Friday, March 31, 2006

200th Post: Correction on Global Warming

This is my 200th post.

Unfortunately, it is the first milestone at which I can no longer say that I have written 1 post per day without fail. I took a 2-day break, and missed a 3rd day while my wife was in the hospital.

For those who did not catch other updates to that story, my wife is now back to normal -- approaching 100% recovery.

Also, at this milestone, I must fess up to the fact that Dean caught me in an act of negligence in, of all places, an article on intellectual recklessness. I thought I had an understanding of the most recent scientific research on global warming. Dave has provided proof that I confused the findings of two different studies and reported results that did not match either.

My claim was that that current research suggests the possibility of a 7-meter sea-level rise by 2100.

In following up on Dave's objections, the actual situation turns out to be:

• There is a possibility that the Greenland ice cap will melt in between 500 to 1000 years, resulting in a 7-meter rise in sea level.

• By 2100, temperatures will be at a level that has, in the past, been associated with a sea-level rise of 6 meters or more. This does not say that sea level will rise to 6 meters by 2100; but that we are moving towards the preconditions for a 6-meter rise. Furthermore, in the second half of this century, the situation will be irreversible.

This evidence proves that I was not as careful in checking those facts as I should have been. I morally ought to have given these claims another look. I will remember this and try that much harder not to avoid similar mistakes in the future.

Still, I hold that this does not affect the moral arguments that I made in that original post.

My point was that those who claimed, "We do not know what is going to happen; therefore, we have nothing to worry about," were morally reckless (orders of magnitude more so than I was). Those who claimed that they will not order the cruise ship to go any slower unless and until the alarmists can actually point to an iceberg dead ahead with absolute proof the ship will otherwise hit it are morally responsible. If a person wishes to recklessly risk his own live and his own ship, that is their right. Those who command a ship of state, however, need to consider those passengers who will have a great deal to lose in such a collision with reality.

As a part of this argument, Dave's proof that the icebergs are not as big nor as common as I had claimed does not change the fact that there are dangers up ahead worth slowing down to avoid.

Dave argued that, given the technological advances of the past, we will almost certainly discover some technological solution to the problem of sea-level rise in 500 years.

I have three points that I would like to make in response to this.

(1a) Not necessarily. Technology is not the same as magic. There are limits to what we can accomplish with it. Technology works only within the laws of physics and cannot violate those laws. Consequently, we will almost certainly discover that some of the things that we may want to do simply cannot be done.

(1b) Not necessarily cheep. Even if we find a technological solution, how much will it cost?

For this item, consider the finding that in the year 2100 we may have established the pre-conditions for a 6-meter rise in sea level. Think of the situation as being like having an oven where one has set the temperature for 450 degrees. The oven temperature has not yet reached this setting, but it is set to do so.

Once we are in this situation, we may discover a technology that will eliminate our need to set the thermostat even higher (quit increasing the concentration of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere). Yet, if we have established the conditions for a 6-meter rise in sea level, we are still going to suffer those costs.

In order to avoid those costs we need to do something to turn the thermostat back down somehow. How much will it cost to reverse the effects of all of the activity that went to setting the thermostat to a 6-meter rise to start with? We are no longer asking how long it will cost to quit turning the thermostat yet higher. We are looking at the cost of actually turning the thermostat down – reversing the effect of all of that activity that turned the thermostat up to start with.

There is no reason to believe that this will be cheap. At the same time, there is no reason to believe that a 6-meter rise in temperature will be cheep either. Either way, we would e heading towards a situation that will be very expensive.

(2) Combined Effects: The conditions that would cause the Greenland ice sheet to melt in 500 years will also have other effects. If the Greenland ice sheet melts entirely, we can also expect the Antarctic ice sheet to melt, at least partially. If Antarctica loses 10% of its land ice at the same time that Greenland loses 100% of its ice, then sea-level rise will be 13 meters (43 feet) instead of 27. This is almost enough to make Baton Rouge, Louisiana a seaside resort. If the Antarctic ice sheet melts entirely, then we will have a 230-foot increase in sea level.

Even a 1-meter rise in sea level, on a world scale, threatens to be far more destructive than a terrorist nuclear weapon. Fifteen percent of the nation of Bangladesh -- the homes of 13 million people -- will be put underwater. Consider how many lives and how many trillions of dollars are we willing to invest in an attempt to prevent the nuclear weapon from going off. We are even willing to risk some very costly mistakes -- spending hundreds of billions of dollars and thousands of American lives (not counting the costs inflicted on innocent people in other countries) on a program that ultimately has nothing to do with fighting terrorism.

If we look at the destruction inherent in a 6-meter rise in sea level, we see global warming as a weapon of mass destruction – a weapon yielded by those countries that are the largest consumers of fossil fuels, that would be a terrorist’s wet dream.

The moral lesson of this essay remains; if the captain of a ship does not know what is ahead, but has reason to believe that there are significant dangers, then the moral and responsible thing to do is to slow down so as to better navigate those dangers. If he were alone, and sought only to risk his own life, then this can only be considered practical advice. However, if the welfare of others – such as children – are in his hands, then practical advice becomes a moral demand.

The moral thing to do would also be to pour some money into research so that we can actually learn what is out there and how to deal with it. I have also written how the Bush Administration has sabotaged these efforts.

Bush's new NASA budget contains significant cuts in earth-monitoring research, which is exactly the type of research we need in order to find out what dangers lurk ahead of us in the murky future. This can be compared to the captain of an ocean liner sailing through water where there are reports of icebergs also cutting down on the number of spotters he has on watch.

Bush is also having his staff rewrite the scientific research that the scientists are doing. As the ocean liner of the United States sails through the night into the future, Bush has told his bridge officers to translate any reports from the observation crew of "Iceberg, dead ahead!" to "Reports of icebergs are too tenuous to be used in affecting our decisions on course and speed."

This describes the moral quality of the captain who is guiding our current ship of state. It may well be that the Bush Administration could make it into history's list of top five most destructive world leaders.


Anonymous said...

"This evidence proves that I was not as careful in checking those facts as I should have been. I morally ought to have given these claims another look. I will remember this and try that much harder not to avoid similar mistakes in the future."

...Just going to chock this one up to April Fool's Day... Otherwise Very good article.

Anonymous said...

I have to agree, the Bush administration's cuts to science programs is inexcusable. I can't remember the person who said it, but the most important thing we can do in climate science is to make sure that in the next 100 years we have a better data gathering network than we did in the previous 100. We're not even close to that.

Anonymous said...

Well, I agree that Bush's science policy is irresponsible and dishonest, but I don't think a sea level rise of 6m can be considered a weapon of mass destruction for a simple reason: time. No terrorist gives 100 years of advance warning - it would render their attack useless. People, and even their homes, will have plenty of time to get out of the way of any projected sea level rise, if they choose.

This is not to say that there are some truly troublesome aspects to potential global climate change; but sea level rise just isn't a credible threat. It's too slow.

Sea level rising 6m in one hour would be a major disaster that would probably involve severe loss of life. Over one day, probably nobody would die as a direct result, but quite a lot would become homeless or suffer significant property damage. Over 100 years, while some homes will be destroyed, the inhabitants will have plenty of time to build new ones. How many coastal buildings or structures haven't been built or extensively remodeled/renovated in the last 100 years? How many do you expect to remain untouched over the next 100 years?

Anonymous said...

A minor digression...
I understand that the much quoted '230 feet' is an error, because as the sea rises (due to extra water, rather than any geologic factor) the area that needs to be covered (therefore the volume) increases (as land floods). This extra area reduces the final increase in height. Imagine it as filling an upturned cone- if the rate of flow stays constant the speed of filling slows.