Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Afraid of Extremes

Scientists are often critical of businessmen for expecting things to stay the same rather than change. Yet scientists exhibit the exact same reluctance to consider change as well even when faced with it clearly. The Big Thaw, a National Geographic article about global melting ice and its consequences, treads fearfully around the topic of ice melt. The article cautiously quotes the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) about sea level rise claiming we might see a foot by 2100. Then it gets braver and talks about 3 feet of rise by 2100. These scientists are terrified of being seen as extremists if they say anything more yet the geologic history tells us to be terrified.

Dr. James Hansen, the most outspoken and well known of the climatologists concerned with global warming, has recently published a paper titled Climate Change and Trace Gases. The paper was presented in the British Journal Philosophic Transactions of the Royal Society. In this paper, Dr. Hansen notes that in prior warming periods the ice did not melt slowly after the temperature warmed. Indeed, the ice melted rapidly while it warmed. Further, Dr. Hansen shows that the last time the earth was this warm and then warmed another 3 degrees centigrade that the ocean levels did not rise 30 cm (about 1 foot) at all. No, indeed the ocean levels rose more than 25 meters. Worse, as Hansen demonstrates, the bulk of the sea level rise comes during the temperature rise. This means if we see 3 degrees celsius rise in temperatures, that we logically should not expect a 30 cm rise in sea levels at all. In other words, Hansen is warning that sea levels may rise by 25 meters between now and 2100!

Think about this. Even if we divide the rise unevenly and ascribe 80% of the sea level rise to a time after 2050, that still means we would likely see 5 meters (16 feet) of rise before 2050. That's a foot every 3 years or 4 feet in 12 years. And if the rise is more even? Then it would be more like a meter (3+ feet) every 4 years, or 12 feet every 12 years. We're talking about a 82+ foot sea level rise in a century and no, it won't all wait til after you are dead to happen.

That is the real data from paleoclimatology sources about what happened before. It wasn't a linear relationship at all which is what the IPCC assumes. It was an exponential relationship with positive feedback loops built into it. We know that. These climate scientists know that. They've read the papers. They've studied these specific topics in school and professionally. And yet despite factual evidence, none of these scientists in the National Geographic article is willing to admit the possibility that we might see similar melts as past evidence tells us. Instead they try to believe that tomorrow is going to be just like today or so little different that it does not matter.

I bring this up not because of the sea level rise issue, which is important in itself, but because it demonstrates the powerful human tendency to want to believe that tomorrow will be similar to today and to deny facts about tomorrow when those facts get in the way of this belief. This is happening with climatologists who have been trained to think critically, examine facts, and consider impacts on the future yet they still tend towards the human norm of expecting tomorrow to be like today.

Given this sort of behavior by even those with clear training otherwise amongst us, why would our leaders, the politicians of the world, ever be expected to consider anything except "business as usual" for what is coming?

Now go on and couple this sort of mental attitude amongst trained scientists with the sort of outlook that covers up problems such as those found at Kashawazaki nuclear power plant after the earthquake. These are the trained professionals whom the rest of us rely upon for clearheaded thinking. The entire world is refusing to consider the radical impact of resource scarcity (peak oil included) and climate change. At most it is simply an excuse to party or get rich in the current business climate by trading carbon credits.

These are the people who are supposed to be leading us through the wilderness of these difficult times. These are the people in whose judgments we entrust our futures and our children's futures. Are you getting a sense yet that our culture is sick? Are you getting a sense yet that our culture is in denial?

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