The Bigger Picture

UPDATE: In the comment thread, a science journalist living in Pakistan weighs in with additional perspective.

In an essential post examining some of the underlying causes of the recent horrendous floods in Pakistan, Judith Curry and Peter Webster note:

Most of the response of the climate research community to this catastrophe has focused on the attribution of the floods, i.e. whether greenhouse warming played any role in causing the floods.

As Joe Romm approvingly writes, the media picked up on the global warming angle. In other climate concerned blogs, the floods in Pakistan (along with the Russia summer heat wave) were seen as anomalous events linked to greenhouse warming.

For some necessary larger context, let’s go to Thomas Homer-Dixon, in a radio interview earlier this week:

Recently, in Pakistan, we’ve seen enormous floods, and some real questions about the viability of the state as a whole, the possibility now many people are discussing is the country disingregating into regions, and perhaps civil war, or an extremist takeover of some kind…

Its interesting, that in the recent commentary on the floods, very few people have mentioned that one of the reasons the floods have been so bad is that the absorbtion capacity of the hinterland, of the forests, has been reduced substantially because there has been so much deforestation in the country, that the siltation of the waterways and reservoirs has made them much more vulnerable to being overwhelmed by higher runnoff with an extreme monsoon like this, and  the siltation is the result of deforestation and bad land management, that has allowed a lot of the silt to move into those waterways. Few people have commented on just the sheer population pressures in Pakistan. This is a country that has done one of the worst jobs in family planning in the world. And the population pressure in itself, has made managing economic development, managing the land, managing the forests effectively, far more difficult.

Now, population, deforestation, land management, desalinization of the agricultural land, all of these factors are part of the mix. And a mix that includes things like corruption, institutional failure, the role of the military, a political system that is completely dysfunctional. So what happens in the standard analysis that you see in newspapers is that people focus on the variables they’re most comfortable with.

Those comments come near the end of the interview (which is well worth listening to) at about the 55 minute mark. Homer-Dixon has many other interesting things to say, some of which dovetails with Curry’s recent post on uncertainty. In the interview, Homer-Dixon talks about climate change (it’s a classic “wicked” problem), geoengineering (it might ultimately be necessary), and the need for people to better understand and learn to live

in a world replete with unknown unkowns.

For those who prefer text to audio, much of what Homer-Dixon discusses in the radio interview is contained in this talk, which is titled, “The Great Transformation: Climate Change as Cultural Change.”  It is well worth reading.

What I find appealing about Homer-Dixon’s arguments is that’s he’s not caught up in the politics and rhetoric of the climate change debate. He’s taking the meta approach, which is on display here in that talk I just cited:

One of the deep institutional and political challenges humankind faces in coming decades is to provide for better democratic problem solving–to raise our collective intelligence, so to speak. I don’t necessarily mean the formal procedural democracy that we’re familiar with in western societies, but real democracy at the level of community decision making. We are not going to make genuine progress solving our largescale environmental, climate, economic, and social problems unless we can mobilize people, and coordinate their problem solvoing capacity, through new democratic processes.

These new processes might apply some of the lessons learned in the open source movement that has produced Wikipedia, for instance. There are many potential obstacles to such an endeavor. Somehow, though, we need to create communities that are smarter rather than stupider that the sum of their parts.

Here is something that gives me a little hope: At the very time that our species faces some of the biggest challenges it has ever faced in its history–perhaps THE biggest challenges is has ever faced–we happen to have developed a rudimentary technological infrastructure for species-wide democracy. It’s the Internet. But we don’t use this technology effectively. Outside of phenomena like Wikipedia, the Internet is mainly a venue for a cacophony of narcisissm. We blog at each other, bully each other, and flame away. This behavior doesn’t create anything larger than the sum of our parts.

This pathetic outcome isn’t inevitable, but changing it is going to require some deep rethinking of what forms of political engagement we as citizens undertake in our societies.

What do you think? Is Homer-Dixon on to something here?

32 Responses to “The Bigger Picture”

  1. Yes, Homer-Dixon has certainly identified the problem well enough.
    Our problems used to be decoupled, and could be solved one by one. As the world becomes filled with artifacts and emptied of natural systems, our problems become coupled and systemic.
    We need better tools for cooperative thinking, for collective creativity and collective hypothesis-testing. The internet provides an infrastructure, but, as with other media, its uses seem to quickly be dominated by entertainment and trivia. The models of open source and of science offer some clues as to how this might be achieved. But it’s a very tall order and needs some serious thought.

  2. David44 says:

    “a cacophony of narcissism” – An instant classic!

  3. Shub says:

    “use” the Internet?

    These pre-‘Internet’ guys are funny.

    KK, This person wants to “use” the Internet as a means to “deeply rethink” to find means of “redistribution of wealth, income, and opportunity for growth”.

  4. Hector M. says:

    I’m just back from Pakistan, working with the UN on long term planning for recovery after these floods and better protection against such events in the future. The facts about deforestation and silting mentioned by Homer-Dixon are absolutely right. I’ve heard some talk about Himalayan glaciers melting and causing an increase in water draining towards the sea, which is of course rubbish: the glaciers have been melting for decades now, at a very slow annual rate, and this is a one-time event that could not conceivably have been caused by a slowly evolving process like deglaciation. Besides, the accelerated rate of deglaciation apparently occurring in the 1990s has also apparently slowed down now in the wake of the “global cooling” period in this past decade. Better watershed conservation and reforestation, and some more family planning, would do wonders (fertility has actually decreased in recent decades, but veeeeery slowly in comparison with other countries).

  5. David44 says:

    Interesting and provocative post (via Reddit) at New Scientist by Michael Marshall entitled “The sun Joins the Climate Club” which might even be related to the Pakistan floods (my speculation; not his).  It describes new research on changes in solar intensity which do affect climate (though supposedly still not sufficient to account for  the rise of global temperatures since the early 20th century on the sun.”)

    So far, three mechanisms have come to light (see diagram). The best understood is what is known as the top-down effect, described by Mike Lockwood, also at the University of Reading, and Joanna Haigh of Imperial College London. Although the sun’s brightness does not change much during solar maxima and minima, the type of radiation it emits does. During maxima the sun emits more ultraviolet radiation, which is absorbed by the stratosphere.This warms up, generating high-altitude winds. Although the exact mechanism is unclear, this appears to have knock-on effects on regional weather: strong stratospheric winds lead to a strong jet stream.
    The reverse is true in solar minima, and THE EFFECT IS PARTICULARLY EVIDENT IN EUROPE, WHERE MINIMA INCREASE THE CHANCES OF EXTREME WEATHER.  INDEED, THIS YEAR’S COLD WINTER AND THE RUSSIAN HEATWAVE IN JULY HAVE BEEN LINKED TO THE SUN’S CURRENT LULL, which froze weather systems in place for longer than normal.” [emphasis mine, of course]
    … more in the article on the other mechanisms and a quote from Gavin Schmidt.

  6. keith kloor says:

    Thanks for sharing your on-site perspective. Given the existing degradation from deforestation and poor land management, which Homer-Dixon cites, I’d be curious to hear more about what kind of long-rang planning and mitigation the U.N is doing.

  7. Mason Inman says:

    I’m a science journalist who has been living in Pakistan the past couple of years, and I think Homer-Dixon is absolutely right. I wrote an article about the long-term changes that contributed to the flooding, for National Geographic News:
    “Pakistan Flooding Because of Farms?”
    The experts I spoke with didn’t bring up deforestation as a major cause of increased silt load in the rivers. It does make sense, though. But even without this deforestation, the silt load in the rivers would still be pretty high, I think, and because of the extensive damming and containment of rivers with embankments, this silt gets deposited on the river beds and reduces the amount of water they can carry. This means that the rivers become progressively more prone to flood.
    I’d be very surprised if the government in Pakistan or any of the international aid groups (including the UN) have any kind of serious long-range plans for dealing with these problems, which have been building up since the British started building Pakistan’s irrigation system in the mid-1800s.

  8. Keith Kloor says:

    Mason, thanks for the link to your story and for stopping by.
    Another component of this discussion which I didn’t include comes from Homer-Dixon’s additional comments on Pakistan in that radio interview: how difficult it is to tease out all these intertwined causes to determine a primary forcing action. I would certainly throw climate change into the mix, though interestingly, he doesn’t mention it at all in the context of his Pakistan comments.
    Anyway, for me, the multi-causal nature of such disasters, which is highlighted in a place like Pakistan, points up the need for us to treat it as a complex situation, rather than simplistically. Those who call Pakistan another Katrina–e.g., another poster child for global warming–consciously gloss over that complexity to advance a political and rhetorical argument.

  9. Katrina was also complex. Climate change is only a piece of the sustainability problem, though a particularly intractable and pervasive one.
    I am worried about the opposite problem. If one can describe a situation that obviously had an extraordinary meteorological anomaly at its core as a failure of mundane regional planning, it is often used by those of us here, far behind the lines, to draw attention <em>away</em> from climate change, even if that event would have been entirely impossible in the absence of climate change, which is arguably the case here.
    There is rarely a catastrophe of the magnitude of Katrina or the Pakistan flood without multiple contributing causes. In retrospect, many of them will clearly be seen as mistakes. But the existence of those mistakes can’t be allowed to be used to distract from the underlying stresses.
    As an analogy, it may be a mistake to wander alone and unarmed through a rough neighborhood where you obviously don’t belong. But if you are attacked, that mistake doesn’t relieve your attacker of culpability.

  10. “Using” the internet may be a clumsy way of stating the vast array of possibilities (and problems) raised by the technology of universal too-cheap-to-meter publication. But it’s real enough. The historical moment is a collision between unprecedented global communication and unprecedented intricacy and salience of global problems.
    Can the one ameliorate the other? I think so and I hope so. I see little else on the horizon that is especially hopeful.

  11. DeNihilist says:

    Dr. MT @ 9,

    or we could look at this in the mirror and ask, “if the conditions on the ground were actually up to modern standards, would this flooding have sparked any debate at all?”

    The use of disasters to promote the politics of CC (as an example) are exactly why people are tuning out of the belief in CC.   

  12. kdk33 says:

    Extreme weather has been part of the human condition from the beginning.  a-posteriori claims that certain events can be attributed, in whole or part, to CO2 emissions are… not compelling (to be kind).

    Interesting also that CO2 can cause a dizzying array of harmful weather, but somehow can’t be linked with anything good.

  13. Keith Kloor says:

    Michael (9),

    I’m going to be charitable and say that your stance on the Pakistan floods (and Katrina) can be explained by this Homer-Dixon passage that I quoted from (my emphasis):

    So what happens in the standard analysis that you see in newspapers is that people focus on the variables they’re most comfortable with.

    That would be equally true for climate bloggers like you and Romm.

  14. #s 11 and 12 are not unintelligent but they are misinformed. Alas, they are off the present topic, but I am loathe to leave them unanswered.
    The answer is essentially the same to both. Human civilization emerged in a period of quite unusual climate stability. We are really unprepared for the amount of change we are asking for. More CO2 or less CO2 would be equally disruptive at the present rates. There are also other disruptive anthropogenic changes on a global scale. The climate is beginning to wander through regimes with which we are unfamiliar; indeed it is likely to wander through regimes which haven’t even been seen before humans came along. This will be experienced on the ground as extreme weather.
    There is no solid argument that the extremely unusual jet stream configuration of this summer would have been impossible in the absence of anthropogenic change, but there is also no argument to the contrary. Coming on the heels of an extremely unusual summer in Australia the previous year at least should cause us to sit up and take notice. Are we going to see warm seasons the likes of which we have never seen before on a very large scale?
    This is an open question. The issue is not an optimum level of CO2 or of aerosols; these may indeed have a wide range. The issue is the rate of change. Even if we assume a continued quasi-equilibrium of climate (which I would question) once the forcing changes fast enough the year-over-year changes start to be big enough that we will pass through many climates. This year’s climate made a huge persistent high pressure “ridge” over western Asia that we haven’t seen before. Next year’s may do something different.
    What economists and politicians consider “business as usual” geophysics regards as accelerating change. The question is not whether large, unusual, severe weather events will be unambiguously associated with this change. The question is only when. If the answer is “already”, we are in deeper trouble than we thought.
    In short, my answer is fundamentally conservative. We should begin with a presumption that overly rapid change is dangerous. At some level, this applies to the physical environment every bit as much as to the social one. All indications are that what is normally called “business as usual” is radically and dangerously transformative and leads to increasingly uncertain and disruptive conditions.

  15. Keith, what is my stance on Katrina in your opinion?

  16. Keith Kloor says:

    Michael (15),

    Based on the way you included it in your comment on Pakistan, I’m inferring that you believe Katrina also has greenhouse gas link. Whereas I believe that was a disaster that owed primarily to sociopolitical causes, compounded in the extreme by inept govt response (on both state and federal level). Oh yeah, the Army Corp of Engineers played a bit role too, if you catch my drift.

    But by all means, if I’ve mischaracterized your stance, please point me to a post where you lay out your thoughts on Katrina.

  17. Tom Fuller says:

    What on earth would lead anyone to think we humans are incapable of adapting to climate change? In 1990, the EPA estimated a one-time cost of $400 billion over 110 years to prepare for the IPCC’s predicted sea level rise. Chump change.
    And we’ve had a lot of practice dealing with severe weather and changes in sea level at local and regional levels.  I really am at a loss to understand this degree of pessimism. It’s almost fatalism.
    It will cost money. It will require work. People will have to move. There will be some disasters. And we will adapt and overcome.
    Unless your heart is set (because your mind surely could not be) on cataclysmic melting of either Greenland or Antarctica, there… will… be… no… catastrophe.
    I want us to do the smart things now. I want to lessen the impacts. I want to prepare in an intelligent way. But we did not put the EPA’s plan in motion–possibly because the most alarmed were saying the IPCC’s projections of SLR were hopelessly inadequate.
    So we did nothing.

  18. I mentioned Katrina because you mentioned her. That said, I find the topic a deeply fascinating one.
    Katrina itself, though, like the floods in Nashville or southern Europe this year taken in isolation, is merely an “ordinary extraordinary” event. These things have clearly occurred in the course of ordinary climate, and it’s not going ot be possible to ascribe any individual event to anthropogenic forcing. That they are rare is of no consequence; it’s a big world and rare events are always happening somewhere.
    The hurricane season of which Katrina was a part is indeed the sort of climate anomaly that we should be paying attention to, with the intention of figuring out whether these sorts of extreme outlier seasons are becoming more frequent. It’s a tricky issue, deciding whether the climate system has “rolled a 13”, i.e., entered a configuration which would not be meaningfully possible without new dice. So I would put the hurricane season of 2005 in the same category as last summer in Australia or this summer in Asia, as possibly outside the nomral range. This is a question which deserves careful thought.
    Are we already facing disasters as a consequence of climate change? It’s not a question that can easily be answered either way. It’s certainly not definitive yet. But if I had to place my bets, I think history will use the year 2000 as a convenient date to indicate the transition from a natural climate to a man-made one, though that might appear a little early on the ground.
    The main lesson of Katrina, though, isn’t climate change. It is to listen to expertise even when the experts say something inconvenient. It is to pay more attention to facts than to the political and philosophical symbols which may or may not represent those facts.
    Katrina is in the history books not because it was a bad storm. It is in the history books because the infrastructure had been neglected, and because the evacuation was botched. In short because the political leadership at all levels was out of touch with reality.
    So Katrina provides an excellent model for how the political process is failing us now on climate and on other sustainability issues. Katrina shows us how “business as usual” leads to cataclysm when the public and their representatives are selfish, short-sighted, willfully ignorant and lazy.
    She provided us with a clear lesson that we unfortunately appear incapable of learning.

  19. Keith Kloor says:

    Michael, everything you say about the main lesson of Katrina I fully agree with.

  20. kdk33 says:

    Here on earth.  The lesson of Katrina is :  If you live below sea level in a coastal village and a really big storm is coming, you should leave.

    It is not a metaphor for climate science.

  21. Keith Kloor says:

    kdk33: I don’t think Katrina is metaphor for climate change (not climate science, as you say), but I also don’t think that’s the only lesson.

  22. kdk33 says:


    “Change”, you’re right.  My bad.

    OTOH, I don’t think there are any other lessons.  It was an emotional time.  FEMA proved to be a bumbling beauracracy, but no better or worse than should be expected.

    No person less than 6″ above ground can make a straight-faced claim they weren’t told to leave, or weren’t warned of the danger…  I’ve a vivid memory of Mayor Nagin pleading with people to leave.

    Other “lessons” are, I think, disappointments stemming from an incorrect expectation that government be a force for good we can call upon to make everythingk OK.

    It isn’t, and it can’t.

  23. Keith Kloor says:

    Here’s a post I’ve just come across that provides a nice overview of the Homer-Dixon radio interview.

  24. harrywr2 says:

    “We are not going to make genuine progress solving our largescale environmental, climate, economic, and social problems unless we can mobilize people, and coordinate their problem solvoing capacity, through new democratic processes.”
    We have something called ‘free markets’ which co-ordinate peoples problem solving capacity.
    Collective decision making has always been poor. The board of Xerox thought the ‘mouse’ was a terrible idea…some nobody named Jobs thought it was a great idea.
    The board of directors at IBM thought investing in an operating system for their ‘PC line’ which wasn’t going to sell very well was stupid. Some nobody named Bills Gates invested chump change in a ‘PC’ operating system instead.
    Governments had been investing big bucks in realizing ‘powered flight’ for decades when two high school dropouts named Wilbur and Orville Wright figured it out by themselves.
    In the real world, a consensus of ‘we should do something’ frequently ends up in practice that ‘no one will do anything’.

  25. Gaythia says:

    Collective decision making is what enabled the now massive  irrigation projects that turned the Indus river valley (or that of the Mississippi and others) into agricultural powerhouses.  Beginning with the ancient cradles of agriculture such as in the Tigris Euphrates basin, it is the need for collective action which drives the development of great civilizations.   Unfortunately, the very decisions that drive early success can’t be sustained indefinitely.  River valleys need to flood, that is what makes them fertile in the first place.  A new approach becomes necessary but the old methods are now embedded in place.
    I think that developing  a public understanding of sustainability at a global level occurs through enhancing understanding at the local level and projecting outward.  In the case of disasters such as flood or fire, starting with  ” real democracy at the level of community decision making” can get people involved at the local level.  Each step that individuals can take (and should take) locally naturally links to a more regional step.  It becomes clear to people that they cannot protect themselves by themselves.   I believe that ultimately, global awareness flows naturally from local awareness.

  26. willard says:

    > In the real world, a consensus of “˜we should do something’ frequently ends up in practice that “˜no one will do anything’.
    The stories preceding this conclusion disproves it.  What the stories show is that some nobodies will do something anyway, however consensus operates, or not.

  27. Gaythia says:

    I believe that the following article from one of my l0cal newspapers does a pretty good job at  presenting the narrative to the public about earlier snowmelt and its impacts on Colorado river flow.   This starts with dust and land management issues and then moves on to explain how climate change could contribute to the impact on water supplies.


  28. Andy says:

    Off topic, but I thought you might find this amusing.

  29. Keith Kloor says:

    Andy, thanks for the prompt. I had glanced at it but now read in entirety. It seems to go along with with this post by Ed Wong, which I’ve been thinking a lot about and want to say more on at some point.

    BTW, check out this site, in particular this post, both of which I think you’ll find of interest.

  30. Andy says:

    Thanks for the links!  The lay scientist piece reminded me of this Charlie Booker classic.

  31. willard says:

    Thank you for making my day.

  32. dbleader61 says:

    This discussion clearly points pernicious effects of unconstrained espousement  of CAGW – it blinds us all to the real reasons for disaster – inadequate preparation for the vagaries of climate – man made or not. 

    An oft reference defense of ascribing to CAGW is that “it can’t hurt, we will get benefits from reducing dependence on fossil fuels, etc. etc.”  Perhaps there are benefits but there are also opportunity “costs” that have to be weighed against those supposed benefits.  In the mad rush to adopt extremely expensive mitigative strategies we are forgoing a lot of adaptation (infrastructure investments) that truly represent a “no regrets” approach. 

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