The Missed Oil Change and the Durban Bathtub

By Stephan Lewandowsky
Professor, School of Experimental Psychology and Cabot Institute, University of Bristol
Posted on 11 December 2011
Filed under Carbon Reduction, Politics

The climate talks in Durban have drawn to a close at around 5AM local time after a marathon all-night session.

It is too early to tell what exactly was achieved during these negotiations, although it is clear that the talks were not a complete failure.

Based on preliminary reports, my understanding is that the Kyoto agreement will continue in place, though minus Japan, Russia, New Zealand, and Canada, and that the parties are committed negotiating a new treaty by 2015. This new treaty is to be put in place by 2020 and it will, for the first time, also include developing countries in legally binding commitments. (There is, however, some ambiguity in the wording of how “legally binding” all this is.)

In addition, it appears that future decisions will no longer be based on the scientific advice of the IPCC but instead the process is only to be informed by the science. It remains to be seen whether being “informed” by the science is a meaningful concept.

The bottom-line, then, appears to be that some countries, the EU foremost among them but now fortunately also Australia, will continue to seek cuts to their emissions, whereas the largest emitters (China and the U.S.) will continue to pollute at a growing rate. On balance, it thus appears that no major global emission cuts are on the horizon until a decade from now, although this view may be slightly too pessimistic given that the U.N. process appears to have survived Durban.

What does this mean?

Assuming that no major emission cuts will take place for another decade or so, what are the consequences of this decision?

To answer the question, let us set aside politics entirely.

Let us assume (or pretend) that the leaders who congregated in Durban all had our best interests in mind, and let us just examine the cognitive issues underlying climate change.

In other words, politics aside, what kind of thinking drives climate negotiators, and how does this thinking relate to physical reality?

Cognition of Climate: Accumulation vs. Simplistic Thinking

Revealingly, at the beginning of the Durban climate talks, U.S. climate negotiator Jonathan Pershing stated that there are “essentially an infinite number of pathways” that allow stronger cuts starting in 2020 to “stay below 2 degrees.” In other words, delay doesn’t matter, we can deal with the problem later. 

Technically, but only technically, Pershing's statement is true. However, it is only true in a meaningless abstract sense, because the moment we consider technological reality his statement reflects a deep cognitive failure.

Pershing’s statement betrays the well known cognitive failure to understand accumulation processes. This failure, widely shared among most people who are not intimately familiar with dynamical systems, ignores the fact that to stabilize total CO2 in the atmosphere—which is what is required to arrest further warming—we need to eventually reduce emissions to zero (or nearly so).

This is because CO2 accumulates in the atmosphere in the same way as the water level in a bathtub rises while the tap is on. Absent any leakage, the only way to stabilize the water level is to shut off the tap completely.

And the longer we delay before starting to turn the tap, the more rapidly we have to close it—if we delay emission cuts to 2020, then the required cuts are around 9% a year (which means every single year from 2020 on). Those cuts may not be technologically achievable. If we started in 2011, we could achieve the same outcome with cuts of only 3.7%, probably well within technological reach.

The figure below illustrates this problem by comparing the global emissions paths required to have any chance to limit warming to 2C, depending on when emissions peak. The longer we wait, the harsher the cuts.

The apparent failure of climate negotiators to understand the underlying physics is costing all of us dearly. (Remember, for the sake of this argument I am ignoring politics.)

Collectively, the climate negotiators have been acting like corporate fleet managers who run their cars without oil changes or maintenance, just to improve the bottom line for a year or two. Some twenty years ago, we could have dealt with climate change for the price of an oil change. Ten years ago, the price had gone up and it would have cost us a new engine. Right now, we are in for the cost of a new car. And if we do nothing for another 10 years, our planet may remodel itself with us no longer in the driver’s seat because 9% annual emissions cuts may be unachievable.

Cognition of Climate: Here and Now vs. the Relevant Past

There is another cognitive trap into which climate negotiators appear to have fallen which arises from the same fundamental failure to understand the physics and mathematics of accumulation.

This cognitive trap involves the inability to recognize historical responsibilities.

Let us continue with the bathtub analogy.

Because Western countries have been filling the bathtub for far longer than developing countries, more of the water in the tub is "ours," rather than China’s or India’s. Not surprisingly, therefore, those countries expect us to start closing the tap before they shut theirs.

However, Western commentators and politicians often seemingly fail to understand our historical responsibilities, pointing instead to the fact that China is now emitting more than the U.S., or that India is growing too fast or whatever.

Yes, China now emits more than the U.S., but its total accumulation is less than a third of the American responsibility. And because accumulation is what matters, Australia has a greater historical responsibility than 94% of all other countries in the world.

This is shown in the figure below which plots the (logarithm of) historical emissions of all countries against the rank position of each country (in other words, we order the countries from most-emitting on the left to least-emitting on the right). Australia is the big red dot towards the top:

The figure clarifies that despite us being a relatively small country, we have contributed mor to the CO2 in the atmosphere--or water in the bathtub in our analogy--than most other countries in the world. (Further details of this analysis are here.)

So before we even consider politics, the cognitive challenges of climate change present a bleak picture. People do not readily understand the nature of accumulation, and that means they do not understand the relationship between emissions and atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases. It also means they do not understand the distinction between present emissions and historical responsibilities.

It is important to add that those cognitive failures are not willful: They simply reveal the limitations of a cognitive apparatus that evolved at a time when it was simply inconceivable that our species would one day affect the overall geophysics of our planet.

Fortunately, those cognitive limitations do not prevent us from understanding them: It may sound paradoxical, but the tools of cognitive science allow us to understand our own thinking even if it is sometimes flawed.

This realization, in turn, empowers us to correct our thinking.

But of course, so far we have just considered human cognition, ignoring all the political factors that contribute to decision making in the climate context.

Add politics and vested interests and you likely get the de facto decision to let our children do the cleaning up and suffering at a far greater price than we were willing to pay.

It remains to be seen how exactly Durban fits into this picture. The fact that an agreement was achieved can only be positive. The fact that serious action has been delayed for another decade or so may come to haunt us.

An abridged version of this post was published on The Conversation 

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Comments 1 to 2:

  1. Thanks Stephan, I read the abridged version on TC.

    I really enjoy your posts on cognitive limitations (which we all have and can't avoid) but which we can overcome somewhat if we are aware and are willing to try. It's a shame so few apparently make the effort (not that I claim special exemplary status by any means).

    My take on this issue that I use in conversations with friends and colleagues who are concerned about AGW but fail to understand the accumulation issue and also raise the "why should we (Australia) act, we are such a tiny part of the problem" is as follows (some of which I posted on TC too). In the analogy I use below the "water" is the accumulated energy of the planet and the "narrowing plug hole" is CO2 - but otherwise it's fairly similar to your bathtub analogy
    1) As the article points out If you consider historical emissions rather than future emissions then we in Australia are responsible for a whole lot more than just the 1.3-1.5% that is frequently quoted - so where does the burden for action lie?

    2) Per capita emissions are a pretty good proxy for "CO2 profligacy" - Australia fares pretty poorly on that front - indeed despite China now being the number one absolute emitter their emissions per person are still way under ours or America - so where does the burden for action lie?

    3) Australia has one of the most fossil fuel dependent economies in the world. If you accept that AGW is a problem it will actually cost us LESS to act now than later

    4) Imagine you are in a room with 350 people. These people are divided into groups. There's two big groups of about 50 people each - let's call them the "Chin" and "Indy", a fair number of midsized groups and there are lots of small groups of 1 person. You are one of the small groups - let's call you "Oz" for short.
    The room is filling with water and, if left unchecked, everyone in the room will drown. Alas there is no way out of the room and also no way for the water to run out except through a very small plug hole that simply cannot cope. Apparently the room has always been filling with water but nobody noticed because the plug hole drained at a more or less steady rate and the level was stable and comfortable. Recently due to the activities of everyone in the room the plug hole has become narrower and narrower.
    The only way to save everyone in the room is to reverse the narrowing of the plug hole so the room can cope. Everyone will end up with a higher water level overall but at least the water level will stop increasing (alas enlarging the plug hole it is not an option without putting at risk the structure of the room).
    The group has learned that the narrowing of the plug hole is caused by each person's individual activity to try and improve their material wealth and that at least some of this activity is regarded by each individual as necessary to maintain their way of life and enjoy the comforts of the room. You happen to be one of those people whose activity contributes the most per individual (and also happen to be in a very comfortable part of the room) although your overall contribution is dwarfed by the large groups of 50 who are in a far less comfortable part of the room and who are increasing their individual activity to try and get more comfortable.
    There are alternatives available that will reduce the narrowing of the plug hole but these are costly.
    Is it fair or ethical for you (Oz) to do nothing but demand that the groups of 50 act first to reduce their activity (thus reducing the narrowing of the plug hole far more than your individual efforts ever could) but also see that this would mean they remain far less comfortable than you while you sit there and do nothing but remain in comfort?
    Or do you take action and communicate with everyone you can that if we don't act in unison we may all be dead?
    (By the way there is another group of 15 or so called "Yank" who seem to be both one of the significant groups in terms of narrowing the plug hole, the most comfortable and with one of the highest per capita in terms of contributing to plug hole narrowing- but their leaders are apparently deaf blind and stupid and at least half of them deny the water is even there or that there is even a plughole to worry about).

    Perhaps we might all accept that in this life or death situation it would be unwise to let the perfect be the enemy of the good and that even if not everyone takes action your chances of survival (and everyone else's) are improved if you DO take action.
    Of course, those who deny the water's existence or that there is an issue with plughole will never be convinced. Unfortunately they will drown along with everyone else. because as Phillip K Dick once said "Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away"
  2. It would be nice to think that knowledge of our historical accumulations would make a difference to the willingness of the governments of large emitters, like Australia and the US, to act. I think there is sufficient information widely available about the costs of delayed action but clearly that has little effect too. Fortunately, much of the general public is propelled to act by the 'direness' of the situation. Understanding the cognition provides further ways to convey the necessity of action.
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