Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Embracing Reality - Global Warming and Other Challenges We Must Confront

Global warming deniers rely on a bag full of weak tricks. One is to blur the distinction between weather and climate.

Weather, the stuff you get on your TV or radio, is so variable as to be almost unpredictable beyond a day or two in advance. There are a few exceptions. We are able to detect weather-influencing phenomenon such as the mid-Pacific el nino or la nina. Weather forecasting is getting better all the time as more sophisticated weather models and modelling computers come on line but it's still far from reliable.

Climate forecasting is even worse - in the short term. On a decadal basis, however, it's pretty accurate. Climate science entails looking beyond weather "static," the haphazard variability of weather from day to day or month to month or even year to year. Climate science assumes that temperatures and precipitation will be variable during these intervals - it always has been and always will be (we hope).

The graphs above illustrate this point. The red line represents actual recorded mean temperatures, year by year. The blue lines, however, are 8-year trend lines. You'll see a number of these blue lines go negative, reflecting cooling intervals. Others are positive, some sharply positive. The tale of the tape runs is found by going from the bottom left corner (around 1977) to the top right corner three decades later.

Global warming hucksters love the blue lines but only so long as they can pick and choose the trend lines that suit their fantasies. All the other blue lines, especially the really positive blue lines, they prefer to leave out of their arguments.

That's how these people work. Take an isolated bit of favourable data, a kernel of truth, and then distort it out of all proportion so that it misleads. They use sleight of hand logic to hold out weather as climate, knowing that they have the added advantage of telling people what any of us would like to believe and that's a very powerful advantage.

The psychology employed by the denialists is simple. With very few exceptions we're pretty good people. None of us wants to believe that we're handing our grandkids' generation a rotten future. None of us wants to believe that cruising in our SUVs or jetsetting to exotic, foreign destinations is going to leave a tab that someone else is going to have to pick up. When good people don't want to believe something badly enough, it's astonishing just what they can choose not to perceive. The denialist hucksters play on every one of these powerful quirks of human nature.

While I'm troubled by global warming, I worry that human nature will prevent us from dealing with it effectively. As its impacts become more obvious, undeniable, we will acknowledge it and muster our forces in response, but that may do us as much harm as good.

When it comes to crises the world is pretty good at dealing with them as they emerge - one at a time. We did a pretty good job when it came to WWII. We reallocated resources and industries, mobilized the citizenry to form massive, instant armies and had at it. But what if we had been confronted with WWII, III, IV and V simultaneously? The point I'm trying to make is that we don't multi-task crises very well at all.

A year ago, global warming was universally acknowledged as the greatest threat to mankind. Even Harpo said that. Then the hens came home to roost from the US subprime mortgage/bogus derivative security/credit default swap crisis and now it's all hands on deck to fight for our economic lives. Suddenly dealing with our carbon emissions problems has been detoured down a side road. Only temporarily, mind you. We'll get back to it just as soon as we can. Trust us. - Yeah, sure.

It's this ad hoc approach to steadily growing global problems that's troubling. It's like a house fire in which you start hosing down the kitchen and then just switch over to the guest bedroom while the blaze consumes the rest of the house.

If we're going to have any realistic chance of getting mankind through the next century relatively intact, we're going to have to become realistic about what challenges confront us. Here's a list of many of them, although I doubt it's complete: global warming and associated climate change; global security threats including terrorism and the several arms races now underway; nuclear proliferation; deforestation; desertification; resource exhaustion; freshwater depletion; species extinction; air, water and soil contamination; the spread of contagious and other diseases; and the one we absolutely don't want to mention - overpopulation.

While these crises don't affect all parts of the planet equally, they do affect all parts of the planet both directly and indirectly and their impact is spreading.

I have finally put aside my last bit of scepticism about James Lovelock's notion of "sustainable retreat." Our industrial revolution-born dependence on growth to solve our problems doesn't work any more. We've come to the point where it's like trying to spend your way out of debt.

The proof is all around us. We merely need look to see it. Take something man plainly cannot live even a week without - freshwater. You can starve for a long time but you'll go down within days without water. We depend on water to hydrate our bodies, we depend on water to grow our food, we depend on water to sustain all forms of life.

It's estimated that, within a decade or two, 60% of mankind will lack access to adequate supplies of clean, safe, freshwater. That means three out of five will be on the hunt for potable water. That's four billion people give or take a few hundred million.

The American southwest stands as testament to man's lack of respect for water. Las Vegas speaks for itself. Imagine, in the middle of a desert, building lakes around casino resorts and irrigating golf courses. Then there are all the retirement Meccas that have burgeoned throughout that region.

How do they do it? How do they accommodate all this development, support all this humanity, in the midst of inhospitable desert? By mining the groundwater, pumping what they demand from their aquifers.

Groundwater taken from aquifers is fine when it's limited to its "recharge rate," the rate at which surface precipitation finds its way down into the aquifer. But the water is being drawn out at many, many times the recharge rate which is emptying the aquifers. If the recharge rate is X and you've created a society that has become dependent on 10X of water from the aquifer, you will find your way to the bottom and then face the problem of a water supply one-tenth of your needs.

America's breadbasket, California, has a magnificent agricultural base utterly dependent on irrigation. It too is coming under strains from water shortages. In order to grow its agricultural base the state allotted water quotas to farmers. Now some of those farmers find it's better to give up farming their land altogether and simply sell their water quotas to nearby cities.

If American can run into deficit on something as fundamental to life as freshwater, how can we expect poorer, more vulnerable and more hard hit nations to cope? If they can't cope, what are the consequences and what are the spillover effects for the rest of us?

It's not just weak and powerless little African nations that stand to be hit by freshwater crises. Just last week Indian scientists reported that the Himalayan glaciers could be gone by 2035. That's barely more than a single generation. To put this in perspective, melt water from those glaciers feeds both India's and China's major agricultural rivers - the Yellow River and the Ganges among them. It's been predicted that the Ganges could become a seasonal river, full only during the Monsoon when farmers don't need it for irrigation.

Freshwater supplies to both countries, nuclear powers with rapidly expanding militaries, are already under pressure, are already in tangible decline. What happens when they are drawn into squabbles about entitlement to melt waters?

Around the world and particularly in the coastal waters of the Third World fish stocks are collapsing. In many of the poorer nations the population relies on fish as their main source of protein. Along the west coast of Africa, European overfishing has already triggered population migrations northward.

Deforestation, desertification proceed apace, each triggering a host of associated problems.

How can we combat these problems? A good way to begin is to look for the common thread that runs through each and every one of them. They're all man made. They all result from too many people wanting too much of our finite resources.

When you balance a budget the first step is to accurately inventory your financial resources. You balance a budget by not spending more than you take in. That's a simple proposition. Ideally you should try to spend less than your takings to ensure yourself a cushion and to leave something for your children but, when you're in chronic overdraft, the first step is to simply limit your expenditures to your takings.

Environmentally, we've been in chronic overdraft since the 70's. That marked the first time in the history of mankind that our demands for renewable resources equalled the earth's production of them. How can we possibly balance that budget?

In 1970, global population was 3.7-billion. Today it's gone past 6.5-billion. 90% of that growth happened in developing regions. Today there's not only a lot more of us but we've compounded that by becoming more voracious of the earth's resources. For example, since 1970, consumption of fresh and salt-water fish stocks has increased one and a half times the rate of population growth. That's how we've managed to empty the oceans in so many parts of the planet.

In our own North America, we've become obsessed with standard of living. We drive bigger (albeit more fuel efficient) cars and plenty more of them, we live in bigger houses, our appetite for more and bigger and better has been insatiable. And we're not alone. With their emerging industrialization, Indians and the Chinese are steadily increasing their resource consumption. It's estimated that global demand for oil products may have quadrupled since 1970.

Most of us are creatures of the post-WWII era. That era has essentially defined our world and shaped our expectations. Within that context we created our institutions, modelled our way of life. Perhaps because it's not in mankind's nature to look for such things we failed to see the flaws and vulnerabilities that came with the bounty and lay in wait for us, growing by the year.

Put simply, there are way too many of us, each of us wanting way too much and, in the result, creating an enormous and unsustainable environmental deficit.

This situation is self-correcting. We have to understand that undeniable reality. It is self-correcting. Solution A. We have the option of influencing how that occurs so as to ameliorate the short and long term consequences. Solution B. We also have the option of influencing how that occurs in ways that will make those consequences far worse, more widespread and destructive than nature could ever inflict. Solution C. The least likely option is for us to simply let nature take its course but we're far too powerful and destructive for that to happen.

So we have to chose between Option A and Option B.

We're going to have to think hard on this question, sooner rather than later. Option A probably won't be open to us too far into the future which could leave us stuck with B by default. In reality, B is pretty much the default option. A requires enormous goodwill, trust, sharing and sacrifice, all of them on a global scale. It would possibly entail strong measures to conserve, protect and reallocate resources. We can't have it all forever. They won't tolerate it nor do we have any reason to demand that they should.

If we can't or won't adopt Option A with a genuine determination to make it work, we had better be open and honest with ourselves about Option B. We can't grow the planet and we can't grow its resources so we'll have to shrink the population. This may sound terribly apocalyptic. I wonder if someone reading this twenty years from now would have that same impression.


WesternGrit said...

Which leads one to think... Did world bankers fall victim to forces trying to engineer the economic collapse for the oil industry?

One can't trust the oil industry as far as one can throw them.

Anonymous said...

Finally! You are beginning to address the most urgent problem of this world......"Over Population"!!. It needs to be screamed from the mountain tops but my, my, my....most people don't want to offend the religious and adress the grown up fairy tale. A. Morris

Scruffy Dan said...

Over population isn't the problem, consumption is.

Fish said...

Hey Mound,

Here's a little bit of news I thought you might find enjoyable!


The Mound of Sound said...

Dan, I understand your point but it only operates on a theoretical level of "if" we could only restructure all individuals' consumption levels. We'll slaughter each other off in the millions long before we ever get that degree of voluntary self-sacrifice. I can't think of a government on this planet that could enforce that policy effectively.

Look at it this way. Those who aren't the problem - say the people of the Sahel - are on subsistence as it is. Those who are the problem - those of us from the industrialized world have too much political clout to tolerate it. Anyone who tried would be thrown out of office.

No, unfortunately I think we would go for the population remedies long before we accept any meaningful consumption solutions. I genuinely wish I didn't believe that.

And, Fish my man. Very interesting story, thanks. Somehow I don't see Dick Cheney ever sharing a room in the Greybar Hotel. We can only dream.

Fish said...

I agree it's unlikely he'll ever see the inside of a prison cell (for crying out loud he shot a man and got away with it!), but the indictment alone is a good sign!

Anonymous said...

So Scruffy dan, who brain washes people into "over consumption"? I also know many people including myself who do not over consume. Big business is always telling people they must "have" but there is very little education aimed at the public to see through the ads...nor does government want to upset the apple cart. A. Morris

The Mound of Sound said...

I don't know that anyone in particular brainwashes us into over-consumption. It strikes me that it's an aspect of human nature that corporations have certainly exploited. The great American writer (and Republican) Lewis Lapham suggests that the rot truly set in during Nixon when wealth came to be equated with virtue.

Your take on government's reticence to intercede is spot on, AM. Like all pioneer countries we've been fixated on the notion that growth is not only good but essential for a healthy society and a sound nation.

Unfortunately, once we've passed the earth's capacity for renewal we are very much trying to spend our way out of debt by clinging to economic models based on growth. Placed in that context it sounds stupid, even mad - and it is madness but we've been embracing the notion for so many generations, centuries even, that we don't see and don't want to see that.

The Mound of Sound said...
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