Strategies of Communication on Climate Change

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Deep Future: the other side of the carbon pulse

A review of the book by Curt Stager

I had high expectations about this book, but I was disappointed. Not that it is a bad book; on the contrary it is full of interesting information. However, I was positively angered by reading it. But if something makes you angry there have to be reasons for that and, if you can understand these reasons, then you have a chance to learn something. So, one thing that I learned from this book is a better understanding of how difficult is it to maintain a purely rational attitude about climate change, even for those of us who are trained in the scientific approach.

So far, the question of climate change has been dominated by an attitude that says - more or less - that climate is a big problem, sure, but we have solutions and nothing horrible will happen if we just do a few little things like installing double paned windows and bicycling more to work. Unfortunately, by now it is clear it is not going to be so easy. Nothing has been done up to now and it is likely that nothing will be done before it is too late (assuming that it is not already). So, we are being caught in a gigantic planetary storm of our own making and we are plunging straight into a future where climate will manage us rather than the opposite. So, what's going to happen to us?

Plenty of people seem to be convinced that planetary warming will not be so bad - on the contrary it will bring advantages, from the naive idea that they'll be able to save on home heating, or that an ice-free Artic ocean will be a bonanza for oil recovery. In the short run, both expectations may turn out to be fulfilled - in part. But what will be the destiny of humankind after the great carbon pulse? Not many texts deal with this question. One is the book by Curt Stager "Deep Future" (2011) which examines the future up to one hundred thousand years from now. A bold attempt to deal with fascinating subject, unfortunately not completely successful.

One problem with this book is Stager's insistence in taking the view that future changes will be smooth and gradual, giving people plenty of time to adapt. This attitude brings Stager to a number of perplexing statements such as that "... sea-level rises would be more of an expensive annoyance than a catastrophe"(p. 132). I understand that this line was written before Hurricanes Sandy and Hayan, but that doesn't make it less annoying. Then, about extreme heat in tropical regions, Stager seems to think that he can show how easy it is to adapt by stating (p. 186) "I'll never forget gaping in amazement as columns of muscular French Foreign Legionnaires jogged and maneuvered amid the rippling mirages of Djibouti, a furnacelike pocket of lava ridges and troughs..." Those of us who are not "muscular legionnaires" might find that a bit upsetting, not to say offensive. 

Occasionally, Stager's insistence on slow and gradual changes also negatively affects the scientific content of the book. For instance, you won't find in it a word about oceanic anoxia - one of the most dangerous long term consequences of climate change. It is a curious omission because Stager tells us (p. 45) that he himself had been navigating the waters of lake Nyos, in Cameroon, just one year before that a giant burst of CO2 emitted by the lake killed almost two thousand people. Lake Nyos is anoxic, just like oceans are believed to have been during the climatic phases that led to mass extinctions. But these past killer bursts of gases are never mentioned in the book, possibly because they are in contrast with Stager's thesis that changes is always slow and gradual.

Stager's attitude also spills to his views on what climate scientists should say about climate change. It is clear that he sees the attitude of most of his colleagues as excessively catastrophistic. That's a legitimate opinion, were it not leading Stager to even more perplexing statements. For instance, at page 240, he says "I also know that at least one well-known figure in the climate community has purposely exaggerated the dangers of global warming in public presentations, because he told me so at a conference. His justification was this: 'If people aren't scared, they won't pay attention'." Now, this is not fair: you can't support your thesis just by citing an anonymous and unverifiable source. In a book, there is plenty of space to cite actual statements by scientists that would support the idea that some scientists are purposefully exaggerating the dangers ahead - it is up to the author to find them and report them. But, I am afraid it won't be so easy. For instance, in the whole "Climategate" story, there surfaced no documents that could be used to accuse scientists to be exaggerating anything.

So, an interesting book, marred by an attitude that often leads the author astray in his attempt to minimize the dangers ahead. But it deserves to be read for its wide sweep at a remote future which most of us rarely pause to consider. Will there be life after the great carbon pulse? Stager's answer is perhaps too optimistic, but it is a definite possibility. Humanity, intended as a species, could survive the change, even though the loss of human lives lost could be enormous.

But the book is most interesting as it evidences that everyone of us is biased when looking at the ultimate results of climate change. Facing the impending catastrophe, some of us tend to deny it (we call them "deniers"). Others, like Stager, don't deny the change but try their best to minimize it. And many of us react with a frenzied climate activism while, at the same time, we try not to look at the true face of the impending disaster. Yet, the carbon pulse is ongoing and we are headed to an Earth so changed that we can consider it as another planet. Before landing on it, we may as well try to understand what we'll be finding there.


  1. From Lewis Cleverdon

    Ugo - I'm sorry to see you give the author so gentle a critique. He makes his intellectual dishonesty very clear by repeated claims of scientists exaggerating the threat - when any honest observer has the example of the IPCC's AR4 projection of ASI loss as a rock solid evidence that the science has massively understated the pace of impacts' intensification.

    For those unaware of the AR4 debacle, it should be explained that the IPCC assembled over 20 models projecting arctic sea-ice loss in summer and used the mean of those models to project a date around 2125 for the first year of an ice-free summer arctic. Since all of the models excluded all but one of the Major Interactive Feedbacks [MIF] from their calculation (the one being Water Vapour Rise) the IPCC has thus given us a highly scientific measure of the effect of the other seven MIFs since the reality is that we are heading for an ice-free summer arctic before 2020. The seven excluded MIFs are thus advancing this critical event, and its seminal consequences on the Jetstream, on the Poleward Migration of Rainfall, and on the MIFs' acceleration, by a bit over 100 years.

    Notably the IPCC has continued to exclude the impacts of those seven MIFs from its AR5 report.
    - So much for "exaggeration".

    The author's dishonesty, as opposed to incompetence, is further evidenced in his assertions of slow and incremental change as a consequence of AGW. Not only the pace of change which we are seeing as a result of just 0.85C of AGW, with clear indications of the probability of regional extreme droughts coinciding during the 2020s to impose the onset of serial global crop failures, but also the rock solid evidence in the paleo-climatic record of extremely abrupt massive changes, are widely available in the scientific literature, but Stager chose to exclude them.

    Stager in my view warrants the title of Prevaricator rather than merely Denialist, since the jist of his propaganda is to assuage fears of an early threat and to view AGW over a timespan beyond any feasible human intervention. Together with his dishonesty on an issue where vast numbers of lives are at stake, this seems to me no less culpable than outright dishonest denialism.

    Yet I'm unable to agree with your characterization of there being only three classes of attitude to AGW, being Denialism, Prevaricator (or Lukewarmer) and Activists who refuse to acknowledge, as you put it: "an Earth so changed that we can consider it as another planet". As you will have seen, Holmgren recently advanced a fantasy trying to encourage defeatism as a respectable position. (For those who missed it, his idea is that 10% of the global population will withdraw from the formal economy (that is 700 million people) into permaculture, transition initiatives, gardening etc, and end efforts to re-orientate international decision-making over AGW and resource-conservation and allocation, and that this will supposedly cause the global economy to collapse, thereby supposedly stabilizing the climate and minimizing the impacts of resource shortages. I should be happy to explain why the latter supposition is the most absurd of all if anyone is unclear on that point).

    Given that propagandas of defeatism seem increasingly common, particularly on the Anglo-Saxon websites- (US, Canada, Austrailia, New Zealand & UK) and that many people are being persuaded, I'd suggest that the less-offensive title of Passivists should be allotted a class alongside Deniers and Prevaricators, as being an active hindrance to the efforts for the mitigation of AGW.


    1. Well, I know how much work and effort it takes to write a book. And writing a bad book takes just as much effort as writing a good one. So, the effort should be respected. I think Stager did his best - and you understand what I mean :-)

  2. Continued

    Such efforts are very far from hopeless, as it is relatively easy to draw a scenario of the requisite global agreement of measures to phase out fossil fuels, gradually cleanse the atmosphere and control the symptoms of massive GHG pollution in the interim. The question is whether we shall arouse the necessary pressure, both from governments and populations, to overcome the resistance of those governments refusing to agree the need of a binding global treaty. That is an open question and is very far from a foregone conclusion.

    The critical importance of backing that possible resolution has perhaps the closest analogy in the UK govt's position during WW2, following the defeat at Dunkirk, when tens of thousands of troops had been killed or captured, and the army had lost almost all of its equipment, even most of its rifles. Militarily, the position seemed utterly hopeless, as we could not even repel an invasion, let alone mount a counterattack. There were many in cabinet who urged a negotiated surrender, which would of course have meant no base from which the US could enter the war in Europe, and no aid to the Russian war effort. Accepting defeat at that point would have meant an unassailable Nazi dominion from the Urals to Cornwall. Fortunately in the cabinet debate Churchill spoke well enough to sway a few undecided ministers to support the minority wanting to fight on, and despite the odds, Britain did not accept defeat.

    The title of Activists for that fourth class who refuse to accept defeat seems distinctly vague and capable of being applied to either side any issue, while we could plainly do with a title that expresses both the solidarity that underpins efforts to resolve AGW and the aspiration to the necessary recognition of the atmosphere as a commons, to which all people have a common right of use and duty of respect.

    Thus I'd suggest Ugo that we are looking at not three but four classes of response to AGW:
    Deniers, Prevaricators, Passivists, and Global Commoners.

    All the best,

    Lewis Cleverdon

    1. Indeed, I often cite Churchill as an example of effective rhetoric. We could still make it, but at least the British fought - we are not even trying

    2. Lewis,
      I'm not sure if you're still checking back here...

      I'm curious to know if you have an opinion on what value adaptive efforts may have in addressing climate change?


    3. From Lewis Cleverdon

      Lucas - my views on adaptive measures are these:

      - that presenting adaption as a primary, let alone sufficient response is merely a propaganda for maintaining the status quo of the lack of commensurate action on mitigation measures;

      - that there is no possibility of spending on adaption even keeping pace with the 6%/yr growth of global damages [Munich Re], particularly with non-linear threshold effects such as seal-level rise over coastal lowlands, immutable limits of heat tolerance in grain crops, loss of global snow cover and Arctic Sea Ice driving the major interactive feedback of Albedo Loss, etc.;

      - and that the real case for adaptive measures should be seen as a material expression of solidarity with those facing the direct impacts of climate destabilization, with very substantial official resources being applied internationally both in emergency response and in proactive resilience-building, with the key goal being the establishment of a World Food Bank mandated and funded to acquire foods in good global-harvest years for storage on every continent and to require the deployment of those stocks to prevent famine.

      Clearly none of these can be seen as addressing climate change - and even the third is only the essential expedient of addressing its symptoms, and for all that is essential it will still require hard choices as to what is done and how it is done. For instance, what is the carbon output of building sea defences to prevent the abandonment of coastal resources and infrastructure, or of sending warships to assist with emergency rescue ? Options such as mass-evacuation drills, the pre-positioning of rescue resources, and of flood-control by upland afforestation with Native Coppice Forestry for Biochar, will have to become increasingly widely deployed if Adaption measures are to do more good than harm.

      These views are of course evolving with the intensification of climate destabilization, and I'd be glad to see constructive critique of them - as it is sadly rare to find serious discussion either of the merits of Mitigation versus those of Adaption or of what necessary Adaption consists of.



    4. Lewis,
      Thanks for checking back in and for taking the time to put down your thoughts.
      Your earlier comments were actually a bit of a catalyst for me as some of your comments made wonder about some things.
      I agree that this is an important subject with lots of room for exploration and discussion - and I am glad to see that you seem to be open-minded on the subject.

      A chief concern that I have with respect to furthering this discussion is that the topic often seems to elicit strong reactions from some people - ie, even among people who do understand the global risks there is a certain amount of denial (or at least lack of real acceptance) that in the long run, climate change will force adaptation to changing circumstances at a personal level.
      Taking the "long view", I think this may prove to be the most necessary type of adaptation and that this is something that people need to be prepared for.
      At the same time, I do not believe people should be encouraged to stop engaging in whatever mitigation efforts they may be involved with (again, taking the "long view", mitigation efforts being the best means in this present time to reduce the total amount of harm experienced in the future).
      But this is also complicated, since it seems quite plausible that some types of mitigation (or what I have started calling "inside the box" adaptation) could, at some point in the not-so-distant future, reach the point of doing more harm than good (ie, more carbon for seawalls, geo-engineering, social policies, etc.).
      Maybe what I am suggesting is a need to at least attempt to lay groundwork for some type of parallel social structure - one that exists on a voluntary basis and that allows those volunteers to remain in their existing lives as they see fit, yet allows for a "fallback position" if/when the existing social structure they participate in becomes literally unsustainable.

      Another concern that I have about furthering this discussion is an apparent lack of sufficient vocabulary - there could be benefit to being able to differentiate more clearly between various interpretations of terms like "adaptation"...

      In any case, I'm not quite sure what conclusions are appropriate to draw yet but it is a conversation worth having, surely.

      Thanks again,

  3. And does he limit himself to the CO2 aspect and consequences, or does he also adresses what a society without fossil fuel would look like ? Does he adresses population level for instance ? Does he see the "modern civilisation" continuing (in the sense availability of heating and tap water in homes, telecommunications, some form of transportation, these kind of things) ? If continuing what does he see as energy source ?

  4. Ugo,

    This piece reminded me that I’d bought “Deep Future” last summer when I’d noticed it on the discount shelf at my local bookstore. But it was quickly buried in the stratigraphy of my “good intentions” reading pile, and might have been forgotten indefinitely had I not seen your review.

    Like you, I came away with mixed feelings. The premise of the book – that we need to look well beyond this century to appreciate the full magnitude of the human climate experiment – is a good one. This really hasn’t been part of public discussions of climate change, so a decent first effort at presenting this for the educated lay public would be a genuine contribution. And I’m always on the prowl for potentially useful readings for my students. But the end result was unfortunately too uneven.

    I did enjoy chapter 4 on the PETM, because it tied together some scattered readings that I’d done on my own. Parts of chapter 11, which recounts some of the practical difficulties in working with real environmental data, rang true. And the accounts of conversations with other scientists working in relevant research areas were interesting and generally meshed well with the other material.


    In discussing sea level rise (chapter 7), it surprised me that a field-oriented scientist – who should have an eye for landscape – seemed so unaware of the actual land uses in low-lying coastal areas. His discussion is almost totally urban-focused, and doesn’t consider the vulnerability of food production in critical agricultural areas, such as the great river deltas of Asia.

    And it does seem odd that a biologist / geologist should have so little to say about the current mass extinction event, and how it compares to its predecessors in terms of rate and magnitude. Presenting a bunch of examples of recent human-assisted biological invasions as just harmless species substitutions was disappointingly superficial. It would have been a great opportunity to introduce the phenomenon of the “shifting baseline syndrome” (Pauly, 1995,

    As you noted, it was the emphasis on gradualism that was most concerning – and puzzling. With so much current discussion of environmental tipping points and planetary boundaries, the overall tone seemed curiously complacent.

    And surely one can do better than “When you’re bashed by both sides in an emotionally charged argument, I like to believe that it means you’re standing in the middle where the truth probably lies” (p. 218). I’ve heard that one just a few too many times; it’s lazy and it’s gotten old. As has the boilerplate denunciation of “aggressive activist stances among prominent scientists”. I’d rather send my students to the very thoughtful, nuanced discussion of advocacy presented late last year at AGU by Gavin Schmidt:

    This book could have been so much better. Such a missed opportunity!