Thinking Like a System about Climate Science

by Mary Logan

H.T. Odum spent formative years interrupting his undergraduate study during World War II as a tropical meteorologist in the Panama Canal zone, which helped him to develop understanding of the energetic basis of global systems. He was generally less disturbed about the threat of climate change than he was about our coming bottleneck due to peak oil, proposing that the greatest and most impacting effect of climate change would would be greater extremes and wider swings in weather. On the subject of climate, he was

A little ice-age in Anchorage

unsure about whether heating due to greenhouse gases would cause significant rises in sea level or not; one early hypothesis of his in the 1980s was that if heating caused more water vapor to go into the air, then more snow and ice could form in polar regions at high altitudes. Glaciers might melt at their toes at sea level, but might actually accumulate in ice fields, perhaps counteracting the relative rise in sea levels. While there is accumulating evidence that sea levels are rising, and the jury is still out on glaciers at high altitudes/latitudes, there are certainly greater extremes in weather.  I ponder these questions as I write about the intersection of climate and peak oil this morning, looking out my window in Anchorage, a weather sample of n=1. We are victims of the polar jet and La Niña here in Alaska this winter, and I’m wondering when it’s all going to melt?!?

Ouroboros as symbol of cyclical birth and death of Nature, energy, unity of all, cycling, and self-sufficiency

We can frame the discussion using the hot-button example of climate change, since the polarized arguments on climate reveal some of our faulty logic and assumptions regarding global problems and solutions. The problems of peak oil and climate change are basically two ends of the same snake, which consists of the inputs and outputs of our global energy problem (see the ouroboros at right as a metaphor).  We currently produce too much CO2 as a

Flywheel from MT Brown 2004 Picture Worth a Thousand Words (from Odum, 1976)

result of the excessive use of our surplus stash of nonrenewable fossil fuels, especially here in the United States. The starting point is the unsustainable use of fossil fuels, which creates excess CO2 in the atmosphere. The process of production and consumption accelerates over time, as the flywheel global economy continues to accelerate due to oil-related growth.  So instead of being sustainable as suggested by the ouroboros, it becomes unsustainable, only limited by the amount of fossil fuels that can be removed from the eath. It is the amount of energy in the tank and how we control it that is perhaps the source of our incorrect assumptions. Isn’t the polarized war on the science of climate really a proxy for the struggle about growth and capitalism?

How we examine problems depends in part on our worldview. Our world view can be faulty, resulting in cognitive dissonance, blindspots, incorrect assumptions, or failure to examine all aspects of an issue. The failure to view problems at a larger scale sometimes prevents us from asking the right questions in framing problems. Which are the biggest problems, and how are they related to each other? Does our worldview about how the global economic system runs impact our scientific viewpoint and the theories we subscribe to? Which choices in using waning resources are best for the system as a whole? What are the fundamental assumptions of our scientific worldview, and is the natural world or energetic limits and principles considered as a part of those assumptions? Systems science can describe the nature of complex systems, in order to help us understand of nature and society.

Here is an example of questionable assumptions regarding climate change from an interesting list of five future strategic scenarios from Deutsche Post DHL. In it, a relocalization scenario was described by a group of economic experts:


This scenario describes a world initially characterized by a high level of consumption thanks to cheap, automated production. However, due to accelerated climate change, frequent catastrophes disrupt supply chains and lean production structures, resulting in repeated supply failures.

This statement suggests that climate change will be the cause of future global supply chain interruptions. If taken at face value, apparently these economic experts have less concerns about the supply for oil production than climate change. Economic experts, corporations, and the media return repeatedly to climate change as our greatest environmental problem, the cause of our woes, and the focus of our attention and funding for solutions. Soddy (1926) said, “If we have available energy, we may maintain life and produce every material requisite necessary. That is why the flow of energy should be the primary concern of economics” (p. 56). Yet the flow of energy is not the primary concern of our political and economic leaders in general, or here in this specific example. The primary concern of economics is arguably money and the perpetuation of growth. Corporations look for market problems and solutions that do not impede economic growth, as growth of stockholder value and managerial salaries is their primary goal. If one has a hammer, then everything becomes a nail? And since corporations increasingly drive media and politics, corporate agendas may also begin to drive national science and policy discussions, and frame our reality through the media.

How can we view the problem of climate as a critical imminent threat, and not view peak oil in the same way? (Thanks to Dave Cohen and others for beating this drum.) What are the incorrect assumptions that lead to our faulty logic?

  • Misunderstanding regarding what drives our economy, thinking that the basis is money and technology rather than energy
  • Failure to understand net emergy, leading to gross overestimates of energy reserves for oil, coal, and gas
  • Mental and scientific models that fail to include peak oil as a limiting factor to production
  • Insistence on extrapolating existing conditions of growth indefinitely in climate models
  • Dependence on television media for explanations of complex global systems problems, reducing the issues to single problem sound bites
  • Incentives to pursue growth as a prerequisite for the goal of wealth
  • Cognitive dissonance between media exhortations that economic growth is of primary importance and beliefs/concerns about the environment

BP-Proven Oil Reserves 2007

Has “climate change” become a euphemism for the peak oil problem that we appear to be unable to face? Is there some psychological benefit to focusing on climate instead of energy problems or is it simply a blindspot due to lack of education regarding the energy basis for society? Can we maintain BAU (Business as Usual) if we focus on some distant environmental problem as a proxy for those threats too close at hand for psychological safety? When the cognitive dissonance is that great, does it qualify as a form of mass delusion or psychosis?  Does the energy resource blindspot regarding our source of empire extend also to issues of war, where those who fail to view energy as a problem also view causative factors for war with Iran, Iraq, or other Middle East countries as based on terrorism rather than based on oil? If we are made to understand the prominence of the oil problem, must we then accept the energy basis of our empire? Is it a coincidence that these two related controversies of climate change and also war in the Middle East are so polarized, especially in the United States? Isn’t climate change really just a proxy or euphemism for our oil addiction problem, especially here in the U.S?

from Cohen 2009

While climate scientists focus on the waste CO2 buildup caused by consuming fossil fuels as primary, resource experts focus on the disappearing fossil fuels. Is either problem, climate change or peak oil, really a separate issue that can be isolated, with separate and independent economic solutions for each problem? If the problems are separated, then are the solutions separate and different also? Can single issues that are subsets of “a safe operating space for humanity” be prioritized as “the most important issue” and what is our

Rockstrom et al. 2009, Nature A Safe Operating Space for Humanity

metric for that? If we “chunk up” and view both problems from one scale up at the global level, what is the real root cause of both of these problems?  Who is molding our cultural debates about priorities in science, and why? Who decides our policies and is the policy based on unbiased science? If we were to reverse the problem, how would the solution change? In other words, if we wanted to increase CO2 in the atmosphere, what would we do—withhold carbon credit policies, stop geo-engineering, or speed up

Climate Change Geoengineering Proposal from Bipartisan Policy Center Oct. 2011

growth? Doesn’t our flywheel economy, the root cause, dictate that the only solution for climate is to slow the rate of spin, either voluntarily or involuntarily? How do we change the fundamental goal of our economic system–growth?

A new national policy agenda focuses on geo-engineering as a solution to the problem climate change as an example. In Oct. 2011, the Bipartisan Policy Center proposed expansion of climate mitigation through technology focused on specific large scale projects. Instead of addressing the

Bipartisan Policy Center Oct. 2011

fundamental problem of growth in energy consumption, we want to create an elaborate energy-intensive set of solutions that further degrade the environment (click on the picture at right for more details). Does a narrowed focus lead to finding solutions framed within the narrow boundaries of economics and market solutions, subject to corporate gamesmanship through carbon credits? Or are the problems better addressed by examining the problems with a

Stephanie McMillan Code Green

broader focus on the economy as it exists within Nature and our energetic basis?  Isn’t the solution of geo-engineering a classic example of the story of the blind men and the elephant, where each blind man describes a different part of the elephant, thus arriving at a different reality for the whole? Aren’t market solutions a bit too convenient for corporate absolution and continuation of BAU? Might mitigating climate change make other more imminent and threatening problems worse?  If we fix one problem, are there unintended consequences that impact other parts of the system? HT Odum said, “Geo-engineering the planet with interventions such as dumping iron filings in our oceans could be catastrophic.”

Here is another example of reductionist solutions to climate, from the Princeton Climate Mitigation Institute (CMI):

  • Double fuel efficiency of 2 billion cars from 30 to 60 mpg
  • Decrease the number of car miles traveled by half
  • Use best efficiency practices in all residential and commercial buildings
  • Produce current coal-based electricity with twice todays efficiency
  • Increase wind electricity capacity by 10 times relative to today, total = 2 million large windmills
  • Replace 1400 coal electric plants with natural gas-powered facilities
  • Install 100 times the current capacity of solar electricity
  • Use 40,000 square kilometers of solar panels (or 4 million windmills) to produce hydrogen cells
  • Capture AND store emissions from 800 coal electric plants
  • Produce hydrogen from coal at six times today’s rate AND store the captured CO2
  • Capture carbon from 180 coal-to-synfuels plants AND store the CO2
  • Increase ethanol production 12 times by creating biomass plantations = 1/6th world cropland
  • Add double the current global nuclear capacity to replace coal-based electricity
  • Eliminate tropical deforestation
  • Adopt conservation tillage in all agricultural soils worldwide

Taken singly, each one of these proposals from the Princeton CMI may sound reasonable, if one does not do the associated math on scaling and emergy basis. Taken together, however, one begins to realize the desperate, bargaining, “grasping at straws” nature of our efforts to bend over backwards to avoid the real issue, which is our desire to grow forever.

Finally, when we think like a system, we begin to see other problems that were not even on our radar. For example, why did none of the mainstream economists see the economic problems on our horizon, calling the problem a “black swan” when it arrived, as though it came out of nowhere without building causation, when actually the problem was very predictable when viewed from a perspective of expanding money supply combined with diminishing resources? In the same vein, are there other environmental hazards that we need to consider from a more comprehensive view, such as nuclear hazards resulting from aging nuclear plants in a setting of economic deterioration? As a former radioecologist, Odum also said, “Every home should have a geiger counter.” What part of the words smoldering ruins (above) do we not understand? Is a hazard such as this even on scientists’ radar and how do we prioritize it in a world with waning electricity security?

How fast can we/should we put on the brakes to avoid falling apart?  We need integrative, ecological thinking to both prioritize the problems and to frame solutions. As scientists are herded into zero sum games and even negative sum games for solutions to our ecological problems, the solutions will become more disintegrated and less logical.  Which policies ensure that we brake our flywheel economies slowly in order to match reductions in resource production or imports, while also protecting the environment so that it is there for us when nonrenewable supports have departed? Odum (1995) said, “Maximizing jobs and the economy requires maximizing the symbiosis of the economy with the environment and its resources” (p. 367). Encouraging a growth economy while creating policies that transfer blame for the growth amongst the culprits will not stop the problem. Trying to close the barn door after the horse is gone with carbon credits or other market-driven solutions will not stop the problem. Our media focus on climate change suggests a concern for the rapid consumption of energy but sidesteps the real root cause of greenhouse gases, which is growth. Solutions based on climate change are too narrow, focusing on market solutions that will probably not work–market solutions that do not acknowledge the need for descent are bandaids (or bananas, below). The focus on climate distracts us and takes energy away from more important national agenda priorities, such as the need to anticipate diminishing resources by changing our infrastructure to accommodate less energy inputs. Arguably self-organization will eventually select for optimum intermediate efficiencies, but wouldn’t it be better if we were proactive, as changes in fossil-fuel infrastructure requires fossil fuels? How fast can we/should we put on the brakes to avoid falling apart? Perhaps Emergy Synthesis can help us to answer some of these questions and provide solutions that best maintain economies and environments together as we descend.

Using carbon credits to fix climate change is like stuffing a banana up the tailpipe of your 1983 Mercury Marquis? Thanks, Eddie Murphy & Beverly Hills Cop!

  • TomAbel

    Mary has some good answers for the question of why climate change and not peak oil is gaining common currency.

    The first answer is political-economic, those in control of the media, finance, and governments are choosing the lesser of evils (GCC with techno fixes). And they have a lot of sway.

    The second answer that Mary gives us is psychological. It is too threatening to face a future that is radically transformed and potentially perilous, one in which the current capitalist growth economy is overthrown, replaced by something (what?) else. I want to add a little more to that. While in part the refusal to accept the peak oil prophesy may be defensive denial, I think another important component of that is our normal powers of rational decision making. Peak oil is a decadal, even millennial process if one considers its starting point in the 1800s. We humans are not equipped to sense changes with such vast time scales. In the lifetimes of each of us, we have known only economic growth, though now sputtering. Refusing to believe the predictions of peak oil, while maybe in part defensive, is not irrational given the life experiences of us all. In fact, it may be more irrational to believe a handful of doomers whatever their scientific pedigrees.

    A third answer is, we’ve heard this before! In the 70s the sky was falling! The peak is always a few years away. Like election finance reform.

    What is the solution? Keep writing. Organize. Talk. The narrative of peak and a PWD is not short. It is not simple. It takes time to tell. But what’s the alternative?