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Saturday, December 4, 2010
Current Affairs ... Public Policy ... Science ...

I’m still a bit ambivalent about the global warming debate. Just a few years ago, it seemed like Al Gore and the United Nations had won it; the human species was clearly headed for accelerated extinction because of rising levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, gases put there by modern civilization. The situation seemed so serious as to justify immediate, radical measures, including limits on development in the undeveloped nations, and reductions in standards of living in the developed ones.

Over the past few years, however, the vested interests that have the most to lose from such an approach have fought back, as you might expect. However bogus many of their arguments are, they have allowed other, more honest skeptics to be heard. And I believe that to be a good thing.

At this point, I myself have no doubt that greenhouse gases from human development have increased temperatures and will continue to do so; and that this will cause significant environmental effects, many of which will seriously effect certain inhabited areas. And yet I agree with some of the skeptics when they point out that a full-tilt effort to stop global warming would be extremely expensive, would cause reductions in living standards, and in the end might turn out to be unnecessary. They have a good point in saying that our resources are limited, and there are more immediate problems where we probably would get more alleviation of suffering for our money given the uncertainties that remain regarding global warming outcomes (uncertainties the skeptics blame the Gore / UN factions for covering-over). E.g., the HIV epidemic in Africa, a huge and definite crisis as opposed to the unknowns regarding cloud reflection interactions with a warming climate.

But I also agree that there is some chance, probably much less than 50-50 but more than 1 in 100, that a very serious calamity will eventually occur if nothing is done; one that will threaten the continuation of human civilization as we know it. So maybe it would make sense to ratchet back and live a little more simply and efficiently, especially here in the rich nations. Market forces and enlightened social attitudes can do a lot, but at some point it will take some government strong-arming to make this real enough as to give us a margin of safety against the worst-case outcome.

At bottom, I agree that global warming is happening and is a serious problem. But I’m not convinced that the situation is beyond human capacity to respond to specific problems as they develop. For example, I agree that ocean levels will continue to rise, as they have been rising over the past 50 to 100 years. But I’m not yet convinced that they will rise so quickly as to threaten human communities at low elevations; if it’s say an inch every 10 years, I think there will be time for ocean-side cities and villages to pull back and adjust littoral facilities such as boat docks. There will be an economic cost to this; but it might be less than the cost of radical measures to immediately cut CO2 and methane emissions (the key word here being “radical”; I believe that public dollars would be well spent in helping the business world bring forth profitable green technologies that cut greenhouse emissions, over time).

Another interesting example of a specific problem that will need to be dealt with regards the effects that increasing greenhouse gases will have on the food that we eat. I have not yet heard this point brought up in the global warming discussions. But there was an article recently on the web site about the paradox of increased CO2 regarding the crops that mean the most to us, e.g. wheat, rice, corn, oats, soybeans, etc. One the one hand, carbon in the air (and higher air temperatures) will make those crops grow faster; the skeptics point out that this could offset the effects of increasing aridity and decreasing land areas available to grow food crops as weather patterns change.

However, a new study shows that better crop yields from increasing carbon and warmer air will have a down side; the resulting rice, potatoes, wheat, corn, etc. will be less nutritious. Evolutionary and environmental forces have engineered plant DNA to work best under pre-global warming conditions. The changed conditions will cause plants to make more starch, but only a fixed amount of protein. Also, the hotter temperatures will affect water flow from the soil, in a way that will decrease the uptake of micro-nutrients such as iron and zinc. So we may get bigger yams and broccoli blooms, but they will not be as good for us as they were before things changed. Both animals and humans will be less healthy because of this.

Eventually, evolutionary forces would probably fix this situation. If we had 50,000 years to wait, new plant DNA would emerge which would use the carbon and increased warmth to synthesize more protein and gather up more mineral nutrients (as the animals that eat these healthier crops would live longer and help spread the seeds of these plants more than for the less healthy versions).

Unfortunately, civilization works on a much faster time scale, and cannot wait that long for a fix. There is a possible human answer, but it is a crap-shoot: genetic engineering. Up to now, it’s been pretty clear that humanity has made some major mistakes when it tried to intervene with nature; it doesn’t understand all of the complex interactions and feed-back loops involved. Messing with the genes of plants that we rely on for sustenance would obviously invite all sorts of unintended consequences.

So, are we now smart enough, or will we become smart enough in the nick of time, to finally get it right when we mess with nature? Humanity is definitely making progress in appreciating just how complex and interactive the natural world is, and is coming up with increasingly powerful tools to “grok it” (i.e., computer models). It would be expected that once humanity realizes that disaster is on the line, it will really get its act together.

In the December Atlantic Magazine, there’s an article about a famous skeptic scientist, Freeman Dyson, written by a died-in-the-wool global warming environmentalist, Kenneth Brower. Brower outlines the tenets of what he calls the environmentalist religion. His second tenet is that “Nature runs the biosphere much better than we do, as we demonstrate with our ham-handedness each time we try.” I myself would not argue against that statement.

However, humans are the one species with the ability to get better at what they don’t do so well, to master over time what they haven’t been adapted to by nature. Just because we have caused previous environmental calamities because of our lack of understanding about the systems of Nature does NOT mean that we will never come to understand them and be able to intelligently manipulate them.

This is probably the fault line between the way that Brower thinks and the way that Dyson thinks. And to be honest, I myself am holding out hope that the Dyson view is right, that we can successfully engineer our way around global warming in a kind and gentle fashion, without burning down the planet.

And one more thing: even if it does make more sense to live less elegantly than to bet the farm on bio and geo-engineering , I don’t think that humankind will ever swallow the Gore / UN prescription. India, China and Brazil aren’t going to stop building coal-fired power plants to improve the lives of their citizens; they aren’t going to keep their people in poverty as to make up for all the environment calamity that Europe, Japan and the USA caused while living high off the hog for over a century. Also, and the recent Congressional elections in the USA indicate that the majority aren’t staying up nights with a guilty conscience over that either. Even if Gore is correct – ain’t gonna happen.

So, it’s up to the scientists and geo-engineers; they will get one chance and one chance only to get it right, in terms of figuring out how to adapt a growing industrialized world to permanently higher greenhouse gas levels. The next 100 years are going to be hugely interesting, in terms of how this all works out. I’m really sad that I won’t be around to see how this cliffhanger ends!

◊   posted by Jim G @ 5:21 pm      

  1. Jim, Well, I still come up with my old thinking: I wonder how the ice ages happened when there was no “pollution” from people living on the earth. I also wonder how ice ages occurred when there were NO people living on earth. Somehow, I just can’t get myself tied up ina knot about climate change. I tend to think that it’s inevitable. At one time Montana was awash in green plants that fed dinosaurs. We might help the ievitable along a bit; but the best we can probably do is prepare to make the necessary adjustments to prepare for the inevitable.

    However, what does tend to scare me more than climate change is genetic manipulation by “man” of anything at all. I think that is a can of worms that has already been opened without sufficient forethought on the part of anybody–most especially not sufficient forethought by scientists. Now that’s a scary thought from my standpoint. But I also can see that once humans know something can be done, they WILL do it, forethought or not.

    I can’t say what the soloution to these problems is. But on the other hand I also have to admit that at my age, none of them will really turn out to be somthing I have to deal with. So the best I can do is send out what might be called “good vibes” into the future that all will be well for those to come. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — December 5, 2010 @ 3:45 pm

  2. Given the Geopolitical environment, I also don’t see any way to stop global warming – at least until some major catasttrofic event occurs. And even then it will still be difficult to get all countries to agree on some solution.. I don’t see how it is helpful to trivialize global warming by expressing the long term danger as an increased likelihood of flooding. That is not what scientists have in mind when they say the earth is a fragil ecosystem. And the rapidly declining number of plant species might not be something we can adequately correct by genetic engineering. In short, I think you are way too optimistic.

    As I see it, the real problem with global warming is overpopulation. The most humane way would be to restrict the number of children one can have, but implementing that solution is offensive to both the right and the left.

    Comment by Zreebs — December 26, 2010 @ 8:42 am

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