Negative Thinking and Tipping Points

A comment I just wrote at Bishop Hill (Jun 20, 2012 at 12:16 AM), answering a researcher on the topic of tipping points and climate change:

Doug – thanks for the reply. I can feel some major fundamental disagreements on the approach.

(I do hope you appreciate frankness, and rest assured I am not trying to convince you of anything!)

1. You say you don’t know much about positive tipping points. Like with Adam Corner’s psychosocial studies only of skeptics, this doesn’t sound like the wisest way towards understanding tipping points in general and independently from their “policy value”.

2. You say you “would expect a policy maker to take in information from a large number of sources on this”. But you’re aware the policy maker will never hear about positive tipping points, from anybody at all. This removes value to the advice and information you yourself provide, sort of telling a ship’s captain to steer away from the continent port-side whilst the two of you don’t notice the island approaching from starboard.

3. You are of the opinion that “there is a strong argument that an abrupt change in climate would likely affect social and ecological systems negatively”. Not really. I can see the problem from a Development Studies perspective thanks to some University-level studies of mine in that respect. There is an approach there called “Vulnerability Analysis”, where poverty is defined in terms of number and size of one’s vulnerabilities. Abrupt change of any sort of course will affect negatively the most vulnerable, simply because almost everything affects negatively the most vulnerable. Imagine somebody starving for a week, even eating food will become a risky activity for them.

This tells us nothing about the negativity of the change. OTOH the effect of the change on the less-vulnerable will depend on what kinds of vulnerability they suffer from. A priori, it is impossible to tell if change and even abrupt change will be overall negative or positive.

For example the invention of the internal combustion engine has been an abrupt, enormous effect on societies everywhere, but who would say it has been negative in general? And like there is no such a thing as a “system” of people that is mostly tuned to a particular environment (travel from Iceland to Senegal to see how flexible human societies are), just as well what happened at Krakatoa means “systems” of the wild can recover in amazing fashions.

Therefore, there cannot be any “strong argument” of the kind you describe. Perhaps there is a diffuse opinion that change=bad and abrupt change=awful, but it is an opinion, not a scientific finding.

4. Your final statement is perfectly logical but conveys a curious, illogical message. You say, “if there was a really large change in some aspect of the climate over, say, the next decade (anthropogenic or not), and climate science hadn’t at least warned about it, you would rightfully be angry”. Perhaps me, but surely whoever is paying for climate change research.

This is some form of recursive logic.

(a) Somebody finances climate change research with the aim of understanding if there is change in the pipeline and of what kind. This makes sense.

(b) Researchers whose job is to work about climate change with the aim of etc etc, in the face of obvious, enormous difficulties in providing what’s been requested think about how best to fulfil their duty. This makes sense.

(c) As the duty is to be able to warn in advance of changes, those researchers arrive at the conclusion that, if anything happens and they didn’t warn about it, they will be seen as a failure at their job/profession. This makes sense.

(d) Therefore, those researchers make sure they describe all the possibile negativities, so that nobody will be able to say, “you didn’t warn us about this”. This makes sense.

However, the end result is that the researchers don’t focus any longer on understanding if there is change in the pipeline and of what kind, but mostly on figuring out all the bad things that might happen, and assigning each a probability.

This makes no sense. The information finally provided risks reading like plain-language Nostradamus prophecies with informed risk estimates attached to them. If we did the same exercise about health risks in the home, there would be a law against entering bathrooms and kitchens.