Sunday, March 4, 2012

Adapt, Non-negotiable

My friend John Callender over at is obsessed with the climate change deniers. I think he's really terrified by global warming. I'm trying to figure out why I'm not. I guess I look at it from an individual perspective, not culturally. When my situation changes I adapt. When the pond goes dry, I don't try to think of ways to fill it up so I can go fishing again. I just eat something besides fish. I am personally sequestering a lot more carbon than I produce. I haven't burdened the planet with any offspring. I'm doing about the best I can for good ol' Earth.

One of John's links to a Nathan Myrvold interview, Myhrvold: 50 simple things won’t fix the climate — but a few complex things might, has a quote that kind of scares and confuses me. If I hadn't already given up on people and become a hermit it would infuriate me as well. I'm repressing that emotion right now.
I think we also need to investigate geoengineering. Right now, 2012 will have higher CO2 than 2011. Does anybody believe we are doing the things now so that 2013 or 2014 will be less than 2012? We are not over the hump yet, and until we are, I think that we need to understand that set of options — they may be real, they may not be, but it would be inexcusably irresponsible not to understand them.

We probably also need to investigate adaptation to a warmer world.
PROBABLY need to investigate adaptation?! No, that's THE MAIN THING we need to do. Our stupidity and short-sightedness messed up the balance of nature. Thinking we are qualified to adjust the large number of factors involved to get it back to balance is illogical. I'm for researching it, just vehemently opposed to actually trying to manipulate climate.

Also, who is defining the balance we're going for with geoengineering? Rich people? Why the hell do they get to define the ideal average temperature? Which also implies they get to set sea level, ocean acidity, atmospheric convection systems, global ocean currents, sea and land ice area, rates of weathering of rocks, growth of coral and erosion of beaches, eruption of volcanoes, or anything else that's part of climate. Who the HELL do they think they are? It is NOT their planet to engineer to suit their plans.

There are no master specs on Earth Climate. Sea level changes. A line on a map does not mean that's where the land is "supposed" to end and the ocean begin, that's just where the high water line was when they drew that map. If the Apalachee Indians that lived at the mouth of the Aucilla River had the kind of unbridled hubris and disposable income that Nathan Myrvold does their village wouldn't be an archeology site under 20 feet of water in Apalachee Bay right now. Humans have amazing coping skills. We can move. We aren't like migratory birds that time their arrival to Chesapeake Bay so they can eat the eggs of millions of mating horseshoe crabs. We have far more options. Granted we are belligerent as hell and want to keep what we think is ours. The Apalachee certainly did. They fought the Europeans to keep their land, and lost. But they didn't fight the OCEAN to keep their land. They just moved to Tallahassee! (I know all about that. It feels like defeat, I know, but we have to suck it up.)

I don't think human coping mechanisms should include things like sea walls, canals and dykes, or anything that disrupts the physics of entire ecosystems. That sort of thing costs gobs of money and starts a spiral of side effects we can't even monitor, let alone predict. There are huge programs to remediate the side effects nobody expected from things like putting canals in the Everglades, and it is impossible to get it back to the way that sorta works without constant expense. A lot of this sort of difficulty is because nobody has a record of what it was like when it worked all by itself. When Lewis and Clark got to the mouth of the Columbia River they'd built a damn jetty before anybody even took an aerial photograph of how it was naturally. The Army Corps of Engineers has been fighting that estuary ever since.

If you leave nature alone it will clean itself up, it will level out the bumps, it will grow back. If you are poor, and patient, things will become stable. If you are rich and think what you want is more important than what is stable, then you are sort of a dick. I don't want to be too mean because there are a LOT of people around here that practice that kind of small scale geoengineering to make more quail live on their land than ought to be there. I don't want to be rude or bossy. But honestly, I do look at my creeks with crystal clear water because I have native ground cover and then I look at their pond muddy with erosion and I think, "What a dick."

Before you can spend money you have to make money. All money-making has environmental costs. It would sure slow down global warming and ecological harm if we could just all stop trying to get so much damn money. I believe that the less money it takes to maintain our environment to suit us the better off the planet is in the long run. The better off our descendants are. People with kids dwell on the national debt, but to me the continuous expense to maintain countermeasures to control the environment is much more disturbing.

I am so relieved that my grandmother subscribed to a philosophy of minimal disturbance to the land. Her goal was to manage it the way it was when it was all one open hunting ground between the Creek and Apalachee Indians. Because we have neighbors with their own disparate goals we have to go to some effort to start and stop the fires we set within boundaries. But that's a tiny amount of effort and expense compared to what our neighbors do. Their tractors must burn the annual diesel fuel equivalent of all my energy use in a decade. Sure am glad I don't have to pay for that!

I hope people like Myrvold keep supporting the funding of research into earth science and work on alternative energy sources to reduce anthropogenic carbon dioxide emission. I think that is very important. But if the United States can't even scrape up the money to build an earth observing satellite they already paid to design, I just don't have any confidence they can complete a job like geoengineering. (I mean Aquarius, which I talked about a lot here. American engineering firms designed it but then the funding was cut and Argentina had to step up to finish the damn thing.) Americans as a culture are not committed to even quantifying the basics that we need to understand the physics of Earth climate. Hell, the US even let their ordinary weather satellites get old and fail without planning replacements in time. There is no way America funding can keep engineers and scientists working on it climate engineering consistently to the point they are worthy of mucking around with geophysics. And how is the American public going to take it if Japan starts mucking around with it first?

Let there be no mistake, we don't know what is going to happen as CO2 levels keep rising. We know ocean acidity will go up. Eventually the calcium carbonate of coral reefs will dissolve. Then the unprotected beaches will erode. Land will go into the sea. But this is just generalities. Once all that CO2 goes into the ocean can it get sequestered? How long will it take? We don't know with any detail what will happen when the albedo of the arctic ice is gone. We can guess, and we can analyze this year's weather and say what we think was a result of this loss of ice.

We only have a rough idea of the values of all the variables in all the previous states of the climate. The more information we gather from ice cores, deep ocean sediment samples, speleothems, mountain tops, and coral beds is great. The earth observing satellites sent up in the last few decades are great. But mostly this wealth of new data just makes the scientists more keenly aware of the daunting complexity of the interaction of all the natural processes on the earth. I loved my Paleo Oceanography class for giving me this awareness. I am deeply suspicious of anybody that thinks humans can change just one factor out of hundreds and it will cause an improvement in whatever is most important to them. Average temperature perhaps. This just tells me they lack a proper appreciation for the interconnectedness, complexity, and time frame of earth physics.

If you don't know what's going to happen it's best to be nimble. Don't hesitate to investigate ways to adapt.

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