I should not be complaining about the use of models in predicting the future, especially by the sciences.
Models are all really we have got. Models are us, models make up our consciousness. We have lots of model representations of reality in our heads and we use them all the time, especially when they are weighted by our feelings. Governments and politicians usually have their implicit simple models in mind as they make their legislation, even if it isn’t made explicit. Governments and corporations keep secret models which they attempt never to reveal, hence not amenable to corrective feedback from other people. Secret models usually involves obscene projections of institutional growth and power or planned harm to others. Hence the extreme measures taken against whistle-blowers and unofficial leakers. Secrecy means bad intentions, and national insecurity.
Our bodies and brains contain computational models, honed by evolution, tuned to our survival and reproduction potential. We have even learned how to socially cooperate. Our brains have heuristics and symbolism. Our bodies are model-mapped in our brains, to make them useful. Models require information flows from reality, but can never be the external reality. We are always only a part. The world does not exist inside our heads, only its representations of our senses in coded forms, including our language and visual processing. Our construction and updating of models from our birth is called “learning”. Our internal models are always checked. Surprise is the shock we receive that leads us to update our internal models.
We are self deluded and self obsessed survival machines. Our growth and numbers make us collectively stupid, no matter how clever our models are. All our representational models are always going to be inexact in some way. Representation, like democracy, is never the real thing. “The truth is out there!”. And it always will be so. By carefully recording our prediction successes, and following good science practice, and having used up exponential growth to huge amounts of energy and people-effort-years we now have the opportunity to use these better model representations, and even use the better models we have about ourselves. Our models tell us we have growth too big. We should be listening to our models and collectively adjusting our behaviour, now that our models are telling us just how dangerous our global ecological overshoot actually is. As Professor William Rees tells it here, we know what we should be doing, and collectively we are not doing it.
“What we think of as the norm in our culture, is the single most anomolous or abnormal period in the history of the human species”. — Prof. William Rees.
Our personal models of biological and social fulfilment, our expectations, and entitlements, have been given by the abnormal conditions we grown up with. They are most likely to be very wrong, as setup by a singular brief unrepeatable place in global history. They are the resource consuming crazy things of technological civilization that we now take for granted. The “norms” of our political populations and status elites, and daily advertising, clash impossibly with the models our ecologists and climate scientists are telling us about.
The question is always which models are appropriate and useful, and which can be harmful. Which models are incompatible and cannot be sanely used at the same time. For models to be useful, a lot of external information has to be sifted and selected, chosen without bias to be coded into data. Data needs to processed in valid statistical ways to derive knowledge conclusions, and knowledge has to be integrated with other relevant experiential knowledge in order to choose actions wisely. We cannot safely regulate any part of reality for which we do not possess an accurate working model.
Science models published are generally confined to particular fields and systems of study. This tends to make most individual scientists reticent and conservative, in the service of maximising reliability of their reductionisms. This limits the political scope of individual model fragments, when it comes to managing complex systems like our biosphere. A publication on a limited topic generally confines itself to a few important and predictive parts of systems. Model predictions become much harder when all other parts of our complex systems are changing wildly at the same time.
So we have today’s world of overshoot storm approaching. I sympathize with Robert Hunziker, a leading environment journalist. He has written many fine articles, using validated science publications with models and observations about the wildly collapsing systems of our biosphere, and his personal contacts. This is all about the survival of our living world. He explains his feelings well in this professional interview done for Counterpunch with Eric Draitser, available on youtube here. This highlights important impacts of our industrial systems on our biosphere which are leading to widespread biological systems collapse. These are impacts on oceans, water, climate and human health of industrial systems pollutions, from which none of us can isolate ourselves. At the moment it seems our political systems are incapable of freeing themselves, because they are unable to relinquish power to the demands of nature. Our political and corporate systems do not even seem to recognise a need to draw back from further growth, or regulate their systems doing the most damage.
Each year, with more information from our declining biosphere systems, our future prospects become grimmer. Each year, more science models update their predictions, and make new publications and modelled pronouncements. Each year, our politicians carry one like nothing new has happened since 1945, to change our goals, although the scales of social wealth and power inequality, and political corruption grow heavier and far more unequal.
It is absolutely certain, and unforced decline is already certain, that global oil, coal and gas production must rapidly decline, to meet any meaningful modelled climate green house gas emission reductions targets. Recent updates to our models of our world, say we have to cut down much faster than anybody is going to like.
This recent nature paper, is conservative in its updated asks for emissions reduction, and even says so. “Unextractable fossil fuels in a 1.5 °C world”. Like any other narrowly scoped paper, it can only hint on broader system changes that contradict its hopes. For instance, if coal, oil and gas burning fall as the paper recommends, we still have a proportionate problem from the fall in the global production of sulfate and other fossil fuel burning aerosol pollutants that still today oppose part of our greenhouse effect. These particles interact with clouds and act as tiny reflectors to send the shorter wave radiation back into space, before is further trapped as longer wave heat by our greenhouse gases. This is like geo-engineering, that prevents the full impacts of current global warming potential. As our current radiation shielding gets unmasked, we shall likely find ourselves already further past 1.5°C of warming.
This conventional emissions reduction paper doesn’t mention our fossil fuel generated aerosol shield, and so makes a tacit assumption that some form of geo-engineering radiation management, or slowed fossil fuel abandonment could replace our pollution side-effects. The aerosol situation is complex, the reflection effect is about 0.6 to 0.9 Wm-2, and natural sources from increased fires, and hazes from heat waves, are also adding to the global mix. Even if we remove the worst coal fired stations, there will be other industrial and natural sources.
The prediction us of 3 per cent yearly, is so well suited for governments wanting to delay deliberate reductions in our fossil fuel usage. My takeaway is that we keep uptaking the severity of these model predictions, and within another five years, will have another increment in the quantity of fossil fuel reserves which must be left in the ground.
. . . we estimate that oil and gas production must decline globally by 3 per cent each year until 2050. This implies that most regions must reach peak production now or during the next decade, rendering many operational and planned fossil fuel projects unviable.
More of us are asking to half global emissions by 2030. We feel our survival risks. From 2020, last year, this requires a 7% reduction per year, which gets us to 25% by 2040 and 12.5% by 2050. This drastic decline will not make it “net-zero”. Magic offsets or carbon storage are still required after a 7% steady reduction. The maths is rather simple. You don’t need a paper published in Nature Mag to know this. (Doubling or halving time in years is 70 divided by % yearly growth or decline) 3 percent decline per year, leaves us with 70/3 = 23 years, to get half way to “net zero”. Bigger emissions reductions now will be much effective, will delay the years of extreme heat, much more than desperate climate-forced emissions reductions imposed by nature later on.
So 3 percent is most reluctant required reduction, and given what this model artfully leaves out, so much more is required. A 3 percent figure seems like wishful plugin figure from corporations, with assumed ideal steady rates of economic decline. This underestimates real oil systems and global ecosystems breakdown, which is risked in proportional to our overshoot extreme. The real world is unlikely to cooperate with a gentle let down. Global heating is already striking our global systems with costly blows. Currently energy markets are in a state of turmoil, as various supply shocks, some due to climate change weather impacts, bring up spectres of short and long term energy scarcity. As economic systems start to contract or collapse, feedback and dependency chains can collapse unpredictable and non-linear, bringing anguish to the last dinosaurs of fossil fuel investors. The banks may get broken, but much more serious is if our biosphere gets broken. The USA military empire has long been freaking insane.
Technically speaking, in our biosphere, we are in overshoot on multiple planetary boundaries, most of them invisible to our everyday senses and models. Our daily overshoot activities are mostly powered by fossil fuels. That is what we have to lose.
Richard Heinberg has produced another well researched and carefully worded book on the various “power” systems we have today, their history, and how they might work in future. It makes a large number of connections to our biological and social power systems, and human psychology and government. After all our mess, their must exist some explanations of how we got to here and why.
The “Power” book goes over the many system constraints, that we are all subject to, such that we will be forced to crash our fossil fuel systems down to almost zero. Richard Heinberg presents enough evidence to suggest that a decline in our fossil fuel power systems is our best option for our retreat from the cliff of global overshoot and future ecological collapse. It would also free up more resources, and allow more carbon emissions that need to be endured to manufacture of renewable energy systems, which sadly we do not have time or resources to scale up to the level which might actually cause absolute reductions in fossil fuel burning. Energy sources tend to be added rather than displace each other, as increases in the total power of the economic systems.
Suddenly, somehow, renewables other than hydro power are expected to replace the total energy of all of the three big fossil fuels in a short time frame, when the fossil fuels have had around a century head start of exponential growth. Do you really need be a math wizard to figure out it this is now impossible? Perhaps if we started forty years earlier? Especially since all renewable energy technology needs fossil fuel energy for materials mining, processing, distribution and manufacture with hard working national economies of scale to back them. Expecting such “green” progress are the delusions set up for us at the tail end of our anomalous growth situation.
The size of the task should not be a deterrent, as it seems to be still now. It should be an absolute indication of a switch of priorities from subsidizing fossil fuels, which is where all the corrupted political powers lie at the moment, to making our best efforts to start living like the future without fossil fuels. This will become a permanent feature of global civilisation in the future. Get used to it. The male patriarchy and industrial civilisation have made a real mess of our living world in their efforts to monopolize the powers of civilization. The dictators and luxuries of fossil fuel powers need to be disobeyed and overthrown. It is the richest in wealthy nations which are defending to the death their rights to kill us all with their life styles.
The power book also references works which describe the difficulty of overcoming existing regimes of power. It most be said that global fossil fuelled corporations and governments are the most unequally powerful entities that have ever existed in the history of human civilisation, having the capacity for both fast and slow destruction of our biosphere. On geological time scales our allotted unsustainable time on earth amounts to an eye-blink.
At the moment we, the western “developed” world, have a “leave it for China to make syndrome”, while at the same time making threats against China with hostile military encirclement, that drains national budgets away from doing anything about ecological overshoot and renewable energy transition. This is quite a schizoid complex we have here, which comes from the powerful being accustomed to millions of fossil fuel energy slaves, which replaced their slavery systems of two centuries ago. Perhaps future human slavery might be preferable to global human species extinction?
Net zero emissions by 2050, is too far away, too slow, and end up being too late. In setting this target, the global energy system is deciding on the slowest means of power collapse. This cannot wait. Greenhouse gas emission reductions have to start now and much faster. #ThisCantWait. Power down requires governments and corporations to stop competing to boost their power systems. This requires regulation and planning way beyond the trite ideologies of the rich and powerful. We face the problem that we have economic systems that know how to grow or collapse as the money comes and goes. A managed, disciplined, coordinated fossil fuels systems collapse is an unthinkable concept, that needs to be made a reality.
Please have some thought for use of the earth, and remaining fossil fuels, by future generations of humans. Fossil fuels can only disappear quicker, and cause even worse problems, the faster we burn them. Nature paths for taking back the carbon into the earth, require biological and geological processes that take a very long time. Our industrial carbon capture and storage methods are pathetic and laughable. Simple thermodynamic thought experiment says that on principle, successful global scaled CCS requires at least as much energy and time, as we already spent and wasted by producing all that carbon dioxide over the past two centuries. Actual experience shows CCS costs far too much energy and money for every tonne of CO2 buried.
A mistaken model process is our propensity to be too easily satisfied with a policy of carbon offsets, as if just a small extra monetary price, can alleviate hypothetical carbon guilt, such as on airline tickets and such like. Governments with corporate help seem to find ways to magnify carbon offsets up to the scale of their national carbon accounts. Which must be really difficult. Biological system carbon offsets, are promises of various future carbon reductions, that governments and corporations pretend to have. In reality offsets are pathetically miniscule compared to the yearly output of our greenhouse gas spewing systems. Offsets do nothing much to encourage us to seriously stop our GHG causing activities. Pretending carbon offsets are real and significant are polite accounting fictions used by today’s carbon responsibility dodging corporate and government systems. They have no more honesty than off-shore tax-avoidance schemes. For some corporations and individuals these may conveniently be the same thing. More impressive still are “Greenwashing” public relations, new work for million dollar advertising and media industry, which aims to reduce political pressure to have serious GHG emissions reductions.
Will COP26 be the beginning of real fossil fuel power systems decline? Or is it going to be another talk fest of greenwash tokenism from global stalwarts? How long before the global collapse systems brings political revolution for all nations at the same time?