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Original Sin

Mike Treder has a post at IEET that reads like a catechism of the Gaian religion. Now I’m a firm supporter of freedom of religion and Mike has a perfect right to believe what he does and indeed to preach it to whomever will listen. (And besides, Mike is a friend of mine.) But in this particular article he takes a backhanded swipe at Foresight, linking to us from this paragraph:

Techno-rapturists among our reading audience might be quick to respond with glib answers about miraculous nanotechnology solutions that are just around the corner, or the promise of a superintelligent friendly AI who can take over everything and solve all our troubles just like Daddy would.

So I feel that it would be appropriate to set the record straight on a few points. First and simplest, the Dead Sea is a completely natural phenomenon — it is dead because it has ten times the salinity of the oceans, and the salinity is from exactly the same reason — rivers run into it, bearing dissolved minerals, but water leaves by evaporation, leaving and thus concentrating the solutes. The idea of using a picture of the Dead Sea to illustrate a paragraph about ocean acidification makes me quite skeptical of the scientific reasoning behind the rest of the article.

Let us suppose that, for example, we had been monitoring the oceanic biosphere by satellite for a decade and over that time the levels of life had fallen by 6%. That would be a clear cause for alarm and one would have to worry about acidification and other deleterious human influences. But in fact the results of such studies show that the opposite is the case. Both in the ocean and on land, plant growth, which is what can be measured directly by satellite, has increased, and this appears largely due to increased CO2 and warming. (After all, we build greenhouses for a reason.)

Mike quotes a Green angst blog that quotes a Green angst opinion piece in Nature as follows:

The Earth has nine biophysical thresholds beyond which it cannot be pushed without disastrous consequences.
Ominously, we have already moved past three of these tipping points.

There is really no scientific basis for this kind of statement. James Hansen, one of the authors of the Nature piece in question, has been making this kind of noise about runaway warming feedbacks for years. But the actual physical greenhouse effect is logarithmic. You have to postulate some completely different positive feedback to talk about “tipping points”, and no such thing has been demonstrated in the real climate system (although there is no lack of them in the computer models). In fact the icecore paleothermometry reconstructions show that there have been fairly rapid rises at the beginning of each interglacial, as if there were a positive feedback operating, but that they stop uniformly when they get to temperatures a little warmer than current, as if there were some very strong negative feedback in that part of the phase space.

 

vostok

 

Furthermore, there’s not much sign of a positive feedback acceleration in the current temperature record, either:

cubic

cubic fit to UAH temp record

(This is a simple least-squares cubic fit to the satellite temperature record (UAH global monthly averages) to date.)  For there to be a dominant positive feedback (there are plenty of minor ones), it would have to be something that operates on longer timescales than the PDO/ENSO oscillations (and thus longer current GCMs can model accurately).  Regarding which this pithy remark in one of the climategate emails:

Without trying to prejudice this work, but also because of what I
almost think I know to be the case, the results of this study will
show that we can probably say a fair bit about <100 year
extra-tropical NH temperature variability (at least as far as we
believe the proxy estimates), but honestly know fuck-all about what
the >100 year variability was like with any certainty (i.e. we know
with certainty that we know fuck-all).

So, what’s the difference between a Gaian take on Sinners in the Hands of an Angry Earth, and a reasoned scientific stance?  One main difference is the degree of certainty which is attached to the statements.  Another is the moral coloration given to any human influence.  The main reason I object to that is the attempted disguise of the coloration as scientific projections of physical effects.  It would be perfectly fine to say, as other religions do, that men are born evil and we should all take vows of poverty because it is harder for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than a rich American to enter the kingdom of heaven.

There are, of course, deleterious effects to human operations and expansion over the Earth’s surface.  If we pave over the whole planet, it would be a pretty bad thing.  The satellite biosphere inventories show that, indeed, life is contracting in some areas while expanding in others.  There are limits to virtually every form of human impact, from emitting CO2 to building suburban homes and mowing the grass.  But by and large the effects are proportional to the cause: we do more stuff, things get worse in some regard (polluted waters, for example), the effects are noticed, and the causes are backed off from.  But there’s very little reason to believe that we’re sitting in a circle of traps where one false step in any direction will result in certain doom.

Would it be nice to save the Earth as a park and wildlife preserve?  I personally happen to think so.  Indeed, I live in the remote mountains   where I can’t see another human habitation from my windows, putting up with considerable inconvenience to do so because I like the natural environment more than cities or suburbs.  But the only way that will happen in a realistic projection, is for the substantial mass of humanity and industry to move into space (or cyberspace or the equivalent).  And that will require nanotech.

14 Responses to “Original Sin”

  1. Tim Tyler Says:

    A park and wildlife preserve? City designers typically allocate a few percent of the available space for such applications. I figure that is a reasonable reflection of how much most people value such things.

  2. Tim Tyler Says:

    There look like a couple of climate “tipping points” – one lies on the path that leads to reglaciation. The current ice-age climate is rather like a flip-flop. In the future, I figure we will be in control – and so climate “tipping points” will be an irrelevance.

  3. Marcus Vitruvius Says:

    On the one hand, I agree strongly with the comparison between Gaia politics and original sin. As an ex-Catholic, it jumped off the page for me many years. It seems not merely obvious, but obvious. When you start looking for it, you’ll see forms of it at the roots of many political movements, both right and left.

    On the other hand, while I agree with your logarithmic and feedback comments, it still seems useful to form a question of this sort:

    1) We seem to have evidence of natural CO2 buildups, with rising temperatures, in the past.
    2) We seem to have evidence that when this happens, a negative feedback loop kicks in and squashes it.
    3) But human civilization may be immune to this negative feedback effect, or we may stubbornly emit even more CO2. What then?

    The Original Sin motif frustrates me because it prevents many good questions from being asked and framed helpfully.

  4. James Gentile Says:

    Wow they take a swipe at nanotech, and nanotech is really the only thing that can save us (if we are in fact doomed). These guys ain’t too bright, are they?

  5. Chris Peterson Says:

    Tim — When civilization expands off the planet, Earth should at some point be only a few percent of available human space. So then it would make sense to make it a wildlife preserve.

  6. J. Storrs Hall Says:

    Tim, Chris — exactly. Even using the ’70s estimates for O’Neill style space colonies, the asteroids have enough mass to make about 20,ooo times as much land area as earth has. With nanotech, one assumes, we could do better…

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  8. biobob Says:

    Well said, J. Storrs Hall.

    You may also add these facts to your repertoire concerning ocean acidification http://www.livescience.com/animals/091202-sea-creature-shells.html

    It’s is hard to imagine how such small amounts of carbonic (or any) acid could have any catastrophic effects on a system as massively buffered as the ocean is. In low buffered freshwater ecosystems, acidification can have some relatively minor destabilizing effects. But even there universal buffering effects mitigate the process progression.

    I am afraid that Mike Treder’s understanding of earth’s ecosyetems could use some tutorial. Only a minority of ecosystems are stable in the medium to long term. One of the more interesting facts is how well life adapts to such “regular” catastrophic events such as floods, fires, glaciation, and massive environmental variability such as temperature fluctuations, drought, etc.

  9. Bob Says:

    Is there a particular reason for using a cubic fit rather than a simple linear fit?

    [A linear fit wouldn't tell you anything about acceleration. I'm not trying to argue here that there aren't effects to our technological impact on the environment -- there clearly are. I'm trying to argue that the effects are the effects that we see, and that there's not some underlying dynamic that means we're stumbling towards a cliff in the dark. If I'd used a linear fit, I would have been sneaking that conclusion in as an assumption in the method: look, a straight line, no acceleration! That's a common enough dodge in this kind of argument but not one I will personally indulge in. -jsh]

  10. Tim Tyler Says:

    “Wildlife preserve” seems like a crazy application for the Earth to me. I don’t think it is remotely realistic in terms of people’s preferences. What’s the motivation? Is this to satisfy some kind of green faction?

  11. J. Storrs Hall Says:

    Tim: In the long run, I’d guess it’ll be seen more as preserving a historic site.

  12. Anton Sherwood Says:

    I like the setting of Greg Egan’s Diaspora (1997): most people live in cyberspace or in vacuo, letting most of Earth revert to wild. But why not assume that the cyber-hives grow to eat the world?

  13. Valkyrie Ice Says:

    Having been involved in this particular debate for several weeks now on Imminst, I’ve been dredging through this kind of pseudo-scientific and wholly religious belief on the part of the AGW supporters.

    AGW IS a religion, not science. Any movement in which the standard response to dissent is to attack the dissenter by any means possible is far from science, no matter how hard it uses charts and graphs to masquerade as one. I’ve even had to deal with such idiotic comments as claims that a weatherman is unqualified to discuss climate science, and that a economist is unqualified to state that data points had been left out of a statistical analysis. Now you just gave me fuel to combat his claims that we are “Poisoning the oceans with CO2″.

    And all I have done is point out that the science needs to be reanalyzed under proper scrutiny to determine what inclusion of all data will reveal, as opposed to what it shows with hand picked and “adjusted” data. My favorite has been how he tried to “prove” the MWP didn’t exist by showing a chart that I had just finished pointing out was suspect for having included only 25% of the available data.

    *sigh* I know this will take years to sort out, but the sooner this religion is picked apart by the FACTS the happier I will be.

  14. Fred Hapgood Says:

    Another route to transforming the surface of the earth into a wildlife preserve/parks/gardens landscape is to move as much of the infrastructure of civilization as possible underground, leaving the surface for plants, animals, and recreation. Just to begin with, almost all of the commercial and industrial facilities we see around us would be more optimally sited underground. Maintenance and energy costs would be a lot less as well. There is just so much space underground that there are in effect no competing uses whatever. Compare with the surface ….

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