Is global warming a known system behavior?

We all know, or at least should, the scientific explanation of climate change - global warming - an increase in Earth's air and ocean temperature. And this is bad because global warming is causing ice sheets and glaciers to melt. The melting ice is causing sea levels to rise at a rate of 2 millimeters per year. The rising seas will eventually flood low-lying coastal regions. Entire nations, such as the islands of Maldives, are threatened by this climate change. And that's not all. Global warming causes trouble to oceans and their salinity, to nature and various habitats, the whole Earth to be exact. [1]

The main cause of global warming is the emission of greenhouse gasses (GHG for short). The most notable of them are carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), and nitrous oxide (N20). Mentioning these chemical elements brings back some memories from school and chemistry classes. I didn't like chemistry then. I'm not sure how I feel about it today though.

Anyhow, these are all facts and proven reasons for climate change. There is one additional perspective to this, the perspective from the Earth as a system, and a couple of questions I want to answer - how did we get here, and why did we do it?

How did we get here? Okay, we, humans, have increased the emission of GHGs in the atmosphere, that is a fact, and how we got to this point.

Why did we do it? Well, in order not to dwell on some philosophical and moral-related answer, there is a trap into which working and functioning systems might fall, and since the Earth is a system on its own, it applies to it. The name of this trap is the tragedy of the commons.

Earth as a System

It can be said that the Earth acts as a natural thermostat. It receives heat from the Sun, some of it is radiated back into space by clouds and ice, and the other, bigger, part is absorbed by the land, ocean, and atmosphere. This absorbed energy heats our planet.

As the Earth heats, its energy is radiated into the atmosphere where much of it is absorbed by water vapor and long-lived GHGs. When this energy is absorbed, these water and GHG molecules turn into tiny heaters that radiate heat in all directions. The heat that is radiated back toward the Earth is increasing the temperature in the lower atmosphere and the surface, and in that way, it enhances the heating from the sunlight.

This is why the Earth's temperature is (still), at a comfortable level, and this effect is called the natural greenhouse effect. This is how the Earth acts as its natural thermostat.[2]

This natural thermostat can be seen as a system - a structure that contains a set of elements that are organized and interconnected with a specific purpose. Its purpose is to make life on Earth possible and comfortable for all species living there, both flora and fauna. Since (almost) everything that surrounds us can be seen as a system, the Earth and its temperature are not any different. This, however, is a lot simplified overview of the system I had in mind.


Earth as a Common Resource?

Now, why do I mention this, and why do I show my perspective on the Earth's temperature as a system? Because we are on our way to falling into a trap that is a result of a system's behavior.

Let's think of it this way - imagine a village where there is one common pasture for all the cattle in the village. This common pasture is enough to fulfill the necessities of all the cattle in the village for the whole period of grazing. It manages to grow during the off-grazing period (e.g. late autumn, winter, and early spring, my guess). And this common pasture is there at the service of villagers for years and years.

Then, one day, John decides to add ten more heads of cattle. Marry sees this and decides, oh well, since John is doing it, she might as well add five to her herd, why not? And this goes on, and on, and we end up with the common pasture that was once able to fulfill the needs of all cattle in the village, to the common pasture now devastated by the increased number of cattle. Because of this increase, pasture is not able to grow to the same amount, and this causes it to deteriorate.

The structure of this system makes selfish behavior much more convenient and profitable than the behavior of being responsible for the whole community and the future. This is why we fall into this trap - by being selfish and short-sighted!

This is what is happening to Earth and what has been happening to it for quite some time. We, humans, consider the Earth's climate, not just temperature, but everything that surrounds it, the whole Earth, as commons - a resource that is available to all of us, to use at our control and will, and it will be there forever.

This is where we are wrong, however - the Earth is not only available to us, rather, it belongs to all species on Earth, and all future generations of those species. And almost all resources on Earth are scarce.

Is there a way out?

Of course, as in most situations, there are certain ways we can get out of this trap that systems can fall into - the tragedy of commons. Some apply to the commons I'm describing here, and some are not that applicable there. Let's see.

Educate and encourage. We need to help people see, and understand the consequences of their behavior. We are on a good track there, but more can be done, and needs to be done! We as a species need to understand that the Earth's resources are finite, not infinite.

Privatize the commons. You might think of this as a bit controversial opinion, but let me help you understand better what is meant by this. The privatization of the commons is not applicable on the whole Earth(!), however, it's applicable on a smaller scale (e.g. pasture from the example above, or some other common resource) - divide the common resource in a way that each person impacting it can see consequences of that impact directly. Let's take the common pasture from above as an example - if we divide it equally among people, they will be able to see and feel the direct consequences of adding more heads of cattle.

Regulate the commons. We don't do enough of this! To escape this trap, regulations need to be there, meaningful regulations, but also a way of ensuring those regulations are being followed. For example - don't say - We pledge to net zero emissions until year XYZ (input desired year). Instead, show what you are doing to get there, how, which regulations are you planning to change or improve, and what is most important - what will we do if we don't achieve those goals? The whole "Net Zero By XYZ" stories seem like false promises, without any legal consequences.

However, those consequences are more than real!


The inspiration for this article came from the book I have read recently - Thinking in Systems by Donella Meadows. It is about systems thinking, from basics to some more advanced aspects. And it is a way for me to learn more about the topic, and review what have I read there.

The trap I'm writing about here - the tragedy of the commons is described in part two of the book, in chapter 5 - "System Traps... and Opportunities".

Let me know in the comments below what you think about the article, does it make sense, and if not, why? I'm curious to see other people's perspectives on this and eager to learn more about the systems and their behavior.


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