Well it is the end of 2009. So here are some final thoughts on the implications of the political shifts in the climate change debates this year. It has been marked from my viewpoint of an irreverable shift from arguing with CCDs (climate change deniers) to CCSs (climate change skeptics) which on the whole has been beneficial to the debate.
Of course what CCSs1 fail to understand is exactly how dependent on a stable climate our world technology is. Just look at the effects of a fairly minor storm5 had in the richest country around New Orleans when a hurricane took a unexpected turn and smashed the levees. They US barely avoided a major loss of life, had massive property damage, and food crops over a wide area. It then affected the price of insurance worldwide.
Now imagine similar weather happening in one of the most populous and poorest countries in the world like Bangladesh. Then imagine many of these events happening every year across different locations worldwide. That is the type of climate change that the scientists are envisaging happening down the near term time stream.
Sure the climate has changed in the past, just as the mantra of the CCDs (at least those who accept a deep time past) keep proclaiming. Every person who has trained in the earth sciences (like myself) is keenly aware of this and far more so than those proclaiming this ‘revelation’. Much of the discipline (and many others) is involved in examining those paleoclimatic changes and their effects. It is irritating seeing the repetitious chanting of this mantra by the people who depend more on faith than understanding the implications for our ancestors and our future.
There is a short viewpoint article on the BBC site “Climate and humans: the long view” by Clive Findlayson, an anthropologist looking at paleoclimatic shifts and the extinction of the Neanderthals in Europe.
But if we were to use the deep history of this planet as our yardstick, the unusual thing would be for our climate to remain immutable.
Earth’s climate has always been in flux and the last 10,000 years, which in relative terms have been fairly stable, are not the rule.
In those 10,000 years we have gone from hunter-gatherers to farmers, industrialists and travellers in cyberspace, seemingly safe within the cocooned illusion that climatic stability was the way of the world.
Anyone who looks into deep time is aware of how hard it is to predict the precise effects of climate change. Surprising effects happen, even when viewed from a perspective of knowledge of other deep time climate changes.
We should be under no illusion as to the effects of global warming, natural or man-made. It will change the face of the planet even though we don’t really know where, when or how, in any kind of detail.
But natural climate change has altered the face of the planet many times before, and in far more dramatic ways. Even the rate of change expected today is not outside the limits of natural change.
The 40-odd thousand years leading up to the last Ice Age included countless wild and sharp climatic oscillations that would have provided the most sensational of world headlines had our Neanderthal cousins had satellite television, mobile phones or internet.
Anyone who has looked at the paleoclimatic record of the last glacial2 in the 40 odd million years our current ice age is aware of the extremities that our ancestors and their extinct cousins have had, and which shaped our current form and cultures.
The difference with this one, and we should be open and honest about it, is that it will affect millions of people. Our own history, and that of our Neanderthal cousins and our predecessors, has been shaped by climate change and luck.
Our population was so small that being in the right place at the right time, or the wrong place at the wrong time, really mattered.
The Neanderthals, who had been so successful in Europe for much longer than we have been around, vanished because of too much global cooling.
The entire energy budget that humans are capable of controlling is but a few minutes of the annual energy budget that drives our climate. We have inadvertently managed to get into a position where we are temporarily3 changing the climate of the world. However, to me it merely looks like we are still arguing about wrong things. If it isn’t corrected we will wind up in our ancestors position of being brought to the brink of extinction in remnant populations.
The point is that modern day humans are accustomed to thinking of themselves as a species that shapes the world rather than being shaped by it. We can level mountains. But our powers are limited – we can’t stop famines when the rains don’t arrive on time for sustained periods. Under those circumstance we revert to the starvation and warfare of our ancestors – complicated by our increased abilities to increase the speed of diebacks with modern weaponary
Our technological civilization is based on a pyramid of technologies. The base of which is our technical innovation of agriculture. However this is a technology that has never seen severe climate change. Historically minor changes in climate patterns like the regional mini glacials, mini interglacials, and shifts in rainfall that have happened in the recent 10k years have caused civilizations to fall into disarray of warfare, disease, and starvation causing rapid drops in local human populations to a sustainable level.
The same fragilities and dependence on stable climate patterns still exist in our civilization. We are essentially in the same position as the extinct Neanderthals with respect to climate change, unable to adapt to its effects. But because we are causing the current climate problem, we are also capable of reversing it if we act early enough.
CCSs like our current government, are currently trying to debate ‘adaption’ rather than ‘mitigation’. But that is not an option. We will have to do both, because the climate changes are already going to be irreversibly severe worldwide – almost regardless what we do in the short-term. Because of the increasing interdependence of the world economies, the process of diebacks to sustainable levels will not confine themselves to discrete areas. Humans are not known for dying quietly, they tend to take others with them. The current proliferation of nuclear weapon4 capabilities mean that they can probably take a great many of us.
The later that effective6 mitigation (reducing and reversing greenhouse gas emissions) happens – the higher the costs will be for both adaption, mitigation, and consequential costs.
On that cheerful thought, I’m about to turn my mind off, and get ready for what will hopefully be a better new year.
1: I’ve given up on the CCDs (climate change deniers) because they are clearly not contributing to any debate apart from those of faith. The CCSs at least look at the evidence. Their usual trait is to say that it won’t be as severe as to require some paradigm shifts in the way that our technologies operates.
2: Pleeze! The slow continental drift of Antarctica into the polar regions about 70 million years ago has been causing rapid regional glacial and inter-glacial events for the last 40 million years. Essentially having a fridge move into the south polar region has been accentuating the normal cyclic solar and orbital changes ever since. I’d have thought by now that even anthropologists would have picked up on the implications of continental drift and the resulting shifts in terminology.
3: In any normal geological framework, the current effects of our efforts to turn Earths climate into that of Venus are doomed to failure. There simply aren’t enough fossil stores of carbon to do this over the long-term, even if you exclude the atmosphere stripping effects of our over-sized lunar sister. As soon as we are unable to sustain the effort any more, probably because humans or their current technological civilization go extinct, the planet will revert quickly (in geological terms). In a few thousands of years, you wouldn’t be able to see that we had any effect at all.
4: Of course there is a very fast terraforming tool at our disposal. Nuclear weapons being used against almost any ground target are a pretty good way of throwing particulate matter into the troposphere/stratosphere – the nuclear winter effect. This is the same effect, albeit less efficient, as having large volcanic effects. There will probably be an increased likelihood of warfare when societies get stressed from the effects of climate change. Not to mention the increased tensions from having greenhouse ‘cheaters’ in the international community. It becomes more a case of when this will happen than if. It seems like a policy made for demagogues.
Some of the studies done since the idea was postulated in the 1970’s would make this deeply attractive to nations deeply affected by climate change to use against nations emitting the gases causing it. Having your populations dying already would fundamentally shift the doctrines of MAD that have partially constrained the use of nuclear weapons for the last 60 years.
5: It was pretty damn minor when you look at other regions of the world. When you look what at the energy levels of hurricanes in the Caribbean, or especially cyclones in the more open Pacific, Katrina was at least partially dissipated by the islands and shallower seas by the time it hit the US coastline. Of course it didn’t seem that way to the people who remained in New Orleans because their systems weren’t set up to handle that level of energy dissipation.
6: Look at Nationals Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) for how ineffective a scheme can be. Bad as Labours version was, what national came up with was a travesty.. Nationals version is like slapping a white dress over a pregnancy and getting everyone at the ceremony to pretend that a white dress with no waistline means a virgin is going to have a night she will never forget7.
7: And you can blame Lyn for that comment. She was explaining the anatomy of wedding dresses and their waistlines.8
8: And blame Terry Prachett for the extended footnotes. I damn well hope that his medical condition doesn’t slow him down too much writing those witty books with their intensely funny footnotes.