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Journal of No. 118


December 16th, 2009

Slow and Steady Kills the (Human) Race @ 04:56 pm

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I'm not a climate scientist. Nor do I play one on TV. But I'm getting tired of the anthropogenic climate change denialists. Bumped into a couple as friends-of-friends on FB, and things rapidly deteriorated into climate change 'alarmism' being "a complex and calculated maneuver to dismantle U.S. sovereignty." And Mt. Pinatubo putting out 150 times more CO2 "than Mankind has in 150 years of industrialization."

What I know about atmospheric science and climate models would fit in a very small thing. But it seems clear that global temperatures are rising. Yes, this requires a certain amount of finessing, since we can't just stick a thermometer in Gary, Indiana (the Earth's rectum). But it is based directly on actual globe-spanning instrumental measurements. Point #1: global warming has been observed in the past few decades.

Furthermore, it is my understanding that current climate models cannot account for this observed rise in temperature without including the predicted effects of greenhouse gases: Climate models forced by natural factors and increased greenhouse gases and aerosols reproduce the observed global temperature changes; those forced by natural factors alone do not. Point #2: It appears to be our fault.


But what I really wanted to talk about was analogies. It's easy to look at global temperatures rising a degree over the next few years and... not really give a shit. It seems pretty trivial. The obvious analogy to use has problems, inasmuch as it's an urban legend, though as a fable, it still serves a useful purpose.

But I want to test out a new analogy. The thing about the atmosphere is that it's huge. Oh sure, it's made of air, but there are about five zettagrams of air. I'm a scientifically trained mofo, and even I don't know off-hand what power of ten 'zetta' is, so it's gotta be stupendously large. And getting something that big to do anything is not easy, whether it's moving it or heating it. But we're making that fucker move.

Anyway, my analogy is the giant atmospheric steam-locomotive train.

It's on the tracks headed in the direction of catastrophe. And the Human Engineer in the locomotive is throwing more fuel on the fire, quite literally. And we're not just moving fast, but accelerating. Over the past hundred years, the temperature has risen 0.74°C, so we could make that 74 mph as our average speed over the past century. But "Temperatures in the lower troposphere have increased between 0.12 and 0.22 °C (0.22 and 0.4 °F) per decade since 1979," which translates to 120 to 220 mph for recent decades. The analogy doesn't have to be mathematically perfect, but let's just say we're currently heading toward doom at 150 mph. Although our somewhat conflicted engineer may be riding the brake a little bit by pursuing alternative energy sources, he's throwing enough extra fuel on the fire that the atmosphere train is still accelerating.

So if doom is in the distance, and assuming we want to avoid this, we clearly need to stop throwing fuel on the fire and apply the brake more forcefully. The problem is... that's expensive, and it's pretty easy to not give a shit about that doom over the horizon. Our engine is chugging happily at 150 mph through grassland at the moment. But it's clearly not a wise thing to play 'chicken' with doom. At some point, that doom will get closer, and if we haven't done anything in the meantime, and have continued accelerating, the amount of time left will be insufficient to avert disaster. The atmosphere locomotive has so much inertia that reaction time is no longer a factor. The entire world might wake up and decide that something's gotta be done, and there'd still be no hope of avoiding that doom.

But of course, it's not like there's a singular doom out there. Unlike the movie Speed, the locomotive doesn't explode when it reaches 250 mph, killing all of us aboard. The train doesn't fall off a cliff when it runs out of track. But if we keep things as we are, the effects of global warming are going to start killing a few people, and then more and more. And, as Harry Lime suggests, we'll have to decide how many of those dots we could afford to spare.

So really, in my analogy, it's like having people tied down, a la the Perils of Pauline, on the train track at intervals along Dead Man's Gulch out beyond the horizon. At first, they are tied down at sparse intervals, but the further on the tracks go, the closer and closer together they are. Even if we coasted through it at constant speed, the deaths would start coming faster and faster because they're spaced more closely together. And if we're still accelerating, then the deaths will come that much faster.

So it would be nice while we're still cruising through the grasslands at 150 mph, if we could work the throttle and the brake, so that we avoid smooshing that first person on the tracks. It'll take a great deal of doing to make that happen and stop this locomotive in time to avoid deaths.

And here's where I've lied to you because I'm a bastard. The UN estimates that climate change is already killing 300,000 people a year. That works out to about 34 an hour. So our atmosphere juggernaut smooshes a person under its iron wheels every two minutes or so. Happy Holidays!


Now, I don't think individuals deserve enormous guilt over this, and there's close to diddly that an individual can do about it. But...
#1 - I think people should be aware of what's going on
#2 - I'm glad that governments (that do have some power to wield) are discussing the matter
#3 - I think people who think it's all a scam to pick their fucking pockets can just eat a generative organ.
 
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From:ian_tiberius
Date:December 17th, 2009 01:31 am (UTC)
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One of the things that most concerns me is that at least one of the effects of global warming is also a cyclical reinforcement. The ice caps have a high albedo, meaning that they reflect a lot of sunlight back out into space. As they melt, more sunlight gets absorbed and turned into heat, which melts the ice caps more, which means more sunlight gets absorbed, which...you get the idea. (more here)

So to add one more wrinkle to your train analogy, our track is already on a slight downhill grade, and that grade is going to get steeper and steeper the farther we go.
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From:essentialsaltes
Date:December 17th, 2009 03:21 am (UTC)
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Absolutely. In the wake of Gore's recent slightly overenthusiastic description of the melting of the polar ice cap, I found this image, which seems pretty compelling.
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From:swmartin
Date:December 18th, 2009 08:17 pm (UTC)
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And then there's the "clathrate gun" hypothesis, which in a worst-case scenario would be an impending cliff.
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From:rsheslin
Date:December 17th, 2009 09:22 pm (UTC)
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This is wonderful. May I link?
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From:essentialsaltes
Date:December 17th, 2009 09:39 pm (UTC)
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Anything not friends-locked is fair game. Be my guest.
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From:dogofthefuture
Date:December 17th, 2009 09:45 pm (UTC)
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There's still, I suppose, some uncertainty about the models and all. Blah blah, long story short, it sure *looks* like it's human-caused. And even if we can't say for sure what the future holds, with the planet already warming, it doesn't seem like a very good experiment to still be pouring billions of tons of CO2. And yeah, fixing that will cost some money, maybe even cut into our fabulous prosperity. So, all that said, here's my quick 'n dirty analogy.

Somebody puts a gun to your head and hands you an unmarked bottle of pills. You have no idea what you're getting. Could be sugar pills, could be rat poison, could be aspirin. Then he offers you a choice: You can take some of the pills and they'll give you five dollars, or you can give him 10 dollars to NOT take the pills.

It's more expensive, but hey, I think I'll go with paying the 10 bucks. "Everything *could* be okay" isn't a good enough risk for me.
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From:aaronjv
Date:December 18th, 2009 12:23 pm (UTC)
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NO, SCIENTISTS LIED! THEY JUST WANT MORE FUNDING FOR THEIR STUPID LIBERAL PROJECTS!

MORE GOVERNMENT CONTROL OVER BUSINESS = FASCIST SOCIALISM!
***

People think that way. Seriously think that way. The comments section of the NY Times was full of it. Hmm...can we extract energy out of raving lunatics punching their keyboards? Each key has a tiny little generator, flywheel, something. It would likely be harder to type. Net gain = more energy or less ranting. Win win.
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From:essentialsaltes
Date:December 18th, 2009 02:53 pm (UTC)

More Fuel for the Fire

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Journal of No. 118