Climate Change and Road Congestion


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.


Poor Abused Nuclear

Dai Ichi Nuclear Power Plant, Japan.    (credit: DigitalGlobe)

In a recent email campaign, We need your help to end the discrimination against nuclear, Michael Shellenberger, the overreaching leader of Eco(sic)modernism and its acolytes, cried out in mock agony: “Together, we can end discrimination against nuclear energy”

Apparently, the nuclear power industry is feeling put upon by cruel environmentalists, who are discriminating against their ability to continue to profit from electricity supplied by aging nuclear reactors through the world. As many as a dozen pro-nuclear supporters (incorrectly identified by Shellenberger as “environmentalists”) have stepped forward as volunteers, so we’re told.

California even has its own Save Diablo Canyon campaign, touting the misleading and meaningless aphorism: “For our families and our future, a win-win: CLEAN ENERGY & CONSERVATION FOR CALIFORNIA.

Shellenberger and the California nuclear industry activists repeatedly describe nuclear energy as “clean” and “carbon free,” which is not just mistaken, it is an outright lie designed to compare nuclear energy favorably with wind and solar energy sources.

The truth is that no source of energy is “carbon free.” All energy sources produce CO2 in their full lifecycle, since all energy sources require mining, transportation, manufacture, construction, maintenance, dismantling and recycling or storage of waste products. Nuclear has the added disadvantage of producing vast quantities of radioactive waste and construction materials that must be segregated from all life for thousands of years.

But of course, none of this is considered in evaluating nuclear as a “clean energy” source.

Nuclear energy promoters are growing a last ditch campaign to save nuclear power plants before they reach the end of their usable life cycle. A Big Push for Small Nuclear Reactors tells the tale of efforts in Europe to develop “small” reactors to be used in urban areas, under the premise that smaller reactors are “safer” than large ones. This claim ignores the fact that small reactors produce less energy than large reactors, so more “small” reactors would be required to meet the same energy demands. Plus, the push assumes that reactor safety is the primary concern holding back their development, when in fact it is storage of radioactive wastes and spend reactor components that is the primary concern.

The truth is that nuclear energy is an attempt to throw a technological fix at the inevitable impossibility of providing energy to maintain societies based on unlimited growth. The truth is that no energy source is “clean,” “carbon-free” or “waste-free.” All energy production consumes resources, produces waste and is subject to the inescapable demands of entropy.

If the nuclear power industry is truly being discriminated against, it deserves it!