Systems and interconnected disaster risks

    When you see that humans have exceeded six of the nine boundaries which keep Earth habitable, it’s more than a bit worrying. But then when you follow it up with this United Nations report, it makes you want to do something about it.

    I guess this is one of the reasons that I’m interested in Systems Thinking as an approach to helping us get out of this mess. I can imagine pivoting to work on this kind of thing, because (as far as I can see) everyone seems to think it’s someone else’s problem to solve.

    DALL-E 3 generated illustration showing a metaphorical depiction of climate tipping points. The scene includes a series of large dominoes in a fragile natural environment
    Systems are all around us and closely connected to us. Water systems, food systems, transport systems, information systems, ecosystems and others: our world is made up of systems where the individual parts interact with one another. Over time, human activities have made these systems increasingly complex, be it through global supply chains, communication networks, international trade and more. As these interconnections get stronger, they offer opportunities for global cooperation and support, but also expose us to greater risks and unpleasant surprises, particularly when our own actions threaten to damage a system.

    […]

    The six risk tipping points analysed in this report offer some key examples of the numerous risk tipping points we are approaching. If we look at the world as a whole, there are many more systems at risk that require our attention. Each system acts as a string in a safety net, keeping us from harm and supporting our societies. As the next system tips, another string is cut, increasing the overall pressure on the remaining systems to hold us up. Therefore, any attempt to reduce risk in these systems needs to acknowledge and understand these underlying interconnectivities. Actions that affect one system will likely have consequences on another, so we must avoid working in silos and instead look at the world as one connected system.

    Luckily, we have a unique advantage of being able to see the danger ahead of us by recognizing the risk tipping points we are approaching. This provides us with the opportunity to make informed decisions and take decisive actions to avert the worst of these impacts, and perhaps even forge a new path towards a bright, sustainable and equitable future. By anticipating risk tipping points where the system will cease to function as expected, we can adjust the way the system functions accordingly or modify our expectations of what the system can deliver. In each case, however, avoiding the risk tipping point will require more than a single solution. We will need to integrate actions across sectors in unprecedented ways in order to address the complex set of root causes and drivers of risk and promote changes in established mindsets.

    Source: 2023 Executive Summary - Interconnected Disaster Risks | United Nations University - Institute for Environment and Human Security (UNU-EHS)

    Image: DALL-E 3

    The rolling drama of the climate crisis just got a whole lot worse

    It’s massively concerning that, although scientists seem to understand why the earth has been warming due to climate change over the last few decades, they don’t seem to know why there’s all of a sudden been a huge spike.

    I just hope it’s not something like methane being released from permafrost, because then we are all completely shafted.

    Chart showing huge spike in temperature
    Global temperatures soared to a new record in September by a huge margin, stunning scientists and leading one to describe it as “absolutely gobsmackingly bananas”.

    The hottest September on record follows the hottest August and hottest July, with the latter being the hottest month ever recorded. The high temperatures have driven heatwaves and wildfires across the world.

    September 2023 beat the previous record for that month by 0.5C, the largest jump in temperature ever seen. September was about 1.8C warmer than pre-industrial levels. Datasets from European and Japanese scientists confirm the leap.

    The heat is the result of the continuing high levels of carbon dioxide emissions combined with a rapid flip of the planet’s biggest natural climate phenomenon, El Niño. The previous three years saw La Niña conditions in the Pacific Ocean, which lowers global temperature by a few tenths of a degree as more heat is stored in the ocean.

    […]

    The scientists said that the exceptional events of 2023 could be a normal year in just a decade, unless there is a dramatic increase in climate action. The researchers overwhelmingly pointed to one action as critical: slashing the burning of fossil fuels down to zero.

    Source: ‘Gobsmackingly bananas’: scientists stunned by planet’s record September heat | The Guardian

    Reducing website carbon emissions by blocking ads

    Blocking advertising on the web is not only good for increasing the speed and privacy of your own web browsing, but also good for the planet.

    What is the environmental impact of visiting the homepage of a media site? What part do advertising, and analytics, play when it comes to the carbon footprint? We tried to answer these questions using GreenFrame, a solution we developed to measure the footprint of our own developments.

    The results are insightful: up to 70% of the electricity consumption (and therefore carbon emissions) caused by visiting a French media site is triggered by advertisements and stats. Therefore, using an ad blocker even becomes an ecological gesture.

    […]

    Overall we observe the same thing: the carbon footprint of a website decreases if there are no ads or trackers on the website. The difference is significant: Between 32% and 70% of the energy consumed by the browser and the network is due to monetization.

    The websites analyzed generate between 70 and 130 million visits per month, and their work has therefore a real impact on the environment.

    Reducing the consumption of one of these sites by only 10% (20mWh), per visit for a site with 100 million monthly visitors is equivalent to saving 24,000 kWh per year.

    Source: Media Websites: 70% of the Carbon Footprint Caused by Ads and Stats | Marmelab

    More on why billionaires should not exist

    This article frames ultra-rich people owning and using superyachts and private jets as ‘theft’ because it reduces the amount of time we’ve got to avert climate disaster.

    Yes, it is.

    But it’s also theft because the purchase of these yachts and jets are only possible because of the enormous sums of money stolen from workers to fund their extravagant lifestyles.

    Owning or operating a superyacht is probably the most harmful thing an individual can do to the climate. If we’re serious about avoiding climate chaos, we need to tax, or at the very least shame, these resource-hoarding behemoths out of existence. In fact, taking on the carbon aristocracy, and their most emissions-intensive modes of travel and leisure, may be the best chance we have to improve our collective climate morale and increase our appetite for personal sacrifice, from individual behavior changes to sweeping policy mandates.

    On an individual basis, the superrich pollute far more than the rest of us, and travel is one of the biggest parts of that footprint. Take, for instance, Rising Sun, the 454-foot, 82-room megaship owned by the DreamWorks co-founder David Geffen. According to a 2021 analysis in the journal Sustainability, the diesel fuel powering Mr. Geffen’s boating habit spews an estimated 16,320 tons of carbon-dioxide-equivalent gases into the atmosphere annually, almost 800 times what the average American generates in a year.

    And that’s just a single ship. Worldwide, more than 5,500 private vessels clock in about 100 feet or longer, the size at which a yacht becomes a superyacht. This fleet pollutes as much as entire nations: The 300 biggest boats alone emit 315,000 tons of carbon dioxide each year, based on their likely usage — about as much as Burundi’s more than 10 million inhabitants. Indeed, a 200-foot vessel burns 132 gallons of diesel fuel an hour standing still and can guzzle 2,200 gallons just to travel 100 nautical miles.

    Source: The Superyachts of Billionaires Are Starting to Look a Lot Like Theft | The New York Times

    This bus ain't growing wings

    Cory Doctorow: activist, technologist, sci-fi writer and all-round awesome human being has written a powerful article for Locus magazine. He likens the climate emergency to us being collectively trapped on a bus that’s speeding towards a cliff edge.

    We’ll all die at the bottom of the canyon, but no-one will yank the wheel, as it would cause the bus to roll and many people to be hurt.

    The good news is: climate denial is on the wane. The bad news is: deniers have pivoted to incrementalism: “We’ll fix the climate. Give us a couple decades to phase out oil and gas. Give us a couple decades to replace the cars and retrofit the houses. Give us a couple decades to invent cool direct-air carbon capture systems, or hydrogen cars that work just like gas cars, or to replace our overland aviation routes with high speed rail, or to increase our urban density and swap out cars for subways and buses. Give us a couple decades to keep making money. We’ll get there.”

    In other words: “We’re pretty sure we can get some wings on this bus before it goes over the cliff. Keep your hands off the wheel. Someone could get really badly hurt.”

    People are already getting really badly hurt, and it’s only going to get worse. We’re poised to break through key planetary boundaries – loss of biosphere diversity, ocean acidification, land poisoning – whose damage will be global, profound and sustained. Once we rupture these boundaries, we have no idea how to repair them. None of our current technologies will suffice, nor will any of the technologies we think we know how to make or might know how to make.

    Source: Cory Doctorow: The Swerve | Locus Online

    WIRED magazine predicts the 21st century... in 1997

    This is from WIRED magazine in 1997 where authors Peter Schwartz and Peter Leyden suggest ten scenarios that could play out in the 21st century. On the one hand, this feels eerily prescient given our current world. On the other hand, perhaps the writing has been on the wall for quite a while.

    We’re recording an episode of the Tao of WAO podcast tomorrow with futurist Bryan Alexander, who pretty much predicted the pandemic in his book Academia Next. I wonder what his thoughts are on this?

    Ten scenario spoilers include tensions between China and US, new technologies "turn out to be a bust", Russia devolves into a kleptocracy, Europe's integration grinds to a halt, major ecological crises affect food supplies, major rise in crime and terrorism, rise in pollution increases prevalence of cancer, energy prices go through the roof, an uncontrollable plague hits, human progress halts because of a social and cultural backlash

    Source: In 1997, Wired Magazine Predicts 10 Things That Could Go Wrong in the 21st Century: “An Uncontrollable Plague,” Climate Crisis, Russia Becomes a Kleptocracy & More | Open Culture

    Updating our worldviews

    I’m reading a book which deals with the Protestant Reformation at the moment. I think for anyone who knows some history, there have been times which have truly been unprecedented; things have changed so quickly that people haven’t been able to keep up.

    We’re living during a slow, but accelerating, car crash. We do need to update our mental models, for sure. But collectively, and most important at levels which are going to have an impact. Let’s not forget that just 100 companies are responsible for 71% of global emissions.

    Those of us with active minds are constantly gardening our worldviews. We adjust our perspectives as events around us unfold, as age and experience inform our received wisdom, as we learn new facts — and as cultural change around us pushes us to think differently. Even in extremely stable and slow-changing societies, there are always some people doing this gardening

    But this is not a stable society, and today gardening is not enough.

    We grew up in societies built upon certain assumptions about how the world works, and how the planet around us should be seen. We now know those assumptions were wrong in profound ways, and in one human lifetime we have altered the climate and biosphere, squandered vast natural riches and destabilized a myriad of systems we depend on. We have made the circumstances of our lives discontinuous with everything that came before us. The societies we live in are now catastrophically unsuited for the planet we’ve made. Yet we still see the planet around us with worldviews formed inside of those societies.

    […]

    Seeing with fresh eyes is something we can learn to do. It offers real advantages. At very least, an updated worldview means being able to stand in the surf and face the ocean, to see the waves rolling in, giving us a better shot at not getting plowed and dragged when the next sleeper wave suddenly surges up and hits us.

    […]

    Right now, rebuilding our worldviews involves a lot of labor-intensive personal exploration. Being native to now demands finding insight, not just receiving it. It demands teaching ourselves how to learn new things, when both the course of our study and the lessons to be absorbed are complex and constantly evolving. This is a real challenge when we have such busy lives. A lot of people will decide to worry about it later.

    […]

    The greatest danger in any work that asks you to think systemically about the future is getting locked into the worldview that made sense to you when you first began, that you built your successful career on.

    We all have limited time and energy. Building up an insightful mental model of how the world works takes a lot of both. The pay-off is in the profit and sense of purpose gained from one’s expertise. It is very common, when you’re highly rewarded for a given set of working insights, to commit more to those insights as your career unfolds, to begin even to defend those insights from challenging new perspectives (ones you fear might devalue your intellectual stock in trade). This “sunk-cost expertise” can easily become a set of shackles.

    […]

    All this is to say that the very process of worldview-building is undergoing an unprecedented shift. The planetary crisis is swallowing the world we thought we knew, whole, in one great gulp.

    Source: Old thinking will break your brain. | Alex Steffen

    The Climate Game

    The Financial Times has a free-to-play game where the aim is to try and keep global warming to only 1.5°C by the year 2100. There are different things to choose from and decisions to make.

    I only managed to keep it to 1.88°C and still had to make some pretty drastic decisions. We’re utterly screwed. We need to act on the climate crisis, but also start adapting too.

    (also worth looking at the article on how they made this)

    See if you can save the planet from the worst effects of climate change
    Source: The Climate Game — Can you reach net zero? | Financial Times

    Live map of electricity production highlights carbon criminals

    This live map of electricity production and consumption is really interesting, on a number of levels. First, it’s great that it exists! It really helps show, for example, that Poland needs to get its act together.

    But also, design decisions matter. For example, the focus on carbon, while important, obscures the fact that nuclear might help get us out of the current mess but is really storing up problems for future generations.

    Map showing Europe coloured different shades of green, yellow, orange, and red

    electricityMap is a live visualization of where your electricity comes from and how much CO2 was emitted to produce it.
    Source: electricityMap | Live CO₂ emissions of electricity consumption

    Antartica used to be covered in rainforest

    Given the news that both the Arctic and Antarctic are currently a lot warmer than expected, this is interesting news. Sea levels 170 metres higher than normal would mean that my house would be underwater…

    A team from the UK and Germany discovered forest soil from the Cretaceous period within 900 km of the South Pole. Their analysis of the preserved roots, pollen and spores shows that the world at that time was a lot warmer than previously thought.

    […]

    The work also suggests that the carbon dioxide (CO2) levels in the atmosphere were higher than expected during the mid-Cretaceous period, 115-80 million years ago, challenging climate models of the period.

    The mid-Cretaceous was the heyday of the dinosaurs but was also the warmest period in the past 140 million years, with temperatures in the tropics as high as 35 degrees Celsius and sea level 170 metres higher than today.

    […]

    They found that the annual mean air temperature was around 12 degrees Celsius; roughly two degrees warmer than the mean temperature in Germany today. Average summer temperatures were around 19 degrees Celsius; water temperatures in the rivers and swamps reached up to 20 degrees; and the amount and intensity of rainfall in West Antarctica were similar to those in today’s Wales.

    Source: Traces of ancient rainforest in Antarctica point to a warmer prehistoric world | Imperial News | Imperial College London

    Solarpunk and five climate futures

    In this interview with Andrew Dana Hudson, he lays out a brief overview of the five futures he discusses in his book. This, in turn, is based on his Masters thesis.

    There’s a lot of optimism in solarpunk approaches to the future, which is attractive. We just need to have the will to realise that it’s not already over.

    There is a very optimistic sustainable scenario, full of community and open-hearted kindness and capitalist power fading to a bad memory. But there’s also a scenario of overclocked consumerism, another of neo-feudal inequality, and a third of persistent military conflict and global breakdown. And a middle-of-the-road scenario in which, like today, we slowly make some progress but never, ever enough.

    […]

    Solarpunk also seems to me a bridge toward a future of energy abundance. It’s funny, given how much solarpunk is (wonderfully) influenced by crusty degrowthers and permacultural downshifters, but it’s possible that if we keep building renewables the way we’re projected to over the next decade or so, we might end up with access to way more energy than human beings have ever had to work with (at least during the day). What do we do with that? Those electrons have to go somewhere. Well, we’ll need a lot of energy to remove a Lake Michigan’s worth of carbon out of the atmosphere, in order to stabilize the climate and roll back ocean acidification. Call that Big Chemistry. But probably there’s room for Big Computation and Big Culture as well. If solar energy becomes cheaper than free, how does that broaden our artistic ambitions? And what does that sometimes-post-scarcity mindset mean for how we treat each other?

    Source: Our Shared Storm: An Interview with Andrew Dana Hudson – Solarpunk Magazine

    Games as a cultural, educational, and predictive force

    As a gamer, I grow frustrated with people who don’t consider games to be an art form and vehicle for stories comparable with other cultural pursuits.

    Take for example one of the biggest games of this year, the recently released Battlefield 2042. Not only is it a technical and cultural milestone, but it presents a plausible timeline for how things could go given our current trajectory: climate, migration, wars, you name it.

    2037

    Humanity adapts to the new normal. Revolutions in energy, desert irrigation, hydraulic levees, and sea walls save coastal cities, reclaim farmland, and rebuild supply chains. Hope of finding stability leads to some nations re-opening their borders.

    However, with no way to repatriate 1.2 billion people, No-Pats become a permanent fixture in all economic, military, and social policy making. Many No-Pats are still distrustful of the governments that exiled them and refuse calls to reassimilate. No-Pat leaders emerge, inspiring a new identity unbound to former nationality, drawing a line in the sand between the Old World and The New Normal. #WeAreNoPats becomes a rallying cry.

    I highly recommend watching this 9-minute short film:

    [embed]www.youtube.com/watch

    Source: The World of 2042 | Electronic Arts

    Cultural complexes contributing to the climate crisis

    Book cover of 'Deep Adaptation: Navigating the Realities of Climate Chaos', edited by Jem Bendell and Rupert Read

    Taken from Adrian Tait's chapter 'Climate Psychology and Its Relevance to Deep Adaptation' in the new book Deep Adaptation: Navigating the Realities of Climate Chaos, edited by Jem Bendell and Rupert Read.

    What I like about it is that it cuts to the root of much of what is wrong with western societies — the symptom of which is the climate crisis.

    (i) the assumption that value is determined by monetary wealth and the monetization of everything;

    (ii) the consumerist paradigm of well-being, in which desire for sex, status and fantasies of security are exploited. One example is the current book in sport utility vehicle (SUV) sales, obliterating the emissions savings due to electrification of transport;

    (iii) the 'no such thing as society' trope which defines us as isolates rater than members of a collective. The myth is one of liberation and motivation, but its main effect is to dehumanize;

    (iv) the generalized belief that competition rather than cooperation is the natural condition for humanity and the main driver of progress. Competitive sport often (but not always) reinforces this;

    (v) the 'culture of uncare', as outlined by Sally Weintrobe;

    (vi) entitlement — the notion that we are not just special but at complete liberty to dominate, exploit and destroy. This myth has some religious underpinnings. It is also a close relative of colonialism. Entitlement includes expansion and incursion — a prime factor in zoonotic diseases like Covid-19 (Tait 2020);

    (vii) species autonomy — the delusion that, with our brilliance, ingenuity, technology and built environment, we have created the world, a bubble in which we're above wider nature, rather than being dependent on the natural world in myriad ways.