An Age of Limits
Although climate change is a topic that deservedly receiving much attention, it is not the only predicament we face — there are many others, some of which are shown in the sketch. Together they make up an ‘Age of Limits’. (Many other items could be added to this list, including political rivalries, the geology of the oil fields, ocean acidity and top soil depletion. But these are is enough to be going on with.)
Many natural resources such as crude oil, fresh water and minerals are being used up. When they are gone, they are gone (or else there is no longer an economic justification for their continued exploitation). Moreover, as they are depleted, the costs of finding new sources and of extraction rise.
The climate is changing at an accelerating pace. Temperatures are increasing, sea levels are rising and polar ice is disappearing.
We continue to add pollution to the seas, the air and the land. Our waste products are everywhere.
Our actions are leading to drastic losses in the natural world. Iconic species such as polar bears receive the most publicity, but the decline in the number of insects, and even plankton in the sea, is actually much more important.
Money represents a claim on a natural resource or a manufactured product. As resources decline, so money will lose its value.
The earth’s population has gone from around two thirds of a billion in biblical times to about 7.5 billion now, and that number keeps rising. Even if we address the other issues just listed, the pressure that our species is putting on the planet is becoming unmanageable.
Any discussion to do with climate change needs to be in context — it is not a topic that can be effectively handled on its own. For example,
Solar panels may reduce carbon emissions, but fossil fuels are needed to mine the raw materials needed, and then to build, transport, install and maintain the panels. Moreover, there may not be enough lithium and other materials needed to build the number of solar panels that is called for.
Planting trees to remove CO2 from the atmosphere means that valuable agricultural land will no longer be available, so there may be insufficient food for the world’s growing population.
Some proposed solutions run into basic economic problems. For example, carbon capture and sequestration technology can remove CO2 from the atmosphere. But the technology is expensive, and there is no matching revenue stream.
As discussed in Safety Moment #62: From Complicated to Complex, it is important to distinguish between complicated and complex problems. The climate is not only a complex system in its own right, it is also linked to many other complex systems. There are numerous feedback loops — many of which are not properly understood or even identified.