What pundits don’t say about climate change

[This post was originally published March 14, 2013]

The problem with most pundits who opine on climate in passing is that they don’t get the real danger they’re discussing. They fail to realize that expected impacts are not discreet events but systemic effects. Climate change (and related problems) will not only make the weather weirder, it will destabilize our society.

Sure, there are specifics to point to (ones greatly more likely in a warming world), like heat waves, bigger storms, droughts, floods, wildfires and rising seas. These specific impacts have direct (and somewhat predictable) results: no one is surprised when a flood washes away a riverside town, or when a drought withers a crop.

But the specific impacts also have second order effects: effects that impact systems in other places and ways. A terrible crop may raise food prices; rising food prices may contribute to social unrest and instability.

When we think about climate, it’s the growing opportunities for instability that should worry us, particularly since modern economies are built on the efficiencies that come from having predictable access to resources, energy, goods and services. (Obviously, some matter more than others: a San Francisco which found its supply of luxury cars had vanished would just be San Francisco without luxury cars; a San Francisco which found its supply of water had vanished would quickly become the ruins of the city once known as San Francisco.)

The scary thing is that instabilities tend to breed: social unrest due to high food prices may well stop the flow of a critical resource, or lead to civil war, or create the conditions that export terrorism. When these instabilities stay in one place, we call it a failed state; but what extreme climate change threatens to do is to both breed instabilities in global systems and magnify local crises. This combination is far more destructive than the direct impacts of drought or floods or massive storms themselves, if for no other reason than that deeply disrupted human systems lose their ability to repair themselves, especially when other systems to which they’re connected are also losing stability.

This is why even “small” amounts of climate change are dangerous. It’s also why strategies to promote stability in unstable times are so important, though the strategies we most need are ones we don’t yet even have good terms for —- the closest we have are things like “ruggedization” (designing systems so they’re much less likely to fail in the first place), “increased dynamism” (producing increasing amounts of innovation through organizations that are learning rapidly) and “adaptive capacities” (being able to muster resources to change rapidly when change is called for).

What’s less helpful, in my opinion, is the term resilience. The very word “resilience” implies a capacity to bound back into shape that is simply impossible for many current systems: they’re brittle from top to bottom. Even the best resilience work I know of takes for granted an unlikely continuance of the status quo, and/or underestimates the consequences of its disruption. Given the actual magnitude of the climate impacts we face, much resilience work is talismanic, aiming to ward off harm without actually doing anything real.

What we need instead are places which are rapidly changing themselves to be sustainable over time, to withstand inevitable systems shocks, a prosper by finding new and better ways of doing things in changed circumstances, to become more dynamic as the pressures grow. That’s going to take, above all, abandoning the fiction that the status quo will last.

But you’ll never hear a pundit say that.