Nav: Home

Better be safe than sorry: Economic optimization risks tipping of Earth system elements

June 15, 2018

Optimizing economic welfare without constraints might put human well-being at risk, a new climate study argues. While being successful in bringing down costs of greenhouse gas reductions for instance, the concept of profit maximization alone does not suffice to avoid the tipping of critical elements in the Earth system which could lead to dramatic changes of our lifelihood. The scientists use mathematical experiments to compare economic optimization to the governance concepts of sustainability and the more recent approach of a safe operating space for humanity. All of these turn out to have their benefits and deficits, yet the profit-maximizing approach shows the greatest likelihood of producing outcomes that harm people or the environment.

"We find that the concept of optimization of economic welfare might in some cases be neither sustainable nor safe for governing modern environmental change," says Wolfram Barfuss from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK, member of Leibniz Association) and Humboldt University Berlin, lead-author of the study published in Nature Communications. "Economic optimization can be quite effective in reducing current greenhouse-gas emissions, it certainly has its strengths. Yet under human-made global warming, we face a world full of complex non-linearities, namely the tipping elements in the Earth system. The ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica might collapse at some point if greenhouse-gas emissions do not get reduced, or the great circulation systems in ocean and atmosphere could fundamentally change. In such a setting, optimization can lead to dangerous side effects. Even for relatively high risks, and even if profit-maximizing agents in our calculations are far-sighted, they tend to accept the possibility of detrimental environmental and societal impacts."

Mathematical experiments, climate policy and Sustainable Development Goals

This is the result of mathematical experiments that the scientists performed. While governments worldwide agreed on ambitious targets such as the 17 UN Sustainability Goals and the Paris Agreement which aims at limiting global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius, there is no consensus on how to reach those targets. The scientists identified and then analysed three big concepts: economic optimization (act to maximize your expected profit, with discounted future), sustainability (act to always stay above a minimum standard of expected profit, with discounted future), and the safe operating space approach, relying on the Planetary Boundaries concept (act to always stay within the safe space for humanity to ensure the functioning of the Earth's life-supporting systems).

"Take the Atlantic Overturning Circulation, better known as the Gulf Stream System, one of the great potential tipping elements in the Earth system," says co-author Jonathan Donges, from PIK and Stockholm Resilience Centre. "We know, both from our understanding of the physics and from observations, that it can be put at risk by global warming. But we cannot yet calculate the timing of a tipping as well as the potential damages arising from it." Hence it is clear that economic optimization of climate policy would normally not be able to count it in as future costs. "From the safe operating space perspective, we'd have to cut greenhouses gas emissions immediately to make sure the Gulf Stream does not get seriously disturbed," says Donges. "But you cannot say that 'safe' is always 'best'. Because from a sustainability point of view, poverty reduction is one main goal. If we ended fossil fuel use too abruptly, the costs of a transition to clean energy would be substantial and might, at least for a certain time, rise energy and food prices and consequently impede the poverty reduction goal."

"Neither economic thinking nor good will alone will suffice"

It hence depends on the circumstances whether a sustainable or safe approach is most suitable. The only thing clear is that in a no-policy scenario of unmitigated greenhouse-gas emissions, a Gulf Stream System collapse would also have negative impacts on poverty reduction.

"It turns out that there is no master concept for countering environmental challenges," says co-author Jürgen Kurths, head of the PIK research department 'Transdisciplinary Concepts and Methods' and a pioneer of the complex non-linear systems analysis applied here. "Yet our analysis is a first step to provide decision-makers with better insights on which concept for achieving the climate and sustainability targets works how and under which circumstances. Neither economic thinking nor good will alone suffice to deal with a world full of complex non-linear dynamics."
-end-
Article: W. Barfuss, J.F. Donges, S.J. Lade, J. Kurths (2018): When optimization for governing human-environment tipping elements is neither sustainable nor safe. Nature Communications [DOI: 10.1038/s41467-018-04738-z]

Weblink to the article: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-018-04738-z

For further information please contact:

PIK press office
Phone: +49 331 288 25 07
E-Mail: press@pik-potsdam.de
Twitter: @PIK_Climate
http://www.pik-potsdam.de

Who we are: The Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) is one of the leading research institutions addressing relevant questions in the fields of global change, climate impacts and sustainable development. Natural and social scientists work closely together to generate interdisciplinary insights that provide a sound basis for decision-making for society, businesses and politics. PIK is a member of the Leibniz Association.

Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK)

Related Global Warming Articles:

A new study provides a solid evidence for global warming
The new study allows a more accurate assessment of how much heat has accumulated in the ocean (and Earth) system.
Global warming hiatus disproved -- again
UC Berkeley scientists calculated average ocean temperatures from 1999 to 2015, separately using ocean buoys and satellite data, and confirmed the uninterrupted warming trend reported by NOAA in 2015, based on that organization's recalibration of sea surface temperature recordings from ships and buoys.
Report reassesses variations in global warming
Experts at the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF) have issued a new assessment of temperature trends and variations from the latest available data and analyses.
Clouds are impeding global warming... for now
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory researchers have identified a mechanism that causes low clouds -- and their influence on Earth's energy balance -- to respond differently to global warming depending on their spatial pattern.
Global warming's next surprise: Saltier beaches
Batches of sand from a beach on the Delaware Bay are yielding insights into the powerful impact of temperature rise and evaporation along the shore that are in turn challenging long-held assumptions about what causes beach salinity to fluctuate in coastal zones that support a rich network of sea creatures and plants.
Could global warming's top culprit help crops?
A new study tries to disentangle the complex question of whether rising amounts of carbon dioxide in the air might in some cases help crops.
Evaporation for review -- and with it global warming
The process of evaporation, one of the most widespread on our planet, takes place differently than we once thought -- this has been shown by new computer simulations carried out at the Institute of Physical Chemistry of the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw.
Researchers reveal when global warming first appeared
Human caused climate change is increasingly apparent today through multiple lines of evidence.
1,800 years of global ocean cooling halted by global warming
Prior to the advent of human-caused global warming in the 19th century, the surface layer of Earth's oceans had undergone 1,800 years of a steady cooling trend, according to a new study in the Aug.
Global sea levels have risen 6 meters or more with just slight global warming
A new review analyzing three decades of research on the historic effects of melting polar ice sheets found that global sea levels have risen at least six meters, or about 20 feet, above present levels on multiple occasions over the past three million years.

Related Global Warming Reading:

Best Science Podcasts 2019

We have hand picked the best science podcasts for 2019. Sit back and enjoy new science podcasts updated daily from your favorite science news services and scientists.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Anthropomorphic
Do animals grieve? Do they have language or consciousness? For a long time, scientists resisted the urge to look for human qualities in animals. This hour, TED speakers explore how that is changing. Guests include biological anthropologist Barbara King, dolphin researcher Denise Herzing, primatologist Frans de Waal, and ecologist Carl Safina.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#532 A Class Conversation
This week we take a look at the sociology of class. What factors create and impact class? How do we try and study it? How does class play out differently in different countries like the US and the UK? How does it impact the political system? We talk with Daniel Laurison, Assistant Professor of Sociology at Swarthmore College and coauthor of the book "The Class Ceiling: Why it Pays to be Privileged", about class and its impacts on people and our systems.