The most important political document of the century is a computer simulation summary

To hell with black swans and military strategy. Our direst problems aren't caused by the unpredictable interplay of chaotic elements, nor by the evil plans of people who wish us ill. Global warming, worldwide soil loss, recurrent financial crisis, and global health risks aren't strings of bad luck or the result of terrorist attacks, they are the depressingly persistent outcomes of systems in which each actor's best choice adds up to a global mess.

It's well-known to economists as the tragedy of the commons: the marginal damage to you of pumping another million tons of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere is minimal compared with the economic advantages of all that energy, so everybody does it, so enough greenhouse gases get pumped that it's way to becoming a problem for everybody, yet nobody stops, or even slows down significantly, because that would do very little on its own, and be very hurtful to whoever does it. So there are treaties and conferences and increased fuel efficiency standards, just enough to be politically advantageous, but not nearly so far as to make a dent on the problem. In fact, we have invested much more on making oil cheaper than on limiting its use, which gives you a more accurate picture of where things are going.

Here is that picture, from the IPCC:


A first observation: Note that the A2 model, the one in which temperatures are raised an average of more than 3°, was the "things go more or less as usual" model, not the "things go radically wrong" model... and it was not the "unconventional sources makes oil dirt cheap" scenario. At this point, it might as be the "wildly optimistic" scenario.

A second observation: Just to be clear, because worldwide averages can be tricky: 3° doesn't translate to "slightly hotter summers"; it translates to "technically, we are not sure we'll be able to feed China, India, and so on." Something closer to 6°, which is beginning to look more likely as we keep doing the things we do, translates to "we sure will miss the old days when we had humans living near the tropics".

And a third observation: All of these reports usually end at the year 2100, even though people being born now are likely to be alive then (unless they live in a coastal city in a low latitude, that is), not to mention the grandchildren of today's young parents. This isn't because it becomes impossible to predict what will happen afterwards — the uncertainty ranges grow, of course, but this is still thermodynamics, not chaos theory, and the overall trend certainly doesn't become mysterious. It's simply that, as the Greeks noted, there's a fear that drives movement, and there's a fear that paralyzes, and any reasonable scenario for the 2100 is more likely to belong to the second kind.

But let's take a step back and notice the way this graph, which is the summary of multiple computer simulations, driven by painstaking research and data gathering, maps our options and outcomes in a way that no political discourse can hope to match. To compare it with religious texts would be wrong in every epistemological sense, but it might be appropriate in every political one. When "climate skeptics" doubt, they doubt this graph, and when ecologists worry, they worry about this graph. Neither the worry nor the skepticism is doing much to change the outcomes, but at least the discussion is centered not in an individual, a piece of land, or a metaphysical principle, but rather in the space of trajectories of a dynamical system of which we are one part.

It's not that graphs or computer simulations are more convincing than political slogans; it's just that we have managed a level of technological development and sheer ecological footprint that our own actions and goals (the realm of politics) has escaped the descriptive possibilities of pure narrative, and we are thus forced to recruit computer simulations to attempt to grapple, conceptually if nothing else, with our actions and their outcomes.

It's not clear that we will find our way to a future that avoids catastrophe and horror. There are possible ways, of course — moving completely away from fossil fuels, geoengineering, ubiquitous water and soil management and recovery programs, and so on. It's all technically possible, with huge investments, a global sense of urgency, and a ruthless focus on preserving and making more resilient the more necessary ecological services. That we're seeing nothing of the kind, but instead a worsening of already bad tendencies, is due to, yes, thermodynamics and game theory.

It's a time-honored principle of rhetoric to end an statement in the strongest, most emotionally potent and conceptually comprehensive possible way. So here it is:


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