The Dubious Ethics of Tipping Points Catastrophism

(a commentary on Lenton et al., “Tipping elements in the Earth’s climate system“, PNAS, February 7, 2008, 10.1073/pnas.0705414105 (Perspective) – abstract, pdf, supporting information)

(original in Italian by Luigi Mariani, Professor of Agrometeorology at the University of Milan. Translated and adapted by me after getting the author’s consent. Final text approved by Prof. Mariani)

I will start by observing the following:

(1) The basis for Lenton et al. is:

(1.a) There is Global Warming (GW), and is caused by humans

(1.b) GW will mean an increase of 1.1-6.4°C in the next 100 years

(1.c) Since Climate is not a linear system, GW will cause abrupt “phase changes” (Abrupt Climatic Changes – ACC)

(1.d) It is possible to identify the most likely ACCs (monsoons, El Nino, etc.)

(2) The outline of the work I have been conducting myself for approximately a decade is instead:

(2.a) We just exited a Little Ice Age

(2.b) The exit has meant a series of “steps” (ACCs, for all intents and purposes) with rapid increases of world temperature coinciding with so-called GW

(2.c) In-between those “steps” there are periods of stable or even diminishing temperatures (es: global cooling 1950-1976 and stationary phase 1998-2007)

(2.d) What is causing the “steps” is still not known: can it really be just CO2 concentration, that is increasing gradually and that is behind 14% on the total greenhouse effect?

(2.e) We know that temperature increases are largest in the Northern Hemisphere and that the phase transitions are associated to quick reconfigurations of the Great Polar Vortex, locally called changes in the PDO or the NAO.

Therefore, in my opinion, Letnon et al. have put the cart in front of the horse: what they call Global Warming is the effect and not the cause of a series of ACCs, and those are still out there for us to explain, often not even recognized as open ontological problems by the dominant “scientific community“.

(3) In any case, starting from their assumptions, Lenton et al. are able to:

(3.a) come up with table 1 with an ambiguous “timescale Transition T” column, given by the scientists a “preliminary” meaning completely misunderstood in the media (some of them reporting the Monsoon failing in a year’s time, something Lenton et al. do not suggest at all)

(3.b) write about an Indian and an African monsoon, in a way that will make a reader paying even minimal attention notice how the scientists are “groping in the dark”, and have to be absolutely vague in their pronouncements.

Confronted to such a paper I am very well aware that from a media point of view, absolutely nobody will care that Lenton et al. are mixing up causes and effects, or that there are many ifs and of buts: conclusions have already been made and the paper distributed to journalists and even to philosophers of science (of whom at least one has commented about the catastrophes as “scientific truths” in an Italian newspaper).

And so I cannot but return to the question of “ethics“: Lenton et al. speak about ethics in their article too; however, none among them is considering the issue of the ethics of supplying to the press a “ballon d’essay” like theirs.

Therefore: either Lenton et al. refute the catastrophic commentary mistakenly reported in the media; or they become accomplices, like helping people to yell “fire!” in a crowded cinema.

I have had enough of seeing ethical discussions limited to talks about Earth as the ruined paradise and mankind as the parasite (imagine what paradise, the year-around swampy Po Valley before Etruscans and Romans changed the landscape).

We must become aware of the fact that ethical discussions today should follow different paths, more difficult and not as economically advantageous.

Luigi Mariani, Milano