Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Climate Change, Ecological Novelty, This is not the Age of Aquarius

Generally I prefer to stay away from debates about climate change. I try to perceive the issue in an ecological setting rather than some argument what is going to happen in 50 years if we don't or do do A or B. I have little confidence in our ability to predict the future but I often get the impression that arguments from sceptics and advocates appear predicated on the idea we can make reasonable predictions about future outcomes with sufficient degrees of confidence so as to justify actions A or B. Logically speaking we can't have such confidence, practically speaking if we try we learn something. We might even learn something useful but that's a long shot.

This latest study supports conclusions that many in the general public had already adopted: that the majority of climate scientists accept the reality of climate change and the need to do something very quickly. Over the last few years, if my reading is any guide, the trend has markedly shifted, the scientific community is now becoming more "shrill", as some would say. Scientists working in the relevant fields are more likely to become alarmed because on an almost daily basis they are confronting data which indicates to them that there are now changes occurring in ecology that are not so much as to be seen in the perspective of past ecologies but that the changes humans are instituting will lead to ecological novelties the consequences of which are impossible to determine. However, given that our way of life represents an adaptation to the present ecology, with the developing massive ecological shifts currently under way the probabilities are that we will be confronted with a large array of ecological shifts that will demand we change some of our behaviors. Some demand that we change our "way of life", but I find that too ambiguous.

Every week there are studies being published that are pointing towards large ecological shifts occurring. This news item from ScienceDaily claims that there are now changes in the ocean occurring that are the largest in 7 million years. The geologic record is replete with massive climate and ecological changes, the current geologic period is one of flipping every 100,000 years or so back into an ice age. Yet even within the ice age times there is a great deal of variability. For example, in the last ice age period there was a massive volcanic explosion, Mt. Toba at sumatra some 75,000 years ago.  The spike in temperature changes is large, perhaps large enough to explain how the window was opened for us to reach Australia. More interestingly is that mitochondria DNA studies indicated modern humans faced a huge bottleneck point suggesting a collapse of the total human population to perhaps as low as 2,000 for the entire globe. It is now believed that the Mt. Toba incident may have induced such massive ecological shifts that humanity was almost wiped out. Mt. Toba like incidents are not that common but can change the world overnight. At the other level, intertwined molecules of amino acids and fatty acids can reek havoc on a population. Viruses, look at the  devastation by viruses upon culture. Smallpox decimated aborigines, the flu in South America, just about anything in North America, but for the most part entirely by accident. At most if not all levels of causation there are potential factors that can change the world overnight. And I wonder why some people get depressed. Becoming depressed about an unpredictable unknown is a habit that makes no sense.

What does make sense is trying to manage the number of potential unknowns. The progress of human knowledge is about developing increasing mastery over our environment. There are intrinsic limits to that mastery but I doubt we are anywhere near those limits. If anything we seem to be extremely creative in generating responses to deal with the changing world. As a species we are generalised specialists, ideally equipped to cope with many ecologies and in particular with rapidly changing ecologies, a challenge which often extinguishes other species. We're tough not because of our physicality but because of our conceptual richness.

I can't handle the Greenie philosophy of conservation. To conserve the present for the future makes no sense. Greenies are progressives? No, they too entertain deeply conservative notions. The world is changing too fast for conservative thinking. I strongly believe in maintaining some conservation efforts because the potential ecological changes will be beyond our adaptive capacity, but a concept like "conservation" as a principle has no referents. Nature does not conserve, nature has no concepts, there is no balance, no web of life, nature has no intention.

From a practical point of view we need to start conserving many more ecologies. There is far too much disruption occurring, if only through pollutants, where antibiotics and many other pharmaceutical and plastic related chemicals can be regarded as pollutants. There are now a huge number of studies pointing to adverse physiological effects from exposure to various chemicals we have created. Take the average person and you will find at least 200 chemicals in their body that did not exist prior to 1920. Compounds found in plastics can massively increase the risk of type 2 diabetes and this independent of obesity. Over recent years there has been a flurry of studies indicating that a number of compounds in plastics can and do induce a wide range of physiological changes. Then all the studies on air pollution impacts etc etc. The important point here is that even though we cannot clearly and directly predict the consequences of  these changes there are so many of these changes occurring at so many levels that there is a very high probability we are inducing changes which we will have difficulty in addressing. We are being overwhelmed by a complexity of our own making. Now I'm depressed.

It is one thing to anticipate problems, is it another thing to anticipate solutions? How often has it been proclaimed that doom awaits us all? Perhaps it is easier to perceive problems than solutions. Perhaps we need to be actually dealing with the problem until we can begin to see how to solve the problem. I have in mind this recent piece of research which addressed the question of "intelligent design". Their argument is that if we look at the history of creative breakthroughs what we often find is a great deal of tinkering and experimenting occurs and only then does the final "design" emerge. In our thinking we may have an idea of what we wish to achieve but it is in our doing that we find a way to get there. It is also often our doing that leads to further unintended consequences.

So from a broad ecological perspective I believe that the power of modern human behavior is introducing wide ranging ecological effects that remain largely unpredictable and will require responses on our part. While Science can inform us about the potential consequences, and we are becoming better at predicting potential consequences, which alone justifies making further efforts in that regard, our responses cannot be entirely determined by Science. There is an intrinsic limit, the more we tinker the more unintended consequences will arise, the more opportunities we have to learn how to cope with unintended consequences, assuming there is a "rosetta stone" for dealing with unintended consequences. That is, given the huge array of human behaviors that are actively changing ecologies we are now confronted with unique challenges. We have tinkered so much we can forget about returning to some ecological golden age. It is also highly problematic if not outright wrong to predicate climate change models on prior geologic periods when this geologic period, that of Homo Destructus, represents a stunning ecological transformation. We are a consequence of prior ecologies, we presently are an ecological Mt. Toba like incident, we will be one of the major determinants in future ecologies.

Last year the Royal Society in London published a series of papers addressing climate change. The argument was that because we will not change our behaviour to prevent climate change we should head in the other direction and actively explore geo-engineering. The Royal Society admits this is a strategy of last resort and with a low probability of success. In my view though they are realistic, the time has passed for ideas about preserving the existing climate. Even if we were to adjust our behaviours tomorrow it will still be too late. However, whether or not making changes now will reduce the amount of mitigation we will have to institute later is another question.

Some suggest since we can't know the future we should keep doing what we're doing and when problems arise we'll fix it. Our history supports that view. In the past we successfully developed many strategies to mitigate against emerged problems. In regard to the present time  we are confronted with problems of so many kinds that it could constitute death by a thousand cuts. We simply may not be able to cope with the number and difficulty of "unintended consequences" that we have created. By way of example, consider the following:
  • We've all heard about toxicity thresholds for various compounds, often the hidden assumption is that so long as you are not exposed to more than X of a substance you will not be hurt. That is largely untrue, it is better to think of safety thresholds as limits at which damage can be observed. Some researchers took this a step further, they introduced well below safety thresholds for various chemicals into the lab animals and sure enough physiological changes ensued and these changes were suggestive of emergent pathology. We are doing the same thing to every organism on the planet, we have introduced thousands of substances into the ecology and these are popping up in everything from plankton to eagles. Even in the absence of any specific pathological consequences the introduction of such novel agents into the environment will potentially, particularly over the long term, have large ecological effects. 
  • In relation to human behaviour being changed by physiological states, this abstract points to physiological interventions in behavioural disorders that appear much more beneficial than many other "CNS dominated" perspectives on behaviour. The result is almost counter-intuitive but other studies point towards such effects, with delinquent behaviour often being associated with physiological effects. There was an even an argument put forward by a statistician that the mostly likely explanation for the decline in crime in some regions of the USA was the introduction of unleaded petrol some 20 years beforehand. The argument is supported by studies indicating that high lead levels in childhood can have very marked behavioural outcomes in adulthood. When looking at large populations the more extreme effects become observable, but what is now being observed is that there is a more subtle effect, including a generalised reduction in cognitive skills. 
Climate change should not surprise us. We have already established so much change throughout the globe, our behavior can have consequences so wide ranging and powerful as to reach across the globe, that our goal should not be to retreat from attempting to gain further mastery over our environment but to continually seek ways to improve our responses to environmental contingencies. At present though we are not conceptually able to meet this challenge. We have reached a technological impasse, we have created so many potentially powerful causative agents into the ecology that we already have bitten off more than we can chew. I'm happy for Nature to have the intention of being forgiving, of allowing us to behave like over active children because it is going to take a lot of work and time to address the consequences of our own power. Now that is exuberant hubris, but we have no choice. Hubris and desperation may well be our biggest assets. If we cannot know the future, we cannot know what we may be able to do in the future. We certainly won't know if we don't try.


Steve Edney said...

Interesting post John,

I would say something about this.

"Scientists working in the relevant fields are more likely to become alarmed because on an almost daily basis they are confronting data which indicates to them that there are now changes occurring in ecology that are not so much as to be seen in the perspective of past ecologies "

I do wonder how many new discoveries are really due to climate change, and how much is about how we don't appreciate natural variability. It seems to me that frequently people are finding "change" and attributing it to climate change without really having any good causal relationship. If you are searching for the effects of climate change then you may interpret any unexpected knowledge as such rather than just new knowledge.

My position on this remains that I am like you skeptical about cliams of x degrees in y years. I really don't think we have the knowledge to do this. However there are sound grounds to be reducing CO2 output as we know it is a greenhouse gas, and must ulitmately have some effect.

John said...


In regard to CO2 I think we should be building nuke plants and lots of them. My tipping point re AGW came with the ocean studies, no models required. Increasing ocean acidification and nitrogen loading is already inducing measurable ecological and physiological changes. So people can argue about climate models all they like, but in addition to other findings, like that with increased CO2 some plants produce more toxins and less nutrients, the ocean studies are evidence enough for me that CO2 is a problem independent of climate change modelling.

John said...

Happens all the time. This stuff is harmless, we'll dump it here. If it is not so harmless, we'll dump it somewhere deeper. Gotta change that attitude. Any large change in the "chemical soup" is potentially disruptive. Life is that deeply adapted to its environment, it is the molecular activity, the contexts of interactions, not just a prescribed set of molecular reactions that we currently understand. It's weird Steve, I find that a staggering idea, but the data points in that direction. The power of causation in those "other" molecular events may be minor compared to what we know, but over long periods of time "minor" does not equal negligible or insignificant. Could change everything.

John said...

"Greening the deserts" is one example of where I have a problem with the conservationists because they seem to think that the desert is vital and that the web of life will be irretrievably altered if we change the desert. Of course it will be altered, that's the point. That attitude is completely different from a more practical attitude towards conservation: preserving an ecology because of food or economic value(eg.tourism)or so that future generations can still walk in old growth forests. I accept that type of conservation but wish Australia would get much more serious about aggressively altering the landscape. There are huge amounts of water in this country, most of it flows into the Gulf of Carpentaria, Lake Eyre is below sea level, let's create an island sea, wait 50 years ... . All sorts of things.

I recognise we have changed a great deal and there are some serious environmental issues apart from AGW that require our urgent attention. But I believe we have gone so far down the techno path that there is no turning back. I remember reading Freeman Dyson wherein he wrote how his Uncle once told him a story about toys. His uncle said that once you have a new toy you no longer want the old toys. We're not going back but if we take the idea of planning for 2100 seriously(Hmmm...), we need to start developing technologies of greater energy provision and environmental management. The energy issue will be resolved, there are many interesting research projects in that realm, from the fusion reactor to hydrogen power to batteries. That will come. Environmental management is plagued by moral arguments, that is going to be much more difficult.

Ironically the obsession with AGW is masking the true extent of how we are changing the ecology of the planet. From what I've read, if I take the AGW threat seriously I have to take much more seriously a range of other ecological changes we are inducing. Many of these can be and in my view must be addressed. We cannot think 100 years ahead but we must find a way to think 10 years ahead.

John said...

Arctic Climate May Be More Sensitive to Warming Than Thought, Says New Study

ScienceDaily (June 30, 2010) — A new study shows the Arctic climate system may be more sensitive to greenhouse warming than previously thought, and that current levels of Earth's atmospheric carbon dioxide may be high enough to bring about significant, irreversible shifts in Arctic ecosystems.