Hothouse Earth: It’s Worse than We Dared to Imagine

Steffen et al Hothouse Earth
It will take an “Earth System stewardship” ethic to steer earth systems to a ‘Stabilized Earth’ instead of rolling straight into the ‘Hothouse Earth’ trajectory we are already on. Graphic source: Steffen et al, 2018 http://www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1810141115

Average annual temperatures at the equator?  140+ degrees F.  Possible sea level rise? 196 feet.  How soon? It depends.

The 2018 paper Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene by Steffen et al is unbelievably depressing.  Will Steffen and Johan Rockstrom among other superstar scientists are making explicit what had been a distant concern: sometimes you don’t get a do-over. In the paper them argue that Earth Systems have already veered from the glacial-interglacial limit cycle (see cold blue basin in graphic above). That 14,000 year long stable planetary weather cycle that underpins modern agriculture and society is already behind us.  We’re on a trajectory of higher temperatures and higher sea levels.

So far humanity has been applying a linear mindset to the challenge.  We think that if we can reduce our CO2, then maybe we can stop warming and sea level rise.  No harm, no foul, right?  Right? Amirite?.  But what Steffen et al note is that the international goal to limit global climate increases to no more than 2-degrees C – even if we achieve it – may be too little, too late.  We are rushing towards a planetary threshold that may be closer than the 2-degree goal we’ve already set.  If we pass through that threshold we risk unleashing cascading self-reinforcing biogeophysical feedbacks that are capable of overwhelming our best of intentions. “These feedback processes include permafrost thawing, decomposition of ocean methane hydrates, increased marine bacterial respiration, and loss of polar ice sheets” that can “amplify temperature rise through changes in ocean circulation.” If unleashed, these natural systems that have been absorbing and entrapping greenhouse gases will become the dominant processes accelerating earth systems toward the “Hothouse Earth” state.

If we have any chance to avoid overwhelming our cities, coastlines, and food systems, it will only be because we work collectively at a global level to manage earth systems for a managed stability.  They call it a “Stabilized Earth.”  That requires transformation of our socio-economic systems, behaviors, technology, innovation, governance and values that can then deliver on essentials: deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions; protection and enhancement of biosphere carbon sinks; efforts to remove CO2 from the atmosphere; and adaptation to unavoidable climate impacts already emerging.

This Stabilized Earth scenario seems an awful lot like a Hail Mary. Depressing.

Yet here we are.

It is time to mourn.  And it is a call to action.  The next chapter for the Earth Systems is not yet written but Steffen et al just published the outline.

As a young man I attended a Hopi dance at Second Mesa.  It was a whole neighboring village in this particular dance.  At the front were the elders, or the oldest that could still dance.  And then behind in a line that circled the courtyard was the rest of the village each younger than the ones before.  The elders in the front of the line.  The coming generation at the back.

The dance was not in 4/4 time.  It was a stutter step with drums beating a sacred rhythm with certain accent beats that shifted the dancers’ pausing, stuttering promenade around and around the courtyard.

It went on and on.  That same simple dance over and over.  Finally, it broke through to me:  I was watching the dance of more than that village.  I was watching the dancing of the ancestors before and the generations to come.  In front of the elders were the ancestors.  Trialing the youngest were the generations to come. But we could not see them. They were invisible.

And I was part of that dance, too.  I, like the dancers, am part of the visible generation.  Those of us in the visible generation can and must do the ceremonies.  We can raise the next generations.  We can keep the culture alive. We can move mountains. The ancients and the next generations  are still there dancing, too, but they can only watch and guide those of us who are visible.

It is on us, the visible generation to act now. In a way, it could hardly be a more important time to be alive.

Externalizing recovery to victims and survivors

We design infrastructure and buildings to a standard that has the effect of shifting the costs and impacts of extreme events to the victims and survivors.

We do this unconsciously because we have been trained to think that the only way to be resilient is to resist events of a certain size.  Resistance is not sufficient. According to the New York Times, California’s earthquake codes require that high-rise buildings be built to resist strong shaking so that 90 percent of the buildings will avoid collapse. “Ten percent of buildings will collapse,” said Lucy Jones, the former leader of natural hazards research at the United States Geological Survey who is leading a campaign to make building codes in California stronger. “I don’t understand why that’s acceptable.”

Faulty thinking that resistance is the only way to be resilient applies equally to storms, winds, floods, and landslides.  We plan to resist events of a certain size based on the climate of the past and then presume it is up to God, FEMA, and local disaster planners to pick up the pieces.

Why is it acceptable that we externalize the cost of recovery to the victims and survivors of extreme events when they are the least prepared to deal with the impacts to their homes, the businesses, their communities?

In this short 10-minute video from ‘The Role of Advanced Technologies in Structural Engineering for More Resilient Communities” I argue that we need to be taking a ‘cradle-to-cradle’ approach to community resilience.  Designers can still select a storm of a certain intensity but then add in consideration of which option helps our communities to recover most quickly when that rare event finally does occur.

Give it a look.

The Hurricane With No Name

hurricane_isabel_from_iss

I have to say that my podcast with Lars Watson has been sticking with me.
In the interview we hear him recounting his description of how the survivors feel after the hurricanes that besieged Puerto Rico. “Feeling the loss and feeling the pain. Sense of desperation. The hunger because they didn’t have food. It was by far the most difficult deployment and I was ready to come home.”
The trauma of the hurricanes, the destruction of jobs, of school, of comfort and everyday necessities is deep and profound. I doubt very few Puerto Ricans who were there during Hurricanes Irma and Maria wouldn’t divide their lives into two chapters – Before the Hurricanes and After the Hurricanes.
Yet, this sense of loss, pain, desperation and hunger is going on all around me every day in my city that has yet to experience its disaster. There is a Hurricane with No Name that has created a vast community of traumatized individuals and communities with whom I share this world. It is a panorama of continuing struggle and suffering.
Today I passed a person, presumably mentally ill, who was weeping. Her head covered with a hooded coat, she hunched over in the middle of the sidewalk weeping to herself and her demons. Her pain is no less real. Her sense of loss seems profound.
Homelessness. Mental illness. Physical illness. Repeated trauma from abuse or discrimination or job loss or brutality. These all afflict the human condition.
The goal of resilience, to provide accelerated recovery, to ease the impact of ferocious events, to moderate the dislocation – all of these goals – apply equally to humanity in pain, to people left out, to people that try to escape the brutality of war, the cycles of abuse, the collapse of economies and ecosystems and the resulting traumas that afflict physical, mental and community health.
It can be overwhelming to open oneself to all that suffering. To hear the Buddha’s insight that all life is suffering is to recognize that our world falls far below the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. Humans can be beastly. We make selfish sound innocent, when it can be anything but.
Yet it doesn’t signal the end of hope: to walk around, to see the world as it is, to recognize that not only is humanity suffering, but all of nature itself is in decline because of our lack of self-awareness. We have an opportunity to stand for something that can ease the pain, that makes the reduction of suffering a priority, that advocates for compassion.
Advocating for resilience is part of my pathway forward. A resilient world isn’t the end of all pain and suffering, but it is a step to soften the blows and accelerate our capacity to recover, to reorganize, and to start fresh with our humanity intact.

It’s not complicated anymore. It’s complex

450px-Arvore_Mogno_Amazonia
Brazilian rainforests are complex

Misdiagnosing the context for decision-making is when smart people can make stupid mistakes.  A key distinction that needs extra focus is the difference between complicated and complex.

I am grateful to the authors Snowden and Boone for their article  A Leaders Framework for Decision-Making emphasizing the differences between complicated and complex.  They say something is complicated if it is like a Ferrari. It takes an advanced level of expert knowledge to understand how it fits together. Spread every single part of the Ferrari on the floor of a warehouse and then ask a Ferrari mechanic to come in and put it all back together.  Once she’s done, you’ve got a fully functioning Ferrari! It’s an amazing machine and it sure is complicated.

Ferrari_J50
Ferraris are complicated

Imagine, now, that you are spreading all the parts of a Brazilian rainforest on the floor of the warehouse.  Who do you call to put it back together?  Just reassembling the parts doesn’t make it leap back to life. There is no expert that can put those parts back together again into a functioning rainforest because it is more than the sum of its parts.  It is self-organizing.  It has multiple pathways forward and it shifts and adapts to changing conditions over time.

How can you tell when you are in a time of complexity? When there is more than one right answer and more than one wrong answer and no way to tell which is which until the future unfolds.

This is the situation we are in now with climate change and technological change. The uncertainty of how the climate will adapt to increased thermal energy and increased water vapor in the atmosphere is somewhat predictable at the planetary scale where we have a more or less closed system, but the complexity and uncertainty at the regional scale makes local predictions highly unreliable. Yes, we can run scenarios and clusters of scenarios can give us insight.  But they are too uncertain for typical decision-making processes.

Despite this complexity, we still spend billions of dollars each year designing, building, and regulating our urban form and infrastructure as if future conditions are merely complicated. When we ask designers to make a road culvert that can accommodate climate change, the designers rightfully say, “Tell me how much flow is going to go through and I’ll design a culvert to accommodate it.” That’s because our designers are experts in complicated issues.  Yet the issue they are facing is not complicated, it is complex.  There is more than one right answer and more than one wrong answer and no way to predict until the future unfolds.  The answer is unknowable.  Which can make it difficult to design a culvert that will last.  If it’s unknowable, then how big does the damn thing need to be???

Increasingly the acceleration of technological change is similar. We know that change is rapid and we can predict that the change is going to start happening faster than we can adapt to it. We won’t have adapted to that last version of innovation when the next version will already be introduced.

It’s time to realize that we are all making decisions in a complex world. It’s time to recognize that when things are complex we can’t know how well our decisions are going to play out in an uncertain future.  Will the levee be high enough?  Will the heating and cooling systems be sized correctly for future conditions?   Will the technology change before I learn how to apply it?

When we admit that we are in a time of complexity then we realize that we are better off looking for incremental solutions, close monitoring of changing conditions, designing in flexibility and adaptability into everything.  And knowing that whatever we design will have it’s design thresholds exceeded at some point in the near or distant future.  And the most humane and cost-effective way to address that is to also select the options that help to speed along recovery after that event.

Understanding how to make decisions in a time of complexity requires a different suite of skills. In a time of complexity we need to launch multiple small experiments and pilot projects that begin to test solutions before we know if we’ll need them.

It’s not complicated anymore.  It’s complex.

It gets real, real fast

I am in the midst of assembling my fourth podcast, a discussion with Lars Watson, recently returned from a two month deployment to Puerto Rico. As part of the response effort after the devastation of Hurricanes Maria and Irma, you can tell that Lars himself has been deeply affected by the experience. To bear witness to survivors and to hear their stories of ongoing trauma strips away the emotional distance we often invoke to protect ourselves when faced with tragedy. It gets real, real fast.

Externalizing the impacts of disasters to the victims and survivors is what we tend to do now.  When all hell breaks loose we expect that God and FEMA will fix it all up.  In truth, however, much but not all of the  post-disaster suffering impacts regular people least prepared to become survivors.

This can be avoided if we take a cradle-to-cradle approach to how we build and rebuild infrastructure and buildings.  That means plan for them to resist events of a certain intensity AND plan for the quickest recovery once those intensity thresholds are crossed. It should be on us, when times are good, to make sure that our kids or future generations don’t have to bear these avoidable burdens

Don’t get me wrong, stuff will continue to break and episodes of chaos that hurt and kill people will always be part of being human.  And yet, we can seriously accelerate how quickly we recover if we include shortest recovery time as one of the metrics we use to design infrastructure. And if we apply flexible and adaptable approaches to how we design and maintain resilient infrastructure it can cost the same or less with the same or better levels of service.

 

Resist, Adapt, Transform

Resist ImageHow does a wetland cope with change? When extra high water flows into a wetland, the plants can withstand it – resist it – as long as the high water isn’t too deep or repeat too often to affect the established plant community.  But if the water starts coming in more often or at different levels than before then the wetland community begins to adapt.  Species that prefer higher or lower water levels begin to assert their dominance as the makeup of the wetland species adapt to the frequency or magnitude of changes in water levels. But if the water comes in and never leaves, then it may no longer be a wetland – it may be transformed into a lake.  Wetland communities resist change within certain thresholds, adapt when those thresholds are exceeded, and if the thresholds are exceeded too often then the wetland transforms into something else.

This reminded me of how we design infrastructure and buildings.  They are all designed to resist change to a pre-determined threshold:  an earthquake of certain horizontal accelerations; a wind of a certain speed; a flood of a certain depth; etc. And this resist strategy works pretty well when the climate is stable.  We could look at the last 100 years or so of weather data and use that to develop a probabilistic estimation of a built system’s likely performance based on the known weather extremes for each locale.

But now we know that the climate is not stable. The earth is already beginning to change. The likelihood of extreme weather events is changing. Native villages like Newtok are losing 70 feet of permafrost a year and need to move their village.  Some river systems are mobilizing [pdf] sediments at accelerating rates with an increasing risk of catastrophic riverine floods, increasing  localized flooding from higher groundwater levels, and storm surge in near-shore areas.  As the ecosystems of the earth get closer and closer to their tipping points, climate and ecosystems may be transformed at the continental scale.

If natural systems are already adapting to climate change, how about us humans?  Continue reading “Resist, Adapt, Transform”