Saturday, 11 January 2014

The Day After Tomorrow

Given the weather in the US in the last week or so, I though I would re-watch The Day After Tomorrow. Where do I begin?

The idea that there could be radical and very quick climate change is interesting. I don't think anyone would expect anything so fast for any reason (a few weeks going from now to ice age) but you almost give them licence to do that for the purpose of making a film. An ice age that creeps up on you over 50 years is boring as a story line.

But then you get the real killer - the breaking the laws of physics in a film set our universe. You simply cannot make air, as a gas, cold enough to instantly freeze you. It simple does not have the mass and density to do it. Yes, it is dangerous, but nothing like what is depicted - showing effects similar to liquid nitrogen which is massively more dense than air. On top of which, in the eye of the storm, there is not the wind chill effect to take that heat away from you, it is still air. The eye of the storm would have felt a darn sight warmer.

But looking deeper, the whole story line seems to have a political theme to promote the global warming agenda. The moral of the story is that we did this to ourselves with carbon emissions. Yet the very start of the story is based on a climate model of the last ice age starting 10,000 years ago. Now that was not caused by us pumping crap in to the atmosphere. So the whole story line is inconsistent at best.

Anyway, apart from all that, it is entertaining - as a basic quest and survival story line for a father getting to his son through impossible odds to keep a promise to rescue him

But it does make me wonder if I should post more on my views on climate change. I have to say that I find myself in a very odd position. Normally, in any argument that pits intuition against science, I have to take the science viewpoint. It is so easy for us to feel and guess differently to reality (and perceptions of risk is one of the areas we are so provably wrong so much of the time).

But I find I am siding with the skeptics a bit because science is being so mixed with politics.

But then, I think, take a step back and look at this. Lets assume for a second that the climatologists and scientists and politicians we hear about are 100% correct, that (a) we caused all this and that (b) we can fix it, at great cost to industry and economies. We'll get the Earth back as it was. Yay!

So we live on a planet that has major climatic swings as a matter of course. Humanity has lived through ice ages as well as tropical climates that leave us with fossils of sea creatures half way up mountains. The world has, and will change massively.

If we have made some small dent in that, good or bad, I am impressed. Basically, whatever we have done, or if the climatologists are right, what we may undo, will be a drop in the ocean in terms of what will happen in thousands of years, if not hundreds.

So we cannot actually change anything apart from the timing. Maybe we put off global warming a bit with all this work, yay! Maybe we bring the next ice age closer because of this work. Either way a generation of humans, at some point in the future, will face a massive upheaval of a society wrecking scale.

Why does it matter exactly which generation faces that?

If we did not spend all this effort on avoiding global warming, we would be better off. We could, perhaps, spend some effort on how we would handle climate change when it does happen.

At the end of the day we are not saving the planet here, it will be fine, we are trying to make life easier for a generation of people that may be our children or their children or their children. It is understandable, but we are missing the point! What we are doing is creating a legacy of annoying rules and regulations to combat climate change for us and our children and their children. It will impact generation after generation, creating hassle and cost, and then the climate change happens anyway, eventually.

Why?

20 comments:

  1. I plead not guilty, your honour. It didn't do no harm to bump off harry. After all, he'd be dead anyway in 50 or 60 years.

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  2. Consider this - If I am frugal / green / careful and I choose to "do my bit" for the environment by NOT burning some oil / gas / coal, how long will it be before someone else burns that very same fuel that I conscientiously "saved" instead? Not very long! We have an open market in these commodity fuels which guarantees that someone somewhere is going to burn any fossil fuel that is produced - The fossil fuel producer does not care whether the fuel they produce is consumed by you or someone somewhere else - they only ultimately care and will stop digging up fossil fuels if the market price they can sell at is lower than their cost of production (e.g. most coal in the UK).

    Political pressures for cheap energy make it impossible to gain international consensus to voluntarily stop using fossil fuels that can be produced economically, so it follows that the world is all but guaranteed to dig up and ultimately burn all the fossil fuels that can be economically produced. The only questions are how long will it take mankind to do this and how will we handle the resulting problems from burning all the fossil fuels?

    Whilst it is good for all of us to insulate our homes and use less energy (because it saves us money, not because we are "green"), I feel there is little point in switching to "green" energy for climate change reasons, as the "green" energy does not actually keep the carbon in the fossil fuels locked up under the ground - It just means someone else somewhere else gets to benefit from lower cost (and less green) energy instead.

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  3. Why does everybody assume climate change is bad, what if it actually benefits millions of people instead? It may not be bad, just different.

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    1. Indeed, ultimately it will be different. We have bigger problems to tackle than climate change, like population!

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  4. Man made climate change or not, if we want to do something to ensure the continued survival of our progeny we should be throwing much more effort into dealing with the massive single point of failure that is living on one planet.

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    1. Absolutely agree - the long term problem is that we are on one planet, and that has limited resources and risk of failing is several interesting ways (climate change, meteor, super volcano, etc). The only long term survive of the species involves populating other planets. That is a very long term plan but we are in a position to develop the tools to do that before it is too late.

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  5. Normally I find myself in violent agreement with pretty much every single one of your posts, but I'm baffled by your extraordinarily defeatist position here.

    I'm assuming that you generally obey traffic lights, signals and other road signs when you drive, correct? And when your children start to drive, you will (or already did) complain loudly if they don't? And of course there are laws handed down by politicians which require us to obey them, even though it's really quite tiresome to stop at every red light.

    Do these words ring a bell?

    So we drive on roads that have accidents as a matter of course. We have lived through minor collisions as well as motorway pile-ups that leave us with photos of burnt out car wrecks in the news archives. The roads have, and will change massively.

    If we have made some small dent in that, good or bad, I am impressed. Basically, whatever we have done, or if the road safety scientists are right, what we may undo, will be a drop in the ocean in terms of what will happen at the end of our lives, if not in a few decades.

    So we cannot actually change anything apart from the timing. Maybe we put off dying a bit with all this work, yay! Maybe we bring the next car accident closer because of this work. Either way many of us, at some point in the future, will face a massive upheaval of a life wrecking scale.

    Why does it matter exactly at what time in our life we face that?

    If we did not spend all this effort on avoiding car accidents, we would be better off. We could, perhaps, spend some effort on how we would handle accidents when they do happen.

    At the end of the day we are not preventing car accidents here, it will be fine, we are trying to make life easier for a generation of people that may be our children or their children or their children. It is understandable, but we are missing the point! What we are doing is creating a legacy of annoying rules and regulations to combat road accidents for us and our children and their children. It will impact generation after generation, creating hassle and cost, and then the road accidents happen anyway, eventually.

    Why?

    That sounds utterly idiotic, of course. The analogy is not perfect, but it's not a million miles away either; just on a different scale. I could have also turned your text into a rant about the inconvenience of regular exercise or health care, or the MOT process, or countless other things which we do to reduce the risk of something bad happening in the future. We do them not because we enjoy the inconvenience (well OK, some of us do actually enjoy exercise), not because we believe we can *totally* eliminate the risk, but because we place a very high value on our lives, our children's, grandchildren's, etc. and even the *possibility* of buying a few extra years or decades of quality life is worth the effort.

    I'm sure your distaste for politics is just as strong as mine, but my goodness, please don't let it warp your judgement on what is likely the biggest issue our generation will ever face.

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    1. Well, not quite - this is not really about putting off why *I* die. I will want to do that, obviously, and I am sure my kids will want to do the say. This is more about changing the timing of which generation will face major climate change. One of them *will* face major climate change, definitely. Does it matter if it is my grandson or his grandson? And I am not saying we cannot make some small change, to the timing of such an event, but that the effect of trying that is a legacy we are imposing on my children and their children with all of the vast effort and cost of trying to minimised carbon emissions. Efficiency is good, I agree, but when it starts to cost so much that it is a huge inconvenience, then we are suffering that for what reason exactly? So we can pick which generation faces massive climate change long after we are dead? Wow.

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    2. Your assumption here seems to be that if we cause a disaster in the next generation or so, this will necessarily be cancelled out by the removal of some later disaster of equal size. I don't see how that assumption is warranted.

      Your argument would make somewhat more sense if we were talking about earthquakes. There, we know that an earthquake is caused by the release of tension, so if someone to trigger an earthquake, you could argue that the damage caused would definitely have happened at some point anyway. However, there are a number of arguments against even in this case:
      - Early triggering of an earthquake gives people less time to prepare, resulting in more harm.
      - Releasing only half the tension, resulting in two earthquakes of half the magnitude, won't necessarily cause the
      same total damage: it is likely to be greater because there are diminishing returns to how much damage an individual earthquake can cause.
      - If you trigger an earthquake, you are (under many ethical systems) responsible for it, whereas if it merely happens in the course of natural events, you are not.

      All these arguments would apply in the case of climate change - supposing that we thought that there was some reason to suppose that a disaster caused in the near future would be balanced by the equal and opposite removal of a disaster later. But why should it be? I don't know of any mechanism of in the climate which suggests that it would. Do you?

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    3. Again, not quite what I am saying - we can be pretty certain, from historical record, that the Earth will go through major climatic change such as an ice age. It happens on some very long cycles, but it happens. This is not at all like an earth quake that you could release tension in stages. Maybe the climate change could be slower, though, if an ice age is expected, then global warning will be what we want to slow that when it happens, ironically. I am saying that what we are doing now creates a burden for us and our children with the objective of changing which generation will suffer the next major climate change, and that seems somewhat country productive.

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    4. Okay, you think I have misstated your position somehow, but I don't see exactly how. Let me try again. Your argument seems to me to be as follows:
      1) "we cannot actually change anything apart from the timing" [ of major climatic change] (as you reiterate, "changing which generation will suffer")
      2) Therefore we cannot change the *total* harm done by climate change
      3) changing the timing is costly
      4) therefore changing the timing has and overall net negative cost/benefit ratio.

      It seems to me 1) makes an implicit assumption about how the climate works: the total amount of change is conserved. Because if it is not conserved, then our carbon emissions can change the amount of harm done, and the argument doesn't work.

      Of course, it could be that carbon emissions could *reduce* the total harm done by climate change. Perhaps this is what you are suggesting my mentioning the next ice age.

      Perhaps you are making a statistical rather than a deterministic claim: saying that the *expected* change in harm due to adding carbon is zero. This strikes me as implausible. I don't have a rigorous argument, but consider: what is the expected change in energy of a random waveform if you add a random impulse to it? I think it is positive, not zero.

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    5. OK, getting there I think - you are saying that changing the rate at which we release CO2 in to the atmosphere really could change the overall effect of the next major climatic change. To make a noticeable and worthwhile dent in it.

      If that is the case, maybe it is worth it. I can see your argument. Sadly I am not sure we can come to an agreement on it.

      I think this is where we differ. I seriously doubt we will have a noticeable impact on something as big as an ice age or tropical shift in climate. All this oil we are burning now was CO2 in the atmosphere at some point in the past, that is how it got in to the plant and animals that created the oil. We are just playing some small part in the cycle of various chemicals in the ground and the atmosphere over thousands of years.

      It may be that it can make a small difference over the next few generations, and it may be much longer before we see a major climatic change that we cannot impact, but as a species we need to think about how we handle climate change not playing King Cnut.

      Improving efficiency is almost certainly a good thing - it feels right - but to the extent of having damaging "green taxes" and surcharges is not good, and that is going to be the legacy we give our kids!

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    6. "Efficiency is good, I agree, but when it starts to cost so much that it is a huge inconvenience, then we are suffering that for what reason exactly? So we can pick which generation faces massive climate change long after we are dead? Wow."

      To me, the "wow" is at a) your assumption that massive climate change can't possibly happen until long after we (and I assume you include your children in that "we") are dead (on what are you basing this assumption?), and b) that you don't seem to care about any generation beyond your children's or perhaps your grandchildren's. Sorry to be blunt, but to me the former seems optimistic to the point of negligence, and the latter seems selfish and short-sighted. If half the world's population were to get wiped out by massive man-triggered climate change in 500 years from now, would that be OK? What about 200? 100? At what point does it stop being OK?

      Maybe I'm misunderstanding your stance, but it seems that you are lumping together natural climate change with man-made, and saying that because we can't change one, there's no point in trying to change the other. But the majority of climate scientists are giving loud warnings about the need to reverse man-made climate change on timescales of 100 years or less. I have not heard ANY scientists giving warnings that the next natural ice age is likely to happen anywhere near that quickly. Of course there are no certainties, so the best we can do is to rely on the experts and consider probabilities. You say "I seriously doubt we will have a noticeable impact on something as big as an ice age or tropical shift in climate." I wonder what this assessment is based on, since AFAICS a lot of full-time scientists who presumably have a great deal more expertise would not share your doubt. Even so, you expressed doubt not certainty, which implies that you believe it IS possible (although unlikely) that we WILL have a noticeable impact. IOW, this is a risk you are willing to take on behalf of your descendants. So I'm curious - if a hypothetical omniscient deity were to whisper in your ear right now "there's a 1 in X chance that man's current and past activities will trigger a gigantic climactic fuck-up within Y years", for what values of X and Y would you be comfortable encouraging the politicians / policy-makers / businesses / scientists to sit back on their arses and stop worrying about it?

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    7. To answer one - the "not caring about future generations" - it is not that I don't care, but that I cannot differentiate between them - one of them will face an ice age - does it matter which of them?

      My assumptions are based purely on the scale of things - this planet has had huge changes and huge impacts on the atmosphere from volcanos and meteors which will have done way worse than man could ever do. If climatologies are really saying that we can stop the major natural climate changes that are seemingly inevitable, then that is different. Do you have URLs for that?

      My concern right now is that we are definitely creating hassle, cost, inconvenience, and problems for generations to come in "green taxes" and complicated schemes. Even if these work, and even if the science is right, then we will face changes anyway.

      At the end of the day - can you state clearly the actual objective of what we are trying to do here? If so, then we can work out if the cost of getting that objective is worth it or not. At the moment, I don't know what the actual objective is.

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    8. Yes, it absolutely does matter. Naturally occurring ice ages come and go something like every 40,000 to 100,000 years. If the man-triggered climate change that so many people are worried about materialises, we are likely to start suffering from it within the next 100 years or less. Of course an increasing number of people are arguing that we are already starting to see the symptoms - although that's a different debate which probably noone can definitively answer yet. Now, there's also an outside chance that the next ice age will hit us within 100 years anyway; some scientists are already claiming. But let's face it, even the best scientists in the world can't reliably predict that, because it's quite hard to gather reliable data going back 200,000 years or more. So if we don't fuck up our planet first ourselves (and that requires addressing not only climate change, but also over-population, renewable energy, not blowing ourselves up etc.), it seems to me that there's a good chance we'll still have a home for at very least a few more centuries.

      Now consider what our science and technology was like in 1964, then ask yourself this: what do you think our technology and understanding of science will look like in 50 years from now, let alone 200? Don't you think there's a non-zero chance that it'll be so incredible that we might not only be able to spot a natural ice age coming, but even reverse it? And there's also the possibility of space travel developing to the point where we can finding and/or build alternatives homes outside Earth.

      In short, if we get off our apathetic butts now and try to buy ourselves a few precious decades, that just might be all we need to give ourselves a shot at an extremely long innings. And then in 500 years from now, our descendants could look back and laugh incredously at the fact that some of us considered the hassle/cost/taxes/politics so significant that it was better to just run the planet into the ground.

      Regarding your question about an objective, I'm sure there are plenty but here's one which is currently in the news:

      http://ec.europa.eu/clima/policies/roadmap/documentation_en.htm

      You can click through to SEC (2011) 288: Impact Assessment for more gory details on what happens if we ignore the problem - page 16 onwards is plenty terrifying enough for me.

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  6. Hang on... you feel that the science is mixed with politics, and the denialism *isn't*? Which one of those is open and peer-reviewed?

    In general, if you are actually interested in the issue, http://skepticalscience.com has excellent refutations of most denialist arguments, with citations back to peer-reviewed literature for everything. If I hear something from a denialist and start thinking "isn't that a good point?", it's my first port of call.

    Ultimately most of us, as non-experts, have to choose who to trust: 97% of practising climate scientists, or well-funded political machine which seems to have learned most of its techniques from the tobacco lobby of the 1980s. In the words of an academic friend of mine, "If I wanted to lie for money, there are many more lucrative ways for me to do it than being a scientist!".

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    1. I'll take a look. But I am not saying the science is wrong. I am more questioning the objective here - the best I get from most people is "save the planet" which is silly. What actually is the objective? At best, it is to make life a bit easier for some unspecified future generation (perhaps my grandchildren or maybe theirs), at the cost of making life harder for every generation until then. It is an interesting objective, but I'll look at that site anyway.

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    2. I've heard it expressed like this.

      Assuming climate change is happening..
      If climate change is not man made, we're screwed
      If climate change is man made, but we've passed a tipping point, we're screwed
      If it's man made, we haven't passed a tipping point, but there isn't the technical ability/political will to make the required difference, we're screwed.

      I don't think the 'not screwed' option is particularly likely at this point.. so I'm hoping that technological advance outpaces the changes that do happen (which isn't that much of an ask.. we've been chucking CO2 into the atmosphere at great rates since the industrial revolution.. another 100 years won't make a huge difference and we'll have massively different technology - perhaps even effective weather control - by then).

      On the side issue of positive effects to climate change, I saw on a TV programme once that it was early man burning down all the forests that finished the last ice age off.. Sounds plausible (as a non-scientist) to me, although googling doesn't come up with any references..

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    3. Well, quite. The other issue is not just the gradual (we hope) climate changes that are inevitable, but the real chance that in the next few hundred years something big will happen such as a volcano or meteor. These do not have to be show stoppers that we could not survive, but they are likely to seriously screw up the climate wiping out all of our good work. It is not the same argument, I agree, but a worry.

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  7. Peter Rowland has left a new comment on your post "The Day After Tomorrow":

    The amount of CO2 in the atmosphere is 0.04%, (look it up), that is 4 molecules of CO2 in every 10,000 molecules of air. It would have to be a fantastic insulator to warm the earth. Yes, the climate is changing; no, it has nothing to do with carbon dioxide.

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