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University of Oregon

Impacts of Abrupt Climate Changes

Group Members:

John Orbell  (main contact:
Amy Lobben, (Geography, UO)

Oleg Smirnov (ICDS alum, now in Political Science, Stony Brook)
Douglas Kennett (ICDS alum, now in Environmental Archaeology, Pennsylvania State University)

Minguha Zhang (Institute for Terrestrial and Planetary Atmospheres, Stony Brook)
Haipeng Xing (Applied Mathematics and Statistics, Stony Brook);



While models of projected climate changes are characteristically produced by groups working across diverse natural science disciplines, remarkably: (1) the few scholars from the social sciences who have addressed critically important predictions from such models have done so almost entirely by using the tools of their own separate disciplines, only seldom working across disciplinary boundaries; and (2) the product of those isolated efforts is, at best, unrelated case studies of how various particular populations have responded to climate problems in the past or, at worst, little more than unsystematic reflections on, for example, the failure of governments and voters to take climate science seriously. This is, to say the least, unfortunate since humans’ responses to climate changes in the near future certainly have the potential to multiply the damage done to civilization by these changes in natural systems.

There are two reasons for this state of affairs. First, the traditional disciplinary tools of the various social sciences are poorly equipped for making predictions to humans’ responses to future climate changes—a task that requires both sophisticated modeling technologies and no less sophisticated theory about how human populations under diverse circumstances are likely to respond to such changes. Both of these are notably absent in the social sciences. Second, social scientists do not have well-developed traditions for working across disciplinary boundaries, most important in the present case, for working with scholars addressing climate issues in the natural sciences. Absent those traditions, social scientists are poorly equipped professionally for incorporating the output of climatologists’ models into systematic predictions about humans’ responses, worldwide, to such output—and, thus, for making policy recommendations that meaningfully inform discussions about mitigating the effects of anthropogenic climate changes.

In light of this failure, an interdisciplinary group within the ICDS (and working with a similar group at Stony Brook University) applied for, and received, a substantial grant from NSF to initiate systematic modeling of how humans, worldwide, can be expected to respond to climate changes through the rest of this century. The group includes political scientist and ex-ICDS member Oleg Smirnov (overall project PI, now at Stony Brook); climatologists Minguha Zhang and Haipeng Xing (respectively, Professor and director, Institute for Terrestrial and Planetary Atmospheres, Stony Brook University and Associate Professor, Department of Applied Mathematics and Statistics, Stony Brook); emeritus political scientist and ICDS member John Orbell (Oregon project PI); Professor Douglas Kennett, ex-Oregon’s Anthropology department and now an Environmental Archaeologist at Pennsylvania State University; Professor Amy Lobben, ICDS member and U of O Geography department.
In broadest summary, the methodology adopted by this group involves: (1) Predictions to worldwide climate changes through the end of this century that are drawn from a set of 16 well developed climate models; (2) Worldwide population data that are recorded in Geographic Information System (GIS) “cells” potentially aggregated to national boundaries and adjusted to reflect predicted population growth through the end of the century; (3) Highly simplified models of human responses to—potentially—any change that the climate models predict for the geographically specific cells.

We emphasize that the models of human responses to climate changes employed in this project are necessarily highly simplified. There is, of course, a great deal of existing theory about the underpinnings of humans’ behavior and, even, some well-developed paradigms that are employed—but certainly not universally—by social scientists, even across disciplinary boundaries. Widely used in Economics and Political Science, for example, “Rational choice” models posit humans’ action as being value-maximizing and—setting aside the qualifications that must be made in the extent to which humans’ actions do match such models—rational choice might be adapted to modeling humans’ responses to climate changes.

That said, our present purpose is to predict humans’ responses to anthropogenic climate changes in circumstances that are (potentially) unique to each geographic cell worldwide and that, as a result, are likely to prompt diverse adaptive responses to similar climatic changes and consequences of those changes. Notably, for example, populations in cells that are located in low lying coastal areas are likely to face different adaptive problems as a result of increases in ocean levels from those faced by populations in cells located in higher areas and further inland. By the same token, oceans and national boundaries that are often difficult to cross will present different problems for the populations of some cells seeking to migrate in response to (for example) sustained and acute drought than for populations differently located.

While our approach would, potentially, permit more complex specification of populations’ choices (rational or otherwise), given that our goal is to specify how differently located populations are likely to respond to given climate changes, such developments can be deferred to a later (presumably more sophisticated) generation of the work we are initiating. In the meantime, a simple set of rules (governing, e.g. how far particular populations might travel in response to local climate changes) will suffice.

Importantly, the work we are undertaking will be, initially at least, “partial” inasmuch as real populations in any particular real location will be responding simultaneously to, potentially, several immediate effects from climatic changes—including, for example, both coastal and inland flooding or perhaps drought. A necessary first step will, nevertheless, be to address human responses to such climatic changes one-by-one, a tactic that will probably not produce complete descriptions of the problems to which particular populations must respond, at least through an extended period. A more developed stage of this project will model the responses of populations to the full range of climate related changes that they will confront through time.

Finally, we point out that the research agenda will extend to what might be termed “second order” responses, most worrisome, perhaps, being conflicts among populations that are responding as best they can to their own immediate climate-based problems, but whose responses bring them into conflict with other populations that are doing the same. In a crowded world where populations are living at the limits of what their native environments can support, such conflicts would seem inevitable consequences of significant climate changes. We suggest that current conflicts in drought-plagued areas of the world (most notably, at present, the Middle East) have the potential to be understood in terms of appropriately developed models of the kind we are initiating here.

For more information on the Impacts of Abrupt Climate Changes Research Group, contact John Orbell.