a DUTY of CARE – to our children

On May 27, 2021 the Australian Federal Court found something it never has before: a Duty of Care by the Minister for the Environment to Australia’s young people not to cause them physical harm in the form of personal injury from climate change.  Conservationists lauded it as “a landmark judgement on climate change, marking an important moment in our history”.  

Laura Kirwin, Izzy Raj-Seppings, Ava Princi and Liv Heaton pose for a photo outside The Federal Court of Australia in Sydney, Thursday, May 27, 2021

The language used in the judgement is graphic:

“It is difficult to characterise in a single phrase the devastation that the plausible evidence presented in this proceeding forecasts for the children. 

As Australian adults know their country, Australia will be lost and the world as we know it gone as well.

The physical environment will be harsher, far more extreme and devastatingly brutal when angry. As for the human experience – quality of life, opportunities to partake in nature’s treasures, the capacity to grow and prosper – all will be greatly diminished.

Lives will be cut short. Trauma will be far more common and good health harder to hold and maintain.

None of this will be the fault of nature itself. It will largely be inflicted by the inaction of this generation of adults, in what might fairly be described as the greatest inter-generational injustice ever inflicted by one generation of humans upon the next.

To say that the children are vulnerable is to understate their predicament.”

PLEASE NOTE: I am not a lawyer!  I advise anyone interested to read the full text  and some extracts at end of this post.

The Case

The class action case was brought on behalf of all Australian children and teenagers, against the Australian Environment Minister Sussan Ley (and Vickery Coal Pty Ltd as a second respondent) .

Their aim was to prevent Ley from possibly approving a coal mine project, near Gunnedah in New South Wales. They argued that approving this project would endanger their future because of climate hazards, including causing them injury, ill health, death or economic losses.

The case – “Sharma by her litigation representative Sister Marie Brigid Arthur v Minister for the Environment [2021]” was heard by Judge Bromberg of the Victorian Registry of the Federal Court of Australia.

Judge Bromberg’s summary of the case is at the end of this post.

The Result

The judgement is narrow in one sense; it orders the parties to come back to court to answer questions and make suggestions. It denies the children’s request to stop development of the mine and leaves that decision to the Minister.

But the breakthrough (in my non-legal opinion) is in the following points:

The judge has formally declared that the Minister (i.e. the Government) has a Duty of Care to the children of Australia.  “By reference to contemporary social conditions and community standards, a reasonable Minister for the Environment ought to have the Children in contemplation when facilitating the emission of 100 Mt of CO2 into the Earth’s atmosphere.  It follows that the applicants have established that the Minister has a duty to take reasonable care to avoid causing personal injury to the Children when deciding … to approve or not approve the … Project”.

The scientific basis for the findings is part of the judgement and now becomes legal precedent.  It is also a good primer on climate change for anyone still not convinced of the science.  (The diagram below is one of many in the judgement)

The Minister for the Environment (i.e. the Australian Government) did not challenge any of these scientific facts:  “Looking to the future, the Minister accepts that under all future emission scenarios, it is very likely that: (a) average temperatures will continue to increase and Australia will experience more heat extremes and fewer frosty days; (b) extreme rainfall events will become more intense; (c) southern and eastern Australia will experience more extreme fire-related weather; (d) the time in drought will increase over southern Australia; (e) sea levels will continue to rise throughout the 21st century, with increased frequency of storm surge events; and (f) oceans around Australia will warm and become more acidic. The Minister also accepts that the projected effects of climate change vary depending upon the extent of global emissions of greenhouse gases in coming years.

By logical extension the Duty of Care extends to ALL CHILDREN: “although the applicants did not press for relief in relation to children residing outside of Australia, those children remain represented persons in the proceeding”. 

And finally; the legal precedents for this judgement have been researched and recorded. I have not read this section of the judgement and do not intend to 🙂

The Future – Options – (Please note again; I am no lawyer!)

The Minister may approve the mine extension anyway. Certainly the company sounds optimistic. The minister may also be influenced in this decision by more immediate political reasons: “One of the Coalition’s most senior women, the federal environment minister Sussan Ley, is expected to face a challenge in her rural New South Wales seat of Farrer amid allegations of “toxic” branch-stacking by far-right conservatives in the seat” (from this article)

A possible appeal to the High Court of Australia

Some other agreement after the responses requested by Judge Bromberg.

The meme “Duty of Care” will remain !

The 1bio story is:  “We have a “Duty of Care” to the children of today”

I simply took the words of the judgement and extended it in two ways; first by including all children (which is already there) and second by including all adults as the holders of that duty.  Sure it is the Minister and her equivalent, elected or appointed, officials who have the power to make these decisions.  But it is us who have the power, through voting and other civil action, to influence the elections and appointments.

Time is short

The second half of this century, going into 2100, seems a long way off.  That’s how it feels.  Plenty of time to look at alternatives, develop new technologies, and do some more studies.

But it’s less than 80 years away!  Most of us expect to live close to, or beyond, our 80’s. In 2100 the children of today will be old and will have children and grandchildren.  All of them will have to cope with the decisions we make today. Today they are essentially powerless.  We owe them this Duty of Care and use our power to make the right decisions for them.  We adults are expected to care for our children and prepare them for life in general.  So clearly we also need to leave them a viable biosphere.

Looking backwards we are shaped by the decisions made 80 years ago.  1940 is not so long ago for those of us who are nearing, or in, our 80’s.  All of us are shaped by the decisions of those days; from Katyn, Auschwitz-Birkenau and Dunkirk to Daisy Duck, Bugs Bunny and Captain America.

The adults of 2100 will be shaped by our decisions now, but in an additional dimension because the effects will not be confined to the universe of human ideas like nations, politics and economics, but will result in changes to “Nature” – to the biosphere.

The “trail of proof” for the story is the detail of the judgement and the extensive references to basic research and analysis.  It is telling that this scientific basis was not challenged by the government of Australia!

Other legal stories that came up as I was writing this post:

A duty of care similar to the Australian case  was found in the Netherlands in 2015, as a global first. In 2019, the Supreme Court upheld that duty – the Dutch government owed its citizens a duty to reduce emissions in order to protect human rights.  The Australian case follows that lead.

A report indicates that a proposed post-Brexit trade agreement between Australia and the UK includes an Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) scheme, which allows firms to sue governments when they believe policies have left them out of pocket. ISDS is a system of private courts convened in private and arbitrated by judges, allowing firms to bypass domestic civil courts. The original intent was to protect international companies from seizure of their assets in the aftermath of a coup or by a rogue state, for example a mine being nationalized without reasonable compensation. Recent ISDS cases include a Swedish energy firm suing Germany for policies that cut water pollution; a US drugs firm suing Canada for trying to reduce medicine prices; a French multinational suing Egypt for increasing its national minimum wage and the Dutch government is being sued in these courts for phasing out coal power

A California politician is taking steps to declare a fish legally extinct. The Delta smelt originates in the San Francisco Estuary and grows to about 4 inches.  They are considered threatened under the Federal Endangered Species Act.  The fish is at the center of a battle between farmers and environmentalists. Smelt species protections mean a larger water flow through rivers and eventually to the Pacific, and less for farmers. The fish has teetered on the edge of extinction for years. The politician argues there is no reason to wait any longer to call the fish extinct, not when water is so important in the central San Joaquin Valley.  “We can’t let a technicality or government regulation get in the way of what our whole economy relies on,” he said. “Our economy relies on water.”

Declaring a species legally extinct so that it needs no further protection is truly dystopian in scope. I leave it to you to explore how far that thought can be taken…

Note 1 – Quotes from the Judgement

[In 2016]”…, Whitehaven applied to the Minister to expand and extend the Approved Project in accordance with s 68 of the EPBC [Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation] Act. Vickery replaced Whitehaven as the proponent of the Extension Project on 17 July 2018. If approved, the Extension Project would, amongst other things, increase total coal extraction from the mine site from 135 to 168 million tonnes (Mt).  When combusted, the additional coal extracted from the Extension Project will produce about 100 Mt of CO2.

The Minister has before her the decision to approve or refuse the Extension Project under s 130(1) and s 133 of the EPBC Act. This proceeding concerns that decision.

In this proceeding the applicants claim that the Minister owes each of the Children a duty to exercise her power under s 130 and s 133 of the EPBC Act with reasonable care so as not to cause them harm. That duty of care is said to arise by reason of the existence of a legal relationship between the Minister and the Children recognised by the law of negligence.

The applicants apprehend that the Minister will fail to discharge the duty by exercising her discretion in favour of the approval of the Extension Project. The applicants seek declaratory and injunctive relief designed to preclude the Minister from failing to discharge the duty of care they claim she has. 

The particular harm relevant to the alleged duty of care is mental or physical injury, including ill-health or death, as well as economic and property loss. The applicants assert that the Children are likely to suffer those injuries in the future as a consequence of their likely exposure to climatic hazards induced by increasing global surface temperatures driven by the further emission of CO2 into the Earth’s atmosphere. The feared climatic hazards include more, longer and more intense bushfires, storm surges, coastal flooding, inland flooding, cyclones and other extreme weather events

The applicants allege that such harm will occur in the future and mainly towards the end of this century when global average surface temperatures are forecast to be significantly higher than they are currently. Broadly speaking, it is at that time that, unlike today’s adults, today’s children will be alive and will be the class of persons most susceptible to the harms in question. Indeed, the applicants say that today’s children will live on Earth during a period in which, if CO2 concentration continues to increase, some harm is very probable, serious harm is likely and cataclysmal harm is possible. This seems to be the basis for the proceeding being directed to providing relief to children, as distinct from all persons. On this basis, the applicants say that the Children are vulnerable to a known, foreseeable risk of serious harm, which the Minister can control, but they cannot. In addition, the applicants say that by her position in the Commonwealth Executive, the Minister has special responsibilities to Australian children.The applicants say that if the Minister approves the Extension Project, carbon presently stored safely underground at the mine site of the Extension Project will be extracted, combusted and emitted as CO2 into the Earth’s atmosphere and will materially contribute to CO2 concentration.

The Minister does not dispute that climate change presents serious threats and challenges to the environment, the Australian community and the world at large. However, the Minister denies the existence of a duty of care as alleged.

The risk of harm to the Children is not remote, it is reasonably foreseeable and it is therefore a real risk for reasons already explained. The Minister has direct control over the foreseeable risk because it is her exercise of power upon which the creation of that risk depends. To my mind, there is therefore a direct relation between the exercise of the Minister’s power and the risk of harm to the Children resulting from the exercise of that power. The entirety of the risk of harm flowing from that exercise of power is therefore in the Minister’s control.” 

Note 2 – Minister for the Environment

Given the different political systems in the USA and Australia it is difficult to draw an equivalence between the Australian “Minister for the Environment” and the corresponding position in the USA.  The closest may be the United States Secretary of the Interior. However Sussan Ley, the current Minister for the Environment, is also the elected lower house member of parliament for the rural New South Wales seat of Farrer. As such she is subject to the same election pressures as any other member of the Australian parliament.

Note 3 – Sister Arthur

As a result of the age of the applicants, the proceedings were brought by their representative, 86 year-old Sister Marie Brigid Arthur, who is a Sister of the Brigidine Order of Victoria.  She has been an activist in a number of cases including refugees, the treatment of juvenile offenders, solitary confinement and other matters.

Note 4 – Justice Bromberg

Justice Bromberg is part of the Full Federal Court (similar to a US Federal Court of Appeal).  The High Court of Australia, equivalent to the US Supreme Court, is the highest and final court in the land.

Judges on the Australian High Court, and the Federal Courts, have a mandatory retirement age of 70 (vs. lifetime appointments in the US).  There are formal qualifications for appointment and the process is similar to that in the US; i.e. nomination and, effectively, appointment by the government in power. However the Australian process has wider input and is a far less public process than in the US.

Note 5 – the case in Justice Bromberg’s words

“In a nutshell, the applicants’ case is that the scientific evidence demonstrates the plausible possibility that the effects of climate change will bring about a future world in which the Earth’s average surface temperature (currently at about 1.1°C above pre-industrial temperature levels) will reach about 4°C above pre-industrial temperature levels by about 2100. Supported by unchallenged expert evidence, the applicants contended that a 4°C future world may come about in one of two ways: first, where the greenhouse effect upon the Earth’s increasing temperature is driven by an approximately linear relationship between increased human emissions of CO2 and increased temperatures, and second,  in circumstances where continuing human emissions of CO2 will result in ‘Earth System’ changes, which diminish the Earth’s current ability to reflect heat, absorb CO2, and retain CO2 currently held in carbon sinks, triggering ‘tipping cascades’ which propel the Earth into a 4°C trajectory.”

Post COP stories

Here I look at some stories around the edges of COP26. My pluses and minuses on COP26 itself are: 


  • More visibility of the problems and a shrinking cadre of outright deniers.
  • The China – USA effort to continue talks behind the scenes (which I think is the most important element in any possible solution)
  • The more enthusiastic actions by corporations (see Note 1) and 2nd level governments (states, provinces and cities)

  • Too little, too late
  • Backpedaling on coal and forests
  • The increasing polarization inside the USA (which threatens any progress made at COP26 and in the China-USA discussions)
  • We still do not have an inclusive view of the problems facing the biosphere.  Sure, climate change by itself is an overwhelming subject.  One could argue that including biodiversity, pollution and population in the discussion may weaken the focus on GHG emissions.  In my opinion however, inclusion would sharpen the need for urgent action on this and all the other fronts.

I guess we went into COP26 with low expectations and left with much the same.

COP26 was widely reported and analyzed. A little further down in this blog entry are some of the articles, positive and negative, that caught my eye.  But we also need to worry about the middle ground.  There we have all the distractions that stop the biosphere crisis getting the priority it needs, ranging from huge topics like big power competition (China of course) all the way to consumption and entertainment trivia (The best apple pie, the worst Diana interpretation).

But there is something in the middle that causes me to worry.  It’s the type of story that is not outright denial (although there is still enough of that), not even a call for inaction, but a wedge that can, and will be, used to justify inaction.  Some examples are in COP26: The truth behind the new climate change denial.  Another is this:

How Bad Will Climate Change Get?

The text below is from an article in The Atlantic, with direct quotes from Brian O’Neill, one of the lead architects of the IPCC’s “Shared Socioeconomic Pathways,” or SSPs.  [Square brackets indicate my insertions]

[Under SSP1, keeping global warming under 1.5℃], the global economy still expands but humanity “shifts toward a broader emphasis on human well-being, even at the expense of somewhat slower economic growth over the longer term.”

[Under SSP2, which most commentators see as the most likely result based on COP26] “social, economic, and technological trends do not shift markedly from historical patterns.”

So what does this SSP 2 world feel like? It depends … on who you are. … all the paths, even the hottest ones, show improvements in human well-being on average. IPCC scientists expect that average [!!] life expectancy will continue to rise, that poverty and hunger rates will continue to decline, and that average incomes will go up in every single plausible future, simply because they always have. … Climate change will ruin individual lives and kill individual people, and it may even drag down rates of improvement in human well-being, but on average , he said, “we’re generally in the climate-change field not talking about futures that are worse than today.”

But all the current physical impacts of climate change—drought, extreme heat, fire, storms, sea-level rise—would get significantly worse by 2100 under SSP 2. And say goodbye to coral reefs. “At 2.5 ℃ , it’s probably a world in which we don’t have them,” O’Neill said. “They don’t exist.” The Arctic? “My guess is that we would have a permanently ice-free Arctic in the summer. And so we would have all of the ecological consequences that would come along with that.”

But the world we are heading toward may be one in which the average human is living longer and making more money than ever, but some vulnerable humans and many nonhumans are collateral damage.

[Note the word “average” is used 5 times in the quotations above]

I find this a highly disturbing article.  Most important, and the article acknowledges, this is totally unjust to the “collaterally damaged”.  In addition there are some major flaws in the argument:

  • There is no accounting for the value of biodiversity; no coral reefs, no Arctic ice. More drought, fire and storm. They don’t count, apparently.
  • The IPCC report itself has some projection on the number of people expected to be in geographies outside the “human climate niche” – i.e. people who will likely become climate refugees (more in Note 2).  By 2050 those numbers range from 1 Billion to nearly 4 Billion.  Billions of climate refugees and “we’re generally in the climate-change field not talking about futures that are worse than today.” Really?

I may be reading things out of context, but “…not talking about futures that are worse than today”, in a journal with the reputation of the Atlantic, will be used by some to justify inaction.  Why is this published without a strong refutation?

And while I’m bashing the media, at a more trivial level; if we want to get our stories out we do need to make them easy to understand.

Here is the heading and subheading from an article in the Guardian:

‘Luxury carbon consumption’ of top 1% threatens 1.5C global heating limit. Richest 1% will account for 16% of total emissions by 2030, while poorest 50% will release one tonne of CO2 a year.

The use of mixed dimensions (% of emissions compared to emissions per capita) makes no sense.  

Why not use the excellent graphics, and the numbers, from the original study? – below:

We need simple “stories”, be they written, verbal, pictorial or in any other form of communication. They need to reach an audience outside our bubble. They need to be concise, while backed up by solid data. It’s an obvious statement, but so hard to achieve. When even media outlets like the Guardian and the Atlantic struggle to create these stories it lends support to my contention that we need to focus more effort, more brain power on the creation of these stories. (My next blog will, hopefully, look at this in a bit more detail)


Here are extracts that I thought most telling. [As usual my additions are in square brackets]

1. COP26 has to be about keeping fossil fuels in the ground. All else is distraction

“The handwaving and complexity obscure a simple truth: nation states must stop funding dirty industries”

“Even nations that claim to be leading the transition mean to keep drilling. In the US, Joe Biden promised to pause all new leases for oil and gas on public lands and in offshore waters. His government was sued by 14 Republican states. Though climate campaigners argue that Biden has many other tools for preventing such leases from being issued, he immediately folded, and his government has now begun the process of auctioning drilling rights in Alaskan waters and the Gulf of Mexico. It’s just the kind of weakness the Republicans were hoping to exploit”

“Germany [wearing the mantle of ecological righteousness] has promised to phase out coal production by 2038 (far too late, by the way). Yet it is still developing new deposits.”

“In the UK, the government still insists on what it calls “maximising economic recovery” of oil and gas. Last year, it offered 113 new licences to explore offshore reserves.”

[The Australian government approved three more coal projects shortly after being told they had a duty of care to the children of the world. Predictably, the Australian government appealed against the “duty of care” judgement.  Stripping away the legal niceties that means the current Australian government, and their supporters, do not care about the future of their children – or any children for that matter. No wonder young people around the world are so vocal on this subject] 

2. Climate Deals Unravel Under Closer Scrutiny: COP26 Daily

“A day after COP26 organizers celebrated a major pledge to protect the world’s forests, one of the most important signatories said it didn’t actually sign up to end deforestation by the end of the decade. Indonesia, the top producer of palm oil, said it only agreed to keep its forest cover steady over the period — meaning trees could still be cut down and replaced. Brazil, another key member, said it would only target “illegal” deforestation.” 

“Indonesia also signed up to a pledge aimed at ending coal use, but a closer look at the terms shows it will be able to continue building coal plants at home. The [organizers] highlighted Poland as one of the major signatories of that same deal, but Warsaw said it won’t phase out coal until the 2040s — the same timescale it was already planning — casting doubt on how much value the new accord adds.”

3. Never mind aid, never mind loans: what poor nations are owed is reparations | George Monbiot

At Cop26 the wealthy countries cast themselves as saviours, yet their efforts are hopelessly inadequate and will prolong the injustice

4. Make extreme wealth extinct: it’s the only way to avoid climate breakdown | George Monbiot

Bottom line: Stories will make the difference. Creating simple stories for a complex subject is hard.


One example of corporations taking steps in the face of political skepticism is Ford and their plan to build electric vehicle factories in Tennessee and Kentucky. The irony of siting these plants in states represented by staunch deniers is the subject of this article: Why Are Republicans Now Loving the Sweet Sound of Electric Vehicles?

“If even dug-in science deniers …  can come around on climate issues when they are convinced that doing so would benefit their constituents in visible and measurable ways, then it’s conceivable that an environmentally sound future is possible even in regions now tightly tethered to fossil fuels. It’s even conceivable that renewable energy could cease to be a political issue and become simply a common-sense strategy for a country that doesn’t want to run the planet into the ground…”


Shared Socioeconomic Pathways

The table below (from Wikipedia, but based on IPCC) shows 2050 projections of the number of people expected to live “outside the human climate niche” under various SSP and temperature rise combinations – i.e. Human individuals who will most likely become climate refugees to escape death. 

And finally:

See what three degrees of global warming looks like | The Economist

There is just one biosphere

Lots of talk happening.  Some action as well.  But not enough.

Don’t we realize that the problems of the biosphere affect us all?

We can learn a lot – good and bad – from the global response to Covid19.  Two quotes from an article on that subject, specifically on resistance to vaccinations, in the New York Times struck me:

  • “Science’s ability to understand our cells and airways cannot save us if we don’t also understand our society and how we can be led astray.”…..
  • “The assumption that some scientific breakthrough will swoop in to save the day is built too deeply into our national mythology — but as we’ve seen, again and again, it’s not true.”

If we substitute “the biosphere” for “our cells and airways” those quotes apply perfectly to the environmental, biospheric, crisis we are in.

So what is happening in our society, and how can we be led astray? 

The Countdown Summit –  TED’s first climate conference – is in session! On day one we were exposed to some big ideas; 

“ …We’re in the middle of a crisis, the alarm bells have been ringing, and we can’t keep hitting the snooze button. “We’re not sleepwalking towards a cliff,” …. “We’re walking in a minefield.” 

… [others]….”delivered some good news: We know what it takes to get to net-zero by 2050. All we need is the will and investment — from both the public and private sector — to put them into action. So what can ordinary people do to convince them? “Be political,” …. “Demand change from your leaders.

But isn’t that exactly the problem? “All we need is the will…” 

There is little sign we really have that will.  Even when we demand change from our leaders they refuse.  For instance the Australian government approved three more coal projects after being told they had a duty of care to the children of the world. 

As a distraction we have big power politics, with the US, UK, Australia nuclear submarine announcement as just one example.  How much could be achieved with regard to the biosphere if the intellect and money devoted to these submarines were used elsewhere? 

Why was this deal even contemplated?  Here’s part of the answer:

“For more than a decade, Washington has struggled to prioritize what it calls great power competition with China — a contest for military and political dominance.” – so starts an opinion piece in the New York Times.  It is clearly this competition along national, economic and racial lines that dominates the strategic thinking of our leaders.  Do we want to continue pretending that there isn’t a much greater power – the biosphere – at play here.  That is what we need to worry about, not political dominance. The biosphere does not care about nations, economies or races. Or any humans for that matter. But we better care about the biosphere.

[On a more irreverent note here is another explanation.  BTW the biosphere also does not care about satire – I think]

Even within the environmental “industry” we miss the big picture.  The upcoming Glasgow climate change event overshadows other such concerns as biodiversity and species extinction.  This headline says it well; “The most important global meeting you’ve probably never heard of is now. Countries are gathering in an effort to stop a biodiversity collapse that scientists say could equal climate change as an existential crisis.”

[Why the UN’s Biodiversity Conference Is So Important]

Even within the scientific circles the major report linking biodiversity and climate change was only released in June of 2021.

[Launch of IPBES-IPCC Co-Sponsored Workshop Report on Biodiversity and Climate Change | IPBES secretariat]

The issues need to be dealt with on the ground, in detail, of course.  But we need to keep the big picture in mind; the biosphere – the only one we have, in the whole universe – is becoming less “friendly” toward us.  We can do something about it.  It will take incredible will.  

In the meantime other living things go extinct.  Yes, extinction is part of the history of the biosphere.  [Note Well – we are not exempt from extinction].  But each extinction means something is lost forever.  Surely we can be bothered to minimize our impact. 

US to declare ivory-billed woodpecker and 22 more species extinct.

“Factors behind disappearances include too much development, water pollution, logging and competition from invasive species”

The official release listing the 23 species is in this poetically named document; https://public-inspection.federalregister.gov/2021-21219.pdf

Bill McKibben writes: “It’s easy to feel pessimistic about climate. But we’ve got two big things on our side. One is the astonishing fall in the cost of renewable energy. The other is the huge growth in the citizens’ movements demanding action”

He ends his article with a statement of faith; that we will win.  “But we don’t know if that win will come in time to matter. Glasgow, in other words, is about pace: will it accelerate change, or will things stay on their same too-slow trajectory? Time will tell – it’s the most important variable by far.”

And time, in the US, is going by awfully fast. Last I looked at the side bar (here, on the right) it was 388 days until the next major election.  The odds are that the Republicans will win the house and the senate. In effect that means a halt, or at least a significant slowdown, in US efforts to mitigate the damage done to the biosphere.  Unless of course we vote in a different direction.

Too Many Biosphere Stories

“We are drowning in information, while starving for wisdom” – E.O. Wilson (1929 – 2021)

“Climate crisis is not a scientific or technical problem, it is an issue of justice and political will” – Amy Westervelt

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” 

[More about these quotes here]


..we seem determined to enter another brutish era in human history. We see it as democracies decline, as one country again invades another on some pretext, as nuclear war again becomes a valid alternative in international relations, as science and rationality are again targets of derision. We see greed, lies, corruption, torture and murder become expected, and worse, become accepted, human behaviors.

Discussions of climate change, biodiversity and pollution inevitably fade into the background given the barrage of other stories that compete for our attention; stories that shape our priorities and actions.

It’s laughable to jump from such global generalities to a nerdish blog entry.  Despite being warned – as here – I will lay out a framework to become more aware of “stories” about the biosphere.  My previous ideas on this subject were, to be generous, naive.  I suggested we needed more stories.  The reality is that we have way too many.  While I will use some of my previous shorthand, my aim here is much more limited; I want to have a method to evaluate what is being communicated and what the likely outcome may be.

Allow me one more, very general, comment before getting to the point.  Some argue that, on average, human conditions have improved; that we have better health, more wealth and more peace than at any time in our history. But history is bunk; for real this time.  We have never had the population we have now.  Only for the last 60 years have we had the power to destroy each other completely with nuclear weapons.  We have never had the ability to communicate as we do now.  And only since the industrial revolution have we been able to make such profound changes to the biosphere. 


..I had the resources (and intellect, energy, artistry etc.) to analyze and visualize stories about the impact of changes in the biosphere on humans and human society I might end up with something like this:

This chart is based purely on my imagination and reflects my biases.  I am inspired by diagrams published by UMAP on Exploratory Analysis of Interesting Datasets. (Two examples are in Notes below) 

One approach to create images like this is to use Artificial Intelligence / Machine Learning technology to analyze large data sets in multiple dimensions and then to reduce those multiple dimensions to the flat page, to two dimensions.

We know that “biosphere stories” form a huge data set, growing every minute.  (If anything we have an overload of data) To attempt such an analysis we need to define some subset. Next, and more difficult, is to define the dimensions along which we want to analyze the data.

But why would we even do such a thing?  For the intellectual fun of it?  Sure.  But I believe there are at least two valid reasons to expend the effort:

  1. By developing a framework of “dimensions” it will help assess the importance, validity and probable effects of a “story”.
  2. By looking at patterns in the resulting picture we may recognize gaps to fill, and overemphasis in other places.

 What follows is an attempt to define a subset and some dimensions. 

(To skip the math-like symbols and such, just leap to “SO?”)

Axioms, Symbols and Beliefs

To start we need to stipulate some basic conditions; axioms if you like.  At the same time I will introduce some shorthand symbols. Symbols save typing and avoid the distraction of words; which as we know can mean just what we choose them to mean.

Ǝ!ⒷThere exists exactly one Biosphere
Earth from Voyager1
Ǝ!HThere exists exactly one Humanity.
Ǝ!ⒸThere exists exactly one universe of human imaginings; Society, Laws, Nations, Art, Religions, The Economy and so forth
H = Ⓑ ⋂ ⒸHumans are the intersection of and

Curved arrows indicate the complexity within and  
is real, bounded, consistent, in balance with the universe. It has existed and will exist, with or without H
is limitless, contradictory and unbalanced.  If H were to somehow disappear (ΩCovid?)  so would . is inhuman, maybe superhuman.

There’s an ironic symmetry here. , (think your cable company), often treats H with derision, forgetting that without H it would cease to exist. As H treats with derision are we forgetting that we may cease to exist?
Ⓑ↔H↔ⒸThe arrow between  Ⓑ↔H  represents physical Actions. The arrow between  H↔Ⓒ  represents Stories (S);  information exchange [For more see Note 4]
ΔⒷ↔ΔH↔ΔChanges in cause changes in H, cause changes in and vice versa


Human actions have degraded . This degradation has negative effects on H [For more see Note 4]
hAn individual human (h) action will only make minimal difference 
Significant changes in will be required to reverse or halt the changes in
GThe overall goal (G) is: To halt and, if possible, to reverse human degradation of the biosphere. [We believe this to be a necessary goal.  At the same time we need to acknowledge it is a story in itself.]

Stories and Filters

Stories are the connection between H and.  Arguably is nothing but stories!  The inks, sounds and electromagnetic signals that carry stories are very “real”, a part of , but the essence of a story is just that; a story.

If we agree that only (big) changes in will make a difference and that is composed of stories then it makes sense to analyze S.

If we observe an individual; h, we can see only the story-in (Sin) and the output; EITHER Nothing at all OR Action and/or other Stories (Sout).  

(e.g:  Sin: “It’s good to plant trees”, Aout: Plants tree. 

Sin: “Vote for x, they will support ecological action”, Sout:”I’m voting for x”. Actions may or may not follow).

We can only infer the filters and the received/retained story (SR/R), which may be radically different to the intent of Sin

(e.g. Sin: ”Large cars emit lots of GHG”, SR/R: “My driving makes no difference. China is the problem”, Aout: Buys SUV)

Filters may be physical; Can h receive S at all? Has h got time? Access to the medium? Is h healthy enough to read, hear and understand?

Filters in the domain of are dynamic, powerful and complex. Essentially they are stories in themselves. f is worth a lot of our attention. [For more see Note 5]

All the above is probably obvious. But, if we want to analyze stories about the biosphere in multiple dimensions, we need to think about what dimensions to use.  For a “real” analysis those dimensions will also need units and values/ranges assigned to them; that is a future step.  Here is an outline:



A direct analysis of the content of the story.

  • Domain
    • – typically technical works relating to aspects of .  (e.g. Observed changes in ocean currents related to ocean temperature)
    • – related to separate aspects to (e.g. The impact of ESG management practices on stock valuation. Legal decisions on the power of governmental regulatory agencies)
    • AND – interactions between and (e.g. The impact of ocean temperature on fishing industry revenues and profitability.  The impact of legal decisions on the levels of GHG emissions and other pollutants)
    • Given the discussion above the “ AND ” domain should be the initial target of an analysis
  • Topic and Content
    • Subject, Topic
    • Content Analysis – “standard” analysis and special analysis for trigger words  


  • Author(s) Identification
  • Consistency – with science, economics, history, social norms…
  • Peer review or other supporting facts
  • Original or Derivative
  • Based on previous similar work
  • Essentially a measure of the reliability of this information


  • Medium
  • Language (Availability of translations?)
  • Volume; sheer size, time required to read and absorb
  • Access barriers; (e.g. online connection required? Paywalls?)
  • Technical hurdles; required subject knowledge and level within that subject
  • Density; reading level etc. 
    • Side Note: Stories opposed to our Goal, G, e.g. denial stories are typically very simple (“It’s a hoax!”) and accessible (A billboard with “No water, no food”).  Stories in line with G tend to be more complicated – often much more. [Not quite in context, but I like this quote: “Once again, the Democrats showed up to a culture war gunfight brandishing a 2,000-page piece of legislation.” For more see Note 6]


  • Intended Audience – is this S aimed at an audience inclined toward, against or neutral with respect to G?
  • Intended Outcome – apparent and concealed/inferred (certain specific actions, general education, counter to a specific argument etc.)


  • Actual outcome or predicted?
  • Audience
  • Action
  • If this is an after the event, actual, outcome how does it compare to the intent (and prediction)?


.. where does all this get us?  Why don’t I get out and do something positive instead?

Despite its flaws I believe this method will help judge stories in a consistent manner.  It will help in finding the real motives behind many stories.  We will also identify areas where we should pay more attention.

The key, of course, is to actually do the hard work of analyzing some subset of biosphere stories and creating a “real” map.

Until we can do that let me go back to my “fictitious” diagram.

Here the vertical axis is subject matter, confined to stories that link the biosphere crisis and wider society as a whole (i.e. AND ).  The horizontal axis represents the impact of the story on an uncommitted reader.  Will this story move that reader to act; to halt and, if possible, to reverse human degradation of the biosphere – or not? 

Let’s look at the numbered areas of the diagram: 

Climate Change and Energy stories are probably the most prolific of the biosphere stories. For the uncommitted reader more and more data on global warming and the likely effects will have little impact.  What does have impact are more immediate concerns; weather events, fuel prices and the attractiveness of fuel efficient transport, cost and comfort benefits of energy conservation measures; (e.g. “You will be more comfortable all year in an insulated house”)

One reason why Climate Change stories predominate is that the whole puzzle can be presented as a technology and economics exercise.  No need to change your lifestyle, no need to make any sacrifice; “2% of GDP will do it, We have the technological answers, Fusion is close to a breakthrough, Green hydrogen, Carbon Capture and Storage etc.”. All of these technology promises make our uncommitted reader more likely to act against our goal […in my opinion, through my filters, of course]

Stories about Pollution have, if anything, a negative effect.  The problem is so intractable and the barriers to meaningful action so large that likely actions are negative; “If only 6% of my recycling actually gets recycled why should I bother, I take my plastic bags back to the shop but the container is filled with other people’s half eaten burgers*, we need drugs to keep us safe.”

[* That story is true: I brought my plastic bags to a Target store and found the “clean plastic only” recycle can overflowing. On top of the heap was a half eaten hamburger and a half full paper cup of soda. At Walmart the greeter told me they had to remove the recycling containers because of the amount of other material deposited there.]

Population – a white space on the diagram.  Too hard, uncomfortable, not discussable.

“Growth” – that mantra of capitalism. Mathematically we cannot grow within the limited biosphere. The basic ideas of “The Limits to Growth” are as valid now as they were 50 years ago.  We can grow, maybe without limit, in – maybe.  And yet we are hooked on physical growth; bigger houses, bigger cars, bigger TV’s, more of everything…

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has highlighted the reliance on fossil fuels. For producers, and shareholders, the on-going flow of profits trumps all.  The availability and cost of energy ties into all the National Narratives.  While there is a possible silver lining of speeding the introduction of renewables, the major actions right now are to secure fossil fuels. That leads to some strange political actions, as shown by this Texas story

Another white space.  Where are the stories showing the benefits, to “me”, now, of taking positive action?  There are some.  And there are some positive legal actions.  But, through my filters, they are outweighed by the negative side of the diagram.

Bottom Line

We may never carry out an analysis and create a “real” diagram of biosphere stories.  But defining filters and dimensions for an analysis provides a template for looking at the likely impact of a story on different audiences.

We need to allow ourselves to imagine a different .  “…the possibilities for human intervention are far greater than we’re inclined to think.”  [from “The Dawn of Everything”, Graber and Wengrow, 2021]

Note 1 – The Quotes

“We are drowning in information, while starving for wisdom. The world henceforth will be run by synthesizers, people able to put together the right information at the right time, think critically about it, and make important choices wisely.”

“Future generations are going to forgive us our horrible genocidal wars, because it’ll pass too far in history. They will forgive us all of the earlier generations’ follies and the harm. But they will not forgive us having so carelessly thrown away a large part of the rest of life on our watch.”

EO Wilson (1929 – 2021)

“Climate crisis is not a scientific or technical problem, it is an issue of justice and political will”

“If progressives and climate activists want to have any hope of spurring the kind of movement necessary to shift political and economic interests away from fossil fuels, it’s time to put aside “believe science” and instead embrace a broad fight for justice.”

Amy Westervelt

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

Alice in Wonderland

Note 2 – UMAP

Here are two images published by UMAP on Exploratory Analysis of Interesting Datasets:

Maximilian Noichl, University of Vienna, Austria  (noichlmax@hotmail.co.uk)

David McClure, Open Syllabus (davidwilliammcclure@gmail.com)

Both are images created by first analyzing large data sets in multiple dimensions using AI/Machine Learning technology. And, secondly reducing those multiple dimensions to the flat page, to two dimensions.  The first diagram is a visualization of published papers on philosophy, the second of some 150,000 commonly assigned texts from Open Syllabus.

I do not pretend to understand the underlying technology, but am intrigued by the results; an unexpected synthesis and pattern of connections.  Equally fascinating to me, are the absences of expected clusters and connections, the white spaces.

Note 3 – Overload

 Is there really an overload?

 A Google search on “Climate Change Information Overload” gives me 10 and a half million results.

The New York Times publishes an article on the subject in the Arts section. 

Apocalypse When? Global Warming’s Endless Scroll – The New York Times

Overload has hit the Big Apple.

The mind boggles if we add “Biodiversity Overload”, “Waste and Pollution Overload”, “Water Shortage Overload”, “People putting space crap into orbit to make sure we can’t get into space at all soon Overload”.

We understand the problems.  We know the solutions.  We should implement these solutions. 

Yet we are resolved not to.

Because we are an irrational, greedy, cruel species with an attention span of, at best, minutes? Because we are so scared of someone else making a profit that we would rather bankrupt ourselves?  Because we’re so overwhelmed by stories that we are paralyzed into inaction or goaded to denial?

I naively thought that we could overcome those barriers if only we told enough “good” stories. Obviously a silly idea.  In hindsight it’s clear that more stories just add to the overload. 

Note 4 – Humans – Humanity

Individual humans (h), belong to Humanity (H) and both are at the intersection of the biosphere () and that whole man-made thing I call .

This is hugely simplified of course.  On the   side of the diagram I ignore the impact of things outside, like the sun, apart from saying is in balance with the universe.  On the side I skirt around a whole heap of neuroscience and related things.

can only interact with h through “real” physical actions, in real-time. h can only interact with through physical actions. Everything else is stories. 

There are a lot of logical frayed ends here, but some examples may help:

  • The prisoner in the dock, the stolen goods, the police report, the judges gavel, the sound of the gavel, the bars on the cell window; all are physical artifacts and actions – they belong to . The idea that some physical item belongs to h1 and for h2 to take it is an “offense”; that this offense then needs to be “proven” and “punished” according to some “rules” – all belongs to .
  • Oil under the ground is in , as are all the physical signs of how it came to be there. H, using ever more sophisticated tools, has looked at this physical evidence and from it created a story of time, plants, animals, heat, pressure and chemical reactions. The “book” containing that story belongs in . The imagination that led to the creation of the story, and the continued rediscovery through reading (and other media) by an individual h is firmly in .
  • The oil well pump, the pipeline, the electronic impulses transmitting profits, the yacht purchased through those profits, the fuel burnt by that yacht – all in Ⓑ.  The idea that any h can “own” the land under which that oil lies and can ask for “money” in return for this resource, that took millenia to make,  – that’s .

I also simplify the story about stories. Intuitively there should be a difference between stories told by an individual h and the stories pushed out by a corporation, which is an artifact in . But the essentials of the story, measured through our dimensions (or something like that) are the same.

What about stories told from h1 to h2?  My argument here is that individuals, given their filters, are so similar to a corporation or government that we can treat the stories in the same manner.  Sure, the audience reach and overall impact will vary enormously, but the information content will be similar. Logically that is very loose, I know. (More on filters in the next Note)

What about stories individuals tell themselves?  We can only observe what goes in and what comes out.  Maybe in some future we will be able to follow the activity of the neurons and “see” what is going on in there – for now it’s out of scope for this exercise.

When I say “ΔⒷ⇣↔ΔH⇣”; implying that humanity has degraded the biosphere that’s again very simplistic. First the biosphere does not get degraded, it “just is”. The biosphere “just was” when there were no animals.  The biosphere “just was” 80 years ago when there were no atomic weapons and the human population was less than a third of what it is today.  80 years from now the biosphere will “just be”, whether those atomic weapons have been exploded or not, and whether the population is 10 billion, or 2 billion, or none for that matter.

By “ΔⒷ⇣↔ΔH⇣” I mean that we, H, have changed in a manner which H finds, or will find, detrimental. Many individual h’s have already been impacted negatively.  Many others see opportunity for further wealth and comfort.  The average impact is negative. But the powerful stories from the wealthy minority have, up to now, overridden the average.

This is why we can have legitimate, expert stories stating that there will be billions of climate refugees and, at the same time, average wealth will increase. The math is simple; rich people, in rich countries, will get richer; a lot richer to offset the poverty of the less fortunate. The ethics, the social change, the climate justice required to stop this degradation is not simple at all.

Note 5 – Filters

What I call “filters” spans so many fields, from basic anatomy to quantum theory, that what follows is a gross simplification.  I want a simple formulation like  f.Sin → SR/R  to go with the diagram:

But there are complications:

  • The filter (f) has physical components; i.e. our senses have limited ranges, we are only awake at limited times, illness and age change the nature of f, etc.
  • f also has mental components; i.e. the stories we have retained so far (Strictly speaking these are now also physical as they are stored in our physical and chemical being.)
  • f.Sin → SR/R then becomes a dynamic system with f continually changed; f.Sin ⇆ SR/R

We could continue into this digression forever and discuss many interesting phenomena from childhood imprinting, social media polarization and cult behavior to neuroscience.

Leaving that temptation aside I have found the analogy to a camera useful in arriving at some dimensions for our theoretical study.

In a camera the final processed image (the received and retained information content) depends on:

  • Orientation of the camera – where are we looking? 
  • Filters – what information do we subtract from the input
  • The Lens
    • Field of view – how broad is our viewpoint?
    • Depth of field – are we concentrating on one level of information or many?
    • Focus – how closely do we look at detail?
    • Distortions – do we introduce distortions of our own?
  • Shutter – How much information do we let in? Will it overexpose the sensor? Will it leave any impression at all?
  • Sensor/Storage – what capacity does the sensor have to store the information? How permanent? How will a new S affect the earlier information?

Call this whole assembly f (of course…). I believe that understanding f will help us to specify appropriate dimensions for the analysis. 

I also think that considering these filters allows us to better understand each other, and maybe explain some of the baffling responses to what are, to us, perfectly logical propositions.  Even within the same society, in the same street, the filters may be radically different from one neighbor to the next.  If we think coldly in terms of “f”, rather than get heated by perceived rejection, shortsightedness and belligerence, we may make more progress than we are now.

Note 6 – Complexity

The quote “Once again, the Democrats showed up to a culture war gunfight brandishing a 2,000-page piece of legislation.” comes from a Guardian article: Republicans aim to sow outrage, Trump-style, with an eye on 2022 midterms | US politics | The Guardian

In this blog I harp on complexity and accessibility a number of times.  [And then I publish a post like this, which baffles everybody, except maybe the writer].

The biosphere crisis is complicated.  It just is. The stories are therefore also complicated and therefore much less accessible.  In contrast denial or no-action stories are easy; a “No Water, No Food” billboard is easy to understand and totally accessible; you drive by at 70 miles per hour and it is immediately imprinted.  The complexity behind that simple story is successfully hidden.

Opposite examples are the IPCC reports. Of course these are necessary documents.  The reports reflect the input of thousands of dedicated experts around the globe.  The reports do and will influence decision makers at all levels in government, business and the military.  

Will they influence our non-committed reader?  Probably not.  Because they simply are not accessible and most of the reporting based on these reports is filtered out by the audience we most need to reach.

The summary contains 37 pages.  A “technical summary” contains 96 pages and the full report covers 3675 pages.

The diagram below is part of the summary.  I have spent a little time trying to understand it.  I think it means ΔⒷ↔ΔH↔Δ [😄], but I could be wrong…

Note 7 – Texas Law

“Senate Bill 13, which went into effect in September [2021], prohibits the state from contracting with or investing in companies that divest from oil, natural gas and coal companies. The law defines divestment as refusing to do business with a fossil fuel company because that company does not commit to environmental standards higher than expected by federal and state law.”

[From Texas warns firms they could lose state contracts for divesting from fossil fuels]

‘Look, if you’re going to be anti-Texas, then you’re not going to get to do business with Texas.'” – [From the author of the bill – quoted in Texas and other states want to ‘boycott’ fossil fuel divestment : NPR]

Note 8 – Limits to growth

LIMITS TO GROWTH was published 50 years ago. There has been much criticism and the graph below may not be accurate now, but the basic tenets remain valid. This article in Nature – the international journal of science / 17 March 2022 gives a balanced view.

“The Limits to Growth” is a 1972 report commissioned by the Club of Rome. The report’s authors are Donella H. Meadows, Dennis L. Meadows, Jørgen Randers, and William W. Behrens III, representing a team of 17 researchers.  More detail at: The Limits to Growth – Wikipedia

Dennis Meadows presented an update at the University of Ulm/Germany in 2019 – the slides and a Youtube video are here:

47 Years After Limits to Growth Ulm 2019 Dennis Meadows slides

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aRXb4bJhSSw Ulm 2019 video

This graph (by YaguraStation – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,) is a summation of the topic;

The resources graph has become more complex with the shortage of materials such as rare earth metals, lithium and so forth, which are critical to the required renewable energy infrastructure.

This could be all wrong.  What if the technology experts were correct? Assume we mine the ocean floor, the fusion breakthrough happens, and, a little later, we mine the moon and terraform Mars.  Will that solve everything?  Thoughts for a future blog…

Note 9 …

Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after,

And the poetry he invented was easy to understand;

He knew human folly like the back of his hand,

And was greatly interested in armies and fleets;

When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,

And when he cried the little children died in the streets.

Epitaph On A Tyrant – W.H. Auden