The only thing we can be sure of about the future is that it will be absolutely fantastic. So if what I say now seems to you to be very reasonable, then I have failed completely. Only if what I tell you appears absolutely unbelievable, have we any chance of visualizing the future as it really will happen.

- Arthur C. Clarke (h/t Brin)

Thursday, July 17, 2008

My Point of View in a Nutshell

If tribal cultures could consider the seventh generation, we with our much greater power should be considering the seventieth. The thirty year horizon that economists and politicians consider very long range is just a blink in the geological history of our planet. Now that we dominate surface processes of the earth we have taken over the responsibility for its sustenance. Our obligation to our descendants and our world doesn't end when the discount rate kicks in.

Our minimal goal is to avoid an abrupt human population collapse, which in retrospect, if there are any survivors, will be eventually be called a "world war". The carbon problem is a serious threat to sustaining human population in the long run. Although it is one threat among many, it is imminent. The time to address it has come. The energy shortage problem is temporary, but any solution that doesn't deal with the carbon problem is disastrous. I am pro-nuke, pro-sequestration, pro-renewable including big hydro projects, pro-biofuels, conscious of the drawbacks and risks of all of these. Any geoengineering that targets temperature rather than carbon is worthless. You can call me an "environmentalist" if you want but that doesn't mean I agree with everything any "environmentalist" says, nor they with me, by a long shot.

Individual conservation action is useful to set an example, and habitual long distance travel especially must be scaled back, but such efforts are insufficient in the face of the necessity of bringing 3/4 of the world out of poverty. Vigorous and intelligent policy changes are urgently needed.

While outside investigation of a field should be tolerated, economic theory as it exists is vastly more primitive than climate theory, and deserves much more auditing attention since it claims such vast importance. Claims that "growth" is indefinitely sustainable and always desirable, which lie at the core of most modern interpretations of economics as axiomatic, are at odds with fundamental dynamics of the rest of the universe, and should be treated with great skepticism. The presumption of indefinitely sustained meaningful growth, along with an outmoded attachment to equilibrium models which can't handle and thus ignore long time constants, skews the thinking of economists into recommending minimal and delayed policy action. By claiming to be gatekeepers of policy decisions, economists systematically subvert any attention to the long range trajectory of society.

From the point of view of mitigation policy, we shouldn't be talking about climate theory all that much. It's not that climatology is complete or "settled" as some like to claim we claim; it's a very interesting and fruitful pursuit as sciences go these days, and it may well have application value in adaptation planning. It's that the carbon question, which is crucial for policy, isn't a close call anymore, and hasn't been for about two decades now.

There is too much carbon in the active reservoirs of the earth system, by which I mean the collective stores of carbon which have large annual fluxes, i.e., atmosphere, ocean and biota. It is the total carbon in these places that matters, and it's getting rapidly worse. There isn't anything subtle or marginal about it. Consequences are inevitable, but not instantaneous. One thing many people don't understand is that what we see now is the consequence of decisions made decades ago.

Carbon is by no means the only problem of this sort. Human actions form a first order perturbation on the nitrogen cycle, the phosphorus cycle, ocean biomass, fresh water, bulk minerals and many other important systems. The consequences of many of our current decisions are decades in the future. We are already committed to much larger disruptions of climate and geochemistry than we are now experiencing.

Any controversy about the point that we have committed to disrupting global scale processes too much already is partly due to malfeasance. A few private interests have actively tried to prevent a solution to this problem. Even as major industrial organizations quietly withdraw from such efforts, the efforts persist. A major strategy is to confuse the public. One way of achieving this is to paint sober facts as wooly-eyed fantasies, and serious, moderate thinkers as extremists. They think they're protecting an economic or political interest and doing their job, but they really ought to rethink on ethical grounds.

Most people have trouble believing anybody competent would be so shortsighted as to risk the survival of the planet for a few bucks. I have trouble understanding it myself, but it's apparently true. Some journalists understand the source of the confusion, but most popular media are afraid to report it for some reason. Positions that are at odds with any reasonable interpretation of facts and any reasonable ideas of morality are not challenged in the way the press would have done in the past. As a consequence, the public debate about global change issues is dangerously skewed from the most basic and crucial facts, as currently understood and enunciated by virtually every major scientific body in existence.

9 comments:

Ambitwistor said...

Michael,

I was hoping you could help me in digging up a reference. I remember reading a perspective or editorial in Science or Nature which had a very thoughtful discussion of the limitations of traditional economic thinking in solving global environmental problems. It was written by somebody famous (a scientist I think), not within the last couple years but within the last 10. I'm pretty sure I first heard about it either from you or from one of the editors of RealClimate?

Can you think of what article I'm trying to remember?

Thanks.

harmanonearth said...

Big day in climate news. The federal draft synthesis report, "Global Climate Change Impacts in the United State," is out, as requested by the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

A couple of my favorite bullets from the executive summary:

8. Our vulnerability to climate change has been increased by some of our decisions.

(does not list entropy as a causal factor.)

and

9. Historical climate and weather patterns are no longer an adequate guide to the future.

Michael Tobis said...

Ambi, sorry, not enough information.

You might like Paul Baer's "The Worth of an Ice Sheet", though.

Paul is not yet famous, but ought to be.

Steven said...

Michael: whether you know it or like it, you've become my top of mind source for a rebuttal take on things.

Could you please comment whatever you can based on the link below? If you're not intimately familiar, I'm just looking for what you glean from the article. IOW, I want to know what I might be missing when I read it.

http://www.dailytech.com/Myth+of+Consensus+Explodes+APS+Opens+Global+Warming+Debate/article12403.htm

RonSpross said...

Steven, The lead sentence in the link you cite ("The American Physical Society, an organization representing nearly 50,000 physicists, has reversed its stance on climate change and is now proclaiming that many of its members disbelieve in human-induced global warming.") is incorrect. The link merely discusses a paper in the most recent issue of the Forum on Physics and Society (in the same issue another paper, a tutorial in the basic physics of climate change, takes the opposite point of view --http://www.aps.org/units/fps/newsletters/200807/hafemeister.cfm). The Forum does not represent the official position of the APS, which in fact appears to have responded by posting a disclaimer on its main page (http://www.aps.org/): "APS Position Remains Unchanged ... 'Emissions of greenhouse gases from human activities are changing the atmosphere in ways that affect the Earth's climate.'"

Michael Tobis said...

Thanks Ron. Allow me to quote the APS page in full, since the statement may not stay up there indefinitely:

===

The American Physical Society reaffirms the following position on climate change, adopted by its governing body, the APS Council, on November 18, 2007:

"Emissions of greenhouse gases from human activities are changing the atmosphere in ways that affect the Earth's climate."

An article at odds with this statement recently appeared in an online newsletter of the APS Forum on Physics and Society, one of 39 units of APS. The header of this newsletter carries the statement that "Opinions expressed are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of the APS or of the Forum." This newsletter is not a journal of the APS and it is not peer reviewed.

===

The author of the article Steven has come across in his sources is written by the rather eccentric Lord Monckton. His exploits are often followed on the Deltoid blog.

See http://tinyurl.com/6sykxr

I admit I haven't heard of Larry Gould, this Physics prof in Connecticut before. Among his publications are "Issues in Science and Religion: A Critical Evaluation" and "Reflections of the Relevance of Nonlocality to Cognitive Science and the Philosophy of Mind". These are not atypical of his publication record.

http://uhaweb.hartford.edu/lgould/ACADESUMforWebsite22Aug2007.htm

While I don't begrudge anyone an interest in such topics, you may judge for yourself the relevance of these topics to, say, radiative transfer, geophysical fluid dynamics, cloud physics, etc.

I also don't begrudge anyone a degree from Temple U, but among the Wikipedia list of their illustrious alumni, the only people you might call scientists are a computer scientist who got his associate degree on the way to a bachelor's somewhere else, and Noam Chomsky who attended their affiliated elementary school as a child.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Notable_Temple_alumni

The point isn't to demean the experiences of these gentlemen but to point out that they are neither notably qualified in climate related science nor notably influential in the APS.

Michael Tobis said...

See also http://tinyurl.com/6k2g6x

Steven said...

Thanks guys. So bottom line, within a large group, some people have published papers that arent' all in lockstep. I'm not even sure that qualifies as news.

BTW, just saw Batman. Slightly off topic, but possibly the most thought provoking comic hero movie I've seen. Interesting points about what we're all willing to do in context. Have a good weekend.

John Mashey said...

One might also check out paper by Marsh in the April 2008 issue ... i.e., this is not the first time.

I suspect that APS will be rethinking exactly what this Forum is supposed to be doing. It seems odd to have something that is essentially a newsletter or blog, publishing sciency-looking papers without peer review, that would be unlikely to pass peer review in any appropriate journal, and without editors who appear to have relevant expertise.

It is *clear* that APS has been awakened to the problem.