Today I stepped over the line by suggesting that wealth redistribution on a global scale would be necessary to cope with Climate Destabilization.


Complex Systems

I was trying to convince a guy to look at the twin threats of rising inequality to civilization

[NASA Study Concludes When Civilization Will End, And It's Not Looki...]

and Climate Destabilization

[Climate change is putting world at risk of irreversible changes, sc...]

as symptoms of an emergent complex system.

Just as flock behavior emerges from individual birds optimizing their personal space, complex behaviors can emerge from interacting components in human society. There's no need for intention, or conspiracy, to explain an emergent complex system. No individual has to want civilization to collapse or the planet to become uninhabitable. Many institutions and individuals, each maximizing their personal wealth and power, can form an emergent complex system that simply has that collective result.

In particular I see it as the kind of complex system where it's hard to control individual parts of the system in isolation.

Interconnected elite power operates through so many channels, that it easily compensates for an activist push in pollution control, global justice, sustainability, population control, political reform, corporate reform, or finance reform. Worthy reform efforts compete, isolated. Meanwhile the 1% "own" the corporations, politics, finance, the courts, and mass media as an interlaced network. This power imbalance is a manifestation of the inequality threatening civilization.

Most activist organizations survive within this structure, including most environment groups. They dare not advocate, nor discuss, replacing the economic and political status quo.


Time is short. The Arctic is no longer isolated from lower latitudes by a stable Jet Stream. As the Polar Vortex brings unusual cold weather to the US, excess heat invades Siberia and the Arctic Ocean. Sea ice melt has accelerated, methane release has accelerated, and a sudden large methane release has just become more likely. A one gigaton release would decay rapidly, like this.

image source

However, while it's in the air it dramatically raises local greenhouse warming. This raises the probability of a second large release from increased heating of the most vulnerable locations. Which raises the likelihood of a third such release, etc. Which might look like this.

image source

This isn't the only positive feedback that would feel excess local heat. Permafrost on adjacent lands would melt faster, wetlands would release more methane when they warm, and forest fires would become more likely.

The IPCC is a conservative group. They refuse to include data on positive feedbacks like these because they aren't quantified well enough to make precise predictions. We can't know exactly how soon methane will release in Gigaton quantities, or when a first large release will trigger a second, until after it's happened. If they can't measure a process, they just leave it out of their projections.

The 5 Gigatons of Methane currently in the atmosphere is responsible for half of the greenhouse warming we already have. Dr Natalia Shakhova suggests that as much as 5 Gigatons could be suddenly released. Even the IPCC estimates that a sudden methane release could make a 2°C rise happen 15 to 35 years sooner.

We live on a fragile planet now, trembling on the verge of  an irreversible sudden change that would render us powerless. Once Arctic methane starts pumping out faster, our CO2 footprint will be swamped.


How Could We Change Fast Enough?

How can we continue to work within, think within, this death dealing interconnected economic/political/financial/fossil-fuel-based system? Why not at least talk about how to modify it?

Wealth redistribution could support population control, for example by providing a modest retirement stipend to childless couples in developing countries. It could finance solar power worldwide, including poor countries. Wealth was confiscated in the Russian and Chinese Communist Revolutions. Wouldn't Climate Chaos be a greater moral justification? What counts as a reasonable response when your planet's turning against you?

The conversation ended awkwardly. The other guy agreed easily that humanity is at risk. His voice tone suggested that confiscating hoarded wealth from tax sheltered off shore accounts was lunatic. It was as if I'd asked him to consider treason. Take from the rich to give to the poor on that scale, just for humanity to survive? Unthinkable!

[Correction April 7th, 2014]

David Archer at RealClimate (in reply to a comment #6) claims that

... the mixing time for the atmosphere is short, about a year for exchange between the hemispheres and much shorter for mixing along latitude circles, shorter than the thermal equilibration time from rising greenhouse gases. So in general the Earth warms and cools as a whole from GHG concentrations.

So perhaps local warming accelerating more local warming isn't as much a danger as I thought.

Views: 211

Replies to This Discussion

I believe that sustainability was what the American Indians were practicing. Fracking is just twisting the knife in the back of future generations. Don't confiscate money. We should print a new legal tender and render all excessive wealth extinct. No one will have money to buy gold. In reality, we are a deluded people and thus part of the growing storm that has already gone beyond the event horizon. We can change the environment easier than we can change our social structures. We are doomed by our own success: the rain forest CO2 to O2 , petroleum based agricultural production, warming cycle, all of which undermine the pillars of life: air, food, water. I have told my kids that I regret what has been handed to them and recommended strongly that they not have children. I loath to see what survives after the next 100 years. When these people realize it is time and get out of their church pews and accept reality as it is, it will be to late. Because an education is unaffordable for most. we won't have a population educated enough to transform society. I hate feeling this pessimistic, but the trends towards change that would give me hope are like a new born fold being left to the rear of the heard as it flees the attacking lions. Wealth being equal now days to voice is silencing and over shouting the reality that threatens us. The wealthy alpha primates do not care about the prodigy of subordinates, and care nothing about what destruction follows in their wake. yes, wealth is an issue.

Fracking is just about is immoral and unethical as the Medieval scoundrels who poisoned water wells of those who disagreed with them. Your reference to American Indians is an accurate one, and it is also true to say that the Europeans who came to the Americas did a grossly effective job of slaughtering them without hearing or learning the native wisdoms. 

Your suggestion is brilliant: 

"Don't confiscate money. We should print a new legal tender and render all excessive wealth extinct."

Ann Pettifor

"Ann is Director of Policy Research in Macroeconomics (PRIME), and an Honorary Research Fellow at the Political Economy Research Centre of City University, London. Her background is in sovereign debt. Ann was one of the leaders in the Jubilee 2000 debt campaign, which succeeded in writing off $100 billion of debts owed by 42 of the poorest countries. Ann was also one of the few to correctly predict the credit crunch of 2007 in NEF's Real World Economic Outlook (Palgrave 2003) and in her book The Coming First World Debt Crisis(Palgrave 2006). 

"Additionally, Ann is co-author of The Green New Deal, a transformational economic programme published by NEF(July 2008) and designed to substantially reduce the use of fossil fuels while in the process tackling unemployment and the decline in demand caused by the credit crunch of 2007. She is also co-author of the Green New Deal group’s The Cuts Won’t Work and of PRIME’s ground-breaking analysis of 100 years of UK public debt and its impact: The Economic Consequences of Mr. Osborne. Her latest publication is Just Money: How Society Can Break the Despotic Power of Finance, published by Commonwealth Publishing in January, 2014."


Steve Keen: Analysing the Collapse of the Global Debt Bubble

"Steve Keen: I am a professional economist and a long time critic of conventional economic thought. As well as attacking mainstream thought in Debunking Economics, I am also developing an alternative dynamic approach to economic modelling. The key issue I am tackling here is the prospect for a debt-deflation on the back of the enormous debts accumulated in Australia, and our very low rate of inflation."

Thanks for the links, Joan.

Wouldn't it be interesting if legal tender were inherently tied to the health of the planet, so damaging the commons to profit would be self-contradictory.


(Even with no idea how to implement it, I like the idea!)

Fracking is going to be the death of the world. What good is money going to be to the wealthy when they have no water? Water is the basis for life. I don't understand why people believe they can keep destroying the earth without regard for life.
Chalk it up to another thing that baffles me..

Jedediah Purdy agrees

Braiding together human rights and distributive justice with environmental ethics and the human relation to the natural world isn’t just a nice-sounding, if daunting idea.  It’s quite simply the only way forward.

Climate Change Needs the Politics of the Impossible

Excellent article. Thanks. I re-posted. 



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