climate change,  Gary,  publications

The complexity of climate change and the need for policies of resilience

Forthcoming in the Journal on Policy and Complex Systems ***

Abstract:  The challenges presented by climate change may be the most complex issues humans have faced.  It is critical to capture that complexity in ways that can be understood across disciplines.  Equally daunting is the task of developing policies which can translate into actions.  Scientifically, humans need to cease all use of fossil fuels as soon as possible.  Feasibly, that could wreak havoc on global economies.  This paper explores the design of policies which could move human societies towards resilient and biophysically sustainable systems.  The petrochemical industry is considered as an example for change.


There is arguably no more complex problem facing humans than climate change, in all of its manifestations.  It affects every other subsystem on Earth, and potentially our survival, as well as that of many other species.

The Anthropocene defines the period of time in which human behaviors began to affect the biosphere itself.  Some would date the beginning of that epoch to the use of fire by human ancestors; others to the development of tools, which allowed humans to become effective hunters of meat for food; others to the agricultural revolution, allowing for stable villages and cities and the specialization of labor.

The most significant changes may have started with the advent of the first industrial revolution, when fossil fuels powered the first industrial machines.  Coal powered steam engines, which in turn removed water for coal mining.  Coal then drove locomotives, as trains moved people and goods across continents.  The internal combustion engine, fueled by gasoline, took over the transportation industry, while coal has remained critical for the generation of electricity for many years.  Modern civilization, from the industrial revolution onward, has been powered primarily by fossil fuels, and that remains true today.

Some effects of burning fossil fuels (primarily coal) could not have been missed, even early on.  Smoke-filled industrial cities became common, and still persist in China, India, and other advancing nations.  At the beginning of the industrial age, however, the Earth seemed so vast that it could absorb or dismiss any human activity.  Waste and pollution were counted as “externalities” for production.  No one was considered to be responsible or liable for our collective impacts.

Increasing awareness of environmental issues date back to the late 19th century.  During that era, the Sierra Club was founded, Yellowstone was established as the first national park in the US, and Gifford Pinchot became the first chief of the US Forest Service.

Eventually, industrial effects could not be ignored.  Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring documented the damage from synthetic pesticides, and countered disinformation from the chemical industry.  Then, on June 22, 1969, the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, OH, burst into flames.  According to a report by Time, it marked the beginning of the environmental movement in the US.  Greenpeace was founded in 1971, and the US Clean Water Act was passed in 1972.

The Club of Rome was established in 1968, and by 1972 its research study about the problems of mankind had become the book, Limits to Growth.  That computer simulation model, using system dynamics, was built on “five major trends of global concern – accelerating industrialization, rapid population growth, widespread malnutrition, depletion of nonrenewable resources, and a deteriorating environment.”  The report was immediately and soundly criticized on many fronts, in terms of its data and accuracy as well as its audacity to question economic growth.  It should be noted that this approach to the study was a second choice by the Club of Rome, after the initial proposal was rejected as being too complicated for the public at-large.  Ironically, projections made in the original study have been revisited, and found to be more accurate than expected.

As a US Representative, Al Gore initiated the first congressional hearing on climate change in 1981.  He published the book Earth in the Balance in 1992, and soon after his presidential defeat in 2000, he began his presentations (later a book and movie), titled An Inconvenient Truth.  That raised a new level of public awareness about climate change in the US.

Air and water quality have improved in many places since the environmental movement began, due largely to government-imposed standards, but the US remains one of the largest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions in the world.

It is doubtful that we would have the modern societies in which we live today, had the concentrated energy of fossil fuels not been discovered.  But those same fuels now threaten the balance of our biosphere.  The effects of fossil fuels, via greenhouse gases, have taken over as the greatest environmental threat today.

Agreement about the larger effects of climate change have been building amongst scientists for decades.  The first world climate conference was held in 1979; the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was established in 1988; the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro took place in 1992; the Kyoto Protocol was adopted in 1997; and the Paris Agreement was adopted by the United Nations Conference of Parties in 2015.

The World Economic Forum publishes an annual Global Risks Report, assessing the top ten concerns by world leaders.  From 2007 to 2010, none of those concerns were related to environmental issues.  In 2011, five were environmentally related, but by 2015, it was down to two.  In 2020, eight of the ten highest ranked issues were related to the environment.

Financial and business leaders are increasingly focused on both risks and opportunities related to climate change.  The insurance industry, for instance, is facing increasing losses for climate-related disasters (storms, floods, fires, etc.)  Flooding is increasing in coastal areas due to rising sea levels and storm surges.  Fires have increased due to draughts (e.g., Australia and California).  Travel and transportation industries face different kinds of losses and disruptions.  Business operations have to prepare for supply chain problems.  Fossil fuel companies face the threat of trillions of dollars in “stranded assets,” resources which are accounted as assets financially, but may never be extracted or used.

Entrepreneurs see significant potential in alternative energy investments and new technologies.  Wholesale change to new energy sources would require immense investment in infrastructure around the world.  Electrification of all end-use of energy (cars, machines, residential appliances, etc.) would require major investment at the consumer level.

Despite the progress in science, or the increase in public awareness, little progress has been made in our use of fossil fuels, or the release of greenhouse gas emissions.  According to a report by British Petroleum (BP), in 2018 primary energy consumption grew at a rate of 2.9%, almost double its ten-year average. As a result, carbon emissions grew by 2%, the highest rate of increase in seven years.  Collectively, India, China and the US accounted for two-thirds of the increases in energy demands.

Link to the full paper will be available upon publication

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