"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

It's the Food, Stupid

It's time we faced the facts:
  • The world is overpopulated, near or beyond its long-term carrying capacity for modern humans
  • Resources are being depleted and environmental supports weakened
  • Energy usage is getting tangled in supplies of water and fair weather
  • Economic systems designed for none of the above are misfiring for various reasons including but not limited to the above
We are going to have to think carefully and learn how to decide to make difficult decisions together.

I'm sure today's grim news from Gallup (hat tip to no less than Mark Morano, whose mail about the surprising result showed up in my inbox this morning) will be a very prominent climate story for a while, but I hope that a blog item provocatively titled Sea level rise a red herring? by James Hrynshin will not be lost in the shuffle. In today's article, James addresses the very large potential scope of the climate problem.

I've been dimly aware of his Island of Doubt, but I'm adding it to the blogroll forthwith. Discovering this site was one of the silver linings of the recent clouds on my horizon.

James gets into a bit of trouble with Stoat over what the sea level rise estimates are currently looking like, and perhaps he is a bitover the top in this regard. But that really isn't the point of the article at all. The point is that while sea level rise is the sort of thing we can wrap our heads around and have quantitative arguments about, if things go really badly, it likely won't be the worst of it. The really worst cases involve disruptions sufficient to interrupt the food supply.

Do I think these will occur? Actually, no. Or, really, that depends on how stupid we elect to be as well as how unlucky we are. Unfortunately, severe drouught and severe storms are both on the table. (Some places may literally get too hot for habitation, but I think those are marginal already.) As scientists, we should be working to reduce the scope of the impact tails, and as participants in the world we should be working to avoid testing whether we can get there.

The thing I liked most about this article, though, was the reference to "the still ridiculously sparse coverage afforded to matters of climate change". Yes, exactly. This feeds back onto today's above-the-fold question of what the populace thinks. Not only is the coverage ridiculously sparse, but grotesquely avoidant of considering the more severe risks.

On that note, see Revkin's latest, on the Gallup report. I find his concluding paragraph interesting and encouraging in a silver lining sort of way. (Pity about that cloud.) I can hope this paragraph backhandedly acknowledges that he has a position where what he says matters.


Anonymous said...

Regarding your four bullet points at the top: you should direct your readers to the Resilience Alliance. (Their blog is on your links roll.)

If we talked more about the ideas put forth by these folks, we would be having a much more serious discussion about solutions to AGW and all the other env global problems that are now playing second banana, such as deforestation, fishery collapse,loss of biodiversity, and so on.

Aaron said...

Imagine a high school exam: Q1) How deep is the ocean? Student's Answer) more than 1.4 m. Q2) How thick is the atmosphere? Student's Answer) more than 1.4 m. Q3) How much will sea level rise in the next 100 years? Student's Answer) more than 1.4 m.

Are you, as the science teacher, going to give the student credit for getting all three correct?

As I read these sea level rise numbers, they still do not include; permafrost melt, glacier melt, ice sheet melt, or collapse. Nor, do they seem to include changes in rotation that will affect tidal range and thereby impact costal infrastructure. The IPCC numbers that everyone cites as a range were only a bottom bracket - they only said expect more than this amount. We just got that restated, “expect more than 1.4 meters”. Since I trust “scientists”, I do expect MORE than 1.4 meters of sea level rise.

The IPCC number on sea level rise was not a serious or responsible answer to the question of total sea level rise. The updated value is in the same format, and not more useful. It is not useful for risk assessment, planning, policy, or engineering. Yes, it is a necessary input the total amount of sea level rise, however, given the nonlinear nature of big ice, I do not see thermal expansion as driving total sea level rise in the next hundred years. After ~ 2013, Greenland will between the seasonally open Arctic Ocean and the ever warming North Atlantic. It will get moisture from both sides. A gram of water vapor can melt 7.5 gm of ice resulting in 8.5 grams of runoff. Supraglacial lakes can fall through ice sheets releasing heat as they fall. Then, you have a subglacial lake, (under warmed to the core ice) and the potential to move large blocks of ice to the ocean, rapidly. That is where to look for sea level rise.

This story is not done. I expect similar stories where “scientists” triple their expectation of sea level rise in 2011 and 2013. By 2015, they should have enough data to say that their 2013 estimate was only a few percent low. Deming would call sea level “a system out of control”; and, he would call the scientific modeling of sea level “a system out of control”.

Sorry Michael, I know you do not agree with my analysis, but I once had a piece of ice the size of a football field drop out from under my feet and disappear over the cliff. (Leaving me hanging high in the air.) That made me more attentive to “catastrophic processes” in ice. You are going to have to show me something even more spectacular before I will come back into the fold, and worship steady-state creep in ice with you.

amoeba said...

Humanity is going to be caught by increasing population and falling agricultural output, even ignoring the diminishing fertility of soils world-wide.

I don't know what area of low-lying land will be inundated or rendered unusable by salt as a result of the predicted sea level rise. But one thing is certain, much of the coastal land that will be lost is currently used for agriculture.

Factor in the other likely results of climate change and the seemingly inevitable collapse of sea fisheries and it looks like future generations are going to be in for a hard time.

jg said...

Thanks for pointing out the Gallop Poll. I've been using the popular vote in the last presidential election as a measure of how the American public perceives the issue of global warming (and the swing vote on how it can flip). The poll is a better gauge, though I wish I knew what news media each respondent was thinking of when answering the questions. For example, I know many people who only watch Fox, so are they saying what they hear on global warming on Fox is exaggerated?

I live and work among the poll's 66% Republicans who represent most of the skepticism. My Republican friends have helped me to recognize the virtue of their core values: de-centralized government, merit-based systems, and personal responsibility. I try to tell them that the most de-centralized system I know of is the scientific community as represented by the peer-reviewed literature, that this is community is as merit-based as it gets, and that failing to read or recognize the primary scientific literature is neglecting their responsibility to infuse the market with good information.

Thanks for your blog.

Aaron: Can you share a story, photos or anything about your football field sized of ice incident?



Anonymous said...

Michael, see here and here for discussion of new research results (just now reported at the Copenhagen conference) that appear to be a basis for serious concern about near-term disruption of food supply.

David B. Benson said...

Minable reserves of phosphate (necessary for plants to grow) is being consumed at 0.8% per year. At current rates, it is all gone in 120 years. If marginal lands are put into production to grow biomass for biofuels, perhaps half that; 2070 CE.

The so-called reserve base is much larger, but essentially unminable.

Conserve and recycle phosphorus back to the soil.