A brief update

January 25, 2011

I started this blog to cheer up people worried about the climate. I wanted to argue, using a negative-feedback model, that humanity would inevitably fix things in time.

Now I would emphasize differently: No program of emissions reduction is capable of making a difference to the planet’s temperature trajectory before we arrive in the era of advanced nanotechnology, because that era is at most just a few decades away. Advanced nanotechnology will be capable of the enormous task of drawing down the half trillion tonnes of carbon that have been added to the atmosphere, but it will also be capable of destroying all life on Earth. Dealing with the enormous new powers arising from nanotechnology and artificial intelligence will be the real challenge to human survival, and this time I have no argument at all that we’ll make it.

So, the cheer has gone and this is what’s left. It’s a little sad for the people who have devoted their lives to stopping climate change. That process is real, already doing damage, slowly getting worse, and if it ran to its completion in a world like the present, I suspect we really would get the hundreds of millions of climate refugees discussed in the worst scenarios. But the world of the present will not stay that way, and technological change will overtake climate change as the decisive factor.

Right now, climate politics is in the doldrums. Copenhagen was an anticlimax, and the global financial malaise has made people suspicious of a scheme like cap-and-trade, and just more worried about personal factors like employment and retirement. But the floods and the fires will keep happening, so the topic won’t go away, and there is bound to be a political revival eventually. Perhaps next time a simple carbon tax will be favored, rather than the trading of emissions permits, and there may also be more emphasis on direct action by the state. My slightly sad prediction is that whatever is done won’t matter, because it can’t make a difference before the nanotechnology era arrives, and then the game truly changes.

Anyway, that’s what I’m off doing now – trying to be relevant for what really comes next.

Digression on life

May 2, 2010

There is a Chinese saying that you should be Buddhist in your youth, Confucian as an adult, and Taoist in your old age. I thought that was the saying; I got it from the final days of Robert Anton Wilson; but actually he said something a little different.

Now let me illustrate how this works for a blogger. Vichy Fournier is not a Buddhist, but she’s a fabulous example of wisdom in someone young. Her power is to see and to state abstract truths.

Curtis Yarvin illustrates the second stage so well, he even uses a Confucian alias. He is also concerned with ideas, but he’s always connecting them to current events.

And Bruce Sterling gets to be the exemplar of Tao. Sorry Bruce! He’s still pretty engaged with the world, but mostly aesthetically.

Even a wise person must start out with more knowledge than experience. Only when they have come to truly know the particulars of their time and place – a learning which may take decades to acquire – can they act powerfully on the world. And eventually, the endless transformations of the world will in any case overwhelm their will to shape it. At that time, if they have retained understanding, they can at least relate to life as a drama and a spectacle.

Or, you can ignore all that and just keep trying, because no-one really knows what comes next or what the limits are. For that path, see Celia Green.

Digression on transhumanism

April 19, 2010

Part one, part two, part three, part four.

After Copenhagen

December 23, 2009

The outcome of the UN climate conference in Copenhagen offers an occasion for reflection on the very big political and economic picture. We can see, first of all, that the geopolitical changes brought on by the 2008 world financial crisis are now at work in climate politics as well. The G-7, the old center of power, proved incapable of resolving the crisis simply because it did not include all the players, and so the G-20 came to prominence. Along with the G-7 countries, the G-20 also includes the “BRICs”, the “emerging economies”, the countries that are in surplus rather than in debt. And now we see those same countries, together with Obama’s USA, hastily putting together an Accord to keep negotiations going, after the traditional blocs of climate diplomacy failed to reach a compromise.

The five countries which drafted the accord may be grouped into USA and China, the two big powers in the world system right now, and India, Brazil, and South Africa, who for some years have had a trilateral dialogue going on under the acronym “IBSA”. Thus political relationships from the tough world of economic and strategic diplomacy have begun to make a difference in the previously self-contained world of climate negotiation, which has its own native blocs and alliances, like “the Umbrella Group” and “the G77/China bloc”. This shows the extent to which climate is a central issue, not a marginal one, in the ongoing reconfiguration of world power. This is so, not only because the impacts of climate change are expected to be immense, but because the national mitigation strategies leave almost no economic sector untouched. Energy, manufacturing, agriculture are all affected. Huge sums of money are involved. So like it or not, climate is now part of geopolitics, and geopolitics is now part of climate.

Open thread for climate science issues

September 10, 2009

On this blog I am generally going to assume a standard view regarding how carbon dioxide affects global temperature. Most of the discussion will be about other matters, like how much “climate change mitigation” is necessary and how it might best be achieved. However, there are a lot of people out there who disagree with the very starting point – that current trends would lead to catastrophic global warming if maintained. This page is the place for that discussion. I don’t have the time now to spell out anew how I view the science, but earlier comments here and here should convey my position.

Singularity futurism versus sustainability futurism

September 4, 2009

There’s always a lot to talk about, now, regarding climate: science, technology, politics, trends. Just yesterday, Britain’s academy of science released its study, “Geoengineering the climate” (summary: Carbon Dioxide Removal good, Solar Radiation Management not so good, unless you want change now). El NiƱo has returned and so we are likely headed for a new “hottest year on record”, this year or next. The draft of the Copenhagen climate treaty, to be signed in December, is still being negotiated at a series of international summits. The deep recession in the United States is challenging the Obama administration’s agenda, which includes cap-and-trade (my prediction: they will dilute all their key initiatives enough to get them passed, rather than hand their opponents an unambiguous political victory).

The biggest challenge immediately facing the world is not climate change per se, it is the combination of climate change, population growth, and economic dysfunction. In creating this blog, I didn’t set out to promote a particular climate policy as ideal, only to argue the more esoteric point that disaster will be averted. However, I do intend to discuss the merits of the various options, and that will require attending to the overall situation.

But there’s an even bigger context which, for those who take it seriously, makes the problems of unsustainability only of short-term concern – though the “short term” here may stretch for several more decades. Technology has already given us fossil-fuel society, modern medicine, and modern communications, which are all implicated in the state of the world; but further huge changes are foreseeable, changes which are at odds with the trend-based thinking underlying sustainability futurism, and which replace its defining problems with a wholly different set of problems.

That is a blandly cryptic statement, so let me illustrate the possibilities. When atmospheric carbon dioxide levels change, the mean global temperature should also change. But the world doesn’t move from the old mean to the new mean overnight. It takes many decades just to get most of the way to the new equilibrium: the ocean warms first, then the atmosphere catches up. One consequence is that even if CO2 stopped increasing right now, warming would go on for a very long time (indeed, if Hansen et al are right in their recent “target 350” paper, just being over 350 ppm is enough to eventually melt the whole of the Antarctic, producing a 70-meter rise in sea level, though only after centuries of melting). But this also means that, even though climate change is already making things worse than they would have been, the truly catastrophic scenarios are many decades away from coming to pass. People want an immediate start on reducing emissions because it is thought that moving to carbon-neutrality and then drawing down some of the excess CO2 will be a comparably slow process, primarily because so many billions of tons are involved.

But it can be argued that at a sufficiently advanced level of nanotechnology, all those billions of tons of excess CO2 could be removed from the atmosphere in less than a year, rather than more than a century – and that this level of technology will foreseeably reached within a few decades. Furthermore, it can be argued that nanotechnology this advanced will in itself pose a severe threat to the survival of the human race. This is the type of “Singularity futurism” which makes climate change mitigation look like a waste of time and a dangerous diversion of resources. Yet to the sustainability futurist, Singularity futurism is itself a threat, a battle with phantom enemies carried out while the problems of the real world go unaddressed.

To resolve that debate here and now is beyond me. But it is another, underappreciated dimension of the situation, and I’m sure I’ll be returning to it.

On “geo-engineering”

August 28, 2009

I had intended my next post to present an expanded version of the basic argument. However, I ran across a recent essay calling geo-engineering a form of climate change denial. Normally I’d just comment there, but now I have a climate blog of my own to develop, I see it would be wiser to express myself here – I need more for the casual visitor to read.

Geo-engineering is a very broad term. Potentially it encompasses any madcap scheme meant to change the physical state of the planet in a big way; but it’s specifically climate engineering that everyone is talking about. On this blog I expect to take a major interest in “air capture”, the removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, especially via accelerated mineral carbonation. In mineral carbonation, gaseous CO2 becomes part of a carbonate (…CO3) rock, and is removed from the organic carbon cycle into the inorganic carbon cycle. Problem solved. And this happens naturally, but far too slowly to offset human emissions. However, we can accelerate the process; for example, by grinding up the rock, so as to increase the surface area for the reaction to take place. There are billions of tons of excess CO2 in the atmosphere now, so to get rid of it in this way would require grinding up and moving around billions of tons of rock. It would be an industry in itself. So it’s not an effortless answer to the problem; but it proves we can do it, and it certainly ought to be on the agenda, as we try to figure out the best way forward.

There are, however, other forms of geo-engineering which sound unwise. I expect that I will be talking about aerosol-induced cooling here, as well. My position on cooling via aerosols is that it should only be regarded as a palliative or an emergency measure, if we reach a point where we think we need sharp cooling right away. Offsetting CO2 warming with aerosol cooling does nothing about ocean acidification; the aerosols would have to constantly be replenished to maintain the effect (since they wash out of the air within a few years); and experience with volcanic eruptions like that of Mount Pinatubo (which cooled the world for a few years in the early 1990s) suggests that the aerosols will concentrate around the equator, whereas it’s the poles (the Antarctic peninsula, and all of the Arctic) which are warming most rapidly. (I would think it possible to release aerosols in a pattern designed to produce cooling only in a particular global region, and we might want to do this if the Arctic situation gets really bad, but regional climate engineering is still a relatively unexplored topic.)

And as for carbon capture via giant algal blooms in the ocean, a geo-engineering proposal which rates a mention in the essay which prompted this post, I agree that it sounds like a bad idea. Doing it on a scale that could make a difference would require the blooms to be absolutely huge as well as long-lasting. We’d be giving the earth new features, like the Red Spot of Jupiter. It would be a transformation of ocean ecosystems, possibly a pathological one, and certainly one whose effects would be hard to predict with any assurance.

However, having offered that small token of agreement, I must now disagree with the author’s general thesis. His overall view is that global warming is a symptom of capitalism, and that geo-engineering is a risky or even doomed attempt to solve the problem without changing the capitalist system, and that the real solution is some combination of sustainability and social justice. I seem to see here a mode of argument taken over from Marxist moralizing about the contradictions of capitalism, which are supposed to make a transition to socialism inevitable, but which may meanwhile prompt futile reformist efforts meant to save the system. (My own view is that many forms of social system are possible, and that while ideological critics may be good at diagnosing the chronic problems characteristic of a particular system, they tend to radically underestimate the degree to which a given social order may limp along for decades or even centuries, and then only to perish or transform for some entirely other reason.)

So I object to the collective dismissal from consideration of everything labelled as “geo-engineering”, and I find this conclusion to be ideologically rather than factually determined. The author rejects a world in which some people are rich while others starve, he hopes to solve that sort of problem at the same time that he solves the climate problem, and the common solution is egalitarian levelling and restraint of personal desire. If only some people didn’t want so much, there would be more for others, and if only some people didn’t emit so much carbon, there would be less warming. The idea that we might be able to actively drain CO2 from the atmosphere subverts the solution-template of restraint and egalitarian sharing (of emission rights, e.g. via personal carbon quotas), and so is rejected without really being examined.

In the real world, industrial-scale air capture and mineral carbonation is not yet being considered as the basis of a solution. Instead we have proposals to capture CO2 at coal-burning power stations and pipe it to distant underground aquifers, an enterprise to be made economical by imposition of a “carbon price” via cap-and-trade or perhaps a carbon tax. Sequestration in solid form sounds better to me, and it would be better if we didn’t need a ubiquitous new economic regime of carbon accounting. We could instead just build lots of air-scrubbing installations, enough to make human civilization carbon-negative in the aggregate, and run them until the CO2 concentrations in parts-per-million were back at preindustrial levels. If they can’t pay for themselves, they can be funded by the world’s governments, proportionately according to the legacy emissions of each society. That would require a lot of diplomacy and a lot of fact-finding, but it would surely be less work than will occur under the emerging regime of carbon markets, whereby individual industrial enterprises will need to track their emissions and buy the corresponding number of permits. However, the latter is the regime we are going to get in the short term, and I may eventually post some musings about the optimal path from a Copenhagen-style regime aimed nominally at 450 ppm (which is what we’ll have from 2010 forwards), to an air-capture regime aimed at a return to 300 ppm. But this blog’s initial purpose is just to argue that the problem will be solved, not that my favorite solution is the best way to do it.

The basic argument

August 25, 2009

The people I had in mind, when creating this blog, are those who believe in global warming but who don’t think we’ll stop it in time to avoid total disaster. My basic argument is that total disaster will necessarily be avoided, because we do have the means to stop it completely, and slowly worsening conditions guarantee that we will take that step in time. (That things will get worse, guarantees action; that things will get worse slowly, guarantees that we have time.)

Hello world!

August 20, 2009

Hello world. I’m starting this blog in order to argue for one proposition: that the worst extremes of global warming will never happen, not because the science has it wrong, but because it is inevitable that the human race will intervene in time. I don’t see anyone else defending quite this position, so I’m here to fill a gap.