On the money

Charles Stross (@cstross) is one of my favorite writers. We have wildly different views on things, but I like his writing, and his very clear thinking and story telling.

Which is why I have to say that this blog post puts a nice context box around some of the things we hear about “saving the planet.” Something akin to this has been running around my head for a while, but not nearly as elegantly put.

Planet Earth To Shaved Apes: I’ve been here for 4.6 billion years. Biological life has been around on me for over 3.6 billion years. Oxygen-breathing vertebrates only colonized my land masses about 400MYa ago. Looking ahead, my hospitability to life has a shelf-life. As the sun ages on the Main Sequence it will brighten; the steadily increasing solar UV output will split water molecules high in the ionosphere, and the freed hydrogen radicals will escape into space increasingly fast. Some time between 200MYa and 2GYa from now, my surface will become depleted of water. Oceans will dry up. They will be buffered for a while by the hydrated rocks in my crust and outer mantle, but eventually all the water will go — and a runaway greenhouse effect (like that on Venus) will render my surface inhospitable to life. Long before the helium-burning giant star that was Sol expands and swallows me (in 5-6 billion years), I will be a dead and lifeless rock-ball swathed in an atmosphere of red-hot carbon dioxide.

So in the long run you can’t save my biosphere. Not unless you learn to move planets about.

Its that whole concept of context.

Which reminds me. He alludes to AGW his writeup. AGW of course is the theory that human activity is causing a warming trend in the environment. Its based upon data from a variety of sources that show a (now widely discredited) hockey stick rise over time. I did see another graph a few years ago that uses a properly corrected for, sourced, and analyzed temperature record.

The reason this is relevant to the context thread from Stross’ writing, is, if you looked at the record over 1k year, or 10k year, or 100k year, you saw that huge looking hockey stick in context. And it was small. Basically, indistinguishable from noise.

I can’t find that plot now, but Anthony Watt and others had it on their site. Feel free to send me a pointer to it if you remember the one I mean … it was converted to an animated gif showing an ever expanding timeline and the full data set.

This placed the temperature record in context. And the context of the record was devastating for those alarmists screaming that the sky is falling, and we need to regulate carbon emission. I remember I’d shown this to some friends whom were firmly in the alarmist camps. Their reaction would be best described as crestfallen. The fundamental pillar of their belief in the validity of catastrophic AGW was wiped out.

But further, the argument I make is that the climate of the planet, not unlike the biosphere of the planet, has been changing on its own, between numerous extremes, including an snowball earth (think of the planet Hoth in the Star Wars trilogy) to a hot house, and everything in between.

But since we as humans have been around for such a short time, we’ve had very little time to actually impact our environment, so there is a tendency to equate rapid changes somehow with human action. But again, place this in the larger context of the temperature record over time, and you see these “large” changes have occurred before, and even before we, as humans, were populus at a scale to have any possible impact. Moreover, the environment changed in the past, prior to our emergence as hominids, in a more drastic manner.

The problem is, fundamentally, we have no real way of separating the signal from the noise. We have no control planet, as nearly identical in parameters as our own, with a set of hominids who remained hunter gatherers, but exist in similar numbers to us, available to study. That is, we cannot really construct a testable hypothesis, as the null hypothesis from which to distinguish these observations, is also unavailable. So we have to rely upon models for the analysis. And thats where things go south fast. Turns out that any inputs to the model would provide the output indicated. Which is usually the signature of a broken model.

The question of “are we impacting our climate” is as important as “are we impacting our biosphere”. And its important not to get these things wrong.

But … its not hours, days, weeks, months of time scale. Its not years. Its not decades. Its not centuries or millennia. Its measured in timescales comparible to megayears. This does not mean we can kick cans down the road. It does mean we should be taking actions to learn how to tread more lightly and less intrusively on mother earth.

As Stross said,

Anyway. The short version of the environmentalist value proposition is: don’t shit in your own back yard. Ecosystems are complex and exhibit non-linear behaviour; it’s a bad idea to disrupt the natural balance, lest we find ourselves suffering from crop failures due to pollinator die-offs, for example. And because this is a complex, knotty, gnarly field of interdependencies, the precautionary principle should be applied: take disruptive action only with extreme caution.

Yes, yes, and absolutely yes. Tread lightly if possible. Lets not dump nasty crap in great concentration into our landfills, into our seas. Lets not defecate in our collective back yards.

The issue of AGW, and more correctly, catastrophic AGW, is unfortunately, a magnet for hyperventalition. And worse, it seems to have created a whole industry with staggering sums of money (carbon exchanges) to “correct” “wrongs”.

A fool and their money are soon parted. What I and many many others object to is, using our collective taxes to help make all of us fools.

First we have to figure out if we are actually having an impact … or is it nature doing what nature has done before. Since we know its done it before, its the height of hubris and narcissistic self importance to claim that we are the reason that the environment is doing what it is doing. These sorts of anthropocentric models died very hard in physics, astronomy, cosmology, and other places. It took many centuries to accept that the earth was not at the center of the universe (the implication is that there is such a “center”, which is suspect to begin with), or even the solar system.

Put another way, its a very … very hard hill to climb to claim and support that humans are responsible for what nature has been doing for the 4.3 gigayears before we showed up on scene. The burden of proof is extraordinarily high. And it is definitely not helped with leveling charges of “denier” and worse. Actually, those charges suggest that there is less evidence available, as people have to resort to non-evidence based argumentation modes (e.g. attempts to belittle or bully). Once you see this, you know, almost beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the side using such tactics has lost the scientific argument.

But remember, we have to put this all in context.

I’m all for putting more money into research to improve models, to turn them from curiousities, into something with at least a modicum of reasonable predictive power. One of the best ways to do this is to run the model backwards in time. Though there is a huge amount of entropy generation as a function of time, so the models will deviate from observation over longer time scales, they should be able to roughly predict previous temperature profiles if they are correct.

And the really interesting aspect will be when they get them wrong, which, my understanding is, they do now. They get them wrong because their models are inadequate descriptions of nature. The more accurate descriptions they become the better. And if this means that we have to add additional terms to the models to make them work out … Damn it … thats PRECISELY where the new science is. And that EXACTLY where we should be looking.

But keep this in context. What is the impact of insolation variations of a few percent during things like the minimal sunspot activity times in recorded history? Whats the impact of orbital variation (we live in a mostly stable but slightly chaotic dynamical system here, thank gosh for “stable” orbits on the Poincare map!).

There are so many good hard questions we can ask of nature. Many with answers hidden from our view now, but slowly and carefully teased out of measurements and modeling. And a wonderfully long time context to answer them in.

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