleagues 1998 article “Imaginable surprise in global change science” (Journal of Risk Research, 1(2)). By “imaginable surprise”, they mean

The event, process, or outcome departs from the expectations of the observing community or those affected by the event or process. Seen from this point of view, surprise abou t one or another aspect of climate change is an after-the-fact reaction to an observation or new scientiŽfic fiŽnding that, in some sense, lies outside our range of expectations.

In the list of 40+ types of surprises, you find not only volcano eruption, but also, just to mention a few:

  • A reduction in ‘conveyor belt’ oceanic overturning leading to cooling at high latitudes occurs, despite general (but slower) global warming.
  • Heat stored in the ocean at intermediate depths is released to the atmosphere, leading to rapid warming.
  • Dimethyl sulŽfide emissions decline with reduced sea ice, causing cloud brightness to decrease and warming to accelerate.
  • Dimethyl sulŽfide emissions change with sea-surface temperature change.
  • Synergism of habitat fragmentation, artiŽficial chemicals, introduction of exotic species and anthropogenic climate change affect ecosystems in unforeseen ways that reduce biodiversity.
  • Geo-engineering is practised intermittently by only a few nations causing international political conflicts and greater environmental instability.

    Don’t say you weren’t warned….

    Sea level rise estimates rising

    There appears to be an increased need to worry about building resilience to sea level rise.

    From Stefan Rahmstorf‘s commentary A new view on sea level rise in Nature Reports Climate Change , 44 – 45 (doi:10.1038/climate.2010.29)

    Estimates for twenty-first century sea level rise from semi-empirical models2, 8, 16, 17, 18 as compared to the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report (AR4)1. For exact definitions of the time periods and emissions scenarios considered, see the original references.

    Mental models and climate change

    On Ecotrust’s People and Place, Howard Silverman articulates how climate change demonstrates how the earth has become a social-ecological systems, in which facts and values are entangled, and the future is full of various flavours of uncertainty.  These concepts lurk beneath many climate change discussions.  While none of these mental models are new, he suggests their reality is clarified by climate change in What We Talk about When We Talk about Climate:

    Humans exist within social-ecological systems.The climate story is one of processes and connections. Critical planetary systems – climate, nitrogen, biodiversity – are impaired by human activities (see Rockström et al.). Both the power of human influence on natural systems and the vulnerability of human dependence on natural systems inspire awe – and, for some, doubt.

    Uncertainties are central to social-ecological experience.
    Impairments of planetary systems are historical experiments that are run but once. In linked social-ecological systems, knowledge is probabilistic. A very high confidence characterizes the analysis of human impact on the climate system, according to the typologies of uncertainty and confidence developed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (see IPCC – pdf). Uncertainty becomes central (see Post-Normal Science). The more the climate is changed, the less confident we can be about how it might further change (see Easterbrook).

    Knowledge of facts presupposes knowledge of values.
    The very-high-confidence fact of human impact on the climate system is not prescriptive in and of itself. To derive knowledge, to gain a capacity for effective action, depends on competing and complimentary values and perceptions, including: worldviews of nature as benign, tolerant and/or ephemeral (see cultural theory); aspirations of economic growth and/or human development; senses of personal and/or collective identity (see identity tree); and awareness of agency, i.e. that one has free will, that one can be effective, that risks can be recognized and evaluated.

    In another post on cultural theory (the Douglas and Thompson version) Silverman expands on climate and cultural theory:

    With positions on climate hardening, references to contradictory worldviews are popping up in the mainstream media (See NYT and NPR), but the story itself is hardly new.  “Underlying much of the energy debate is a tacit, implicit divergence on what the energy problem ‘really’ is,” wrote Amory Lovins in 1977’s Soft Energy Paths. “Public discourse suffers because our society has mechanisms only for resolving conflicting interests, not conflicting views of reality, so we seldom notice that these perceptions differ markedly.”

    Here is a cultural theory-based interpretation of climate worldviews:

    • The hierarchist’s story (nature perverse/tolerant): International protocols and national commitments are needed to address the tragedy of the atmospheric commons and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
    • The egalitarian’s story (nature ephemeral): The underlying problem is consumption (resource throughput). Precaution, lifestyle simplicity and grass roots action are the most effective responses.
    • The individualist’s story (nature benign): To address climate change, rely on laissez-faire markets to spur competition and innovation. The benefits of climate change may even balance out the costs.
    • The fatalist’s story (nature capricious): Natural forces are beyond human understanding, much less human influence.

    A fifth worldview, called “nature resilient” (Thompson, Ellis & Wildavsky 1990) or “nature evolving” (Holling, Gunderson & Ludwig 2002) is sometimes pictured at the central intersection of the axes, overlapping each of the others – we might say, in the language of psychologist Ken Wilber, transcending and including each of the others.

    Rob Hopkins and Neil Adger on transition towns and resilience

    Rob Hopkins founder of the Transition movement has a long interview with Neil Adger on resilience, peak oil, and climate adaptation on Transition CultureNeil Adger is a professor in Environmental Sciences at the University of East Anglia and a member of the Resilience Alliance (Neil briefly explains social resilience in a video here).

    RH: I was reading a piece of yours yesterday where you wrote “some elements of society are inherently vulnerable, and others are inherently resilient.” What is it that determines the degree to which things are vulnerable or resilient?

    NA: First of all both vulnerability and resilience need a referent, so we need to be vulnerable to something, or resilient to something. I think the things that parts of society are vulnerable to are environmental change at the large scale, and the changes in the way the world and society works, which you can capture in the idea of globalisation. Some parts of society are, in effect, vulnerable to the large scale structural changes that are happening around the world – the changes in the flows of capital and labour and the restrictions on those, and the impact that that has on their life and livelihoods.

    So if you think about the farming sector, it’s vulnerable to large scale price shocks, and we as consumers are vulnerable to large scale price shocks around the world. Some parts of society are vulnerable to environmental change and in combination are vulnerable to the sorts of things that are going on in terms of economic globalisation around the world. Others are more resilient. But being resilient to the forces of globalisation doesn’t necessarily mean that those parts of society are immune to them or even aren’t integrated into them.

    I don’t think you can simply isolate yourself from the globalised world and say, “well, that’ll make us more resilient”. It’ll make us more resilient in some senses, but the world is as it is and I think we just need to deal with the fact that it’s more globally integrated and look on the positive side of that and reap the benefits of it.

    Would you not have any truck with the idea that a resilient society is one where local economies are stronger?

    I don’t disagree with that. What I’m saying is that local economies, for all sorts of reasons, are actually stronger and likely to be more resilient, because if we go back to the definition, they have more autonomy and room for self organisation and adaptability and change. Hence, I think it’s impossible to isolate a community or society from a globalised world.

    Simply looking to give more autonomy to a community is a positive thing, but trying to isolate it from the rest of the world and not realise that we’re globalised and all the rest of it isn’t a sensible thing to do. As I say, there are a lot of benefits to globalisation (not necessarily economic globalisation) such as the flow of information around the world, global solidarity with places in other parts of the world. There are all sorts of up sides to globalisation. I’m sure you’re familiar with all those arguments and you know this on the ground.

    Continue reading

    Naomi Oreskes on Merchants of Doubt

    Historian of science Naomi Oreskes recently gave a talk at Brown University, based on her new book, Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming, about how right wing scientists founded the George Marshall Institute which has become a key hub for successfully spreading fear, uncertainty and doubt about climate change, along with other environmental issues, and how myths about science enable these political strategies to work.  Below is a video of her talk.

    Below is a related 2007 talk of her’s from the University of California The American Denial of Global Warming, that provides more details on environmental denial.