It is time to stop quivering in our boots in pointless fear of the future and just roll up our sleeves and build it.
- Ray Pierrehumbert

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Global Change

Global warming is only a piece of the puzzle.

We wish to avoid an abrupt loss in human welfare which would probably be accompanied by a population crash and many other associated tragic losses. Preservation of a few remnant natural ecosystems seems like a constraint we ought not lightly let go of, lest we bequeath our descendants a landscape and a lifestyle hardly finer than that we could achieve on Mars.

In addition to energy, water and food are crucial constraints, both related to climate but under direct stresses as well. Consider some of the risks and couplings. Food is largely provided through extractive use of ground water. Much hope in carbon dioxide control is based on biofuel, but biofuel is water intensive. Fresh water can be manufactured from saline, but such manufacture is energy intensive. Solar and biofuel energy compete with other land uses, renewable energy requires dramatic infrastructure changes or breakthroughs in energy storage, and the idea of atmospheric carbon capture along with sequestration at scale imposes huge burdens on land use and material flows. And so on.

If recent rumblings about the scale and efficacy of biofuels hold water the idea of creating extra biofuel just to bury it is a nonstarter.

See the current issue of Time magazine, with atypical apologies for its typical lack of references to useful literature. In a lengthy and less-than-usually vapid article entiteld "The Clean Energy Scam" Time argues that a full tank on an SUV derived from biofuel is the equivalent of a person-year of food, which seems plausible. Of course, it's only a month's worth of meat. Time also argues that creating a field of biofuel implies non-sequestered sourcing of the carbon on an equivalent amount of forested land, which seems less than inevitable to me, but avoiding it is apparently outside our current competence as the article explains quite well.

Can we manage all of it? Any of these problems considered in isolation is daunting. We rarely see anyone considering the big picture.

The level of discourse doesn't appear promising to say the least. The press and the politicians and industry seem to be saying that what we are facing is a "recession", confounded perhaps by also having an "enemy" out there. Mention of actual physical constraints on our future seems not so much buried under a rug as beyond the competence of the main centers of public discourse. We aren't equipped to even recognize, never mind address, the fact that we have a big, complicated and quantitative problem.

It seems to me we have to give up something lest we lose everything.

I suspect a huge push toward nuclear power is the only plausible escape route given the limitations on other sources of energy. There are a lot of numbers you will need to convince me otherwise, though I'm open to them.

As LBJ said, "come, let us reason together". The first thing we need to demand is proper numbers. We need a new sort of journalism, one that can act in support of quantitative reasoning.

We also need nothing less than a conversion of freight as well as personal travel to electric vehicles, a significant absolute decline in the ecological footprint of the USA and comparable countries including considerably reduced consumption of meat, smoother and kinder international migration, and dramatically improved international cooperation. Coming up with the right numbers and formal constraints to think about these things is very difficult, but the current social configuration appears to already be sufficiently degraded that we fall far short of even trying to find them.

I hate to be a pessimist, but the rate at which problems arise seems likely to overcome the rate at which they are solved. Something big has to change in the way we think about things soon.

6 comments:

John Fleck said...

With respect to "a new sort of journalism, one that can act in support of quantitative reasoning," I think that if your expectation is that journalism will somehow create widespread quantitative reasoning by the broad population, you're hoping for something that is impossible.

I'd refer you to the work of Jon Miller, who's done the most detailed work on what the U.S. public does and does not know about science. That reality - a lack of broad understanding - must be the starting point, and the notion that the broad public will ever have a deep scientific understanding is hopeless.

The mistake comes in thinking that, if journalists could somehow write the perfect story, it would actually end up in peoples' brains. It simply doesn't work that way, for a variety of reasons. The solutions we pursue must be robust to this reality.

Michael Tobis said...

Perhaps so, and perhaps not. I will squelch my disagreement for now because that's not my present point at all.

Those of us who can think in numbers and want to do so are having a hell of a time getting authoritative numbers. Witness the Time magazine article. It makes some quantitative assertions that matter a very great deal to the future of the world. It's a start. There were some actual substantive assertions.

How seriously should I take it? What are the sources? What are the serious contrary opinions? What are the implications? Who is credible? What alternative mechanisms have been proposed?

We need real information.

If our governments refuse to think about this problem seriously, then us amateurs urgently need to do so, and we need authoritative numbers. In some sense I don't care if 99% of the readership goes away. Servicing that last 1% is absolutely crucial.

John Fleck said...

OK, we're definitely on the same page. I've come to the conclusion that it's that 1 percent that my journalism needs to connect with. Sadly, though, 1 percent is not a business model. But that's a separate issue.

tidal said...

Michael, w.r.t. to your extended comment "Global warming is only a piece of the puzzle... In addition to energy, water and food are crucial constraints, both related to climate but under direct stresses as well. Consider some of the risks and couplings... Can we manage all of it? Any of these problems considered in isolation is daunting. We rarely see anyone considering the big picture."...

There is an interesting new article up at New Scientist. Here is a germane quote: "To run a hierarchy, managers cannot be less complex than the system they are managing," Bar-Yam says. As complexity increases, societies add ever more layers of management but, ultimately in a hierarchy, one individual has to try and get their head around the whole thing, and this starts to become impossible. At that point, hierarchies give way to networks in which decision-making is distributed. We are at this point.

This shift to decentralised networks has led to a widespread belief that modern society is more resilient than the old hierarchical systems. "I don't foresee a collapse in society because of increased complexity," says futurologist and industry consultant Ray Hammond. "Our strength is in our highly distributed decision making." This, he says, makes modern western societies more resilient than those like the old Soviet Union, in which decision making was centralised.

Things are not that simple, says Thomas Homer-Dixon, a political scientist at the University of Toronto, Canada, and author of the 2006 book The Upside of Down. "Initially, increasing connectedness and diversity helps: if one village has a crop failure, it can get food from another village that didn't."

As connections increase, though, networked systems become increasingly tightly coupled. This means the impacts of failures can propagate: the more closely those two villages come to depend on each other, the more both will suffer if either has a problem. "Complexity leads to higher vulnerability in some ways," says Bar-Yam. "This is not widely understood."

The reason is that as networks become ever tighter, they start to transmit shocks rather than absorb them. "The intricate networks that tightly connect us together - and move people, materials, information, money and energy - amplify and transmit any shock," says Homer-Dixon. "A financial crisis, a terrorist attack or a disease outbreak has almost instant destabilising effects, from one side of the world to the other.""


The full article, rather unfortunately titled Why the demise of civilisation may be inevitable, is behind a "pay-wall", but I might be able to get it to you via an email link. If not, I think it will be on the newstands shortly.

In any event, I think it speaks to your point, and John's, about the challenge AND OBLIGATION of the media to elevate the discussion.

Another point from the article, related to your comment "the rate at which problems arise seems likely to overcome the rate at which they are solved. Something big has to change in the way we think about things soon.":
"For the past 10,000 years, problem solving has produced increasing complexity in human societies," says Joseph Tainter, an archaeologist at the University of Utah, Salt Lake City, and author of the 1988 book The Collapse of Complex Societies.

If crops fail because rain is patchy, build irrigation canals. When they silt up, organise dredging crews. When the bigger crop yields lead to a bigger population, build more canals. When there are too many for ad hoc repairs, install a management bureaucracy, and tax people to pay for it. When they complain, invent tax inspectors and a system to record the sums paid. That much the Sumerians knew.

There is, however, a price to be paid. Every extra layer of organisation imposes a cost in terms of energy, the common currency of all human efforts, from building canals to educating scribes. And increasing complexity, Tainter realised, produces diminishing returns. The extra food produced by each extra hour of labour - or joule of energy invested per farmed hectare - diminishes as that investment mounts. We see the same thing today in a declining number of patents per dollar invested in research as that research investment mounts. This law of diminishing returns appears everywhere, Tainter says.

To keep growing, societies must keep solving problems as they arise. Yet each problem solved means more complexity. Success generates a larger population, more kinds of specialists, more resources to manage, more information to juggle - and, ultimately, less bang for your buck.

Eventually, says Tainter, the point is reached when all the energy and resources available to a society are required just to maintain its existing level of complexity. Then when the climate changes or barbarians invade, overstretched institutions break down...


It's a rather disconcerting read, but I think reinforces some of your points.

Regarding "authoritative numbers"... I rather like the approach that George Monbiot takes. When he writes an article for The Guardian, he always tags it at the end with "www.monbiot.com". Although the Guardian does not provide links to his references, sources, etc., Monbiot does himself at his site. Just an encouraging example...

Dano said...

The figure I use is 10%. 20% on a good day. I think many public school teachers take the same approach after a while.

Best,

D

David B. Benson said...

"If recent rumblings about the scale and efficacy of biofuels hold water the idea of creating extra biofuel just to bury it is a nonstarter."

They don't in that not all biofuels are created equal. Ethanol-from-corn is a quite poor idea. Ethanol-from-sugarcane is a quite good idea.

In any case, nobody proposes burying ethanol. Low cost processes to produce carbonaceous materials which will remain buried and not reenter the active carbon cycle for a long time (thousands of years or more) include:

biochar (from pyrolysis),

"biocoal", i.e., torrified wood,

biocoal via hydrothermal carbonization.

For all three typical feedstocks would be agricultural and forestry wastes. For the last, any source of biomass will suffice.

There is ample land in Africa and South America which is unsuited for agriculture and could be used to grow biomass for the above purposes. (and, in small measure, is being used to grow biomass to produce biodiesel, etc.