Ecological Discontinuity and Climate Science
By Frank Rotering | April 18, 2022
The concurrent heatwaves at the Earth's two poles in March, 2022 and the extreme weather events of 2021 indicate that a fundamental ecological shift has occurred: the age of continuous change is over, and the age of discontinuity has begun. This shift has far-reaching implications for the role of climate science in guiding humankind's response to the GHG crisis ("climate change"). Because this response is existentially significant, particularly for the global young, these implications must be urgently examined.
The past age of ecological continuity was marked by the availability of empirical data to make reasonable climate projections. Scientists could examine the Earth's past and present, build computer models based on linear and exponential changes, and forecast future trends. Sometimes the changes were lowballed and inaccurate forecasts were made, but the approach was logical in theory and moderately reliable in practice.
None of this applies to the present age of ecological discontinuity. Due in part to the incredible speed and scale of environmental destruction, Earth systems are now in the early stages of chaotic breakdown. Because this human-driven collapse is unprecedented, our planet's past and present can provide little information about future climate risks. Further, the breakdown is far too complex to forecast trends based on current conditions and physical principles.
This combination - the absence of empirical data and incalculable complexity - means that humankind now faces unknown unknowns: extreme events and sudden shifts in Earth systems that are inherently unpredictable.
Eminent climate scientist Hans Schellnhuber warned us about this eventuality in 2018. In his foreword to What Lies Beneath: The Understatement of Existential Climate Risk he stated that, "… we are in a unique situation with no precise historic analogue." Calculating the probabilities of future events therefore "makes little sense". What is required instead is, "… scenario planning, … where the consequences of a number of future possibilities, including those which may seem highly unlikely but have major consequences, are evaluated. This way one can overcome the [IPCC's] probability obsession that not only fantasizes about the replicability of the singular, but also favours the familiar over the unknown and unexpected."
Schellnhuber's warning has now been validated by events. In April, 2022 earth scientist Mark Maslin told The Guardian: “I and colleagues were shocked by the number and severity of the extreme weather events in 2021, which were unexpected at a warming of 1.2C. Now we have record temperatures in the Arctic which, for me, showed we have entered a new extreme phase of climate change much earlier than we had expected.” Such expressions of professional shock are the hallmarks of the present age of ecological discontinuity.
As a youth ecological advocate my mission is to provide the young with theoretical guidance for their prospective survival movements. In my book Youth Ecological Revolution I warn them that, because mainstream climate science supports ecocidal capitalism, it can be trusted only for its honestly conducted empirical research. This restriction on the field's usefulness is distinct from the one discussed here. The restriction imposed by ecological discontinuity is epistemological: humankind's capacity to reliably know the world. It therefore transcends capitalism and will continue to apply until the crisis has abated and continuity is again a rational assumption.
Given these two restrictions, the critical question is this: what aspects of climate science remain useful for youth survival? That is, within the sphere of honestly conducted research, what is the realm of human knowability where valid scientific work is still possible? To answer this I must first propose a principle to guide our thinking in the age of ecological discontinuity. The usefulness of climate science can then be evaluated based on its capacity to implement this principle.
The guideline that was formulated for the age of continuity (but rarely applied) was the precautionary principle. This states that major ecological threats must be seriously addressed even in the absence of "full scientific certainty". It thus assumes that, although scientific knowledge varies in reliability, future risks can in principle be estimated. Although this was true in the age of continuity, it is false today, so a new guideline is required. My suggestion is the hyper-precautionary principle:
Any environmental impact that could trigger discontinuous global events (unknown unknowns) must be treated with existential urgency: social leaders such as the capitalist ruling class must implement the most effective solutions as rapidly as humanly possible or be subject to revolutionary replacement.
The risk strategy underlying this principle is minimax: minimizing the likelihood of the maximum possible loss. For the GHG crisis the latter refers to catastrophic collapse from unsafe global temperatures, which would result in a massive human die-off and possibly our extinction. The risk of this disaster can be minimized through rapid global cooling until a safe planetary temperature is reached.
The political factor underlying the principle is that social leaders who ignore an existentially urgent threat have violated the people's trust and have thereby forfeited their right to rule society. Once leaders have clearly demonstrated that they will not implement the rational crisis response, as is the case today, they must be quickly replaced by a group that will.
The question about the residual usefulness of climate science for youth survival can now be answered. Following Schellnhuber's advice, the field must abandon its probability-based forecasts and instead consider the worst-case scenario: catastrophic collapse from an overheated Earth. It must then inform society about the most effective measures for achieving rapid cooling and develop the technologies required to implement them. The three measures proposed in chapter three of Youth Ecological Revolution are increased GHG efficiencies, aerosol optimization, and solar radiation management (SRM).
To summarize: Because the age of ecological discontinuity has begun, reliable projections about future climate risks are now beyond human reach. The usefulness of mainstream climate science, which was already compromised by its support for the capitalist status quo, is thus further reduced by the inherent unknowability of future climate events. The field can nevertheless contribute to youth survival by identifying the measures needed for rapid global cooling and developing the technologies to implement them.
The following are four important strategic conclusions that youth leaders should seriously consider. In this section I address these leaders directly.
- REJECT THE CONTINUITY FRAMING
Mainstream climate science claims that every degree, or tenth of a degree, matters. For example, a representative from the UK's Met office recently stated that, “Even if we miss 2C, achieving 2.5C is still viable and much better than 3C or 4C. The severity of impacts increases with warming level, but there is no real threshold between ‘safe’ and ‘dangerous’, just a gradual worsening.”
You should vehemently reject this continuity framing, which disregards the perilous new realities that so unsettled Maslin. My suggested argument is the following. Every fraction of a degree does indeed matter, but in two distinct ways: as a threat in the continuous realm through linear and exponential effects, and as a threat in the discontinuous realm through inherently unpredictable events. Consistently distinguish between these two threat categories.
- INSIST ON GLOBAL COOLING AND SRM
The stated goal of mainstream climate science is to limit global warming. This is a death sentence for the young because the lethal global warmth would remain. Points of no return (PONRs) now lurk everywhere in the climate system, so one or more will almost certainly be reached even if the unsafe temperature is stabilized. You must therefore insist on global cooling as soon as this can be humanly achieved - primarily through the massive implementation of solar radiation management (SRM). You must categorically reject the mainstream's dismissal of this measure as a "techno-fix" and emphatically insist on its prudent but rapid deployment.
- SPLIT CLIMATE SCIENCE
Two restrictions on the usefulness of climate science are identified above: its compliance with the capitalist status quo and the unknowability imposed by ecological discontinuity. I suggest you address the first by instigating a split in climate science between the mendacious mainstream and an ethical breakaway group. Until a professional organization exists that publicly supports global cooling and SRM, the mainstream's catastrophic fixation on emissions reductions will prevail. See here for my proposed public statement by these potential climate-science heroes.
- REPLACE THE IPCC
As explained in chapter one of Youth Ecological Revolution, the IPCC in 1995 existentially betrayed the global young by shifting the GHG goal from safe concentrations to emissions reductions. In April, 2022 - hence after numerous extreme weather events had shaken the world - the organization released a Mitigation report that doubles down on this disastrous approach. Emissions reductions are still the goal, global cooling is not considered, and SRM is dismissed. As well, Schellnhuber's warning about the IPCC's "probability obsession" is blatantly ignored: the report refers more than 1,600 times to the probability of future climate events.
The IPCC has thus conclusively demonstrated that it will not rationally guide climate action. Youth movements should respond by demanding its replacement with an organization that serves humankind and nature rather than capitalism and growth.
Leave a Comment