Thursday, April 08, 2010

The Weather Makers

A couple of years ago Richard Morse suggested I read The Weather Makers to get a convincing argument for why global warming is a Really Big Deal and why we Must Do Something Now.

I read it on my Kindle, and used the Kindle's "add note" feature to jot down my thoughts as I read. Definitely klunky, but better than sticking post-it notes in a paper book or writing in the margins-- the Kindle lets me see all my notes at once and it's way more environmentally friendly to use electrons to read rather than pen and paper.

Which brings me to my first criticism of the book. Flannery repeatedly makes the mistake of believing that we're all competing with each other for a share of a fixed resource pie. For example, talking about grain yields he says "although substantial wheat surpluses were recorded in 1999 and 2004, overall the trend in world food security has been a downward one."

Ummm... no. My favorite usually-unbiased quick source of information (Wikipedia) has a helpful graph of global food production per capita; "food per person increased during the 1961-2005 period."

Flannery's warnings about Peak Oil fall into the same trap. Another "oops" I noted: he predicts "the world may experience the end of cheap oil sometime between now and 2010." Well... no, not yet.

Yes, oil will become more expensive than it is now. No, that won't matter, any more than the fact that whale oil is impossible to buy today but used to be cheap and economically important.

I recently read From Poverity to Prosperity (also on my Kindle), which is all about why thinking about the modern economy in terms of physical stuff is all wrong. In today's world using human ingenuity to rearrange atoms or bits in new and interesting ways is the key to prosperity.

And that brings me to the other major issue I have with this book. Flannery isn't an economist, so why does he dismiss their expert opinion? He admits that "economists who participated in the IPCC discussions stated that doing anything serious about climate change was too expensive to be worthwhile," and then instead of examining their arguments he simply states that "... adaptation of this sort is genocide, and attempted Gaia-cide, as well."

No mention of discount rates or cost/benefit calculations or any serious discussion of how to balance our competing desires for material wealth and a pristine environment, just over-the-top rhetoric and fear-mongering. NO serious scientist thinks that global warming will kill all life on Earth, and as a paleontologist Flannery should know that. Carbon dioxide concentrations in paleolithic times were much, much higher than even the highest of the IPCC projections, and life flourished.

And that brings me to my last criticism. For somebody who has studied the stunning variety of life nature produces (Flannery is an expert in kangaroo evolution, among other things-- didja know that there used to be 10-foot-tall kangaroos hopping around?) he seems amazingly pessimistic about nature's ability to respond to change. Biologists have discovered that new species can evolve in as little as 20 years.

So I remain unconvinced that global warming is a Really Big Deal and that we Must Act Now. As I've said before, I think we should focus on more immediate issues like habitat destruction, pollution from coal-burning power plants, stupid, expensive, environmentally-destructive ethanol subsidies, and environmentally unfriendly zoning laws that encourage cars and energy-inefficient single-family houses.


Anonymous said...

Of course, in claiming that Flannery is being facile in some of his thinking, you engage in the same. I had the advantage of reading one of Flannery's other books, "The Eternal Frontier", which is a thoroughly enjoyable history of North American ecology. But, of course, my enjoyment is no measure of how right he is. I don't think you've been fair about him, however.

But perhaps, on policy, we end up in the same place. I presume that you don't think that confronting the "more immediate issues" that you've listed here involves turning a blind eye to climate change. For example, I believe that one of the fears embedded in concern about climate change is the resulting expected habitat loss especially for many plant and animal species close to the poles.

I'm not sure just where your mental energy on this issue comes from, other than your desire to be an iconclast. You seem to be remarkably invested over the years in knocking down this particular area of policy argument as if it were some sort of enormous canard, as if there were something of great danger or great waste looming in our collective attention to it. I don't see it that way, and I find the policy prescriptions from folks like Flannery and others to be relatively modest.

I'll be interested in reading how you think nature is doing adapting quickly over the next decade, which I believe is a notion that I've read advanced by not just Gavin Andresen, but also Freeman Dyson. From a policy perspective, this strikes me as tantamount to urging us to cross our fingers and pray a lot.

The reason that I don't lose sleep about this problem is that I believe that the mechanisms of climate change are well on their way. My sense all along has been that we will get concerned enough about this problem to do something about it, too little and too late as it will undoubtedly be, just as soon as rising sea levels begin to inundate some of that prime Republican-owned beachfront property, and probably not before.

At that point, we will all be urged to care about this as if it were front-page news. In that regard, this is currently akin to the arming to the teeth of Afghan rebels to fight the Soviets under Reagan, a set of actions or inactions we can worry about the consequences of later.

Rich Morse

Gavin Andresen said...

I read most of Flannery's "The Future Eaters" when I was in Australia and really enjoyed it. I just think he's speaking as an environmentalist and not a scientist in the Weather Makers.

As to why the climate change kerfuffle gets me worked up enough to blog about it: I guess because it intersects three of my main interests. I've been an armchair science watcher ever since I spent part of my allowance to subscribe to Discover magazine when I was 13.

My interest in science led me to critical thinking about... well, everything.

And in the last ten years or so I've been really interested in economics.

The climate change debate has all three; lots of science, lots of UN-critical thinking (on both sides of the debate, in my opinion, although the climate change deniers are wrong in more obvious ways), and lots of economics.

Maybe the ends justify the means and we'll end up with policies that I like, but my fear is that climate change is being portrayed as "The World As We Know It Will End If We Do Nothing," we'll spend a lot of money doing symbolic but ineffective things, and the world will look pretty much like it does now in 50 years.

Maybe we'll get brown bears taking over former polar bear habitat and we'll mourn the loss of polar bears, but that's not the end of the world. And if it turns out the IPCC's "we're 90% certain climate change is happening and is caused by humans" is wrong (either we're in the 10% margin of error or they turn out to be overconfident), then the public's trust in science and scientists will be severely damaged.

Regarding Rich Republican beachfront property-- don't worry, they'll be fine. They've all got federally subsidized flood insurance...

Anonymous said...

My two formative experiences on this topic are about thirty years apart:

1) Riding through Gary Indiana on the interstate in June 1967 at noontime with the smokestacks going full-tilt: it got dark, I kid you not. I'll never forget it.

2) My day trip up to Caracas, Venezuela earlier last decade: a place halfway between the US and Hell in terms of living conditions, with shanties with no indoor plumbing stretching up the mountainsides around the city as far as one can see. My eyes smarted the entire day from the ambient air pollution there.

I just don't believe that mankind can expel so much crap into the air without changing the basic atmosphere all round the planet.

I don't know about other people. I know that I'm for spending money and creating private sector incentives on climate change initiatives that we ought to be doing anyway, like plug-in hybrid cars and more dependable, more user-friendly public transportation systems.

I appreciate your contrarian instincts, many of which I share. But I don't think that you're really hearing the whole climate change argument, including the part about the relatively modest changes and expenditures needed to respond to it. And this is starting to run on a little too long to be considered just another Chicken Little science fad. And I wonder how complacent we will be about being witness to polar bears going extinct. No big deal? I think you're in a distinct minority on that (not that there's anything wrong with that).

My guess (and this is a compliment to your basic rationality) is that you will be sounding a somewhat different tune on this topic on April 13, 2020. But I hope that you're right and I'm wrong.

Rich Morse