Monday, December 07, 2009

Everybody talks about the weather...

Over at MilPub one of my colleagues mentioned the Copenhagen Conference on climate change and the recent fooforaw about the "censoring" of climate change skeptics by the mainstream climatologists.

Now, overall, I am perfectly confident that if human industrial emissions ARE having a significant impact on global climate (and I cannot imagine why they wouldn't - see below) that this conference will continue the great tradition of looking away from a difficult and painful choice until it rips our collective head off and vomits down the neck stump. There never has been a human society that anticipated their own impact on natural systems prior to those systems going to hell. Ask the Sumerians about soil salinization, the Anasazi about irrigated agriculture in a desert, or the Easter Islanders about giant heads. Oh, wait, you can't...But as for the "censoring" the background is in geology, not climatology, but here's my short take:

1. We are in an interglacial, and we know that over the past 1.8 million years the Earth has warmed and cooled considerably from where it is today. From the VOSTOK ice cores in the Antarctic we have O16/O18 ratios that give us a fair idea of global temperatures back into the end of the late Pleistocene. Stratigraphic, palynological and flora/fauna interpretation can give us a good guesstimate of global temps back at least as far as the Proterozoic (4 billion years ago). And we know from that that the Earth has been both much warmer and much colder than it is now.

2. But...the temperature data we have now looks suspicious; it spikes starting in the late 18th Century and that trend seems to be continuing. This trendline is rising at about the same rate as the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, which saw 6 degrees of rise in 20,000 years and had a fairly major impact on planetary life.The thing is that we think that the PETM was triggered by one or more natural causes, the most likely thought to be the release of deep-ocean methane deposits or "clathrates". Of the other natural or cosmogenic processes that have affected global temperatures, from cometary impacts to the development of grasses, we have seen none over the past 200 years.

3. We also know that...

4. Industrial gases, including CO2, do have a "greenhouse" effect, and we have poured a tremendous amount of them (relative to the global baseline) into the air since about 1800.

5. So it makes sense, in a purely empirical way, to be highly skeptical of the notion that "humans can't alter the global temperature stasis", which is the primary point of the skeptics. Even if the temp spike and the industrial emissions aren't 1:1, it makes no sense to think that there's no effect at all (which is the main skeptic point).

6. And the real problem is that we know from Venus that there's a tipping point where the greenhouse becomes irreversible. And we don't really know what that tipping point is here on Earth. Runaway greenhouse here is unlikely - we have too much free water - but the point is we don't know. We don't know what is happening, other than the global temperature is rising above the normal trend and we have no smoking gun - no volcanism, no bolides, no clathrates, nothing that we know or think has caused warming in the past - to account for it. We don't know.

7. So since we know so little to me it makes perfect sense to reduce the amount of industrial gas emitted into the atmosphere to the greatest extent possible. And many of the skeptics

- whose evidence consists mostly of nitpicking holes in the theory and some pretty wild assumptions (as in the cartoon above - are paid for by industries that have a short-term stake in preventing this. It's also worth noting, as the Toronto Sun editorial stated:
"A key factor in the controversy is that the data discussed in these e-mails was not suppressed. It was discussed in the IPCC's Fourth Assessment report, which concluded it is more than 90% likely that human emissions of greenhouse gases are responsible for climate change."

This whole business is another attempt to make doing nothing - or making a mistake - seem like doing the right thing. Haven't we been there before?

So my feeling is this: we're not going to reverse the industrial revolution and go back to living in yurts. No one who warns of climate change believes we will. What they are trying to do is talk to a largely uneducated, credulous and greedy public about the notion that we need to put off our pursuit of that Wii and that Hummer H4 to slow down the emissions cycle and reduce the chance that we will end up with a runaway greenhouse.

This is the scientific equivalent of taking your foot off the gas because the terrain ahead suggests there may be a hard left turn in front of you. The skeptics, many of them, are saying "Fuck you, you pussy, floor it!" for no reason other than they have found some irregularities in the climate data, the scientific equivalent of saying that you don't need brakes because the road has always been straight and always will be.

So in a perfect world the climatologists would lay out all the data, point to the trend and then point out the irregularities and discrepancies and admit "We don't know why this is, this seems anomalous, but the overall data seems to suggest this." But the Western publics know only this: anything that curtails their industrial "progress" makes them "poorer" in the short-term.

Therefore if someone can manage to take those irregularities and discrepancies and make them look like a fatal flaw (which is possible with any scientific data you don't really understand how to interpret) they will seize on it as an opportunity to do nothing.

So I don't think that what the climatologists did was smart in the long run; if there IS a serious climate problem, people in general are going to have to become smarter about it in order to solve it.

But in the long run we're all dead and these guys have been fighting the battle against the nay-sayers for thirty years. We all saw how the people who were skeptical about the good sense of invading a fucked-up post-Ottoman Third World dictatorship to let freedom reign were swiftboated and lied about and generally screwed over. They did, too.

So I can fully understand their instinct to shut these guys up before they managed to raise their Pecksniffian bullshit to full Cheney on them.

The editorial in the journal Nature sums the situation up pretty well:
"In the end, what the UEA e-mails really show is that scientists are human beings — and that unrelenting opposition to their work can goad them to the limits of tolerance, and tempt them to act in ways that undermine scientific values. Yet it is precisely in such circumstances that researchers should strive to act and communicate professionally, and make their data and methods available to others, lest they provide their worst critics with ammunition."
But no matter. The entire controversy is a tale told by a lot of idiots, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. The bottom line is that if this climate problem forces us to make a hard decision today, forces us to put down the TV remote and do something that makes us poorer and smaller in the short run...we'll kick it down the road. We like our problems minor, and our major problems invisible - until the moment they strike us dead. That way it's SO much less stressful.

Just ask anyone on Venus.

(cross-posted at MilPub)


Lisa said...

As you say, the climatological data is there, so why bicker over leaked emails and human pettiness?

Why is it so hard for people to take some responsibility for their role in the degradation of a system in which they play a part? Denial and the blame game are such uniquely human foibles. I do not see reason that we will ever become better.

After all, in this holiday season we should be aware that He died for our sins, yet we do not seem to take any interest in "sinning less". The way I see Jesus ("The reason for the season") is like bentonite, or some oxidative substance: He just slakes off a bit of the edge for those who hide under his robes. Very few actually do the redemptive work of humbling themselves and serving the greater community.

FDChief said...

Lisa: The commentary discussion over at MilPub is interesting. Pluto (who is a hell of a smart guy) seems like the perfect example of the sort of thinking I see a lot; the "technology will save us" sort of reasoning for not doing anything now. And he's the REASONING end of the spectrum.

Below the top 5% he represents are the lumpish morass of slothful types who just don't want to have to drive less, spend more or make any sort of alteration to slow this process down even long enough to get a better understanding of what's happening, why, and where it may be taking us.

And, sadly, at the far end, are the hard-core Christians who will tell you with a straight face that God gave us humans "dominion" over fish and fowl, palm and pine, so fuck them critters, if they die it's cause God hated them anyway.

Lisa said...

Yes, I've followed the discussion. Pluto is brilliant (as are the rest of your coterie), but I do not always agree on the salvation presented by science.

I must get brave enough to comment over there... :)

pluto said...

Thanks for praising me before you dis me, Chief ;-)

I don't want to give the impression that "technology will save us from ourselves" because this generally isn't true. It solves some problems and causes others.

For example, yes, I'm pretty high on Polywell fusion and think that if it works as advertised it will have a profound impact on our culture and planet.

But I'd be very surprised if there aren't negative side-effects. For example, fusion doesn't produce greenhouse gasses but it does produce heat, lots of it. Dumping all that heat into the atmosphere could be bad for the environment if we do it on a large enough scale.

Lisa said...

As I see it, we'll barely outrun our destructive tendencies with our technology. Until we don't.

Rapacious humans do not seem big on prevention. Big on, "More for me."

Pluto said...

I have to disagree with you, Lisa. Technology is nothing more than an enabler. It makes both heaven and hell more possible.

The true question is whether the maturity of the human race can keep up with its ability to change things. That is really the underlying argument with Climate Change.

You might find this odd after reading some of my other posts, but I'm fairly confident that in the long run we will mature fast enough to keep up.

As a small shred of proof, I will point out that the US should have launched a nuclear first strike in 1963 when we realized that the Russians were catching up (this is according to the theory of MAD, which was all the rage back then). Instead we found a better way to end the Cold War.

FDChief said...

Lisa, Pluto: Prof. Diamond, whose done a lot more deep thinking on this subject than I ever will, wrote an entire book on the subject titled "Collapse" where he discussed what we know about several human societies which were confronted with environmental challenges and how they dealt with it.

On the whole, not well. Pluto, you tend to believe that humans are capable of maturing into wise decisions - which, I might add, is a sidebar of those of us who tend to trust technological solutions. And, as you point out, there are many recorded instances of societies making good decisions based on incomplete information.

I think I'm more misanthropic; I tend to believe that people usually make poor decisions based on their immediate comfort, fear and sloth rather than the long-term benefits of any particular action.

And in this case things are complicated by the presence of some fairly large and influential players who NEED us to make the "wrong" decisions in order to maximize their profits or their power. Unlike my usual villians, these aren't JUST the usual suspects (big ag, big power, big chem) but include national governments like the Chinese and the Indian.

And the problem here is more than just making a single discrete decision, like the one in 1963. It's a matter of a massive reorientation of attitude, from "Our acts are completely independent from their consequences" to "We HAVE to take ALL the consequences - including those not directly affecting me, my tribe, and my species - into account,,,and if the effect is on balance negative, we won't act."

I have great faith in the ability of the human species to act like the grabby, horny, short-sighted little poop-flinging monkey that still actuates most of us most of the time...

Lisa said...

Re. your last graph: That's the crux of the biscuit. Our lineage is that of the promiscuous, competitive and dominating primates, not the pair-bonding members of the birds or beavers, say.

Tidy as we'd like to imagine ourselves (and for all the Lysol and paper towels and microbial wipes we use), we are a grubby lot.