Friday, January 02, 2009

BB3: Tony Haymet: Non-Human Threats

This is the tenth in a series of posts on presentations given at Beyond Belief 3: Candles in the Dark"

You can find a list of all Atheist Ethicist blog postings covering Beyond Belief 3 at the Introduction post

And I would like to encourage you to give a contribution to the Science Network, who makes these presentations available for free.

The next speaker up at the Beyond Belief conference was Tony Haymet, director of Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego.

Haymet, in his presentation, discussed two areas of human impact on the environment that, he argued, we should find the money to accurately monitor, the way we monitor atmospheric CO2 levels.

One of those areas is the acidity of the oceans. According to Haymet, the sea level of the oceans has remained at a pH of 8.2 for over 40 million years. However, one of the effects of humans putting CO2 into the atmosphere is that this CO2 gets absorbed into the oceans. When it gets absorbed into the oceans it forms carbonic acid. As a result, the pH of the oceans has changed from 8.2 to 8.1, and is continuing to decrease.

The further effects of ocean acidity is that it dissolves the shells of seafish such as snails, that depend on snails, clams, coral, and the like.

In other words, we are killing our oceans.

This links to another fact that Haymet presented in his talk. As a result of human activity, we have removed about 90% of the biomass of the oceans.

In saying this, we have to keep in mind that a single whale represents a great deal of biomass. So does a tuna fish. We are able to reduce the biomass in the oceans by such an amount by focusing on removing the largest creatures in the ocean by huge amounts.

Similarly, over 97% of the animal biomass on land is made up of humans, domesticated animals, and pets. This is because the creatures that have managed to stay wild are those of low mass - mice, birds, insects, and the like.

The main point of Haymet's speech comes when he talks about funding the monitoring of these types of changes that people are having on the earth.

The bailout was passed. Seven-hundred and sixty billion dollars. Well, here's my little community, craving a few million dollars to make an ocean acidity network that really is going to save the planet or at least document its destruction, and yet we are fumbling around. We don't seem to be able to do it.

It would seem reasonable and rational that, where the government were to spend hundreds of billions of dollars, that the money go first to understanding and dealing with significant threats to then well being of its people. We seem perfectly capable of understanding threats that come from other people. We have whole agencies with budgets in the hundreds of billions of dollars collecting "intelligence" on foreign threats and dealing with them.

However, when confronted with a threat that is non-human, that cannot be cast as an "other" worthy of our condemnation and hostility, the threat gets ignored. We can scarcely afford to spend even tens of millions of dollars in gathering intelligence on that threat and responding to it – threats against our food supply, biological threats against the health of the American people, threats that could potentially completely destroy a number of American cities, but threats made by nature, not by humans.

In fact, it is one of the more obvious trends of the Bush administration that, while he significantly expanded the government's ability to collect intelligence on human threats to the people of this country, it cared nothing about gathering intelligence on non-human threats. He allowed the climate-monitoring network to fall apart, refusing to replace key elements as they reached the end of their life expectancy. If the threat was not coming from a person that can be killed or captured and tortured, as far as the Bush administration was concerned, it did not exist.

Yet, Haymet ultimately expressed optimism that we will deal with these threats – that the situation will change. He noted that, in Australia, the people threw out a government of global-warming denialists and elected a group who actually had some understanding of and respect for the scientific findings.

At the same time, he noted another problem. He noted that, in Australia, while scientists and those who respected their findings were trying to get the government to pay attention, that when the government actually did start to pay attention, that they did not have a plan. They had not worked out an answer to the question, "What should we do?" as long as the government was one that said, "Do nothing."

He is advocating that, with respect to these other threats – to the acidification of the oceans and the removal of biomass – that the scientists actually get to work on creating plans of action so as to be ready for the time when the politicians say, "Lets take these threats seriously."

In historic context, we should note that this conference took place before the election. As such, its participants only knew of the possibility that Barak Obama was going to win the election. Now that Obama has won the election, we can be assured that we will have a government that will be more willing to listen when scientists suggest that the nation is being threatened, not by people (who can be tortured and killed), but by nature itself. We will have a government that thinks that it is important to collect intelligence on non-human threats, and not allow our intelligence-gathering infrastructure to fall apart.

His ultimate optimism might have been well placed. We shall see.

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