Sunday, May 25, 2014

The WAIS and Resilience

Eli has pointed out that something like the WAIS collapse, once it enters the final stage, which only takes decades, cannot be adapted to, and, given that the long slide towards an inevitable collapse has begun, mitigation is a train that has long left the station. 

A word from Dano, more of a world view about what to do


By now, bunnies surely have shared carrots at the bar discussing the two new papers about the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) passing a ‘tipping point’ to an inevitable collapse. I’m interested in the way so many outlets recently reported about “tipping points” – especially in the context of decades‐old warnings  about the WAIS instability. Especially with respect to the threat to coastal cities and the additional sea level rise from the WAIS.

So what are ‘tipping points’ anyway? In simple terms, it is the “point” at which change occurs beyond which there is no return. In ecological terms, it is the “point” at which ecosystems “flip” into a different state, which can be more or less stable than the previous state. I like to modify this visualization below, originally from Bass that attempts to depict social diffusion to help explain tipping points. The inflection point I sometimes label as an ‘a‐ha’ moment depending on the audience:

In the previous paragraph, I put “points” in non‐scare quotes because these “points” depend on scale and in terms of time, can take years or centuries. The important…erm… point to remember here is that our senses cannot perceive slow‐moving phenomena (hence, science) and therefore confusion and lack of understanding is always present in understanding phenomena taking years or centuries. This fact is part of the reaction to the sensationalist headlines from the recent findings – some saw the scale of the announcement; others saw the scale of the “disaster” so far in the future as to be incomprehensible (and thus, not actionable).

Scale is important in human endeavors too. When practitioners talk about “sustainability”, if they are educated in the sciences they mean something paraphrased from Brundtland: “not using it all up now and saving some for future generations”.

OK, great. So what?

It is safe to say that in human endeavors, too often action is not taken or change is not made until some threat is recognized. I often describe the change process as:
  • Recognize
  • Realize
  • Galvanize
  • Organize
  • Mobilize
We have been moving out of the country and into cities at an amazing pace, building willy‐nilly and reactively to address the population increase. Only lately have we realized we should build “sustainable” cities. Stories like the WAIS are a wake‐up call: we should be more “sustainable”!

We are not “sustainable” now. We likely haven’t been for a century or so at current consumption levels.

And, with the realization of the impact of the WAIS on sea levels, we are even less “sustainable” than before, because of something in ecology called “emergent phenomena”, or in layman’s terms, “surprises”. We simply cannot plan to “sustain” a way of life in an indefinite future full of surprise. Also, a city may be “sustainable” for a century, then a storm overtops the seawall and “sustainability” is lost.

What then? We should plan for even longer time frames?

So “sustainability” is a poorly‐considered goal. Now what? Personally, I think we should drop the term “sustainable”, which has been co‐opted by business, diluting all remaining meaning. In my opinion, ”resilient”  is a better term to describe both a goal and a process for cities. Resilient, in ecology and other disciplines, basically means “being able to recover from disturbance or shock.” Whether or not that recovery is in the same state is irrelevant. Recovery is relevant. Adaptability, flexibility, perseverance and planning are important to human resilience – things we used to do and still do now. Being resilient means being prepared, and being prepared means tipping points aren’t scary.

Before we moved to cities and became specialized, humans were very resilient. It’s in our genes. We just forgot (and got lazy because of cheap energy) how to do it. I think we have enough time to remember.


John Mashey said...

Read Brian Fagan's Attacking Ocean, or if he talks nearby go.
For time frames, emulate the Dutch.
Do not move to Miami.


"When practitioners talk about “sustainability”, if they are educated in the sciences they mean something paraphrased from Brundtland: “not using it all up now and saving some for future generations”."

What you mean 'they'?

In the long run , regulation is debt, and posterity is left holding the bill, not the bonds, come hell or low water.

EliRabett said...

In the long run climate change is Hell AND high water.

Anonymous said...

Lets discuss tipping points on a personal basis.

A home owner residing on property a meter above high tide has experienced several tidal surges that destroyed furniture items and each time he files a claim with his insurance company. Following the most recent event he had no insurance and suffered the loss. Now, he has given up his retirement home and put it on the market. Months go by with no contract, no closure. The mortgage underwriters will not touch the property because it cannot be insured. He now has a stranded asset. His investment is worthless. He waits for the next tipping point, in his life, when he is forced to throw the keys into the ocean and move in with his in-laws living in Cleveland.

John McCormick

Anonymous said...

No trend, taken to infinity, is sustainable.

But, of course, back in the 70s, we worried about the population bomb.

Now, with more than half the world in population decline, and the other half headed there, it appears that population and all the trends that go with it will be non-issues.

So now we can go from worrying about the environmental detriments of increasing population to the economic detriments of decreasing population.


bratisla said...

" with more than half the world in population decline"


Anonymous said...

Total fertility is less than replacement in Europe, Australia, the Americas, and now Asia.

BBD said...


Why are you wittering about population? Change the subject much?

IIRC, UN projections are still around 10bn for 2050. Lots more mouths to feed just when CC starts to bite agricultural productivity good and hard.

Happy times.

EliRabett said...

Fertility rate being below replacement does not mean population will decrease immediately or in the next few decades so because there are a large number of young people who will move into their child bearing years. Projections are that population will continue to grow for at least a while. And then there is China where the one child policy is coming to an end.

Anonymous said...

It is perhaps telling that people focus on China's 1 child policy,
but like most government efforts, it was an unnecessary and futile:

The largest decline occurred before the policy. In the rural areas, it was never enforced and in the urban areas it was unnecessary because the same economic empowerment of women decreased fertility just as with the rest of the developed world.

And of course, Russia, Italy, and Spain ( others? ) all have policies of direct payments for couples willing to have children. Doesn't seem to matter much.

Here's a fellow who makes the case for population decrease within 15 years.

A more referenced study says 30 years .

Both are at or below the 'B1' scenario ( old school IPCC ).

8 billion is hardly a lonely planet. But we are getting more urban, older, and soon - fewer.

Interesting times indeed.


BBD said...

Why are you wittering on about population still, Eunice?

So what?

You appear to be strenuously trying to change the subject.

BBD said...

UN projection is ~9.6bn by 2050.

Anonymous said...

Just asking

"Usually banned"

Anonymous said...

so when do you get to raze Las Vegas to the ground?