Climate Change and Road Congestion

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This is a post about cause and effect, or rather, the lack of cause and effect.

Climate change and road congestion are related, not in a causal relationship, as one might unthinkingly conclude, but as emergent phenomena in complex, chaotic systems far from equilibrium.

If you made it through that paragraph unscathed, I’ll explain further. If not, see my post on Chaos HERE.

Climate prognostication and traffic planning exist in a world of linear relationships, the “If you push something hard enough, it will fall over” world. Every effect has direct discernible cause(s), such that planners can always count on a predictable outcome from any given action. For instance, climate change is caused by human produced CO2 in the atmosphere; traffic congestion is caused by insufficient capacity in highways. Thus, the stories go, if we decrease human produced CO2, climate change will stop or at least decrease; if we add lanes to the highways, traffic congestion will decrease. It seems intuitive.

While this approach has served humans well for generations, in our modern world of 7 billions and counting, with our global societies and ubiquitous technological innovations, linear cause and effect is overcome by the complexity and chaos of our social and technological relationships.

Climate is an emergent phenomenon of chaotic nonlinear relationships among numerous variables and feedbacks, a spaghetti tangle of natural cycles on the Earth, in the solar system and beyond, including human industrial activity and land use changes.

We know that climate changed long before human activity had any other than very local effects. Assuming that modern observed climate variation is “caused” by human production of CO2 is not only factually wrong, it diverts attention from the reality of natural climate variation, misapplies enormous human resources and economies, and ignores the inescapable necessity that humans accommodate to natural cycles rather than attempting to control them.

We know from observation that traffic congestion is often the result of accidents or tailbacks at off and on ramps. Sometimes we run into a clot of cars on the freeway that has no discernable cause and that clears up for no discernable reason, leaving no car parts on the verge to reveal its dynamics. We also know that widening the highway may temporarily relieve existing traffic congestion, but in a relatively short period of time congestion returns in the newly created lanes and ramps.

These seemingly disparate observations are the result of increasing numbers of cars interacting within the complex system of individual driving habits and distractions, on and off ramps and local road conditions, resulting in non-linear responses to small changes in driving conditions. Increasing highway capacity only increases the complexity of these interactions and does not address the root causes of traffic congestion.

If humans fail to learn that we cannot control climate by reducing CO2 production, and that widening the highway will not reduce traffic congestion, then we fail to explore social changes that accommodate to natural climate variation, and reduce dependence on automobiles and truly reduce traffic congestion.

It’s time for a new approach to human growth and development, technology and society. It’s time to apply our growing understanding of chaos and complex, non-linear systems to everyday problems of moving about on a planet with highly variable and unpredictable climates.

 

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