email to Dr Jan Wright, Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment on her report above – sent 14/1/16
I find your report interesting, and it seems to contain many errors, of both fact and logic – and I can see how those errors are very easy to make.
I completely align with the intent of your office and in this case it seems that the advice you have been given does not adequately take account of very clear trends that exist.
On page 5 you state “The subtitle of this report is ‘Certainty and Uncertainty’. It is certain that the sea is rising and will continue to do so for centuries to come.”
That statement is not correct.
What we think is likely in the future depends very much on the way in which we model things.
There are many aspects to reality, many different sorts of processes.
One needs to see and model as many of those as possible.
Our brains come with linear comparators. We are intuitively very good at making linear projections.
This ability is very powerful in projecting things like the intersection of our path with that of a stalking big cat we see in the distance; and taking appropriate avoiding actions.
Unfortunately, those projections do not work well with exponential trends.
And any noisy trend can seem to fit a liner trend if looked at over a short time horizon.
Linear projections are usually fit for purpose on relative short periods, and fail completely on longer time scales when dealing with exponential trends.
I completely concur that global warming from CO2 is real. That much was obvious to my wife and I 25 years ago, so that was a significant factor in our decision when we bought 13Ha of land and planted it in trees, in significant measure to offset our effects.
Where we part company is in the longer term projections of probable futures.
Ray Kurzweil (now director of Engineering at Google) made a set of predictions 30 years ago with 86% accuracy ( http://bigthink.com/endless-innovation/why-ray-kurzweils-predictions-are-right-86-of-the-time ).
The wikipedia article on the technological singularity https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Technological_singularity contains a very interesting graph on the right had side taken from Ray’s work ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:PPTMooresLawai.jpg ). When you look at that graph, it is actually a double exponential – the rate of increase is increasing exponentially.
Linear projections simply don’t work in such environments.
The past is a good predictor of the future only if we project all of the trends present (and not even then if real novelty is present).
The problem all people face is seeing trends in noisy environments.
If one is dealing with a noisy environment where noise is at say 5%, and one waits for a signal to emerge from that noise, then if that signal is an exponential, it is only 5 doublings from 100%.
If one suspects the presence of exponentials, then one must seek them out very early, while they are still deeply buried in the noise, and are not visible as significant factors at the phenotypic level.
We have all experienced the power of these exponentials in information processing, and in the direct correlate of communications. 30 years ago I communicated with the “dialogue” servers in California via a 30 baud acoustic coupled modem. Today I have 23mbps down and 12 up over a vdsl connection – at a small fraction of the cost of my 30 baud connection (a million times the speed for a tenth of the cost – in just 30 years).
That trend is starting to hit the physical world of manufacturing, with the advent of the first generation of 3D printers.
By the time we get to the 4th generation, and we hit fully automated manufacturing, the whole game changes.
That isn’t actually that far away.
So while the trends you have outlined in your report may be a reasonable approximation on the 10 year horizon, they are almost certainly irrelevant on the 30 year horizon – the exponential trends will have completely buried them by then.
So while I applaud your attempts at raising awareness of our impacts on the environment, and our need to create effective ways of working with, rather than against, the ecosystems we all rely on, we need to do that in a different set of contexts from those currently available to most people.
Looking at climate on the longer timeframe, it is clear that the last 10,000 years of relative climate and sea level stability are the exception rather than the rule (as you point out in the introduction page 9). On the longer timescale of the last few million years, it is clear that sea level changes over a range of about 150m, and that changes of the order of 1m per 100 years are the norm, rather than the exception.
Clearly the most appropriate response to such changes is geoengineering of climate to maintain the sort of stability that humans require to give a reasonable probability of long term security.
That will involve us in many changes to how we do things currently, like closing nutrient loops, so that we recycle everything, even if it is on a 10 to 20 year cycle to reduce the risk of disease. Such changes to infrastructure are prohibitively expensive in our current stage of technological evolution, but will become available within 30 years on the current double exponential technological trends.
One of the necessities that is arising very clearly, is the need to change from the scarcity based mindset that has served us remarkable well in getting to where we are now (market based measures of value) to an abundance based mindset, where we get to see that we have sufficient energy and matter for every human being to enjoy a level of security and material abundance to allow them to do whatever they responsible choose to do.
Exactly how we manage the transition from scarcity based thinking to abundance based thinking is the single greatest challenge of our age.
With abundance based technology, we can undo all the damage we have done to the environment, and still enjoy amazing degrees of freedom.
And it is clear that market values (exchange values) are a scarcity based measure of value. If you doubt that, just consider oxygen in the air – arguably the single most important thing for any human being, yet of zero market value due to universal abundance. The flip side of that is the thing most people don’t yet get. There is no logical possibility of a market based set of values ever delivering universal abundance of anything – because universal abundance has zero market value. Markets must, logically, deliver scarcity to the majority so that a minority can experience relative abundance. Hence we see the emergence of artificial scarcities to maintain profit with ideas like intellectual property (a logical nonsense if ever there was one, we are all the beneficiaries of the language, concepts and technologies developed by our ancestors, and most developments happen simultaneously in many places – but only one can be first to the patent office). Clearly there is no justice in such a system.
Money is not an adequate measure of value in a time when we actually have the technical capacity to deliver universal abundance of all the necessities of life and liberty to every individual. Market based systems do not deliver universal security, they are far more likely to deliver universal insecurity, in and of their own internal logical incentive structure.
Clearly there was utility in such market based systems when most things were in fact genuinely scarce, but now that we are developing the technical capacity to deliver universal abundance of a large and growing set of goods and services, the internal incentive structure of market systems is clearly working against the material and security interests of humanity generally and the vast majority of humanity individually.
We need to develop a transition strategy.
I can only concur with your statement on page 5 “I have realised that the same urgency does not apply to much of the planning we need to do for sea level rise. Indeed, haste can be counter-productive.”
So while sea level rise is possible, and a certain amount is certain, in the longer term it is by no means certain, and I make the strong assertion, based upon exponential technological trends that are clearly visible, that it is in fact highly unlikely beyond a 30 year horizon.
My lifelong friend and university flatmate Jim Dahm is one of the acknowledged experts in coastal erosion, and I agree with most of what you write about the power of extreme events, and the uncertainty of coastal processes. I had many such discussion with my old mentor John Morton and numerous others over the last 45 years. For 34 years I lived on the Hauraki plains, and was very conscious of sea level processes, with the floor of my house being at about the extreme high-water spring tide mark. My current house atop the Kaikoura peninsula is probably free from sea level rise threat (at 103m above MSL), but if extreme events do occur I could find myself living on an island.
I completely agree with your page 6 comment on the need for clear communication, and take that much further.
In the following paragraph you refer to problems with ideas like one in 50 or one in 100 year events.
I go much further.
People need to understand that saying something is a 1 in 100,000 year event doesn’t mean it won’t happen. I means it almost certainly will happen, we just have absolutely no idea when.
If one is being cautious, one prepares for 1 in 100,000 year events. I have seen so many of them.
When I was a child the new high bridge went in on the Waipa river, near Otorohanga. When the minister opened it his speech said that the bridge was designed to stay above water level in a one in 1,000 year event. Within 3 weeks it was under water. It hasn’t been underwater again since.
I was there when 25 inches of water fell in the hills behind Paeroa, and the river broke its banks and flooded the Paeroa, and washed away most of the houses at Waikino. I saw the Waitakaruru river come up 22 ft in half and hour, in response to a tropical deluge that dropped 6 inches of water in under two hours.
I had 17 years of running fishing vessels, and experienced more than my share of extreme storm events at sea.
So I have some practical experience of the difference between averages over large dimensions (of time and space), and the specific impacts of specific events on specific locations – often very different.
Getting to the report itself.
Again – the assertion that sea levels will rise are based upon models that do not contain exponentially increasing technological capacity.
They are therefore not good predictors of our future.
The 3 modelling exercises referred to on page 15 would undoubted have been done with linear projections.
Chapter 2 starts with the sentence:
“The level of the sea has already risen significantly due to the impact of humans on the climate, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.”
Clearly – the essence of the evidence presented above is that the “foreseeable future” part is true only if one uses linear models.
What is now clear is that linear models are not appropriate.
That criticism is my only major criticism of the balance of the report. Everything hinges on the nature of the projections used.