I’m a big fan of Nassim Nicholas Taleb, whose thinking on such subjects as “black swan” events, “Intellectuals Yet Idiots (IYIs),” “antifragility,” and “skin in the game” I have incorporated into my commentary on this blog. So, when Taleb invokes the precautionary principle in the context of climate change, I take his argument very seriously.
In a nutshell, Taleb contends the accuracy of climate models predicting catastrophic increases in global temperatures don’t matter. We have only one planet, and if there is even a remote chance that rising CO2 emissions will wreck it, humanity cannot afford to take that chance. The environment is a complex system, he writes. “Push a complex system too far and it will not come back.” The uncertainty surrounding climate change projections, far from being a reason to dismiss predictions of catastrophe, puts the burden of proof upon those who claim absence of harm. Read a succinct statement of his thinking here.
I’ve been pondering this argument for quite a while, and I agree with it… to a point. But I think it is incomplete. In the statement I linked to above, Taleb (and his co-writers) do not explore the implications of their logic. The obvious follow-up question is, OK, if climate change is an existential threat, what do we do about it?
What if the proffered solution to climate change creates its own existential threat?
Most of those who think climate change could create a cataclysmic outcome for humanity and life on the planet tend to share the same conclusion on how to deal with it. If the increase in CO2 is driving climate change, then the answer is to de-carbonize the global economy. In order to de-carbonize the global economy, we must electrify it, which means converting everything — automobiles, trucks, trains, ships, factories, lawnmowers, backyard barbecue grills, etc. — from fossil-fuel use to electricity use. And not just any kind of electricity, but green electricity generated primarily by solar and wind power backed up by battery storage to offset intermittent power generation.
If Taleb has opined on the practical question of how to reduce climate-change risk, I have not come across his thoughts. If he has, I would hope that he recognizes the risks inherent with empowering IYIs lacking skin in the game to re-engineer the global energy economy, a highly complex system, heedless of unintended consequences.
Let us assume that all the technological challenges are overcome and humanity does manage to de-carbonize its energy systems. We would live in a world in which solar/wind-generated electricity (supplemented by a tiny fraction of hydroelectricity) was virtually the only energy source. The survival of human civilization would depend upon the stability and reliability of the electric grid.
If the electric grid failed to function, there would be no electricity to power the refrigeration of food, the purification of drinking water, the heating and cooling of homes, the ability to communicate by cell phone, and the ability to transport resources from one location to another. Food systems would collapse. Utilities would collapse. The financial system would collapse. Civilization would collapse. A handful of survivalists and hunter-gatherers would inherit the earth.
In Taleb’s terminology, if I read him correctly, an economy that depended 100% upon the electric grid to function would be classified as “fragile.”
There are numerous potential perils to the electric grid. Some threats might be classified merely as “highly disruptive” — extreme weather events and cyber-warfare prominent among them. They might knock out large parts of the grid for weeks or months, but enough of society would remain functioning that aid could be rendered to the affected regions. National survival is less certain in the event of an electro-magnetic pulse generated by detonation of a nuclear weapon in the atmosphere. While such a detonation might push the United States back to the stone age, other societies not connected to the U.S. grid might survive.
The true existential threat is a geomagnetic storm triggered by a mega-burst of solar energy that overpowers earth’s magnetic field and discharges excess energy into grids across the globe. A storm of sufficient magnitude conceivably would literally melt every electric grid on the planet into an irreparable tangle of hubs and wires.
What is the probability that such an event would occur? In the so-called Carrington event of 1859, a geomagnetic storm triggered by a solar eruption hit the earth. Fortunately, the world economy at that time did not depend upon electricity. Still, electric charges did surge through telegraph lines at levels powerful enough to shock operators and light telegraph paper on fire. Undoubtedly, the earth experienced similar events previously — but in the pre-telegraph era, no one knew it.
People have all sorts of ideas of what might be done to prepare for and recover from another solar discharge devastating enough to knock down the electric grid. Ironically, currently contemplated measures such as stockpiling transformers and other critical grid components seem grotesquely deficient for the grid as it now exists. If we envision a 100% green grid, not only would transmission and distribution lines fry, so would the vast banks of batteries required to keep the grid stable. Further, if all means of transportation were electric, repair crews likely would be unable to move the stockpiled transformers from their storage yards to where they are needed. No doubt some may say my fears are overblown. Regardless, it’s fair to say that there would be a significant degree of uncertainty regarding humanity’s ability to survive such a horrific scenario.
Thus, by invoking the precautionary principle to eliminate one potential existential threat, climate change alarmists propose a solution that would create a different threat of comparable magnitude. The logic of the precautionary principle dictates that we must avoid an existential threat, no matter how remote. We have only one civilization, so to speak. If we lose it, we are not likely to be able to reconstitute it.There are currently no comments highlighted.