Global Warming vs. Fascism; or, why NASA wouldn’t have stopped Apophis[reposted from Nov 19, 2007 - updated 2012 after in person talk with actual climate scientists! This is the essay that first caught the attention of the editors of Faircompanies, which led to me blogging for them, and eventually to being video interviewed by them. The follow up video, about hypermiling, came out 2 days ago]
I am a liberal. I am an environmentalist. I commute by bicycle to my job advocating the bicycle as a means of everyday transportation. I run my work truck on modified vegetable oil at significant extra cost compared to petroleum diesel. I have a reasonably strong understanding of the sciences, including an associates in biology and earth science (which encompasses, among other things, geology and ecology)
I could be called a global warming "denier".
I should clarify; I don’t not believe in the same way I don’t believe in "God".
I acknowledge that the world is almost certainly getting warmer, and there is a good chance that humans have had something to do with it. It is certainly possible.
Look at the graph above (or click the link below)
Graph of temperature of planet earth over time
Note that the time scale is logarithmic. In other words, each section to the left is 10 times more compressed than the one next to it. Notice that the right side of the graph is in thousands of years, the left half is in millions.
The graph is a log-scale in order to more easily see the range over different time scales. Each section exists on its own with a linear scale, I just choose this graphic because I think it allows for a better perspective of the over all long term cycles, in addition to the smaller cycles within the large ones.
Here is the right side, in linear scale.
Here is another linear scale, looking at only the recent past (12 thousand years is recent in geological terms), after most major Earth changes had settled down:
The graph that is used by people who want to convince people of human caused climate change is invariably that of the last 1000 years. 1000 years, on the scale of global processes, is nothing. It is equivalent to looking at specie change or continent movement over the past 1000 years which would "prove" evolution and plate tectonics are myth.
However, the question is not "is the Earth getting warmer". That is measurable. The questions are: 1 "is there a net positive or a net negative feedback mechanism?" in other words, will it continue out of control or will it naturally stabilize; and 2 "is it our fault?"
Looking at the larger scale, from the time the earths climate settled into a reasonably stable pattern, there has been a periodic cycle, and we are not outside of the range of normal. From the fact that there have been at least 5 similar cycles so far, there is a strong indication that some negative feedback mechanism at play which serves to keep temperature extremes in check.
This is not to say that the consequences of a temperature increase (like the ones which have in fact occurred, naturally) are not catastrophic. It has been estimated that at least one of those past times of warming contributed to the extinction of up to 90% of all sea life, and 50-70% of land life. However, humans and our technology wasn’t around to cause it.
I have yet to see any compelling evidence that the rate of change is outside the normal range - we simply have no way to precisely measure the change over very small intervals of something that happened billions of years before we existed. Nor is a rapid rate automatically indicative of a ever-increasing one. If there is a net negative feedback mechanism (and the historical global temperatures cyclic nature is a strong indicator that there is) it may simply kick in sooner if the rate of change is higher.
The historical geologic data suggests that it is temperature which affects CO2 levels, not the other way around.
I have heard many times now environmentalists, journalists, and politicians say something along the lines of "there is a scientific consensus" or "the facts are in, the question is what do we do about it" or some equivalent.
There isn’t, and they aren’t.
There is still a great deal of scientific debate. And not like evolution. Its not just scientologists and scienticians who question this hypothesis (it is not a theory by the scientific definition, as evolution is)
[UPDATE: I have had an opportunity to speak to several actual climate scientists recently, who were in the Bay Area for a Earth science convention. I had assumed that, more than 4 years after I had written this essay, things would have changed significantly. Methods would have improved, more data would have come in, and much of what I wrote would be dated.
Turns out the only thing I learned is that they genuinely believed in the misinformation they were saying.
I started explaining some of the points written above.
When I pointed out the Earth has been warmer at times in the past, I got the same standard answer I've heard from many knowledgeable non-scientists: "it has never warmed as rapidly as it is now".
Above I argued that we may not have precise enough measurements to make that assessment, but I have since learned we do - and it has gotten much warmer much faster at times before human technology existed. In recent history the average Earth temperature has gone up about 1 degree over 50 years. At the end of the "Younger Dryas period" the average Earth's temperature raised by 7 degrees in just 20 years - about 15 times more rapidly.
Later we talked about the climate models used to make predictions. Turns out they are using 1800 as a baseline because thats when we started adding carbon to the atmosphere. Because reality is so complex and we can't accurately take everything into account, the solution is to pretend that natural climate variations don't exist, and that if not for our actions the world would still be exactly hov it was in 1800. But of course we know that even if we only look at the Holocene (and I would argue that is still cherry picking data) there is a cycle of roughly 5-10 thousand years. But that is just a sub-cycle of a larger pattern that repeats every 50-100 thousand years.
That cycle is the baseline.
Now, if we were deviating significantly from THAT moving trend-line, we could say with relative confidence that something we did has affected the balance.
Modern climate scientists, with the fastest computers, are not yet able to even accurately model the climate changes that we already know occurred over the past couple billion years - there are just too many variables.
In other words, no one can plug in the starting conditions on Earth, and then have a program figure out where things were 100 million, 10 million, 1 million, 100 thousand years ago.
Without that, there is no baseline with which to determine where we would be today w/o human activity.
If we don't know where the climate would be today w/o us, we have absolutely no way to say what affect we are having.
I think even the experts are making the "emperor is wearing fine clothes" mistake that comes from being in insulated group of people on the defensive]
Granted, IF we are contributing to it, and IF there is a net positive feedback, then we may be doing severe damage, and it may be difficult or impossible to reverse it. It may very well turn out that by the time we know for sure it will be too late.
That is a reason to act now.
The irony is in the fact that we already know for sure that our driving and electricity habits damage both human health and our ecosystem at large.
Cancer, asthma, mercury contamination, loss of habitat, acid rain, smog, ground level ozone, soot, nuclear waste which is deadly for millions of years, strip mining, oil spills - not to mention the undeniable link between how much we drive and how many of us are obese (a problem no hybrid can ever solve).
And whether or not we have reached so-called "peak oil", it is indisputably a finite resource. Even if we find a way to develop tar sand fields, maybe it lasts us 200 years instead of 20, but it will not last forever. And as it eventually declines, the oil related conflicts of the past half century (from OPECs US embargo in the 70s to today ongoing war in Iraq) will inevitably increase proportionately.
These are real problems. There is no doubt that they have affects on our world and our lives. There is no question that we are causing them. There is no question that we could easily reduce or eliminate many of them by cutting back on our own (as Americans) luxuries. Technology is also likely to play a role, along with government regulations.
All of these real and undeniable problems have not been sufficient motivation to change our habits and lifestyle, nor even to spur new technology.
Instead, we have glommed on to this idea of global warming, and in order to make it seem more urgent, people claim there is no debate. Most of them no doubt heard it from someone else, and they fully believe it. Someone must have started this particular urban legend, and must have been lying deliberately.
But lets say that it turns out that we are significantly increasing the worlds average temperature.
Lets say that we overwhelm the previous millinea’s negative feedback mechanism so that further ice ages become impossible.
Say that it causes catastrophic consequences for us.
This would ultimately cause problems for much of earth’s life, including all humans. Even you live in one of the places which is not affected (or positively affected) you have to deal with the millions of people who now need to move. We can expect rising prices of all sorts, wars over land, food, water. Weather extremes. Bad stuff.
However, for any one person: everyone else is driving. Why should I stop? The impact of any one person cutting electricity usage in half or giving up their car is truly negligible when 300 million other people don’t change. Given that, why self-sacrifice?
Game theory has been run many times, by many people. In nature an altruistic strategy can become stable. The cheaters can be penalized to the point where it is to the individuals advantage to be good. This can be seen in some species societies, as well as in computer models.
Among humans however (at least Americans) it never seems to work.
Among educated professionals and business leaders, agreements break down, and everyone loses.
A frequent scenario involves a publicly available fishing grounds. Anyone can fish for free. You can sell what you catch. The fish have a limited rate of regeneration. If everyone takes only a given number of fish, the system is sustainable.
But as soon as its discovered someone else is "cheating" they all, wanting to keep up or "remain competitive", do the same. No one person causes the destruction of the system, yet everyone involved is directly responsible.
This game has been run by sociologists and mathematicians. They know the theory. They still end up "overfishing" their virtual lakes.
This phenomenon is noted in sociology, biology, and economics, and is referred to as the tragedy of the commons
There are certain words in our language which have been attached to a certain perception which goes far beyond their meaning. Communism used to be one such word. Political leaders (with help from the media) deliberately demonized the word. There was a time when few Americans could tell you what the word actually meant, although they could tell you without any doubt that they were strongly against it.
In reality, while it has never been enacted exactly as intended (as we are neither democratic nor purely capitalist here), the basic idea has to do with sharing; that everyone should have their needs met before anyone gets to build wealth.
Details aside, it is a fundamentally different way of looking at things.
In the US we learn to value individual freedom above all else.
Our most basic and fundamental value is freedom - "life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness" (and, though not written down, that is generally assumed to include pursuit of profit).
Victimless crimes aside, for the most part we feel that as long as we are not directly hurting a particular individual, we should be allowed to do whatever we want.
Ones right to fish should not be infringed upon.
Obviously there are many examples in reality where this outlook leads directly to overall harm for everyone involved.
Global warming, if we are in fact making it worse, will be one of those things.
So far, with the wide spread belief that the debate is over, much has been talked about, little has been done.
Average fuel economy is still far below what we had the technology to produce decades ago. The best hybrid gets worse mileage than a cheap compact car from 10 years ago. (note that CO2, the gas thought responsible for global warming, is a natural result of combustion. A more well built and efficient engine does not emit less CO2. The only way to decrease it per mile is increasing overall mileage)
New power plants are still being built as electricity use is still climbing.
In order to produce real results, we as a society would have to be willing to restrict both the options of individuals and the profit potential of corporations. We are loath to do either.
In fact, we generally feel this is immoral, even if the ultimate consequence is a diminished happiness for everyone (or even, perhaps, our ultimate self-destruction).
As it turns out, we are probably safe.
It has been less than a year since increased observation led to this conclusion.
The chances were originally estimated at 2.7% (1 in 37) that in 2029 or 2036 we would be hit by a rather large asteroid called Apophis. It was about 2 years between the time the possibility was noticed and the time it was determined to be safe. Astronomers revised estimates still predict that it will pass closer to the earth than our geosynchronous communications satellites.
Apophis is over 1000ft in diameter, weighs 50 million tons, and travels 18.5 miles every second.
You would think this would have been something more people would have heard about, people would have talked about it, there would have been international conferences, discussions, debates, and public input on who would take the initiative to, say, put a tracking device on Apophis so we would have better data, how long we should wait before acting, and begin plans of what to do if it turned out a collision was likely.
Perhaps it was because the statistical likelihood seemed smaller. Perhaps it was because we prefer to think nature (not just life, but all reality outside of humans) can do no wrong. Perhaps it is as random as what celebrity the media chooses to focus on in a given week.
Ultimately though, if it kept looking more and more likely that Apophis would hit us, eventually someone would likely say something.
And amid the resulting furor, a lot would be said, but chances are, not so much would be done.
The question would be, who is going to pay for this?
Few countries would have the technical capacity to change the course of an asteroid.
The US would resent spending their own tax dollars (which will be at quite a premium by 2029) on a project that is going to save the whole world. It might not even hit our country. Everyone else should chip in at least equally.
Fascism refers to a political system in which it is assumed that the good of the overall society supersedes the best interests of individuals.
A fascist superpower would fire up some rockets ensuring a killer asteroid did not hit the Earth, and that would be the end of it. The research would be government funded, and if need be industries would be commandeered to build whatever was deemed the most effective solution. The choice would not be left up to the individual owner of a factory that makes rockets, nor would it be left up to the "free market".
In a pure free market, if a comet is coming, everybody dies.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not advocating fascism.
I just feel the need to question those things we all take as obvious fact when obviously many other people have felt differently at times. Instead of going along with our local beliefs, whatever they might be, perhaps at times we should question if the ’others’ in the world might not have had something useful going, something we could learn from. Instead of adopting a pre-made ideology, maybe pick and choose the good parts from each, see the problems in each, and maybe come up with something altogether new. It would sound crazy to claim to be a liberal who who thinks a lot of liberals are whiny crybabies living in a dreamland, to believe in much of libertarianism and want to eliminate the corporation, or to vote green and believe there is something positive or valuable in fascism. Or would it?