Complex Systems Theory and Climate Change: Huh?

Mayors climate protection center logoClimate change is the popular environmental problem of today’s generation. In the 70s it was concern over pesticides (thanks to Rachel Carson), in the 80s sustainable development entered our lexicon, and today it is climate change. The biggest problem is that for the first time, the generational environmental problem is one that is global in nature. Climate change affects GLOBAL average temperatures, not local plant and animal life, nor local and regional communities. That climate change is global in nature means that while the causes of climate change are local in nature (leaving the car running while you run into the store to buy a quart of milk), the effects of climate change are either much more global (potentially the melting of the ice caps and rising sea levels) or tend to affect people in far parts of the world (new weather patterns leading to failing crops and/or changing growth patterns).

This causal dichotomy seems to be rooted in the difference in between cause and effect from both a time and distance point of view. The decisions we make are day-to-day, but the effects of these decisions are not felt for months (or years), and possibly are never felt by us, but by others living on the other side of the world. Scientists like to call this idea “complexity”, and I think that’s a pretty good name.

How is climate change a “complex” problem? Well, as a global problem that is caused by human activity, its causes tend to be rooted locally and in the short-term, but the effects tend to be at the global level and are much more long-term thanks to the length of time it takes for the biosphere to process excess carbon.

So just as the causes are local and quick moving, solutions need to be able to be nimble and focussed. They need to address personal transportation choices, personal and local energy choices, and local and immediate lifestyle choices. Where are the solutions coming from? Well, I would say that while the effective ones are just what I’ve listed above, the ones we hear about are the ineffective, global and longer-term. They look at a global problem and attempt to develop global solutions.

It’s why I laugh when people complain that our national leaders are not making enough efforts to combat climate change. They can’t! If you want political leaders who will have an influence on climate change, it’s the municipal leaders who expand the road network instead of putting money into public transportation, or the regional leaders who approve more single-family housing developments and oppose mixed-use housing. These are the individuals that we should be trying to influence; these are the individuals who can make the local-based decisions that will have global solutions.

More on this topic in a future post. In the meantime, let’s hear from you in the comments: is climate change a complex problem with complicated solutions that should be addressed only by leaders at a national level? Or, is there room for local leadership (elected and unelected) to help solve this problem?

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  1. Patrick

    While leaders at a municipal level can have some effect via public transport, far too many people are sub or “exurban”. And you are not going to influence these local leaders to make decisions any differently. Public transport = higher taxes, mixed land use = fewer kickbacks; call me cynical but these things aren’t going to happen.

    You can either change American culture and demography or promote, via tax credits and research grants, cleaner technologies. You are getting the same emissions from an electric passenger vehicle as you are from electric public transport. A house can be as inefficient as you want so long as it’s powered by wind and solar. We can’t change America, but it is possible to change how our consumer culture impacts the global climate, and that requires national solutions.

  2. Andy Robinson

    Complex (non-linear) systems theory applies to climate because of the interactive complexity (number of variables and the ways they are interrelated) and tight coupling (the unforeseen ways these variables interact to produce emergent outcomes).

    No human can encompass climate, nor enumerate all the variables, nor even approach enumerating all the possible interactions. Thus, we are reduced to empirically based computer models that produce less and less accurate results as the prediction moves further out in time. Thus, climate change models of the 1980s wildly overestimated the rate of temperature increase by the 2000s. This is partially because the various sequestration mechanisms were not fully understood or fully implemented in these models (and never will be, because they themselves are complex systems). But even today’s improved models will not predict climate outcomes with much better accuracy, and if you doubt this consider the various models used for meteorology and how their probability cones disperse over time.

    What we can say with some confidence is that a) humans produce enough carbon to affect CO2 levels, and that b) all other factors being equal, more CO2 will eventually produce global warming (“eventually” because of climatological inertia). But the other factors aren’t equal. We don’t understand all of them, nor will our understanding allow us to predict with any greater precision.

    In short, cataclysmic outcomes calling for major social and economic changes are outlier predictions of climate models that may be generally correct, but in the specifics wildly inaccurate. This does not mean we should not act, but any calls for massive government intervention in the process will cause more harm than good.

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