Complex problems don’t have simple solutions; from Brexit to Climate Change

Writing this on what is/was the future-ex Brexit Day should tell us one thing; complex problems don’t have simple solutions. Populist politics have always thrived on simple messages; pithy sound bites and one-liners that hit emotional buttons. Veracity is never much of an issue, and simple maths appeals to those to whom it is directed.

Twenty years ago Jean-Marie le Pen would say “there are three million immigrants and three million unemployed in France today…, you work it out!!” The below is a more recent version of the same. At the time I recall seeing an eminent French economist on a TV show, exasperatedly saying that obviously this was reductionist nonsense, but it would take him at least half an hour to prove it, and no one would be listening after the first minute – so what was the point?   Quite.

Farage, le Pen, Trump and a whole host of charismatic speakers can influence the masses by offering simple and simplistic solutions to complex issues, some of which may not even be problems, but are used as distrations from real issues. History shows that this generally doesn’t end well.  Not unexpectedly, most liberal sections of society condemn and ridicule these reductionists.

Yet when confronted by issues which are at least as equally complex, if not more so, these same sectors of society have a gigantic blind-spot. The science behind the forecasting of climate change is immensly complex. Solutions have to also incorporate economics – since the potential to stop all economic activity is not generally being proposed – and this increases the complexity to some power law.

As the controversial sceptic Richard Lindzen righly points out – reducing this immense complexity to essentially one input variable (Co2 emissions) and one output (Global Average Temperature), is reductionism in the extreme. In fact, this concept is now so ingrained, that the tag-line used by Gretta Thunberg is “its so simple a child can understand it”.  Well, actually, no its not, and saying so shouldn’t be controversial.

As Bjorn Lomborg pointed out, it is incongruous that Greta Thunberg – for all her good intentions and heartfelt commitment – was invited to address Davos, whereas Dr Nordhaus was not. Dr Nordhaus is a Nobel prize winning economist best known for his work around climate change and carbon tax.

So why do people despise populist politicians who thrive on distorted simplifications, yet accept the equally reductionist simplifications of the climate-change debate? The answer is of course complex, but part of it is wrapped in the phrasing I just used. I dared say “climate debate” – when this is tantamount to suicide. There is no debate, the science is “settled”.

This is backed by the oft quoted “97% of scientists believe it to be true”. This latter point is worth spending some time on. Firstly, it is a “necessary” logically consistent step: the science (and linked economics) is immensely complex, so how could a lay-person possibly understand it? In such cases, much like rocked-science, aeronautical engineering and quantum physics, we have to rely on the scientific method and the integrity of the individuals and system. If 97% agree, its a done-deal. However it is also a very convenient and very lazy step – falling very much into the arena of confirmation-bias.

In fact much of the current global panic attack is probably more rooted in psychology than science.   I have never been a fan of horror films, but its a very successful genre.  There has been a lot of work done to understand why.   Notably, being scared in a safe environment provides a shot of endorphins.

When we get scared, we experience a rush of adrenaline and a release of endorphins and dopamine. The biochemical rush can result in a pleasure-filled, opioid-like sense of euphoria. Coupled with this, when we are reminded of our safety (i.e., the safety net), the experience of fear subsides, and we are left with a gratifying sense of relief and subsequent well-being. (Source)

So headlines like “Hothouse Earth” and the new book by New Yorker writer David Wallace-Wells (The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming), tick the thrill boxes and sell like anthropogenically warmed potatoes.  

I come into it as a journalist and as a storyteller and, at some level, the imperative for me is to tell the story true, to tell it as I see it. (DWW)

So telling the story is part of the solution, and the science part is parked by “fact checking” and the “97% consensus”.   Telling the worst-case scenario is justified as it will galvanize political will to “do something”.  Anyone who has followed Brexit will not be holding their breath on a solution requiring political will…  but climate-porn sells.

Curiously, some people who were included in the original 97% number are actually climate sceptics – see here, from minute 9 – Dr Roy Spencer is a bit better qualified than most journalists on the subject.    Nevertheless, he and others end up in the 97% because of the way the question was framed.  “Do you believe that human activity has some effect on climate?”,  well yes, most people would agree that 7 billion industrious humans will have some effect.  But between that and writing apocalyptic novels about our dystopian future, there is a huge gap.

The IPCC estimates that the total impact of global warming by the 2070s will be equivalent to an average loss of income of 0.2-2% – similar to one recession over the next half-century. (Source: Bjorn Lomborg).  This wouldn’t make for a gripping edge-of-your-seat thriller novel, wouldn’t sell many newspapers….

People are so freaked out by the all the horror stories that we now have “climate anxiety” and people choosing to not start families to save the planet (this latter strategy is rather silly – as described in the Tragedy of the Commons – you selectively breed out the group of society who care, and increase the size of the population who don’t – obviously genes are not the whole story in peoples opinions and views, but it is quite a compelling thought exercise).

I guess if I was smart I’d just join the gravy-train and write a best-seller on how disruptive technology and innovation will kill fossil fuels and help us avoid a very graphic apocalypse.  Problem is, with all that money I would be an even bigger part of the problem.  Being poor is the very best way to have a low carbon footprint. You are not “in traffic”, you are traffic.

The real danger in all this, is that we spend untold resources trying to “fix” something that may have a much longer fuse than most would accept.  To achieve this we have to replace a system of energy that powers the moden world that has taken 150 years and trillions of dollers to build, and lifted billions out of poverty – and replace it with low-carbon energy which (with the exception of nuclear power, which is not wanted either) is less energy-dense. 

Humanity has never transitioned from a dense energy source to a less energy dense source.

It would be difficult to find a more taken for granted, unquestioned assumption than that it will be possible to substitute renewable energy sources for fossil fuels, while consumer-capitalist society continues on its merry pursuit of limitless affluence and growth. There is a strong case that this assumption is seriously mistaken. 

Source: Ted Trainer

Lifehacks are all the rage – these are just more attempts at simple solutions to complex problems. Everyone loves a silver-bullet, losing weight, getting ahead at work whatever. Today’s top read on the BBC? How Carbon Capture will be a “silver-bullet” – never mind the moral hazard, check out the technology – its not in the BBC piece, but is well described by the founders. It is interesting technology, but requires a lot of energy input – using natural gas and/or electricity (thermodynamics will get you every time) and will have a cost of $100-$200/ton of Co2. That is for every ton. We emit 40 Gigatons of Co2 every year. I guess silver bullets are, by definition, expensive.

Like all good relationships: its complicated.