Posted by: terrapraeta | May 26, 2009

Greenhouse


Ice age coming, ice age coming
Let me hear both sides
Let me hear both sides
Let me hear both..

Ice age coming, ice age coming
Throw me in the fire
Throw me in the fire
Throw me in the..

We’re not scaremongering
This is really happening, happening
We’re not scaremongering
This is really happening, happening

Radiohead, Idioteque

Brian, over at Prison Breakdown wrote an article last week entitled “Who Caused Global Warming”. Initially, I had a very strong negative reaction to his piece. I have heard the Global Warming naysayers come up with some pretty strong and fundamentally flawed arguments against the science, and have gotten rather tired of pointing out many of the blatant lies and intentional misdirection this arguments frequently contain.

Now, I have come to see Brian as a fellow seeker on this road to sustainable lifestyles and functional societies, so when I saw he was dissing the reality of global warming, I had to speak up – and I did. Now that we have discussed, I find that he and I are not too far off, save perhaps in the way we frame our thoughts. So I thought it might be useful to explore this a bit further.

First, a few points: there is no doubt that climate is a complex system, that there are a multitude of reasons for changing temperatures locally and world wide, and so it is quite difficult to determine precisely which changes may be part of ‘global warming’ and which are part of other natural cycles. A good example of this is Hurricane activity. Hurricanes in the Atlantic follow a multi-decade cycle of frequency. We are currently in the midst of an ‘up’ period. This means that we can expect more frequent hurricanes, in general, for the next several decades. So when climate experts have pointed to the ravages of Katrina, the skeptics point to this cycle and call bullshit. In some cases, they are probably correct, however, that is a point of sloppiness, not honest science. Were it not for warming trends, leaving the Gulf of Mexico far warmer than is normal, Katrina would have landed in New Orleans as Category I hurricane, rather than the intense Category IV that decimated the city.

But I really did not intend to focus on Tropical Storms. Rather, I am interested in the big picture issues of Global Warming itself, as well as the fundamental nature of complex systems and how we relate to them.

I wrote to Brian:

So when we look at global warming, saying that humans are changing the atmosphere is NOT saying that we have some god like powers. It is saying that we have as much power as any other species, because we are as intimately connected to our environment as every other species and so our actions create a dynamic relationship that can either be systemically balanced or not. In the case of our civilization, we have consistently responded to every crisis with intensification of our actions. It’s that positive feedback loop just like the food-population-hierarchy triad.
So, for example, we are dumping a lot of airborne garbage into our atmosphere. Originally, it was a lot of particulate matter — soot — in addition to greenhouse gases. So environmentalism got going and everyone aid, look at this ugly black air, we need to clean it up. And they did. Unfortunately, they did not do this by stopping dumping garbage into the atmosphere, they did it by limiting the parts of that garbage that we can see. Makes it LOOK better, when in fact, that is an intensification of imbalancing the system. (Like, you mention volcanoes — all true — but volcanoes dump a balance of heating AND cooling garbage — just like we used too. But when you get rid of the particulates, then there is nothing to balance out the greenhouse gases until BOTH types of particles settle back out of the air)
Currently, we are dumping greenhouse gases into the air, which we KNOW increase temperature. But that is not the end of the story. We are also creating and maintaining a ‘cloud cover’ over much of the populous first world in the form of airplane vapor trails. Hard thing to study, but in the wake of 9/11 someone took the opportunity to look at it. Recognizing that only a tiny sampling was (or could be) available, he looked at average daily temperature variance during those few days when there was no air traffic, and found a two degree shift. So if we can say the global warming has increased average temperatures by ‘only’ one degree, but that this is still troubling… what happens when we see that it may be the case that air traffic has been counterbalancing that to the tune of two degrees which means that without that, global warming may have raised average temperature three times more than they realize… some of this is tenuous, but when you start to compound the many studies that indicate a general pattern of temperature increase caused by our polluting, then I think it behooves us to recognize that we DO have the power to cause irrevocable harm (not uniquely, but merely as one member of this vast network of life) — and that our biggest problem is that we cannot understand it well enough to control it, all we can do is continue to shoot blind knowing there is probably gonna be trouble, OR we can try to modify or eliminate the actions we KNOW are not helping things.

In his response he wrote:

What I’m trying to say in all this is that it is not possible to accurately predict what we need to do (if anything) to stop global warming. Global warming and cooling has happened on its own a number of times during the earth’s history. To see this, you need to look back over many millions of years (or even billions), not just a relatively miniscule length of time like 650,000 years as Al Gore and many others do. The earth is much older than 650,000 years and Her cycles are sometimes longer as well.
If we stopped all artificial greenhouse gas emissions, there is no guarantee that we would have any measurable effect on global warming. It might just keep going as it will.
Does this mean that I think we should keep polluting the earth like we have over the last 200 years? Definitely not. There are many other effects our pollution has that are much more reliably measured and known. Species extinction, increases in cancer and disease rates, degradation of natural places are all very easy to see and measure. I think we should be focusing on changing these effects more. If we stop dumping toxic waste into the atmosphere, we would see and know the effect in the form of lower mercury in our fish and other measures.
Focusing on such grand effects as global warming not only makes us think we’re gods, but it also takes our focus away from effects we have on our earth that affect us more directly. Yes, global warming is happening, but I think it’s better to focus on reducing our contamination of groundwater and breathable air in all of our neighborhoods than hope that if we stop driving cars will lower the temperature of the earth to the level it was 50 years ago.

Generally, I agree with him. However, there are still a couple points of contention.

I have no problem with focusing on local, immediate and individual actions to improve our individual lives and communities. In fact, this is exactly how I suggest we try and tackle our environmental problems. But I do not think this is exclusionary or incompatible with reducing greenhouse gas emissions nor planting and protecting our forests, rain forests and ocean ecologies. We each do what we can, and we focus our attention locally – some of us will find that those oceans, rain forest and temperate forests are local and immediate.

I also believe, as I have written before, that we humans can understand the world around us far more effectively if we embrace and re-discover intuitive thinking – systemics, pattern recognition, complexity. If we are to do this, it means that we cannot close ourselves off from the big picture stuff – because that is where we will find the understanding that so far seems to have eluded us.

And, I really, strongly disagree that “focusing on global warming[…]makes us think we’re gods”. In fact, in my mind it creates exactly the opposite effect. What leaves us with a greater feeling of godhood? The assumption that we are above and beyond the normal interactions of our planetary ecology? Or the recognition that we are part of it, that we depend upon it to live and without a healthy ecology we will certainly go the way of the dodo bird?

I think, oftentimes, people look at this idea that we have caused changes in our ecology as if that were some supernatural feat. However, exactly the opposite is the case. Does anyone believe that anaerobic bacteria have supernatural powers? Yet their activity caused the single greatest extinction in the history of planet Earth: the Oxygen Holocaust, wherein >95% of all life became extinct. In the same way, introduce any alpha predator into a new ecology and the cascading effects will be dramatic and unpredictable. Remove a keystone species from an ecology, the effect is equally dramatic.

So the only difference between anaerobic bacteria, wolves, coral reefs; and humans, is that we have enough knowledge and intelligence to understand that we may be causing a problem. And we have the ability to change our behavior if we wish to survive. Or at least, in theory we have the intelligence to see it and the power to change it. I guess only the future can say whether that is true or not.

(Originally Posted February 16, 2007)

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  1. […] Greenhouse Rather, I am interested in the big picture issues of Global Warming itself, as well as the fundamental nature of complex systems and how we relate to them. I wrote to Brian: So when we look at global warming saying that humans are […]


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