The consequences of failing to understand catastrophic risk


It doesn’t matter whether you believe it or not, it’s happening anyway

I was at the ETS16 conference in Austin Texas yesterday at which people from the electricity generation and distribution industry were discussing how they are planning to cope with a world where sea levels rise by 5-10 feet over the next 30 years.

5 feet of that will be caused by ocean expansion as it warms and with ice melting.  The additional 5 feet would come, and come very quickly if a large piece of the Antarctic ice shelf breaks off and melts into the ocean. This is looking increasingly likely to happen. The consequences for ocean currents would be devastating.

The presenters made no pronouncements on whether the climate change was man made (although 97% of scientists in the field believe it is), or simply part of the Earth’s cycle. Either way it’s happening, and we as a society aren’t even beginning to think through the consequences.

On the one side the environmentalists want to concentrate on stopping more carbon escaping into the atmosphere and are reluctant to deal with its consequences because they feel it gets polluters off the hook, and on the other side deny it’s even a thing. The core infrastructure world doesn’t care about the politics, it cares about the consequences.

Where do you put 145,000,000 people?

This will displace 145m people globally. In both rich and poor countries. To give a sense of scale look at the chaos caused by 4m Syrians on the move over the last 4 years.

These people are not environmentalists, they are business people. They are making rational non emotional decisions based on facts. This isn't discussed in terms of remote possibilities. This is discussed as accepted fact. It is going to happen and the consequences are going to be catastrophic.

Calm but chilling

The presenters were calm, this was no shrill panic. It was chilling to observe.

We're in big trouble. This is no economic recession, or lose of jobs to another country level issue. This is an existential threat to society. Think how many major cities are on the coast. Will society break down when they become inundated? New Orleans was underwater for less than a week and look what happened.

What happens when that happens to London, New York, Miami, Boston, Houston and hundreds of other cities all at once and the water doesn't recede. Don’t think only about the cities, think about what happens to farm land, and infrastructure, and government. The military can be mobilized to help one city on a temporary basis, not all of them permanently.

Here’s a map of the US showing predicted sea level change, and here’s a map of the UK with sea level change it literally changes the map.

Deny it and hope it goes away

The people who actually manage the US core infrastructure are trying to work to solve the problem while over half the US politicians are denying it even exists.

Solutions to protect core infrastructure and cities will take huge amounts of money and lots of time to build. I see zero chance that will happen in the present political climate and once the evidence becomes so overwhelming that it can't be ignored, it'll be way too late to do anything.

“Even if we deny its causes, we MUST start building for its consequences”

Civilisation is fragile

We are terrible at understanding and coping with remote, but catastrophic risk. Yesterday brought home to me that this is no longer a remote idea that the climate will change at some point in the future. It went from a moral and political concept, to a concrete practical reality. We're right in the middle of it, and almost no one is planning for it.

Climate change is the biggest Excession event of the modern age. The rules for success, even survival of our society depend on how we meet this challenge. So far we’re not doing many of the right things, or even thinking in the right way.

Civilization is only ever three meals away from chaos. I didn't sleep well last night thinking this through.

About the Author: Simon Dudley

Simon is a contrarian. He makes a habit of being the guy who questions the orthodoxy, the guy who doesn’t believe it just because the good and the great said it’s true. This has not always been good for his ascent up the corporate greasy pole. However it’s been very good for his employers if they are prepared to listen.

The Book The End of Certainty "How to thrive when playing by the rules is a losing strategy" explains why groupthink and the doing what you’ve always done is no longer the right move.

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