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I agree, except that I don't even think it will be gradual.

The "tipping point" will be demonstrated by one of the three (previously four, but spiritual death now discounted) horsemen of the apocalypse. Personally I think the plague is the most likely to hit first, but there are plenty of indications that famine might be the winner (e.g. rapid growth of wheat rust). And with plenty of nukes still out there, and Russia and the U.S. way up there on the energy supplier list, there's a chance that the next phase of the oil wars might go over the edge. Any of these could kick in quite rapidly.

Not to mention climate change, overpopulation in general, and our unanimous western move towards fascism...

by asdf on Mon Aug 23rd, 2010 at 09:59:45 AM EST
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A couple of side points.

  1. The odds of nuclear war in the 60s and 80s were non-negligible. The reality-based bet would have been to expect wipe out. But that didn't happen, for various reasons.

  2. Western Culture has been completely poisoned by Christian notions of apocalypse. Bizarrely, this means that irrational fear of apocalypse is a huge driver of both political and financial policy. It seems to be literally impossible for the supposedly scientific and rational West to imagine a future without apocalypse now.

It's as if everyone is dreaming, and sustainable futures can only become thinkable after the nightmare runs to its inevitable conclusion.

But that plan is based on the supposedly rigid inevitability of narrative logic, and not on the more flexible not-quite-inevitability of rational planning for likely consequences.

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Mon Aug 23rd, 2010 at 10:11:20 AM EST
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Perhaps you're correct. However, human history seems to suggest that we are more likely to wait until it's too late before we decide to do anything. A fairly large percentage of scientists (with relevant expertise) are saying that we are close to the climate change tipping point. So when does the "not quite" part of not-quite-inevitability of rational planning kick in?

A decade from now is too late, so apparently the prediction is conservatives of the world will in the next half-decade do a voluntary about-face and become uber-conservationists?

by asdf on Mon Aug 23rd, 2010 at 09:27:01 PM EST
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Too late for what? Too late to make an easy transition to a sustainable economy? That's already the case. Too late to prevent the global climate from reaching a point where we can not predict its future behaviour from our present knowledge? Possibly. Too late to prevent the planet from becoming unsuitable for human habitation? I doubt it.

The notion that there is some cut-off after which apocalypse is inevitable is false. The apocalypse comes on a sliding scale from "mildly unpleasant" to "planetwide extinction event."1 We're already some way past the point where "mildly unpleasant" has become inevitable, but not even the most pessimistic modelling assumptions forecast that climate change will lead to global human extinction.

And the notion that there is some cut-off after which apocalypse is inevitable is unwise as well: We may have reached a cut-off point where it will be impossible to preserve species X and Y in their natural habitats, but we may be able to preserve species Y in artificial habitats and preserve species Z in its natural habitat. To simply throw our hands in the air and despair over that which it is too late to salvage is to abscond from our obligations to that which remains salvageable. (And, incidentally, to insist that the sky will fall if we do nothing NOW is apt to be "disproven" when we do nothing and human civilisation does not end - even if it continues in a poorer and much diminished form.)

The analogy with peak oil is appropriate, I think: Twenty to thirty years ago (the replacement time scale for most infrastructure), we reached the point where it became too late to take the easy way in dealing with declining future oil production. If we want to take the hard way, we'd better get started right about now. But even if we let the window of opportunity for dealing with peak oil the hard way close on us, there will still be a choice between more or less painful ways of dealing with it. Dithering may have ensured that there will be pain, but that does not mean that expeditious action won't prevent even greater pain.

- Jake

1Technically, we're already living through a planetwide extinction event - humans are an invasive species that displaces local fauna and alters habitats to an extent that causes mass extinction. But that is only tangentially related to the discussion of climate change.

Friends come and go. Enemies accumulate.

by JakeS (JangoSierra 'at' gmail 'dot' com) on Tue Aug 24th, 2010 at 02:49:17 AM EST
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"...not even the most pessimistic modelling assumptions forecast that climate change will lead to global human extinction."

By itself, climate change does not threaten human extinction. That is, we are not going to fry to death on a 200 degree earth. However, the side effects are likely to. I'm sure you're aware of that people like Frank Fenning, James Hansen, and James Lovelock, reputable and knowledgeable scientists, do discuss openly the likelihood of a massive human extinction event within the lifetimes of people alive today.

http://www.physorg.com/news196489543.html

The problem is that there is so much inertia in the systems, both political and atmospheric, that quite drastic decisions made today can only lessen the horrors of 2100.

http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2010/06/climate-change-commitment-ii/

There is an interesting point here about risk management: Is it better to tell the whole truth, and risk panic, or is it better to tread a careful line and hope to convince people to do what is needed, even after the point of no return has been reached?

by asdf on Tue Aug 24th, 2010 at 10:23:41 AM EST
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Judging by earlier collapses, I think extinction is unlikely even in the case of civilization collapsing. (Unless a collapse triggers all-out nuclear war.) A collapse could kill something like 99,99% and you would still have 600 000 humans getting by somehow. Plenty enough to survive for a race of large mammals, at least 20 times as many as there are currently pandas in the world.

asdf:

There is an interesting point here about risk management: Is it better to tell the whole truth, and risk panic, or is it better to tread a careful line and hope to convince people to do what is needed, even after the point of no return has been reached?

To convince a person, you have to meet them where he or she is, not where you are. So unless you are in the privileged position to talk to humanity all at once, I do not think that really is choice.

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by A swedish kind of death on Wed Aug 25th, 2010 at 03:59:18 PM EST
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