December 31, 2010

Is CO2 concentration and emergent property of Earth?

This post is an expansion of the core CO2 idea from my previous post...

I have been pondering the inexorable rise in the CO2 concentration of our planet’s atmosphere.  With the signing of the Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992, political leaders from around the globe agreed that we should take steps to stop the increase of greenhouse gasses in our atmosphere.  Nearly 20 years later, despite many Conferences of the Parties and extensive public policy efforts, those gasses continue to accumulate.  And they continue to accumulate at roughly the same rate as when the FCCC was signed in Rio.

The usual response to this state of affairs is that we need to work harder at those approaches that have failed so far.  At some point I began wondering whether in fact our challenge is deeper: perhaps we have incorrectly diagnosed the nature of the problem.   What if the continuing emissions reflects some overarching intentionality of the Human System and hence is immune to direct public policy solutions?

A friend of mine agreed that we may have misdiagnosed, but he argued that I was giving humanity and public policy too much weight – what if increasing CO2 concentration is simply an emergent property of the Earth system?  That is, growing CO2 concentration is simply a property of the complex interactions that occur as a result of the evolution of the Earth System.

In this context, our policy efforts have been akin to a hammer looking for a nail.  If CO2 concentration is in fact an emergent property, then we will need to work at the scale of the Earth System as a whole if we are to manage GHG concentrations.  Perhaps more importantly, if this is the case, we should also be investing much more than we are in planning for life on our planet with CO2 concentrations in the 700ppm range.