Consuming the future

Tom James @ 07-08-2009

nature_chainsVia New Scientist, scientists at the Ecological Society of America confirm my Agent Smithesque suspicions on the cause of our ongoing environmental crisis:

More specifically, all we’re doing is what all other creatures have ever done to survive, expanding into whatever territory is available and using up whatever resources are available, just like a bacterial culture growing in a Petri dish till all the nutrients are used up. What happens then, of course, is that the bugs then die in a sea of their own waste.

Making all this worse is the development of consumerism, which encourages even greater consumption of resources than would be the case if every new human being consumed as much as they have done historically, the NS article comments on the development of this trait:

According to Rees, the change took place after the second world war in the US, when factories previously producing weapons lay idle, and soldiers were returning with no jobs to go to.

American economists and the government of the day decided to revive economic activity by creating a culture in which people were encouraged to accumulate and show off material wealth, to the point where it defined their status in society and their self-image.

In today’s world, such rhetoric seems beyond belief. Yet the consumer spree carries on regardless, and few of us are aware that we’re still willing slaves to a completely artificial injunction to consume, and to define ourselves by what we consume.

British philosopher John Gray (not the American self-help guru of the same name) has argued something similar in his book Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and other Animals, in which he lays out a thoroughly pessimistic critique of the notion of human exceptionalism, and his prediction of the imminent failure of environmentalist policies.

I don’t agree entirely with Gray on the inevitability of collapse and decay, but I certainly concur with James Martin‘s view that the 21st century will have to mark a change from focussing on limitless growth to sustainable growth (if such a thing is truly possible), as a precursor to a steady state economy.

The article raises another interesting point:

In an ideal world, it would be a counter-advertising campaign to make conspicuous consumption shameful.

“Advertising is an instrument for construction of people’s everyday reality, so we could use the same media to construct a cultural paradigm in which conspicuous consumption is despised,” he says. “We’ve got to make people ashamed to be seen as a ‘future eater’.”

I’m against moralistic ‘holier-than-thou’ criticisms of consumerism, but as “consumerism” as a concept has come about by the deliberate decisions of business people and marketers (and policymakers) seeking to promote ever greater economics growth and consumption, might it not be time to have a similar drive towards sustainability?

[image from Peter from Wellington on flickr]


Modelling the climate

Tom James @ 02-07-2009

weatherAn interview with Gavin Schmidt over on Edge explores the nature and development of climate modelling:

What we have decided, as a scientific endeavor, is to extrapolate as much as we can from our knowledge of the individual processes that we can measure: evaporation from the ocean, the formation of a cloud, rainfall coming from a cloud, changes in the wind patterns as a function of the pressure field, changes in the jet stream. What we have tried to do is encapsulate those small-scale processes, put them altogether, and see if we can predict the emerging properties of that fundamental complex system.

He explores the sometimes contradictory predictions of different climate models:

In the same way that you can’t make an average arithmetic be more correct than the correct arithmetic, it’s not obvious that the average climate model should be better than all of the other climate models. So for example if I wanted to know what 2+2 was and I just picked a set of random numbers, the answer by averaging all those random numbers is unlikely to be four. Yet when you come to climate models, that is kind of what you get. You get all the climate models and they give you some numbers between three and five and they give you something that is very close to four. Obviously, it’s not pure mathematics — it’s physics, it’s approximations, there is empirical tuning that goes on.

You need to have some kind of evaluation. I don’t like to use the word validation because it implies a kind of binary/true-false set up. But you need an evaluation; you need tests of the model’s sensitivity compared to something in the real world that can give you some credibility that that model has the right sensitivity. That is very difficult.

It is a lengthy essay/video interview but well worth the read/watch, as it is refreshing to hear firsthand from a professional climatologist.

[at Edge][image from Nicholas T on flickr]


Too late for talk? Cascio’s case for environmental geoengineering

Paul Raven @ 15-06-2009

Jamais Cascio crops up at no less a venue that the Wall Street Journal talking about climate change and geoengineering, and he’s getting less equivocal as the months slip by. Within the space of a year or so, geoengineering – large-scale projects designed to ameliorate or control the symptoms of climate change – has progressed from being an unpalatable worst-case option to an unpalatable necessity. To put it another way: either we act now, or we lose the opportunity to act at all.

In short, although we know what to do to stop global warming, we’re running out of time to do it and show no interest in moving faster. So here’s where geoengineering steps in: It gives us time to act.

That’s if it’s done wisely. It’s imperative that we increase funding for geoengineering research, building the kinds of models and simulations necessary to allow us to weed out the approaches with dangerous, surprising consequences.

Fortunately, the deployment of geoengineering need not be all or nothing. Though it would have the greatest impact if done globally, some models have shown that intervention just in the polar regions would be enough to hold off the most critical tipping-point events, including ice-cap collapse and a massive methane release.

Polar-only geoengineering strikes me as a plausible compromise position. It could be scaled up if the situation becomes more dire and could be easily shut down with minimal temperature spikes if there were unacceptable side effects.

Still, we can’t forget: Geoengineering is not a solution for global warming. It would simply hold temperatures down temporarily, doing nothing about the causes of climate change, let alone ocean acidification and other symptoms of a carbon overdose. We can’t let ourselves slip back into business-as-usual complacency, because we’d simply be setting ourselves up for a far greater disaster down the road.

Our overall goal must remain the reduction and then elimination of greenhouse-gas emissions as swiftly as humanly possible. This will require feats of political will and courage around the world. What geoengineering offers us is the time to make it happen.

I’ve been following Cascio’s writing since he was a columnist here at Futurismic a few years ago, and I’ve a great deal of respect for his thinking. That said, advocating geoengineering as a necessity alarms me considerably – not because I think it’s unnecessary, but because of the potential for messy side-effects, be they environmental or political.

But as Cascio points out, despite finally reaching a point where politics has acknowledged that climate change is a major issue, nothing is happening other than blame-laying and jockeying for advantage, and the opportunity to act is slipping away. Whether geoengineering is an easier pill for nation-states to swallow than emissions control and rational energy policies remains to be seen.

[ It should be obvious, but just in case: yes, this post and Cascio’s essay are predicated on the notion that anthropic climate change is not only supported by the bulk of pertinent scientific research but a very probable threat to our existence on a species-wide scale. I am aware that there are those who disagree with those statements, and those people are welcome to their opinions. However, anyone popping up in the comments to this post with no better a contribution than to say climate change is a {hoax/sham/conspiracy/Liberal plot/Illuminati plot} will have their comment removed. If you can’t join the debate on the debate’s own terms, please go find one where you can. Your cooperation is appreciated. ]


Will peak oil solve global warming?

Paul Raven @ 08-06-2009

desert oil rigHere’s a contentious idea from the intersection of climate-change pragmatism and free-market ideology: what if Peak Oil is a no-brainer no-effort fix for global warming?

The drop in oil prices since last summer doesn’t affect the validity of the Peak Oil hypothesis. Peak Oil only says that the rate of oil extraction is peaking, not that the price will never go down. In fact, the peaking of oil supply will result in the same boom-and-bust cycle that characterizes real estate markets, as Henry George noted over a century ago. Real estate speculators will hold land off the market in anticipation of a future price rise, just as the oil companies sit on those untapped offshore oil reserves. The amount of drilling and exploration has actually dropped considerably in response to the lower prices, which means that when demand gets back to Summer 2008 levels the price rebound will be even more vicious.

And if a fluctuation of a few percentage points in demand can cause oil to fall from $140 to $40 a barrel, imagine what will happen when the supply falls by half or more over the next generation!

Now, I’ll confess to having a fair degree of faith in truly free markets, but I’m not convinced that the energy markets as they stand under the current geopolitical and economic climate are currently anywhere near as free as they’d need to be to self-regulate effectively; I only need look at my gas bills for the last couple of years to find evidence of that. Nor am I convinced that the reduction in carbon output resulting from declining oil reserves and the escalating prices thereof would be sufficient to pull retrieve our bacon from the campfire quickly enough to prevent significant change to the environment. [image by Janz Images]

That said, the idea of market forces working hand in hand with scarcity to wean us off of our oil dependence is seductively appealing. So seductive, in fact, that I’m inclined not to trust the idea on that basis alone. But the notion that using less oil derivatives will become a matter of simple economic logic for businesses and end-users alike? That seems like common sense, as well as the only way we’ll break the addiction. Hell knows that explaining the consequences of failure hasn’t had much of an effect as yet.


Cosmic ray global warming debunked; deep ocean conveyors rethought

Paul Raven @ 18-05-2009

sun, clouds and seaOne of the more popular alternatives to anthropic global warming theories has been the cosmic ray hypothesis – the notion that changes in the sun’s output of cosmic rays are responsible for the planet’s recent changes in temperature. However, it’s always been short on evidence (much shorter than the theories it is intended to topple, funnily enough), and now new research has put another nail in its coffin lid:

In research published in Geophysical Research Letters, and highlighted in the May 1 edition of Science, Adams and Pierce report the first atmospheric simulations of changes in atmospheric ions and particle formation resulting from variations in the sun and cosmic rays. They find that changes in the concentration of particles that affect clouds are 100 times too small to affect the climate.

[…]

Despite remaining questions, Adams and Pierce feel confident that this hypothesis should be laid to rest. “No computer simulation of something as complex as the atmosphere will ever be perfect,” Adams said. “Proponents of the cosmic ray hypothesis will probably try to question these results, but the effect is so weak in our model that it is hard for us to see this basic result changing.”

As the researchers point out, these results are based on a computerised model of phenomena, and it could (and doubtless will) be asserted that it may not have any bearing on reality. In the absence of a model of similar complexity and expertise that supports the solar wind warming theory, however, I think I’m going to accept it as having been laid to rest. YMMV. [via DailyGalaxy]

While we’re talking about complex climate models, though, it looks like some rethinking will be required with respect to the ways in which deep-ocean circulation functions; experiments involving the dispersal of sensor-laden floats have revealed that a ‘conveyor belt’ of cold water flowing southward from the Labrador Sea doesn’t actually form a loop with the Gulf Stream as previously assumed.

I’d lying if I said I totally understood what this means (I’m not an oceanographer, nor do I play one on television), but what’s clear is that scientists aren’t just cherry-picking evidence that suits their models; they’re actively looking to improve the accuracy of their calculations all the time. Who’d have thought, eh? [via SlashDot; image by notsogoodphotography]

[Welcome back, JasperPants. ;)]


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