Climate Change and the Long Term

25 Sep

I’m presently reading Mark Hertsgaard’s new book, Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth.

It’s a good summary of the science and a good view of what some companies and countries are doing to prepare for a hotter Earth. Basically, there are three ways to handle climate change:  mitigation, adaptation, and suffering. Mitigation essentially means to stop emitting carbon as fast and as much as we can. Adaptation means that we will have to deal with the consequences of past, present, and future carbon emissions. And suffering, of course, means that these consequences will be painful. Hertsgaard makes the point that we will likely do all three.

Of course, how much suffering we will do depends on how much mitigation and adaptation we are able to accomplish. The lethal Chicago heat wave of 1995 and Hurricane Katrina of 2005 showed how much suffering extreme weather events can cause.

An excellent way to understand what climate change is likely to do to us over the next century is to look at the reinsurance industry and The Netherlands. The reinsurance industry is insurance for insurance companies. They backstop insurers who underwrite our homes and businesses. They are directly concerned with long-term consequences of climate change, since their business model depends on understanding it. Here the company discusses the links between global warming, extreme weather, and insurance losses.

The Netherlands offers a model of how a country can respond to the long-term consequences of climate change. The country has launched a 200-year plan to adapt to rising ocean levels and increased river flooding. (Four major European rivers drain to the sea through the Netherlands.) The Dutch are no strangers to long-term planning–they have lived with flooding and ocean surges for centuries and have built an elaborate system of defenses. Their planning for global warming deals with flood and sea surge defenses, ensuring supplies of fresh water, and climate-proofing their urban areas.

Mitigation and adaptation efforts are stalled in the U.S. because of opposition by climate-change deniers bankrolled by the fossil-fuel industry. This is highly irresponsible and gambles with the future lives of our descendants. We need to take seriously what Munich Re and the Dutch are planning for.

In a future post, I’ll look at what local communities in the U.S. are doing to become climate resilient.


One Degree War Plan? Or an Integral Future?

30 Aug

I recently ran across this paper by Jorgen Randers and Paul Gilding calling for a “One Degree War Plan.” The scenario it paints, with CO2 concentrations being well north of 1,000 ppm by century’s end, is sobering. They essentially call for a global mobilization on par with World War II. And to do it now.

Theirs is a detailed and well thought out plan. If implemented, it could very well save us from catastrophic climate change. They claim that the public will clamor for it after realizing that climate change is an existential threat.

I am doubtful. Theirs is a sound solution from the standpoint of politics and technology. What they do not take into account is culture and values. Without a shift in values, the likelihood that this plan will be adopted is vanishingly small.

I had the privilege of meeting Richard Slaughter at the most recent World Future Society conference in July. He is a leading advocate of an approach called Integral Futures. This approach models change on a two-axis graph, with four quadrants roughly corresponding to personal values, individual behavior, culture, and society. Slaughter argues that most futures work winds up in the behavioral and social quadrants, and doesn’t take into account the values and culture quadrants sufficiently.

This integral approach is necessary. We need technical solutions and political will if we are to make a transition to a post-carbon world. But these won’t happen without an inner transition first. Otherwise we risk a technocratic eco-tyranny.

H. G. Wells and “The Prophetic Habit”

26 Aug

I’m presently developing a course on using historical methods to engage in futures thinking. So that got me thinking about the history of future studies. Obviously, there’s an important connection to science fiction. Asimov’s Foundation series is probably the best known example of that.

So it’s no surprise that H.G Wells originated the field of future studies.  We think of Wells today as one of the first science fiction writers, but he was also a historian and futurist. Perhaps the very first futurist. The late Warren Wagar, historian and futurist at SUNY Binghmanton, was the first to make this connection.

In 1901 Wells published  Anticipations of the Reactions of Mechanical and Scientific Progress upon Human Life and Thought, possibly the first attempt to assess the effects of technological change upon society.  In a book from 1906 called The Future in America, Wells called for readers to develop “the prophetic habit.” In this book, he investigated the question: “What is going to happen to the United States of America in the next thirty years or so?” Obviously Wells could not anticipate the world wars or Great Depression–we will leave the distinction between prediction and forecasting for another post–but these books are probably the first systematic efforts at forecasting.

Wells thought it was important to develop the “the prophetic habit” so as not to be blindsided by disruptive change. In a 1932 radio interview, he used the example of the automobile and how it had reshaped English life over the past few decades. He pointed out that “we have thousands and thousands of professors and hundreds of thousands of students of history,” but “there isn’t a single professor of foresight in the world. Well, why shouldn’t there be? Isn’t foresight as important as history?”

At around the same time, Wells called for a “liberal fascism” to counterweigh Italy’s reactionary fascism and to bring about his preferred utopia. Wells was a Fabian socialist and it’s hard to imagine that he favored tyranny and oppression like what was occurring in Italy, Germany, and the Soviet Union. I think what he meant is that collective action is often necessary to effect desirable social change, and that fascism offered a new model of collective action. He certainly rejected Mussolini’s methods, even as he ambivalently admired some of his results.

As I’ve alluded to in a couple posts, we are facing what many futurists are calling a Global MegaCrisis, the convergence of climate change and peak resources. Will this require some kind of heavy-handed response?

Put differently: Does futuring tend toward central planning of some sort? And does central planning inevitably result in repression?

My snap answers are no. I prefer that we all develop Wells’s “prophetic habit” as a central part of democratic deliberation, without falling into his ambivalent embrace of fascist methods.

More on the Global MegaCrisis

26 Aug

Here’s a pdf of a debate between Michael Marien and William Halal, from the May/June 2011 issue of The Futurist.

Marien takes the more pessimistic side, Halal the more optimistic.


More on the Future of Education: High Road vs. Low Road

20 Aug

This is somewhat of a follow-up to my previous post on the future of higher education. But it really deals with primary and secondary education.

Media companies, according to the New York Times, are beginning to look at primary and secondary school content as business opportunities. The market is worth about $7 billion, including teacher’s guides, lesson plans, etc.

The Discovery Channel is getting into the market, as is (disturbingly) Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. Murdoch says he’d be “thrilled” if 10% of his company’s revenues came from the education market.

One executive of Pearson, billed as “the world’s largest education and learning company,” describes it as “an act of ‘creative destruction.’ By this I mean we’re intentionally tearing down an outdated, industrial model of learning and replacing it with more personalized and connected experiences for each student.”

This disturbs me.  I get that the Internet is a disruptive technology that will reshape education. But I worry that this is backdoor promotion of consumerism, much like Max Barry’s wonderful dystopian novel, Jennifer Government, in which children attend schools sponsored by McDonald’s, Mattel, etc. They even wear uniforms with their respective corporate logos and their last names are the names of the sponsoring corporations.

On the other hand, the Internet also gives us free resources like the Khan Academy.

Should education be a for-profit or non-profit activity, no matter how it’s delivered?  Is there room for both approaches? What’s the appropriate mix, particularly for public schools?

Climate Change Denial–Can Data Help?

17 Aug

We are in the midst of one of the hottest and driest summers on record in 2012. I don’t know how this compares to 1988 or 1995, but half of the counties in the US are disaster areas.

We’ve been told that “weather is not climate,” particularly during the cold winter of 2010-11. But some climate scientists are now claiming that global warming is responsible for this summer’s extreme weather. They are not claiming a process of causality but of probability–global warming makes extreme weather events more likely. This strikes me as sensible. Individual weather events cannot be predicted, but trends can.

British investment manager Jeremy Grantham  is quite pessimistic about the future, and thinks that we’re in pretty big trouble. He concludes that “we now live in a different, more constrained, world in which prices of raw materials will rise and shortages will be common.” Although most of his analysis focuses on peak resources, he also thinks that “extreme weather will be a feature of our collective future” because of global warming.

On the other hand, climate change deniers claim that the whole thing is a hoax, that climate scientists have engaged in a massive fraud to tamper with the raw data, to run flawed models, and to draw biased conclusions. The deniers claim that this is all a giant fraud to keep the sweet, sweet research dollars flowing or to turn everyone into childless vegetarian hybrid drivers.

I’m a firm believer in the scientific method and the peer review process, so I have a hard time seeing how this scale of fraud is possible.  But that’s where the debate is at.

So let me throw out some questions for consideration.

First, can providing the raw data (like the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature project provides) elevate the debate? Or are deniers operating from a nonscientific zone of ideology that evidence and models can’t penetrate? Conversely, how much credence should we give to the deniers’ critiques of the evidence and models?

Second, the Bush administration had a “one percent doctrine.” Even a 1% probability that a country hostile to US interests was developing nuclear weapons was enough to justify an invasion. Shouldn’t deniers accept the same standard for climate change? The consequences of global climate change are much larger than a nuclear armed Saddam Hussein.

Most importantly, what kind of scientific literacy should a Citizen Futurist have?  We can’t all be climate experts or petroleum geologists, but what kind of working knowledge should we have?  Or phrased differently, how can we develop a good bullshit detector?

The Future of Higher Ed–The High Road or the Low?

5 Aug

I’m working through a couple-three things related to higher education.

The first is the massive student loan debt out there. Is the traditional college degree economically unsustainable?

Second, what should we do about for-profit schools that don’t provide decent educations and just suck money out of their students?

And perhaps most importantly, will Massive Open Online Courses be the way higher education is delivered in the future, virtually and for free?

I’ll be digging around and trying some things out. More later.