Saturday, July 26, 2008

Yo Mama Earth

Saw a USGS report that crude reserves offshore in the Artic may be as much as 90 billion barrels. Of course we can't access it because a few dozen krill or possibly the odd walrus might be inconvenienced. On shore in the northern reaches of ANWR we could easily discomfit several million mosquitos with drilling rigs so that's right out. We must must must "save the planet" at all costs.

When you see pictures of a massive tsunami, a huge volcanic eruption, or the results of a major quake you just aren't left with the impression that the Earth is the timorous delicately fragile place so many seem to think it is these days. Plop a greenie yuppie alone in the middle of the Sahara, or the Amazon, or the Antarctic and they might not be so sure the planet is the gentle nurturing Mama Earth they thought it was when they nobly shelled out 28 large for a Prius to help out with global warming.

Good old Mom is one tough customer. She ain't a skeered of the likes of us by crackey. Show a little respect if you please for the all time champion queen of ruthless killers--Mother Earth. Not from nothing came the early religionists' injunctions for Man to exercise dominion over the Earth. The intent was for the believer to get busy and "tame" a landscape that too often seemed intent on erasing the thinking mammal's presence. Consider---floods, droughts, fires, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, heatstoke, sunburn, frostbite, hurricanes, typhoons, tornadoes, lightning, hail, sand storms, blizzards, heat stroke, hypothermia, poisonous snakes, poisonous plants, plagues, thorns, locusts, chiggers, ants, termites, wasps, mosquitoes, ticks, tapeworms, spiders, lice, mice, rats, wolves, lions, tigers, and bears oh frakkin' my. Quite a list and quite an incomplete one. Of course our environment is what sustains us but historically it has been just as intent, if not rather more so, on burying us.

Therefore achieving "dominion", we'd phrase it as control, over this unremittingly hostile place was crucial if humans were to move past the primitive hunter/gatherer stage of social evolution. The supremely comfortable lives we lead today are the results of several thousand years of steady increases in keeping ever more of the alleged glories of the natural world at bay to the greatest extent possible. The last ten millenia have been an endless battle to carve out of the wilderness (everywhere was of course "wilderness" once) the relatively unharried unthreatening existence we, in the developed world at least, currently enjoy. Now that most of that grueling business is out of the way we can now apparently afford to recast the planet as the Goddess Gaia, exemplar of all that is good, true, and infinitely succoring. It has been said that the Universe is not cruel but merely indifferent. Same goes for the planet. It spins merrily away in its orbit supremely unconcerned about the doings of the thin tissue of carbon-based life on its surface.

There may be a few nutbars out there who think we humans might threaten the solid silicon/iron bulk of the planet but most, upon a little reflection, take the phrase "Save the Planet" to mean that our human busyness possibly threatens not the actual planet but rather our own safe serene existences. We should at least admit that we are concerned for our own comfort and all the factors that influence it and not really for some idealized phony-baloney new-agey idea that a planet can be an actual living organism. This puerile malarkey would be otherwise harmless if not for the contribution it makes towards inflating the huge alarmist bubble of fear that enrobes the whole subject of anthropogenically caused global warming.

There seems to be any number of people absolutely panicked by the prospect of a six inch sea level rise and a two or three degree rise in average global temperature. Even if I were to abandon my critical faculties entirely and accept the worst case scenarios shrilly bandied about, the fact remains that these scenarios are predictions and not guarantees. In fact there seem to be no shortage of qualifiers such as, "could result in", "projections are", "studies indicate", "as much as" and "computer modeling suggests". It takes a level of confidence in which I am not willing to indulge to uncritically accept the proposition that climate modeling is so keenly advanced and infallible when equivalently complex art renders mere meteorological predictions entirely useless past about ten days. I've heard the argument that long term changes are in some ways easier to predict than short term weather patterns but sorry just not buying it. It is the utter height of hubris to suggest that we know even a fraction of what we need to know about a system as stupendously complex and subtly interrelated as an entire planetary biosphere.

Cherry-picking data is the long-standing traditional dodge of activist groups who fear that any contrary indications might run the risk of ratcheting back the hysteria which is seen as crucial in heating up public demand for "action" on any given issue. Which is why the current years long spell of average temperature moderation is characterized as purely anomalous or merely the cool calm before the warm storm. Skepticism is growing and is getting much harder to pass off as the bleatings of paid industry shills but so many individuals and organizations are so deeply invested in climate change hysteria that even the barest smidgin of rhetorical backsliding cannot be tolerated. In fact the more the orthodoxy is challenged the greater the volume of alarmism becomes along with the inevitable descent into nasty ad-hominem attacks on those who dare challenge the sacred invocation "The Science Is Settled".

Pardon me but Science is never "settled". It is fundamental to the entire structure of the scientific enterprise that new data may, and frequently does, require adjustments in predictive physical models. Sure some things are pretty solidly defined such as the speed of light and the mathematical approximations of numerous physical phenomena large and small. What is clearly in its infancy is the ability of computer models to reliably predict the long term behavior of extremely complex inherently chaotic large scale systems such as a planet's biosphere with its dozens, if not hundreds, of variable factors, any one of which if nudged a bit one way or the other may result in wildly differing results. Add to that factors of which we are likely not yet aware which can and likely will modify predictive confidence levels.

I submit that while an extraordinarily high level of confidence is needed to countenance the expenditure of many trillions of dollars in the "fight" against global warming, no confidence at all is needed at all to assert that there is no such thing as some Edenic climate gold standard--that there is a "right" kind of global climate. Putting aside the difficulties in measuring average global temperatures in times past, which is the "correct" one. For which average temperature should we expend vast amounts of effort and treasure in an attempt to implement and maintain? What is the "right" average temp for earth-bound life? Which one is perfect for the vast array of microbes, animals, and plants that inhabit ecological niches ranging over nearly a thousand degrees of temperature difference? Go ahead, don't rush, take your time.

Is it only that in some ineffable way that warming is bad? How about cooling? That not so good either? Okay then which average global temp is correct? Last year's? 1965? 1842? 1306? 2000BC? I think that point is belabored enough but if the array of forces intent on spending oceans of cash on preventing a warming, of indeterminant strength with indeterminant (but always horrific) effects, prevails we will all get to find out just how much money one civilization can piss away on chasing a chimerical, and entirely arbitrary, perfection. Worse still it is entirely possible that all the proposed technological heavy lifting and vast expenditures envisioned to combat global warming could easily be out of phase with the planet's natural variability cycles. More plainly put all the massive efforts proposed could quite easily make the next inevitable large scale climatic temperature swing much worse than it might have been otherwise. Are we really that smart yet? Our record to date of futzing about with small scale biological problems has been spotty to put it as charitably as possible. Lousy would be another appropriate description. Each case of intervention, done with the best of intentions naturally, has made things worse more often than better.

What I am very confident about is that the media fueled, and completely unwarranted, panic which we are subjected to daily is likely to result in a string of hyper-costly policy decisions that, when looked back upon, will result in the all too familiar hindsight of "What the hell could we have been thinking?".

Our pathetic efforts pale against the mass destruction the turbulent innards of the planet itself can rain down upon the biosphere. A single modest volcanic eruption can spew more noxious effluvia than humankind can in centuries of trying. Not to worry. Mom's big rock bod is tough enough to survive even her own attempted knockout punches. The biosphere has not been so lucky. A little event called the Permian Extinction killed off 95% of all species due possibly to cataclysmically vast outpourings of magma and gasses from montrous vents in present day Siberia some 250 million years ago. One of the possible causes of the Cretaceous Extinction (Dinosaurs) 65 million years ago was an immense asteroid walloping into the Yucatan area. 640 thousand years ago the immense Yellowstone caldera popped its big cork and savaged North America while creating a world wide volcanic winter that may have lasted decades. As little as 75 thousand years ago Mt. Toba in Sumatra blew big enough to convince some researchers that Earth's small human colonies only narrowly survived the effects. 13,000 years ago North American megafauna and the then thriving Clovis neolithic culture were wiped out in a stroke by as yet undetermined but likely meteoric or cometary pummelings. Humanity's own puny efforts to affect the biosphere are small beer by comparison. Worry less about what we have done to our dear sainted Mither and more about what she can do to us.

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