Most of us don’t understand that climate change is quite complex. Much more complex than we sometimes think. And this includes me before I began paying more attention to articles like this one.

New and devastating climate news seems to be appearing every day or so. The latest bad news is that climate change is happening much faster that we thought. And, even worse, we don’t really understand the half of it. The “faster” part is not really new, but the “not-understanding-part” is very new and very scary.

It looks like we are totally mis-underestimating the future costs of climate change. This is because scientists and economists have not been able to grasp just how bad it is going to be. World leaders understand neither the magnitude of the risks nor the speed of change. All of this was spelled out in detail in a new report from the London School of Economics.

The New York Times published an article on this report in October of 2019.

Sunset at St Mary lake in Glacier National Park.
Sunset at St Mary Lake in Glacier National Park

Part of our lack of understanding is pretty obvious. Climate scientists have been underestimating how fast climate change was taking place. So economists didn’t understand how much the world had changed and thus underestimated how much climate change is going to cost the world.

But unfortunately, it gets much worse than this. The bad news comes in three parts.

The first bad news involves the nature of risk in a climate altered world. This begins with the fact that we are living in a new world, a world that we have never experienced before.

“Right now, carbon dioxide is at its highest concentration in the atmosphere in three million years (and still climbing). The last time levels were this high, the world was about five degrees Fahrenheit warmer and sea level 32 to 65 feet higher. Humans have no experience living in conditions like this.

The way humans normally judge risk is to look at everyday experience. We judge how dangerous a problem might be by looking for something similar in the past. We then check on how things turned out. The problem is that no one alive now has ever experienced anything like the current dangers. Conditions have changed so much that we have no experience with weathering such dangers.

Dawn at Logan pass.  Scenes like this lead us to forget that climate change is complex.
Dawn near Logan pass in Glacier National Park

Statisticians call judging risk by experience “stationarity.” This means that you can judge risk by using past experience if that risk is more or less stationary.

Many scientists realize we can no longer use stationarity to judge climate risk. But lots of economists have not yet recognized this. They don’t understand that changes are coming too fast to judge the risk accurately. So they get the costs wrong.

They totally underestimate what climate change is going to cost.

A second problem is that some economists know they don’t understand the real risks. But, they don’t want to put a price on something they don’t understand. They don’t want to just make up costs. So they just omit costs all together. In effect, they assign zero costs to events that are actually going to be very expensive.

For example, the melting of Himalayan glaciers is going to be mind bogglingly expensive. Flood and droughts are going to disrupt the lives of millions. Yet this cost is absent from most economic assessments. So, economists are totally underestimating the costs of global warming.

We need to better understand that climate change is complex.

Bald eagle in Yellowstone.  Eagles and wolves and elk and beaver are enmeshed in a complex ecosystem. Climate change is complex also.
Bald eagle in Yellowstone National Park

A third and really scary problem involves cascading effects. For example, the sudden rapid loss of Greenland or West Antarctic land ice will have complex consequences. It could lead to much higher sea levels and storm surges. This could contaminate water supplies. It could destroy coastal cities, and cause massive migration. The result would create all kinds of unknown turmoil and conflict.” Climate change is complex, more so than we think.

Here is another example of cascading effects. Increased heat decreases food production. This leads to widespread malnutrition. And then people find it more difficult to deal with higher temperatures and disease. Starvation and malnutrition essentially make it even harder to cope with climate change. Sustained extreme heat may also decrease industrial productivity. This would bring about economic depressions which make everything still worse. Again, climate change is complex.

In short, a hotter world makes it more difficult to deal with hotter world and so that world gets even and and everything spirals downhill faster and faster.

Climate change will most likely lead to a feedback loops. Here is yet another example. Economic losses lead to social and political disruption. All of this will likely lead to more social and political disruption. And these disruptions could easily lead to the end of democracy and our ability to prevent further climate change. And everything cycles downhill from there.

Vicious cycles and ever more dire cascades of disasters seem to be a part of climate warming. Only now are we beginning to realize just how complex climate change is.

As I said, it’s pretty scary.

Yankee Boy Creek in Yankee Boy Basin in Colorado
Yankee Boy Creek in Yankee Boy Basin in Colorado

In the face of all of this, it seems like we should be acting right now. Maybe we cannot wait to get the full results of research so we can understand the situation completely. If we wait, it may well be too late to save ourselves. But on the other hand, in the light of our new knowledge, it also looks like we are probably missing something in our assessment. And that if we act too precipitously, we may be making things worse than they were in to first place.

We may be in a lose-lose situation. We need to be certain about what we are doing, but still we need to act fast. And if we act too fast we may regret it.

It seems to me that the world is in a very nasty bind.

But we’ve been here before. We simply have to do the best we can in this new and complex world. And act we must, and hopefully it won’t be too late. Or too fast.


Here is more information about how climate change is very complex

Opinion | Climate Change Will Cost Us Even More Than We Think

The consequences of climate change are not always obvious

Even insect extinction could effect the fate of humans

The Oxbow on the Snake River in Teton National Park in Wyoming.  Climate change is complex and the changes I brings to National parks are hard to comprehend.
The Oxbow on the Snake River in Teton National Park in Wyoming
Bear lake in Rocky Mountain National Park
Bear lake in Rocky Mountain National Park

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