Saturday, May 06, 2006

The Lesson of September 12th

I realise why I have been so quiet lately. I am clearly going through a meek and non-confrontational phase. The prospect of unpacking my thoughts on climate change makes me feel all twitchy.

So I should start in a roundabout way by saying that I have finished Jared Diamond’s ‘Collapse’. Like ‘Guns, Germs and Steel’, you all ought to read it, so I won’t say too much about it here until the rest of you catch up. It is a lot like Dr. Seuss’s ‘The Lorax’ but with real examples. The Lorax always made me really sad, but I have grown used to reading really sad things so that the sadness has siuffused my being, so I can’t say I became any more depressed through reading it. The irreversibility of deforestation in some environments struck me- on Iceland, Easter Island, and Northern Arizona. Some environments are robust enough that the forests come back in a few generations and seethe over the ruins of lost civilisations, and some just aren’t. I went out immediately and went for a walk around my own piece of land, once open forest, cleared ninety years ago and not grazed or (except for a few feeble attempts at firebreaks) mown for the past 18 months since we’ve had it. There are several large established native trees, but there were absolutely no new ones coming up anywhere. Maybe all of our native trees are the sort that need fire to germinate? We have cool, wet summers and long winters, so I would expect the unmodified landscape to have been more of a mosaic of pro-fire and anti-fire trees, like in northwestern Tasmania. If they are all ‘pro-fire’ trees, I assume it is a product of aboriginal land management practices and the ‘anti-fire’ trees are lurking in the gorges thirty km to the east. I might be wrong since my botanical ignorance is near total. It could just be that it will take a long time for the soil to recover from all those decades of being walked on by sheepses. Along one side there is a line of old pine trees planted as a windbreak, and under these a few new little pine trees were coming up, but nowhere near as many were springing up under the same kind of trees on along the road. Where we have transplanted these to outline the windbreak of the future along another side fence, they are doing very nicely. It sunk in that the lovely view outside is one of those irreversibly-changed environments: if humans left tomorrow, whatever final forest cover does manage to colonise it would be dominated by introduced trees and would have a depleted flora and fauna compared to neighbouring areas of uncleared bush for thousands of year.

Jared Diamond never says much about the subtitle of his book: ‘How societies choose to fail or survive’. Or, I guess he does, but he never addresses the more interesting quiestion, ‘Why societies choose to fail or survive.’ He says that the response of societies to changes is sometimes good and sometimes bad, and in the case of the Pacific islands fits this to a deterministic model: things tended to reach a stable and not completely disasterous equilibrium on tiny islands where everyone’s actions obviously affected everyone else, and on large flattish ones where a single government could be established. But on ones geographically condemned to be divided between numerous groups, Tribe A had no incentive to conserve resources if it meant that they would be snaffled by the evil Tribe B: it was better to get in and snaffle them first. You will read this yourselves, of course.
I think the why to failure is simply putting personal, short-term interests ahead of long-term interests. Often, what is globally good will be locally bad, and vice versa.
Two examples from a society that is supposedly concerned about achieving a sustainable use of energy:
The Victorian (non) wind farm. Canned because of the orange-bellied parrot. Is it a good thing for the parrot? Probably. Is it remotely credible that a network of wind and solar energy remotely capable of meeting our energy needs could be established without impacting negatively on a lot of endangered species? I don’t think so.
The evils of smoke. The council in the big city (population 16,000) is banning wood heaters because it is in a valley and fills with smoke every winter. This will be nice for the local asthmatics, but it also means that houses currently heated with non-fossil carbon will be shifted to fossil carbon.
Here’s another example, which I don’t get at all, about another scare resource. Devil Bunny City was under the despotic rule of a supposedly ‘green’ premier. It lets all its stormwater and almost all of its wastewater run off into the ocean. Instead of attempting to convince us of the merits of recycling, he decided to build a desalination plant which makes no environmental or economic sense. On second thought, I have no idea what this is an example of, since it seems both locally and globally insane.

The evils of smoke brings me to the important lesson of September 12th. What happens if you ground all the planes for a few days and reduce the amount of particulates in the upper atmosphere? The temperature shoots up a couple of degrees. What would happen if we instantly stopped using fossil fuels (say, if it is discovered an over-zealous Pentagon once added a few zeroes to a proposal and there are enough submarine-sized nuclear reactors in a cavern in Texas for every small town in the world to have one)? If we cut our emissions to zero, the temperature will spike up everywhere by some unspecified amount. And it is the speed of climate change that is a bad thing: life can cope with very big changes if they aren’t too quick. Carbon sequestration technologies are absolutely essential if we want to reduce the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, because natural processes are too slow. When these are cost-effective to implement they will be impemented. I don’t know what the ideological conservationist position is on carbon sequestration and I suspect it will make me twitchy to find out. My worry is that the orthodox wisdom conflates a whole bunch of questions into one:

Is global warming occurring?
Is it caused primarily by humans?
Should we try to stop it, or just mitigate its effects?
If we should try to stop it, what are the best ways?
How do we get societies to adopt these best ways?

It seems to me that the ideological conservationist leaps directly from the beginning of this to the end without thinking too much about the middle. I am not so sure as I was a year ago that we should do nothing to try and stop global warming: I think we should probably spend a reasonable amount of money on investigating biological and technological methods of carbon sequestration. I think Kyoto-type agrreements are a very bad idea. The transition to a post-fossil fuel economy will happen anyway, driven by economics. We won’t even have to stop driving our cars, because once our power generation is nuclear we will have immense reservs of natural gas to reform into clean-burning motor fuel at no more than two or three times its current cost in real terms. (By ‘we’ I mean Russia and the Greater Iranian Islamic Republic).

I haven’t read the Sceptical Environmentalist, but I think the Copenhagen Consensus project is a good idea. We need to prioritise things. It is silly to go around saying everything is equally important and we need to everything now, because we either end up paralysed and do nothing, or make a choice on where to devote our energies on sentimental reasons and become tireless advocates for baby Harp Seals.

8 comments:

Marco said...

Not good enough ;) You should read the Skeptical Environmentalist! (So should I !!) From what I could tell, it attacks mainly the "activism" aspects of the environmentalist movement. He has an overall picture in mind of how our priorities should work. Interestingly, I told my daughter, Belinda the story of Easter Island. After she asked me a number of probing questions, I looked up the history on the internet and corrected my numerous mis-statements of fact.

Dr. Clam said...

After she asked me a number of probing questions, I looked up the history on the internet and corrected my numerous mis-statements of fact.
Wot! No link? I expected there would be as many errors in Diamond's treatment of Easter Island as there were in the Australia chapter but haven't gone out to seek them. Will do so now...

winstoninabox said...

I'm getting closer to the finish of Guns, Germs & Steel. Like I said, I'm a slow reader. Plus the distractions of video games and novels don't help.

I don't know about errors in this book from a scientific point, but I was surprised that twice he made the claim (sorry no page references) that Japan "clings" (my word, but the impression he left me with) to the use of the difficult to read kanji, rather than adopt the widespread use of the easier to read hiragana.

But the phonetic syllabary of hiragana (and its other half - katakana) can't possible fulfill the role of kanji in communication. A sentence composed of only hiragana is much longer (by necessity), is without the inherent and loaded meaning of kanji (the parts of a kanji, much like English's Latin roots, carry meaning), and quite frankly is, in its own way, also difficult to read.

I thought it a weird claim to make.

Dr. Clam said...

I remember reading something about this some time ago... The ideographic system of Chinese origin may be more difficult to learn, but is faster and more efficient for a fluent adult reader than an alphabetic system and can be easily adapted to any language- I was impressed when visiting ancient sites in Korea that the fellow-visitor from Hong Kong could readily translate inscriptions that the Koreans with a 'modern' education based on their equivalent of hiragana were at a loss with. I wouldn't be surprised if the characters appearing in the background in 'Serenity' are intended to be read as English rather than Chinese.
As I understand it the irrational and silly aspect of kanji is having several layers of different readings for the same character, arising from borrowings at different times?

Marco said...

I might cite the story I originally told Belinda about Easter Island, based on memory of a documentary of it. Obsessed by their statues that required destroying acres of trees to get to their final resting points, they didn't realise they were dooming themselves until it was too late. After running out of trees and running out of food, they turned to cannibalism until their population went down to almost nothing. I figured that at this point they were discovered by modern civilisation but died a natural death not long after. The truth was that their population at discovery was miserable and cannibalistic, but about half of its population at its peak. The population was eventually put out of its misery by being sold into slavery, which was probably a step up. This was generations after they had irreversebly destroyed their environment. It is an example of a "Tragedy of the commons" which I believe requires privatisation of the common resource such that there is selfish interest that it not be overdepleted.

winstoninabox said...

As I understand it the irrational and silly aspect of kanji is having several layers of different readings for the same character, arising from borrowings at different times?

Yes, the multiple readings is a difficulty in learning kanji. Some have up to 7 readings. But trying to study each kanji's readings in isolation is a kind of silly mental torture. Just as would studying Latin roots if one never ever intended to make a sentence in English (or Latin I suppose).

Mulitple readings of kanji are difficult to remember when there is no context for which reading to use. But if one learns the reading in conjunction with (an)other kanji(s) (like when it is used in a word with 2 or more kanji together) then the readings become easier to remember, because the reading now has meaning.

The most difficulty comes from people's names when the name is unfamiliar. Then it can be tricky to know which reading to use.

Marco said...

I found an answer to your locally and globally insane desalination plant! - It's an example of a smaller NIMBY footprint.

Dr. Clam said...

What happens if you ground all the planes for a few days and reduce the amount of particulates in the upper atmosphere? The temperature shoots up a couple of degrees.

This is not quite right, as I have discovered reading "The Cloudspotter's Guide". Daytime temperature rises. Nightime temperature falls. Guess which effect predominates? Yes, overall the effect is warming. All high clouds are net warming, while low clouds tend not to be (which makes sense if you think about, since all clouds will warm just the air underneath them, but visible light passing through air doesn't heat it much). This is the causal link between 'mysterious cloud-seeding effects of the sun' and 'global warming' in those non-A theories of GW.