Sunday, October 22, 2017

Linking Hurricanes to Climate Change? Not So Easy.

The text below is a reposting of something that I published on Oct 2, 2017 on "Medium".  On the basis of data from Google Trends, I proposed that, on the average, the public had not perceived the link of climate change with the spate of hurricanes of 2017. A few weeks later, it seems that my observation was correct: the latest polls indicate that the American public is slowly (very slowly) awakening to the idea of human-caused climate change, but that the 2017 hurricane season has not triggered a substantial change of views. Here is the post.

Linking hurricanes to climate change is harder thank you think

by Ugo Bardi

Above: the results of a Google Trends search for the term “climate change”. The recent wave of Caribbean hurricanes has had little effect on the number of searches on the Web. Most people just didn’t think that hurricanes and climate change are linked to each other.

We all live inside our specific information cocoons where we hear from sources we tend to trust.

If you, like me, live in a cocoon where it is generally agreed that human-caused climate change is real and dangerous, then you would think that the recent series of hurricanes hitting the US should have made a great impact on the public perception of the climate change threat. The impression I had from the messages I received and what I read from my sources of information is of an onrush of excitation that made it clear to everybody sane in his/her mind that we need to act against climate change before it is too late.

Ahem, no.

This is a classic example of the working of echo chambers. Out there, in the world of the mainstream media, the link between hurricanes and climate change was occasionally mentioned but that had little or no effect on people’s perception of the issue.

Look at the Google data at the beginning of this post. You see how, in June, Trump’s announcement that the US would withdraw from the Paris agreement aroused some interest in climate and it may have pushed people to be more aware of the climate change threat.

But the hurricanes didn’t move people in the US to search for more information on climate change on the Web. Worldwide, it was the same.

So, the attempt of moving public opinion by linking the hurricanes to climate change seems to have been a major flop. Actually, it may turn out to be more than just a flop, it may backfire. Read what satirist Scott Adams said on his blog:

Last winter I saw climate skeptics (or deniers in some cases) proclaiming climate change a hoax because it was cold outside. The scientists and pro-climate-change folks mocked those poor souls for not understanding the difference between anecdotal evidence and science. You can’t determine a long term trend by looking out the window, say all scientists. And if you think you can, you’re being a big dope who doesn’t know the first thing about science.
If you don’t understand that anecdotal data in isolation is generally useless to scientists, you don’t understand anything about science. A year ago, that described a lot of climate skeptics who were looking out their windows, seeing snow, and declaring climate change a hoax.
But that was last year. This week the sides reversed. Now I keep seeing climate alarmists on social media looking at the hurricanes and declaring them strong evidence of climate change. They might be right. But if they are, it is by coincidence and not by science. Scientists say it is too early to tell. So now we have a bizarre situation in which the pro-science side is disagreeing with the scientists on their own side. That’s what confirmation bias gets you. Both sides see anecdotal evidence as real.

One problem with Scott Adams is that when he speaks about climate science he shows the same kind of total incompetence shown by the character of the pointy-haired boss in his “Dilbert” strip. But here, there is no doubt that he has a point.

Personally, I am perfectly willing to trust climate scientists when they tell me that global warming has a role in making hurricanes stronger. But I can see how most people will be confused by the idea that, no, snowstorms don’t tell us anything about global warming but, yes, hurricanes do.

To say nothing about being able to follow the concatenation of concepts that would lead them to understand that installing a solar panel in California can help people in Puerto Rico survive the next wave of hurricanes.

I can also see climate science deniers wringing their hands and telling themselves: “Now, let’s wait for the first snowstorm of this winter, and then we’ll tell those alarmists what they deserve!”

So, another day, another flop. We just don’t seem to be able to find the right way to move society toward doing something serious to stop climate change. Actually, in many cases, we seem to be perfectly able to worsen things.

So at a minimum, we need to rethink what we have been doing in terms of climate communications — because it is just not working.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Paris: the Dragon King. More Presentations of "The Seneca Effect" Book

Camille Olinet (left) and Fanny Verrax (right) with whom I was engaged in a discussion on mining as part of the presentation of my book "The Seneca Effect" in Paris. Camille is studying agronomy, Fanny has a degree in philosophy and studies mineral depletion and its consequences with a special interest on rare earths. They are a good example of the lively intellectual climate of Paris. 

In 1998, Jean Laherrere (yes, the great expert on peak oil!) and his colleague, the French physicist Didier Sornette were studying the distribution of various natural phenomena. They found that cities followed a nice "Power law" distribution in the relation of size and rank with a single exception: Paris: a city so much larger than the others in France that it could as well be on another planet.
In that paper, Laherrere and Sornette used the term "king" for an element of the distribution that's completely outside the trend. Later on, Sornette used the term "Dragon King" for this kind of things, correctly surmising that these dragons are better examples of sudden and unexpected crisis than the concept of "Black Swan" created by Nassim Taleb. (you will find details on these curious entities in my book, "The Seneca Effect")

Now, I don't know how I could measure the level of "intellectual liveliness" of Paris, but I surmise that if it could be done, the results would be similar to those that Laherrere and Sornette found for the size of French cities. Paris truly stands out of the crowd in many senses, also as a throbbing center of intellectual activity.

So, my book tour in Paris was a real smorgasbord of discussions and debates. Not everything was on stellar levels, of course, but it was a pleasure to note that in Paris (and in general, in France) you can still seriously discuss of things, such as "peak oil" and "mineral depletion," which seem to have become politically incorrect - branded as "catastrophism" - in the English-speaking world. And there are still books published in French and written by French scientists on these subjects that are supposed to be bought and read by people, not just thought as ornaments of a scientist's career.

Why is Paris so lively? Maybe the French made a wise choice in maintaining their language alive as a medium for scientific communication. Or maybe it is just the French tradition of respecting their "savants" (things are a little different in the US, as we all know). Or, simply, because France has not yet taken the downslope of the Seneca cliff as other European countries have (Italy is a sad example of this).

In any case, vive la France!

h/t: Jacques.Chartier-Kastler, Yves Cochet, Didier Cumenal, Jean Pierre Diederen, Arthur Keller, Vincent Mignerot, Daniel Moulin, Camille Olinet, Jacques Treiner, Fanny Verrax, and many, many others

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

You cannot have a war economy if there is no war. My 4th presentation of "The Seneca Effect" in Paris

Above, at the Momentum Institute in Paris on Friday 13th, 2017. Ugo Bardi is on the left of the photo, Yves Cochet (president of the institute) is at the center, with the white shirt. 

The presentation at the Institut Momentum on Oct 13th was the fourth of a series of presentation related to my book "The Seneca Effect" that I gave in Paris last week. This one was probably the least formal one of the series. I gave some explanation of how system dynamics models can produce the asymmetric "Seneca Curve," but I concentrated on a section of the book, the one dealing with the extermination of whales during the 19th century. It is a theme related to the concept of Anthropocene: the human relation with the ecosystem.

The point that I try to stress in these presentations is that most people, including decision-makers, just don't have the concept of "overshoot", that is the tendency of consuming more resources than the system can produce, forcing it to crash down after some time. It is something that I described also in a previous talk.

The problem, here, is that not having the concept of overshoot, people happy go along the Seneca trajectory, thinking that the more resources they can extract from the system, the better things are for them. They don't realize that the more they go up, the faster they'll have to crash down. I surmised that we have a cultural problem: it is a relatively new concept that will have to penetrate culture. That will take time and it is not obvious that it will ever happen.

The comments that I received were varied and interesting. One point that found myself in agreement is that the concept of "Anthropocene" is really too narrow when it is intended as something that started with nuclear energy or with fossil fuels. The Anthropocene, really, started with the late Pleistocene, more than 10,000 years ago, when humans started having a major impact on the ecosystem causing, among many other effects, the extinction of the megafauna of those times.

From here, the discussion moved on how (and if) these concepts could move into the general consciousness of humankind. Here, Yves Cochet made a series of interesting observations. The one I think best summarizes the whole discussion is that "you cannot have a war economy if there is no war". As a former politician, Cochet understands the problem very well.

This is another way to state what I said before: as long as people move along the rising side of the Seneca curve, they enjoy the ride won't care about what's in store for them on the other side, the collapsing one. And that explains why all our efforts to alert people in advance failed, from the times of "The Limits to Growth" to peak oil and climate change. Those people who engaged into the attempt were marginalized as (to use Cochet's definition) "Totemic Circles". And this is the way the human mind works and it seems we have to accept it and enjoy life.

(about enjoying life, here is a picture of me, in Paris, drinking beer in Montmartre with the physicist Jacques Treiner)

Friday, October 13, 2017

A Seneca transition for the human mind? My third presentation in Paris

One more day in Paris, one more presentation. This one was given on Oct 12th, at the "Ecole Centrale d'Electronique" (ECE) for the members of the system dynamics group of the French Association of System Science ((

This one was a rather technical presentation, starting with the concept of "Mind Sized" system dynamics models to describe the "Seneca Effect", all the way to show some recent results of world modeling obtained by the MEDEAS project.

Overall, most (although not all) the people working in system dynamics are perfectly aware of the situation and of the difficulties associated with the transition. Perhaps the most interesting comment was about the Seneca effect applied to the human mind. Would it be possible, someone said, that an abrupt Seneca transition would affect human minds and somehow force them to take reality into account? It is another way to express the concept, common among the concerned, that at some moment some truly big event will force people to accept the reality of climate change (and of other related, occurring disasters).

Indeed, some people recently pushed the connection between hurricanes and climate change trying to move people into recognizing the existence of climate change. But it doesn't seem to have produced a noticeable effect on the public perception of the problem.

Maybe, someday, some really big event - a truly enormous one - will generate the needed mental transition, but it will not be easy. In my answer to the comment, I noted several cases, for instance the American whaling industry in the 19th century, where the operators went through the complete destruction of the system they were exploiting without ever realizing (or at least admitting) what they were doing. According to this example, the human civilization might be very well destroyed by climate change without realizing (or at least admitting) the existence of the problem. But so is the way humans behave.

H/t Didier Cumenal for organizing this seminar

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Education for the Transition? My 2nd Seminar in Paris

There I am, together with Gaell Mainguy, Directeur du développement et des relations internationales du Centre de Recherches Interdisciplinaires in Paris. It was on Wednesday, Oct 11 and we are on the 21 floor of the "Tour de Montparnasse", spectacular view of Paris and of the Eiffel Tower.

We had a good hour or more of discussion about the role of education in shaping our future. I was truly impressed by the competence and the dedication of the people who participated in the debate. Yet, I remain somewhat skeptical about the possibility for education - at any level - to change society.

On this point, I have some personal experience as a teacher, but more than my limited record I tend to trust Jorgen Randers, one of the original authors of "The Limits To Growth" who defined himself as "a depressed man with a smiling face." That was for various reasons, one was that after, maybe, 40 years of teaching his students about sustainability, he observed that when they moved into the real world, outside the university, they behaved exactly in the same way as the people who had not been taught these matters. Dennis Meadows told me something very similar regarding his own experience. And all that fits well with my personal experience.

Basically, people normally tend to go along the path of lowest resistance and in a society that does not reward sustainability-oriented actions, they will rapidly learn how to maximize their utility function, even though that means forgetting what they learned in school.

That doesn't mean it is useless to teach sustainability and, of course, no rule is without exception. Maybe the kind of creativity that people can develop after a certain training remains an asset all over their life. It means, however, that as long as society remains what it is, the lofty principles that we learn from the science of ecosystems will not be put into practice. So, what is the solution? Well, a good Seneca Cliff can do wonders in terms of changing things!

Apart from lofty principles and Seneca cliffs, a good beer in Paris is always a good thing! Here I am, after the seminar, in a bistrot of Montparnasse together with Jean Pierre Dieterlen, a member of the Adrastia association.

H/t Jacques Chartier-Kastler for the organization of this meeting

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

My first presentation on the energy transition in Paris: is it a problem or a change?

My first presentation in Paris, yesterday, one of at least four that I am planning to give here (busy times!!). It was at the Ecole National Superieure (ENS) and it was centered on the Energy Transition, as part of a seminar involving several presentations.

Overall, I'd say that all the presentations were good with some very competent speakers. The problem that I have in these debates/seminar is always the same. People tend to think of the transition in terms of a problem. And if it is a problem, it means it has a solution (or maybe not). But if the transition is a change, then it is not a question of solutions, you cannot solve a change, you can only adapt to a change.

So, many pretended "solutions" are ways to oppose change, one that was proposed at the seminar was to exchange all tungsten filament bulbs with LED lights. Fine, it will allow us to save a lot of energy. But the change is deeper and it goes at the heart of everything we do in this society. We need to think systemic, not problem-specific. It is not just question of changing our light bulbs, it is a complete ecosystemic change.

And so we continue. Change continues to occur, too.

(h/t Daniel Moulin, image courtesy Camille Olinet)

Saturday, October 7, 2017

"The Seneca Effect": Book Presentations in Paris

"The Seneca Effect" has been published both in German and in English. Up until Oct 9th, there is still the possibility of ordering the version in English with a 20% discount. Ask me for a voucher (ugo.bardi(entity)

The first public presentation of "The Seneca Effect" was at the Summer Academy of the Club of Rome, this Septembre; you can read a report here. A new presentation took place this Friday, Oct 6th, at the Chalet Fontana in Florence. (Photo courtesy Enrico Battocchi).

New presentations are programmed for the coming week in Paris. All will be in French and some are not just presentations of the book but general conferences on related subjects; energy, climate change, etc. Here is a list of the main ones.

Tuesday Oct 10, 18h TREVE Public Seminar on the Energy Transition, École normale supérieure de Paris. 29 Rue d'Ulm, 75005 Paris, with Ugo Bardi and Gérard Weisbuch.
Wednesday, Oct 11, 17h-20h. Center for Research and Interdisciplinarity, Tour Montparnasse 21st floor, 33 avenue du Maine, 75015 Paris. Discussion on how to catalyze an ecological shift through education, followed by a presentation of the Seneca Cliff by Ugo. Inscriptions on
Thursday, Oct 12, 14h30. Ecole Centrale d'Electronique, (ECE), 37 Quai de Grenelle, 75015 Paris. Seminar by Ugo Bardi for the Groupe Dynamique Des Systemes. If interested to attend, please contact Mr. Didier Cumenal (cumenald(entity) in advance.
Friday, Oct 13. Presentation of "The Seneca Effect" at the Institut Momentum, from 15h00 to 18h00, 33 rue de la Colonie, 75013 Paris. If interested to attend, please contact Yves Cochet (yves.cochet(entity) or Agnes Sinai (asinai(entity) in advance. 

In addition, in Paris I'll be engaged in several book-related informal meetings and presentations with old and new friends. It looks like this week will be a very busy one for me and I can only hope to find some time for a little tourism! But if you like to contact me to organize something, please do so at ugo.bardi(mysterything) and maybe we can find a way. I'll be in Paris up to Monday, Oct 16th. 

Thursday, October 5, 2017

The First Summer Academy of the Club of Rome, a Comment by Tatiana Yugay

Tatiana Yugay is professor at the Plekhanov University in Moscow. She is an expert in issues related to the world market of oil and gas. A post of her on this subject can be found here. Above, you can see her in a tree-hugging moment at the Botanical Garden of the University of Florence.

Now that Ugo Bardi has finished presenting on his blog the main speakers at the 1st Club of Rome Summer Academy 2017, at the Florence University, I'd like to share my impressions about this great event. Of course, the speakers were rather prominent, all of them - authors of solid books and\or founders of innovative movements but it was no less interesting to watch reaction and feedback from the audience. Being a university professor, I'm very curious to observe differences between my students and those from other universities.

I was really delighted to meet so many competent and enthusiastic young intellectuals who were ready to save the world today! They were great listeners; very supportive and pro-active at the same time. They put very thoughtful and intelligent questions, sometimes not easy to answer. They were ready to laugh at a good joke or cheer at a statement that met their opinion.

While exchanging opinions with some participants during coffee breaks, I understood that they appreciated most of all those speakers who explored new fields of knowledge, used novel approaches or presented results of their own research illustrated by concrete data.

They wouldn't let go Anders Wijkman, Co-President of the Club of Rome, after his presentation of the Club's concepts. They asked plenty of questions to Kate Pickett from the University of York, who during many years studied problems of inequality. I was glad that contemporary young people are so much concerned about this social problem. They applauded to Ugo Bardi's visual demonstration of the Seneca Cliff.

They were deeply impressed by a groundbreaking discourse by Chandran Nair, Founder of the Global Institute for Tomorrow. In all other respects, they were quite normal modern people. They enjoyed the cultural program in fabulous Florence, dinners in sustainable gardens and each other's company. In sum, this very special young audience is a dream of every university professor and I wish all of them to realize their ambitious plans and desires!

Sunday, October 1, 2017

The Dirty Secret of Catastrophism Exposed

If you are a reader of this blog, you may have been wondering what fun is there in writing every day about catastrophes to come: peak oil, abrupt climate change, mega financial collapses, etc.  Why would anyone want to engage in that? Isn't that a lot of stress?

Good questions; and I think I can confess to you our (the catastrophists') dirty secret. First of all, you surely noticed that most catastrophists, though not all of them, are male. So, being one of them, I can tell you that it is all a trick to seduce women. It works like this: first, we convince our female target that the world is going to end soon. Then, why should she oppose having a little fun with us before it is too late? Simple, isn't it? But, before you think ill of me, let me also tell you that, a) I never tried that, b) it never works, and c) the lady is normally so stressed by the news of the impending doom that she fails to provide her best performance. (*)

That's a joke (of course!!). It came to my mind while reading some recent news about Guy McPherson, the main proponent of the idea of the "Near Term Human Extinction" (NTE), who has been accused of being a sex predator for having abused of a follower of his, a woman. About this story, let me say first that I stand by the rule that everyone should be assumed to be innocent unless proven guilty. Then, I can tell you that I see the near-term extinction of humankind as not impossible, although unlikely. This said, I think it is interesting to examine this story in some detail.

First of all, the row that erupted among the NTE followers was truly amazing for its verbal violence. Some people turned on Guy McPherson with a glee and a vehemence that I can only understand as the result of deep grudges that existed well before the story became known. McPherson's own defense, then, was weak and probably counterproductive. He didn't deny the accusations against him, rather, he erased his facebook page as if he was ashamed of something. Then, he vaguely spoke of "trolls" and "the deep state" having framed him and that surely didn't strengthen his position.

Clearly, there was a lot of stress to be vented out in the NTE group. Not surprising: if you go around telling people that humankind will go extinct in a few decades at most, it has got to have some effect on your nerves. One of the reactions to such a situation is for people to find some solace in being together with other people who share the same ideas. It is human but, in the case of the NTE group, it seems to have taken a certain "cultic" aspect. At least, I noticed that, in many cases, NTE-oriented people tend to close all arguments with the statement that "Dr. McPherson said so". That doesn't mean that the NTE idea has generated a suicide cult or something like that; it is just that a strong reliance on a charismatic leader it is typical of these cases. And, not rarely, cult leaders tend to misbehave in various ways, even though we have no proof that Guy McPherson did.

Within some limits, all of us, the catastrophists, may fall into the "cultic" trap and form tight groups of like-minded people. I notice it with what I write on this blog. Although I believe that our civilization is going to start declining in the near future (see my work on the "Seneca Effect"), I am far from being a hardcore doomer and sometimes I try to say that things are not so bad as some people say. In that case, I am often heavily criticized, apparently for denying the core ideas of the group (the cult). This effect is especially strong when I argue that renewable energy in the form of PV and wind can help us mitigate the unavoidable future decline. Some people seem to take this position as a personal insult and react consequently.

Again, it is understandable: for some people, it is less stressful to remain inside a group of like-minded people than venturing outside it. Yet, this is not good for one's mental health. We are not necessarily doomed and we can still do something and help others to mitigate the effects of the future decline. For this, we don't need to retreat into a cult (**).

(*) It is a version of the joke of the excuses of the lazy schoolboy for not having done his homework. It was because, a) he lost it, b) his dog ate it; and, b) he didn’t know it was assigned. (h/t Dmitry Orlov)

(**) An earlier version of this post included a video clip of the Beatles singing "A Little Help from My Friends". Some people overinterpreted it as if I was advocating the use of drugs to reduce the stress from catastrophism. Noting that the strongest drug I use is an occasional glass of Chianti wine, I thought it was better to remove the clip, just to avoid misunderstandings


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014). His most recent book is "The Seneca Effect" to be published by Springer in mid 2017