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4 March 2021

Climate modelling: Entering the labyrinth

While necessary to perceive what could come, climate modelling can always give as many gaps as answers. Resilience to prevent is the key.

In 1972, Limits to Growth was published. Among other important messages, a definitive view of ‘sustainability’ was also given: a planet living in equilibrium first, then moved out of it by overusing the renewables and liquidating the non-renewables, then a collapse — falling below the carrying capacity, where the same rules apply, just fewer resources are available. After the collapse, if a better strategy is followed, over a long time frame the original level of prosperity can be achieved.

So, what is the message here? There are rules that can be ignored for a while but will be enforced sooner or later. These rules cannot be broken after all and will enforce themselves through a crisis. After the crisis, the same rules will guide a rebuilding process.

While the model behind Limits to Growth was complicated enough and the main message remains true, there are some fundamental problems with the assumptions of the modelling process, and recent scientific results suggest that reality is somewhat bleaker: if we break the planet, we do break the rules, too, and new rules will emerge that stabilize the ‘broken’ situation.

In 2018, a highly cited publication showed how the collapse might change the rules. The authors’ focus was climate change, where several hidden processes might be triggered by the warming started by humans making the whole process faster and irreversible. One of the factors is the melting of permafrost, another is the melting of the polar ice caps, but several others are present in various places on the planet. If or when these tipping points are triggered — the rules change. The equations describing the balance of the CO2 circulation on the planet have to be rewritten, models need to be recalibrated and all currently valid forecasts about climate change have to be revisited. If these triggers are pulled, the old model is no longer valid, the planet enters a new stable state. In this state, solutions to the crisis become completely different, much more complicated, and take much more time. With building resilience on a local and global level, our goal is to avoid this tipping point and similar others and to steer back to a safe space for our society and economy.

While the model behind Limits to Growth was complicated enough and the main message remains true, there are some fundamental problems with the assumptions of the modelling process.
Due to climate change, several hidden processes might be triggered by the warming started by humans, making the whole process faster and irreversible.