Building a climate cathedral

The film Don’t Look Up(Adam McKay, 2021), a satire recently released on a streaming platform, features the predicted collision of a comet with Earth as a metaphor for the ongoing climate crisis. Humanity has only six months to act before the impact occurs. This delay limits the scope of the metaphor, because the climate crisis will not happen “in a while”: we are in it. This difference is not insignificant because the actions to be implemented depend on what one believes to be the deadline for doing so: there is no need to construct plans whose completion time is greater than the deadline.

No more deadline

The film shows that the imminence of the catastrophe, “managed” by leaders and media that are inconsistent and disconnected from reality, encourages us to give up and enjoy the time that remains, however brief it may be. On the other hand, in a permanent crisis, there no longer seems to be a deadline, a clear deadline before which to act. In this situation, the choice of actions involves estimating the time scales of the phenomena that occur.

→ READ. “Don’t Look Up” on Netflix: a parody, really?

Thus, weekly monitoring of an epidemic in which the number of infected cases doubles every three days is completely unsuitable. However, this was the situation in mid-December last, when the omicron variant of the Covid epidemic arrived, and also that of March 2020 when the virus arrived…

The management of such an exponential process is also at the heart of the management of a nuclear power plant: the production of energy is based on a chain reaction where neutrons play a role similar to that of the virus. So-called “instantaneous” neutrons take about 50 millionths of a second before causing a fission reaction. To control the chain reaction despite this minute duration, it is necessary to bring in the “delayed” neutrons resulting from the fission products, whose time scale is ten seconds.

Shorten time scales

Last example: managing an electrical network means permanently ensuring the balance between power produced and power consumed. Since consumption can fluctuate over periods ranging from a second to a year, network operators must have controllable sources whose implementation and management are done on comparable time scales. Intermittent sources make it more difficult to maintain the balance of the electrical network because, in addition to the need to react to variations in the power consumed, there is the obligation to manage fluctuations in the power produced. This regulation is done by modulating the production of controllable sources, capable of adapting to all consumption time scales.

In our modern societies, everything is done to shorten the time scales: from trading at high frequency to the implementation of 5G, technical systems facilitate the acceleration described by the German sociologist Hartmut Rosa in his book Acceleration. A social critique of time (The Discovery, 2010). To reduce the typical duration of the transformations of our world is to risk racing because our brain is not cut out to manage time scales that are too short.

We also find it difficult to project ourselves beyond a generation, the time scale of the current climate crisis. No deadline in this case, only wasted time to limit the aggravation of the situation: every tenth of a degree counts to improve our common future. Shouldn’t we rediscover the motivation and self-sacrifice that allowed the construction of cathedrals, slowly, stone by stone, by organizing over periods much longer than the life expectancy of the time?


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