April 04, 2009 | Ronda Jambe

R U Non-Linear?

Of course you are. Nearly everything is non-lnear, including the intricate braiding of water tumbling from a faucet, if you have ever observed that in fascination. If your heart is healthy, this means it displays subtle fluctuations around a stable pattern, rather than machine-like rhythm. Such patterns, like the distribution of leaves on a tree, or the flow of traffic on a freeway, are the ‘strange attractors’ of chaos theory. Today chaos theory is more generally referred to as complex adaptive systems (CAS), but the marvels they unfold apply to all dimensions of life, including the social and economic, as well as the physics of everyday objects and events.
Economics is especially non-linear. This means, among other things, that there is a fundamental unpredictability in the world. Hardly what Descartes had in mind. Mathematically, the liklihood of surprise is unquestioned. The general way forward (which is either a tautology or an oxymoron, take your pick) can be seen in its broad outlines, but the details must remain hazy. Otherwise we would all be rich!
Climate change is subject to the same universal laws of non-linearity: how big our picture is depends on the scale from which we view it. Some have argued that overall temperatures seem to be plateauing, and therefore global warming is a furphy. But a new study, described here: http://dotearth.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/04/03/cool-spells-in-a-warming-world/?ref=science demonstrates that a period of a decade or two is insufficient for determining longer term patterns in the climate. Minor coolings, consistent with the subtle variations described above as part of CAS, can occur within a bigger pattern of warming.
If we can agree on anything, it has to be that the era of human dominance on this planet, the Anthropocene, has been but a whisker in the Earth’s history. To look at a tiny sliver of our own time is misleading, just as the starts and jerks of the stock market in response to relativly trivial information is silly but typical of our species.
Bifurcation, or sudden break with the past and entry into a new regime, is another feature of CAS. Think 9/11 and the changes that it brought. Or Hurricane Katrina – life has never been the same for those who were affected, as it never will be for Victorians after the recent fires.
Those who have their fortunes on the line are slowly coming to terms with the risks. Thus, the EU has released a white paper about the impacts of climate change. The EU is arguing for adaptation, and has identified the most vulnerable areas.
Another report, from a network of insurers concerned about climate change, looks to both the risks and opportunities for the industry (http://www.eenews.net/public/25/10429/features/documents/2009/04/03/document_cw_01.pdf)
While Munich Re, the world’s largest reinsurer, is laying off about 1000 staff, the industry overall sees that their adaptation to climate change will involve new products and services. Their awakening has been slow, but it is happening.
Unfortunately, the Rudd government is not waking up to the need to encourage adaptation. Proposals to triple the coal export facilities in Newcastle are nothing short of insane. If you were told to stop smoking, would you buy a few cartons duty free? If you were told you need a hip operation, would you then run a marathon?
Last night we saw the new version of The Day the Earth Stood Still. Without giving it all away, it plays on the idea that humans can change, and adapt in response to crisis. Once the alarm is clearly sounded, all can proceed in a direct (and linear) path to salvation.
In ‘Al Qaeda and what it means to be Modern’, pessimistic philosopher John Gray suggests otherwise. He says the believe in progress and redemption that characterised the Enlightenment and all political movements from the Positivists to the Communists is just a secular version of Christianity. I’m not sure, but there is nothing in anything I read these days that leads me to believe the future can be taken for granted, either personally or on the larger scale of Australia, or the world. Creative destruction indeed, who knows? From a certain perspective, we are all peasants, and our garden is huge.
table wi rhubarb.jpg

Posted by Ronda Jambe at 11:28 am | Comments (3) |
Filed under: Environment


  1. Hi Ronda,
    Although I am a scientist/engineer with both specific and general expertise in all things “water” (my research interest is land/ocean/atmosphere coupled systems), I would never claim to fully understand the complexities that regulate global climate patterns. Rather, I defer to the expertise of the vast majority of ‘climate scientists’ who do. I think their position is pretty unambiguous; the major driver of our current global warming stems from the combustion of fossil fuels (and other positive feedbacks associated with that) and misuse of our natural resources – we know this mainly from isotope and attribution studies. Put simply, humanity is pouring more carbon into the atmosphere than the oceans and terrestrial biosphere can absorb. This is what the ‘numbers’ are telling us.
    I know very few genuine scientists who take a different position, but the ones that do are the outliers. Nevertheless, science does not function by consensus and we are the most self-critical lot that one can imagine. In a very robust conference I was recently involved with, there were all kinds of hypotheses presented on global warming – with participants providing empirical support for some findings, and refuting others.
    I’ve learned that accepted hypotheses typically only emerge over large spatial and/or temporal scales. Look at the carbon, nitrogen or phosphorus cycles we learn about in school, for example. These cycles (until humans started disrupting them) were pretty stable over large expanses of the planet. It’s the same with respect to climate. When someone claims that anthropogenic global warming (AGW) is a myth because they are having a cool summer in their part of the world, they are mistaking stochasticity (unpredictability over a short time frame) with determinism (predictable phenomena). In other words, weather is not climate. Really, we need to look for trends over more appropriate scales of space and time.
    This is what most climate researchers are telling us now. The global climate is largely deterministic, and it should take a major forcing to lead to the kinds of rapid changes that have occurred since about 1800, and even more rapid since the mid 1900’s. If you look at the ten years preceding the 1998 ‘spike’ in temperature, and the ten following years to the present, a worrying pattern emerges. If we perform a simple linear regression, it becomes clear that GW (‘climate-change’ if you prefer) is a reality – notwithstanding all the brouhaha generated at the Heartland Institute’s latest gabfest.
    For such a deterministic system to have changed by 0.5 -0.7 degrees in the mere space of 30-50 years is quite exceptional, given the size of the system. Of course, some regional variations are much more extreme than that (the Arctic and West Antarctic for example, or even here in Oz).
    Drawing on your article, nature is generally pretty resilient and pliable when impacted by a suite of stresses, particularly over large time scales. However, let’s be brutally honest here, humanity has pretty much been conducting an experiment on eco-systems that we barely understand. Eco-systems function in profoundly non-linear ways; thus the change in one minor component in the system (such as the introduction of an exotic species like cane toads, or interfering with the movement of pollinators and seed dispersers) has been shown to reverberate throughout the system and to have significantly negative effects on the functioning (and persistence) of the system.
    Ecologists would argue that their science is the most complex of the sciences (climatologists may disagree) because ecological systems function non-linearly. This means that we can alter and simplify systems considerably without noticing any kind of effects until there is a sudden and dramatic shift (tipping point if you like) and then it becomes too late to do anything about it. For the impacts from climate change, we may see things like more flooding, more salinity problems, more mosquitoes, less ice, less polar bears, more female turtles, etc. Some scientists are now worried about such “tipping points” as they relate to catastrophic climate change.
    What I can say about AGW is that we should expect surprises – big, nasty ones. Climate change is likely to exacerbate other stresses that humanity is inflicting on complex adaptive ecological systems across the biosphere. I for one don’t think it prudent to experiment on systems that sustain us to the breaking (or tipping) point. Therefore, until we better understand how these complex systems function, I believe that we (humanity) should tread carefully. Otherwise, what we are doing is crossing our fingers and hoping that technology will undo any of the problems that technology, and excess consumption amongst the privileged few, has caused in the first place.
    I have been confronted by sceptics who argue that we need 100% proof before any kind of mitigation should be considered. Without this proof, they claim that the ‘problem does not exist, it is not that bad, or we can’t do anything about it’. I’ve faced this type of logic on issues such as diminishing water resources, drinking water quality, loss of biodiversity, and climate change. Nevertheless, our understanding of the functioning of ecosystems or climate change science – given their immense complexity and the lack of enough people to study every subtle and not-so-subtle nuance in them – is in its infancy. To fully understand the effects of the human assault across the atmosphere, oceans and terrestrial biosphere would cost many billions of dollars – which will never be funded.
    We do have evidence of very worrying trends, which in my view, given the importance of the planet in sustaining us, should be enough to prompt swift action. But, against this background are those who “don’t want to believe” or who profit from ‘business-as-usual’, those who think about the next profit margin or election result. They are doing everything in their power to maintain the status quo, irrespective of the costs to future generations who will inherit a biologically and ecologically impoverished world. The costs of continuing along this course are likely to be enormous. This future world will be more prone to environmental disasters, and everyone will suffer. Humanity should do everything in its power to ensure that this does not happen, this is risk management. The world must develop in a more environmentally sustainable way, all else follows.
    By the way, the vast body of experts are not ‘alarmists’ (although the message is alarming) – they tell it like it is; the messengers so to speak. What the policy makers, captains of industry and people in the street do with that message is up to them, but as we have seen from the so called ‘denialists’ on Graham Young’s OLO and other blog sites – some want to kill the messenger and trounce the message. This is why not many of us get embroiled in public forums (and if we do it is with some form of anonymity), we do have an otherwise normal life.

    Comment by Q&A — April 4, 2009 @ 5:02 pm

  2. Thank you for that detailed and dispassionate assessment. You have provided the scientific background that underlies my somewhat more nervous musings. I too fear a tipping point is near, or rather, that we have already passed several of them, yet our slumber continues. How much clearer can the signs be before we change course in the dramatic ways that are needed? Hanging on to our coal exports won’t save us in the longer term, and not preparing for that reality will make it worse.

    Comment by ronda jambe — April 5, 2009 @ 8:24 am

  3. Ronda, I do what I can where and when I can. However, my optimism is tempered by the, um, er … ‘human condition’. This in itself I can come to terms with. What I find sickeningly abhorrent is that through humanity’s actions (and inaction), we as a species will have such an adverse impact on the future environment and its biodiversity.
    I too have had musings, on the four horsemen of the apocalypse … isn’t Graham’s OLO great! He and his team deserve kudos, especially in this special anniversary year.

    Comment by Q&A — April 7, 2009 @ 6:08 pm

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