Understanding Climate Change : First Things First

N. hemisphere T deviations over 1000 years

Summary : To accurately comprehend climate change, one must first understand some basic principles of systems sciences and geophysiology, because climate does not fully yield its dynamics to analysis by contemporary mechanistic, reductionist sciences. My trio of public lectures – outlined here – offers an introduction to all three.

(* See footnote for image description.)


This weekend, while mulling over various Facebook threads about climate change, contemplating how to respond to multiple requests for help with technical issues about climate change, and thinking about my next professional steps – notably designing a set of public lectures about systems, geophysiology and climate change, I remembered something I’ve known for years that keeps slipping from my mind.

It is this : Before one can really understand climate change, let alone effectively discuss and debate it, one must understand basic geophysiology. But before one can understand geophysiology, one must understand a few fundamental principles of systems sciences.

That is because Earth’s climate system is an immensely complex system – the most complex system that humans have ever tried to understand – and its dynamics cannot be adequately understood using traditional linear, mechanistic models that rely on simple ’cause and effect’ logic. Instead, say scientists like James Lovelock, Lynn Margulis, Stephen Harding and others, understanding such complex systems requires systems sciences and geophysiology, which are only now beginning to be taught in the academic halls of science, and then mostly at the graduate level, rarely at undergraduate levels. That means that most of the current generation of climatologists are – unfortunately – insufficiently knowledgeable about those principles.

In my opinion, to discuss – let alone debate – climate change outside of a context grounded in systems sciences and geophysiology is folly, like discussing a recipe without an understanding of ingredients, stoves, and cooking utensils, or trying to understand how a computer program works without knowledge of a computer and its operating system. Yet with a background in systems and geophysiology, understanding climate and climate change becomes much easier, contributing to both rational and intuitive senses. (This idea is well supported in Dianne Dumanoski’s excellent book, The End of the Long Summer. See below.)

That idea will guide the structure and sequence of my new series of public introductory lectures. In my previous post, “Ramping up“, I stated that I would offer two core, introductory lectures. I’m now seeing a sequence of three lectures – one about systems, a second about geophysiology, and a third about climate change – with a blog post describing the topics of each.

A rough outline of all three follows. If the terminology in my outline seems technical and foreign, fear not: the ideas are actually quite simple and nearly intuitive when accompanied by my experienced explanations and imagery used in my lectures.

Please trust that people ranging from scientists to others with little science background grok these ideas when I explain them. I do that well, and I am passionate about it.


Lecture 1 : Basic systems sciences principles

  • A note about science as a way of knowing,
    and the importance of intuition
  • Systems = networks; feedback and non-linearity
  • Energy gradients and fluxes leading
    to self-organization and emergence
  • System (attractor) states, the states to which all dynamic
    systems ‘gravitate’ – especially chaos and the edge of chaos
    – w/ phase transitions at critical thresholds (tipping points)
  • Characteristics of edge of chaos systems :
    fractals and power laws (amplitude of changes = 1/frequency)

Lecture 2 : Introduction to geophysiology & Gaia theory

  • Define metabolism, homeostasis & physiology
  • Explanation of metabolism & homeostasis as self-regulation
  • Geo-physiology : the study of planetary-scale metabolism and homeostasis
  • The concept of Gaia : planetary-scale metabolism and homeostasis
  • Parts of Gaia : rock, soil, air, water, living systems and their networks
  • Energy gradients & fluxes –> planetary-scale self-organization
  • The crucial role of cell membranes and natural selection
  • Daisyworld :  a model of Gaia
  • A brief history of Gaia over 4 billion years
  • Dumanoski : Gaia as a metaphor for
    a new cultural map to guide us in a planetary age

Lecture 3 : Introduction to climate change

  • Diane Dumanoski : The End of the Long Summer
  • Dumanoski on dealing with denial and fear :
    “Fear, despair and denial are indulgences we cannot afford.
    It is time to turn and face the future head on.”
  • Caveat : climate change as a symptom of a larger problem
  • Type I v type II climate change : does nature make leaps?
  • Refrain : feedback, non-linearity, attractor states,
    critical thresholds & phase transitions
  • Pleistocene ice ages and interglacials :
    big jumps and climatic ‘squealing’
  • Heating events : Permian, Cretaceous, PETM and now
  • CO2 residence time, aerosols and system lag times
  • Global scale positive feedbacks : melting ice; permafrost and clathrates;
    soils from sinks to sources; hot oceans and unhappy algae
  • Our hope : we are a storm-worthy lineage that survived ice ages, when climate changed as much in a single decade as it has in the last 11,700 years.
  • What now? Stop business as usual and prepare for the future. Dumanoski: “Today’s children will likely confront challenges we can hardly imagine in a radically altered, unrecognizable world. Can we responsibly continue preparing them for business as usual? If not, what can we do to make them ready for a survival game in which wild cards rule?”


* The image at the top of this post is the so-called “hockey stick model” showing estimates of northern hemisphere temperature deviations for a 1000 year period (1000-2000) in degrees C from the 1961 – 1990 average along with variations and uncertainties (represented by the gray shaded areas around the dark trend line). I adopted this image from the one in Spencer Weart’s essay “The Modern Temperature Trend“, which offers one of the best explanations of this image available, including the controversy surrounding it, subsequent public debates, clarification of it by the authors who developed it, and – importantly – subsequent independent studies  that have corroborated the graph. (Another fine discussion is found in chapter 33 of Fred Pearce’s book, With Speed and Violence.) The image used here differs from the one used in Weart’s essay only by the addition of the label “2005” to indicate that 2005 tied 1998 for hottest global temperatures since record keeping began. 2010 has now surpassed both as the hottest year on record globally (not just in the northern hemisphere.)

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