State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Finance, Climate, and Faust

I lifted the title of this entry directly from last week’s Earth and Environmental Science colloquium at Lamont. The talk, given by Dr. Berrien Moore of Climate Central, revolved around the idea that complex systems have inherent instabilities. Using the current financial situation as an example, Moore argued that such systems are marked by important thresholds – and that these thresholds, once crossed, are extremely difficult to return from. At the same time, Moore argues that the vast number of complex interactions that make up these systems makes it difficult to know exactly where the thresholds are, except in hindsight.

The title of Moore’s talk is obviously fabulous, and comparisons between the complexity of the financial system and the climate system seem to be getting some play these days (for instance, I recently heard Steven Levitt of Freakonomics fame make a similar argument on NPR’s Weekend Edition). Still, Moore is careful to make two distinctions between the climate and the financial system: the rate of change associated with climate instability is slower than that associated with the financial system, and an altered climate will persist much longer than a depressed economy. All of this means that climate crises will be harder to foresee, and harder to undo, than financial ones.

Another problem that Moore addressed is the relative dearth of information on negative feedbacks in the climate system. Though a number of mechanisms in the financial system serve to mitigate the impacts of a recession (as more people get laid off, for instance, it becomes easier to hire people) there aren’t many examples of climate-related feedback cycles that dampen the effects of carbon forcing. This doesn’t mean such relationships don’t exist – there probably are some we’re not aware of – but it probably means we shouldn’t count on them to get us out of what Moore calls this “Faustian mess.”

Putting both finance and Faust to the side, it’s worth taking a minute to check out Climate Central. It’s a new Princeton-based NGO dedicated to bridging the gap between scientific understanding of the climate system and public perception; it’s recently teamed up with Jim Lehrer to produce mass-market climate-related pieces every other month. In addition to Dr. Moore, Climate Central’s team is made up of a rather illustrious array of scientists, journalists, and professional communicators – including Columbia grad and Weather Channel star, Heidi Cullen. More information is here.

— Cathy Vaughan

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