Friday, April 25, 2008

The holy crap factor

For a while I had a T-shirt from The Onion which read Holy Shit! Man Walks on Fucking Moon. It made a lot of us laugh (and it was almost certainly stolen by a man called Pete Lucas. Pete, if you're out there, please tell me this isn't so).

Related, but different, is what Mitchell Anderson, blogging a paper by Werner Kurz et al in Nature, calls the holy crap factor (Anderson is Canadian, hence the politeness).

Mistah Kurz, he bring bad news: in this case that warming in western Canada, likely to be anthropogenic, has unleashed a chain of events that will release close to one billion tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere by 2020. The 'holy crap' part is that this may be just one several unplanned accelerations of climate change by human agency.

The Nature paper is new research, of course, but as a media piece it is of a familiar type, certainly for anyone like me who has been trying to keep up with the issues since the late 80s. I happened to read it on the same day as I read a piece from Der Spiegel, circulated by Paul Ehrlich, on melting methane in Siberia. The broad brush strokes of this second piece will be familiar to anyone aware of the tipping point hypothesis:
The permafrost has grown porous, says [Natalia Shakhova Pacific Institute of Geography at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Vladivostok] and already the shelf sea has become "a source of methane passing into the atmosphere." The Russian scientists have estimated what might happen when this Siberian permafrost-seal thaws completely and all the stored gas escapes. They believe the methane content of the planet's atmosphere would increase twelvefold. "The result would be catastrophic global warming," say the scientists. The greenhouse-gas potential of methane is 20 times that of carbon dioxide, as measured by the effects of a single molecule.
Whether the Russians have evidence to indicate this may happen more quickly than previously thought, and so whether this is really a news story, may remain to be seen. What's sure is that when taken in combination with the relentless daily accretion of evidence that the appetite for new sources of carbon-based fuel is relentless (be it in Japan, India, Brazil or wherever), such stories do not encourage optimism.

I wonder how much is my own weakness, cynicism and learned helplessness (flaws perhaps already well established before my brain turned half to mush during the last year or so) and how much, if any, is sound judgement when I see the situation as close to desperate (Paul Kingsnorth caught some of the issues quite well here; but this is probably completely insane). Asked to take part in a workshop next month with good people who think it may be possible to take capital out of carbon, I wonder: who am I kidding?

[P.S. 30 April: See also Holy crap 2]


Oliver Tickell said...

I have looked at the Nature article you refer to and it is all about tree dieback caused by beetle infestation. This could (at least in the short term) be regionally cooling as the absence of trees will increase reflection of sunshine and extend the period of snow cover. It may even be that the net effect will be globally cooling. Yes, the release of CO2 will be warming, but increased reflectivity will be cooling and may in turn lead to reduced methane outgassing which would be even more cooling. Someone needs to do the math (not me).

Clive Bates said...

Hi Caspar - a contribution on the case for pessimism...

We are living in denial: there is a case for greater pessimism on almost every dimension
of the climate change problem.

1. The natural environment physical situation is much worse than widely understood and these positive feedback stories are now forming a steady negative news-flow.

2. World leaders are overstating our ability to control emissions, which are rising and accelerating, with coal as the fastest growing primary fuel. NGOs have been wanting to keep a positive face and avoid defeatism, but the reality is that the measures we need to get onto the the less dreadful trajectories require something like a world-wide emergency state to introduce.

3. The impacts of policy interventions compared to major drivers (population growth, economic growth, energy prices & reserves, trade) is tiny.

4. The 'inertia' in systems of production, spatial planning, built environment is widely under-estimated. Even brilliant new technologies will take decades to establish themselves - it isn't just the stock of physical capital turning over slowly, but the skills inventory, standard operating procedures, regulations and law, institutions, professional training, consumer preferences. And we see a strong tendency to protect the laggards...

5. Time delays between action to reduce emissions and reductions in the increases in warming will continue to fuel indifference about the future. Stern got his discount rates dramatically wrong.

7. There is also a 'distance' discount rate applied to suffering 'over there' - sometimes known as "I'm alright Jack". These discount rates are not things in human nature that are easily changed - probably underpinned by the limits of our our genetic propensity to co-operate. People basically don't care that much about things that are remote - whether geographically or in the future.

8. 'Adaptation' will take on greater importance over time. But that has its limits - there are some impacts that cannot be adapted to, and some only at vast expense... when will the movement of major coastal cities begin?

9. Even if people start to feel the impacts of warming, they will have to face the fact that nothing they can do will make much difference for 30 years or so, even if everyone else acts too. And then it will merely reduce the rate at which the situation deteriorates - hardly a rousing call to action.

10. There is a misplaced faith in the human project ('humanism') which is based on a kind of arrogance that all will come well through human ingenuity and goodness. Well, it is perfectly possible for a community to destroy its habitat - it's happened many time before. There's lots of stuff on how bad the natural environment could become, but little on how ill-equipped the world is to cope with an international, intergenerational collective action problem, beset by free-riding and short-termism. This is a basis for profound pessimism... (or my mid-life crisis!)

Here in Sudan it's 45 degrees, there is a dust storm, and power cuts for the tiny proportion that have power. It feels like a very bleak place. It feels like a very bleak future.