Green politics, philosophy, history, paganism and a lot of self righteous grandstanding.

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Climate Change: 'Outside Context Problem'

Protests in Paris are now officially banned, so the world's corporate leaders are now free to meet the world's political leaders without any pesky protesters getting in the way.

There may well be the odd scientist wandering around looking lost, and a few representatives from the world's better behaved NGOs, but mostly this will be an occasion for those who run the world to meet those who own the world.

It will no doubt be a jolly occasion.  After all pretty much everyone present will agree on three things at least: that taxes on wealth should be low, that markets should be lightly regulated, and that economic growth must continue forever.

It will also, for the most part, be completely pointless. As George Monbiot put it earlier this year the entire twenty five year process that has brought us to COP21 has mostly involved "hundreds of intelligent, educated, well-paid and elegantly-dressed people wasting their lives".

The reason is not that global warming is an insoluble problem, but for those meeting in Paris Climate Change will be an outside context problem. Let em explain.

Outside Context Problem

The term Outside Context Problem was coined by the late, great Scottish science fiction writer Iain M Banks for his 1996 novel  Excession. This is how he defined one:

The usual example given to illustrate an Outside Context Problem was imagining you were a tribe on a largish, fertile island; you'd tamed the land, invented the wheel or writing or whatever, the neighbours were cooperative or enslaved but at any rate peaceful and you were busy raising temples to yourself with all the excess productive capacity you had, you were in a position of near-absolute power and control which your hallowed ancestors could hardly have dreamed of and the whole situation was just running along nicely like a canoe on wet grass... when suddenly this bristling lump of iron appears sailless and trailing steam in the bay and these guys carrying long funny-looking sticks come ashore and announce you've just been discovered, you're all subjects of the Emperor now, he's keen on presents called tax and these bright-eyed holy men would like a word with your priests.
For the high priests of Neoliberalism, whose response to problems is to cut taxes, sign free trade deals and, when the worst comes to the worst, invent some new money in the form of Quantative Easing,  Climate Change is a problem about as welcome as Cortez was for the Aztecs.

When faced with an Outside Context Problems cultures usually try two strategies in relatively quick succession; first pretend it doesn't exist and secondly try to placate the gods with a bit of magic.

We've been engaged in the first activity for a while now. Many of the key players have retired from the game, but a few with nothing better to do with their lives still soldier on. No doubt some will show up in Paris, but I suspect it will be their last, forlorn stand, because now we are well into the second phase.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, having spent a quarter of a century explaining very patiently to its backers that the scientists were in fact right about Global Warming in 1988, produced in December last year its Synthesis Report, which attempted to square the science with the economics.

The report contains 400 scenarios that show how to give a 50/50 chance of limiting Climate Change to 2 degrees by 2100 whilst still being "economically feasible". That means, no excessive taxation, no excessive regulation and economic growth continuing forever. This where the magic comes in.

In 344 of those scenarios emissions will drop at some point to less than zero. In 56 scenarios, emissions will peak in 2010. I shouldn't need to point out that at the present time it is impossible to emit less than zero CO2, and that by the time the report was published 2010 was nearly five years in the past, and emissions most definitely did not peak then.

So, without non-existent technologies or time travel, how many scenarios did the IPCC come up with that were "economically feasible"? Precisely none.

The ideas that increasingly individual wealth is not a reliable measure of personal wellbeing, that we'd all be better off corporations worked for our benefit and not the other way round or that the way the global economy has been run for the last thirty years is the only way it could ever be run, are apparently as alien to the people who run the world as the steam engine and the Maxim gun were the occupants of Mr Bank's metaphorical island.

All of which suggests we need to make an urgent choice as to whether we follow the rules of physics, or of economics. We need to get Climate Change in context because otherwise, as Iain M Banks said, an Outside Context Problems is one "most civilizations would encounter just once, and which they tended to encounter rather in the same way a sentence encounters a full stop."


Duality in Climate Science by Professor Kevin Anderson 
IPCC AR5 Synthesis Report
Excession by Iain M Banks

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