Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Climate change is mostly about fire

I detest futile gestures.  I find insane any expectation that somehow the laws of nature can be modified because you don't like them—especially if that expectation is based on religious ritual or magical incantations.  And yet, that is exactly what happens in an astonishing number of human examples because all of our scientific rationalism is usually just a thin veneer over our ignorant, barbaric core.  Last weekend saw a perfect example of how shallow our scientific pretensions really are.

The scene was Washington DC.  The gathering was organized by a man who exhorts the rest of us to "Do the Math" on the subject of climate change.  So there it was, a small group of committed souls braving sub-freezing wind chills to demonstrate their desire to make this nation's government change its legal structure to stop the warming of the planet.

There are so many things wrong with this picture one barely knows where to start.  But it was clear that the most obvious mathematical calculation—how much had each protestor contributed to the overloading of the atmosphere just getting to the rally—was not being done.  It damn hypocritical to add to a problem that you seem willing to get arrested to protest.  Then there is the little matter of how relevant national politics is to addressing a global problem.  This is Washington, the capital of American Exceptionalism—most people in that town believe the rest of the planet is not worth thinking about.  It's pretty hard for people who wallow in their narrow-mindedness to begin to understand the biggest single problem to have ever faced the human race.

Of course, the mismatch between self-absorbed miniature thinking and a global catastrophe pretty much explains why nothing gets done.  Take Al Gore's classic An Inconvenient Truth.  The first 80% of that movie is hard science, well-designed graphs, and statements from people who have devoted their lives and considerable talents studying the subject.  Then we get to Al's "solutions" that include reviving the practice of drying the wash on clotheslines.  Not only are these suggestions hopelessly lame, they undercut the message that burning a billion years worth of accumulated carbon in 200 might alter the chemistry of the atmosphere to the point where it no longer supports human life.  At some point, you want to drag Al over and ask, "Did you ever watch your own movie?"

For example, the Progressives want us to believe that if we eliminate fossil fuel subsidies, we will suddenly cut back on our carbon consumption.  Oh really?  Gasoline is roughly twice as expensive in most of the rest of the world as USA and still everyone who can swing it owns a car and the rest envy those who have one.  As former GM executive Bunkie Knudsen once asked in response to what he considered boated advertising budgets, "How hard can it be to sell something that takes people where they want to go sitting down?"

Climate change is caused by starting too many fires.  It really is as simple as that.  What is not so simple is that many of those fires are utterly necessary to keep us from dying from exposure or cooking our foods.  Fires feed us and move our goods.  Getting rid of all those fires will be extremely difficult even though it is obviously a necessary thing to do.

There aren't a lot of folks out there who understand that climate change is all about our human need for fire.  The following essay actually addresses the issue.  I should warn you, however, I cut this thing off when he gets to his "solutions" because they are mostly Al Gore lame.  I don't want to discredit his otherwise excellent analysis.  You can click the "more" link to see what I am talking about.

Unintended Consequences of Burning Stuff

by veritas curat  FEB 12, 2013

No matter how hard we try we can't change the Laws of Nature. Even all the lobbying money in the world from all the major corporations in the world would have no effect. Imagine a humanitarian effort to reduce gravitational acceleration to a half meter per second/per second. This would save thousands of lives from falls and being struck by falling objects. And saving lives is a noble, humanitarian undertaking. But then, if the Laws of Nature were like the laws of human society - which we earnestly hope “bend towards justice” - and our humanitarian effort succeeded, a Law which we ignore at great peril would come into play – the Law of Unintended Consequences. Turning the arc of gravitational acceleration towards this kind of justice would cause the universe and all life within it to fly apart into nothingness.

The Law of Unintended Consequences is that Law which, time and time again, shoves our faces into the reality that we live within a complex web of interrelations that interact in a closed system. Changing one thing affects everything else. As our technology becomes ever more reductionistic and our scientific research ever more specialized we seem to be losing sight of this Law at the very time we should be paying vastly more attention to it.

We hold up human dignity as the shining goal of our civilization. We seek to maximize it. We seek to protect the weak and vulnerable and punish those who would do them harm. This sets up an opposition between the Laws of Humans and the Laws of Nature. The Law of Gravity doesn’t “care” if it’s a rock or a baby that is falling off a cliff – they will both accelerate at 9.8 meters per second/per second until they hit the ground.

Setting up a conflict between human, and humane, values and the amoral machinery of natural selection faces the peril of painting the natural world as a hostile, brutish environment emptied of any divinity. I don't see it this way; some of my most profound experience of the divine have taken place in the wilderness.That makes the workings of the Laws of Nature even more miraculous in their grand mathematical elegance. And, anyway, all of our humanitarian achievements require the energy and resources provided us by the Laws of Nature. We don’t create a separate, more humane world away from these Laws; we use these laws to create things like antibiotics and solar panels. Amoral is not the same as immoral. The Laws of Nature exist; we can use them to create justice or we can use them to create great injustice.

Over and over again we have declared great victories when we believe we have harnessed the Laws of Nature to our advantage. It isn't long after that that the Law of Unintended Consequences comes calling and we discover that our victory has failed to consider the planet we reside upon as a whole system - a whole, complex, finite system. This failure explains why so many of our manipulations of the Laws of Nature are short term successes with disastrous long-term consequences.

For most of our existence as a species we have been harnessing the Laws of Chemical Thermodynamics – burning stuff for heat. This became a proud accomplishment of the human spirit when we discovered the vastly concentrated heat potential of fossilized organic material; as in coal, oil and natural gas. We built cities. We went to the moon. We crisscrossed the planet in seated comfort.

We began burning fossil fuels about 300 years ago but it was only about a hundred years ago that coal replaced wood as the major source of energy for our modern industrial economy. With the discovery of oil and natural gas a few years later we were launched on our great burning spree of the 20th century; riding the wave of chemical thermodynamics proudly into a prosperous future of comfort and convenience for all.

It took us awhile, as it usually does, to come up against the Law of Unintended Consequences. That's how it works. We figure out a great short term marvel and then this Law takes it's own time to meander up and bite us viciously. This time it was failing to notice that burning stuff makes smoke.


This may be the first time anyone mentioned this particular result of all our burning. Charles Keeling began his measurements in 1955 in Big Sur, but it took awhile for the magnitude of the unintended consequences of our orgy of burning carbon to register. In fact, for many, it is still not registering. There are millions of people who, like those at the Creation Museum believe that Jesus will return, suck all the excess CO2 out of the air and return us to the Kingdom of Heaven. No worries!

For the rest of us we are facing a serious problem. Our prosperity, population size and technological prowess has been purchased by exploiting Laws we failed to consider as parts of a unified, whole, entire and limited planet. We are caught between the extensive suffering and death that continuing to burn carbon will cause and the extensive suffering and death that will result should we stop doing it. And we are finally beginning to realize the full extent and terrible nature of this problem.

The Laws of Nature are clear that this burning will inexorably lead to harsh and deadly changes in the climate of the earth. And they also just as clearly say we cannot continue to support the improving lifestyles and growing populations we are presently experiencing without burning carbon. And there is no corrupt "Congress of the Laws of Nature" that we can lobby or buy off to change these harsh realities and allow us to continue our greedy drive for short-term fossil-fueled profits.

So what do we do?

There are many noble and committed souls who are dedicating their lives to finding solutions to this intolerable situation. Windmill builders, solar energy engineers, green designers, reproductive health specialists; a long list with some major successes. There are miraculous solutions being proposed. These people deserve our honor and respect.
Garrett Hardin in The Tragedy of the Commons warns us about this, however,

A technical solution may be defined as one that requires a change only in the techniques of the natural sciences, demanding little or nothing in the way of change in human values or ideas of morality. 
And it is, ultimately, changes in human values and ideas of morality that are required, in my opinion.

What kind of changes? more

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