Thursday, November 15, 2012

Mother Nature Never Really Loved Me

Today there was an interview on Democracy Now with the photographer James Balog, who appears in a new documentary by Jeff Orllowski on climate change, Chasing Ice.  Toward the end or the interview Balog mentioned that he has two daughters and "I’m very concerned about the stability and security and safety of the world that my kids will be in."

This fits in with other things I've seen climate-change activists and pundits say.  A couple of weeks ago, for example, Jim Naureckas wrote at the FAIR blog:
Without climate change, [Hurricane] Sandy wouldn't be weaker or have a smaller storm surge or strike somewhere else; there would be an entirely different weather pattern, most likely an entirely unremarkable one ...

I would note that if we're talking about a weather phenomenon that's never been seen before, we should be more skeptical of claims that such things happen naturally on hypothetical Earth X. And people who have been predicting that one of the things to expect from increasing climate change is an increase in the severity of storms should be listened to seriously when a storm of unprecedented severity occurs–just as people who recognized the housing bubble early on should have been listened to for advice on what to do after it popped.

But the one thing we can say for sure is that Sandy would not have occurred here and now without climate change. Is that a useful thing to say? Here's a thought experiment: Imagine we live in that world with no climate change. (Maybe the industrial revolution developed with wind and water power until a Thomas Edison analogue invented the solar panel.)
Naureckas concludes by referring to "the real-world experiment we call global warming."

Of course, everybody knows that by "climate change" we mean "human-accelerated climate change", and by "global warming" we mean "human-accelerated global warming."  Everybody knows that the climate would change by itself, because we know that it changed -- often drastically -- long before human beings invented the internal combustion engine, long before human beings existed.  There have been ice ages for millions of years.  The glaciers began receding after the last glacial maximum, which ended about 20,000 years ago.  There was what climatologists call a Little Ice Age from 1550 to 1850, when world temperatures dropped and then slowly began rising again.  It was during this period that England was hit by its worst recorded storm, in 1703, which killed thousands and devastated large areas of southern England.  Other highly destructive natural disasters, such as tsunamis and volcanic eruptions, have occurred throughout and before recorded history; we even know of extraterrestrial volcanoes.  The Permian-Triassic extinction event of 250 million years ago also happened without human assistance, as did the Cretacious-Paleogene extinction event of 65 million years ago; many scientists believe that asteroid impacts were involved.

Please note that I'm not saying that human activity has not affected world temperatures or the climate; that's not in dispute by me.  Nor do I disagree that in a human-free world there would be different weather, Hurricane Sandy would probably not have taken place.  (I almost wrote "we would have different weather" there, even though I know full well that in human-free world, there would be no "we.")  What I am saying is that it's absurd to speak of a world without human-accelerated climate change as stable and secure and safe.  A couple of years ago I noticed the same belief in an article by Orville Schell, who wrote of glaciers as "something once imagined as immovable, immutable, eternal, something that has unexpectedly become vulnerable and perishable as it has slipped into irreversible decline."  I haven't thought of glaciers as immovable, immutable, or eternal since sixth grade, when I read popular science books about the Ice Age that described how they moved and changed over time.  If Schell imagined them as eternal, he is scientifically illiterate.

The underlying assumption I see here is that the world is essentially a place like a modern home that is designed for human comfort and safety, probably by Nature, who is our loving nurturing mother, so whom we can run when we stub our knees and she'll kiss it and make it well.  This belief has its mirror image in the notion of Nature or the Earth as a vindictive mother, who's going to open a can of whoop-ass on us because we failed to clean our room or wash behind our ears, or worse yet, didn't appreciate her for all the volcanoes and plagues and hurricanes and earthquakes she's given us.

Neither of these metaphors is true.  Neither the earth nor Nature is a sentient being, nurturing or punishing.  Human beings are one species on a smallish planet circulating a smaller star, and the universe is not a sentient being either.  (It felt odd to write that sentence, since scientists and lay believers like to dote on science's humbling of human pride.)  When the human race dies out and the sun goes nova and the universe goes into heat death, this will not be because we were bad and didn't eat our Brussels sprouts, and the universe will neither gloat nor mourn, because the universe is not a person.  Mary Midgley wrote in Evolution as a Religion (Methuen, 1985) about the physicist Steven Weinberg and the biologist Jacque Monod (both Nobel laureates, by the way), of
the tone of personal aggrievement and disillusion, which seems to depend both in him and Monod, on failure to get rid of the animism or personification which they officially denounce. An inanimate universe cannot be hostile. To call it that is to reproach it for not being the divine parent of earlier belief. Only in a real, conscious human parent could uncaringness equal hostility. Weinberg’s mention of farce seems meant to imply the malicious callousness of such a parent, perhaps of one who leads a child on to expect affection and then rejects it. Monod seems to express the same unreasonable disappointment when he says that man lives “on the boundary of an alien world, a world that is deaf to his music and as indifferent to his hopes as it is to his sufferings or his crimes”. Certainly if we expect the non-human world around us to respond to us as a friendly human would, we shall be disappointed. But this does not put it in the position of a callously indifferent human. … And because the natural world is not a person, neither is it an enemy whom we can heroically resist. The drama of Ajax defying the lightning falls flat once we have demystified electric charges as modern physics tells us to [87; emphasis added].
An inanimate universe cannot be hostile.  It's interesting that these fantasies of intention and attitude are projected onto the world by distinguished scientists, as well as by laypersons who scorn religious believers as slaves to "primitive," "tribal," wishful magical thinking.  Getting rid of magical thinking isn't as easy as disavowing it and putting a red atheist A on your blog; quite often it simply reappears under different names and guises.

Now, to repeat: I don't deny that human-accelerated global warming is going on.  I am skeptical of people who think that if only we'd invented the solar panel a century ago, Mom Earth wouldn't be giving us a licking with Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy.  The climate would be changing even if we still lived in caves; we just wouldn't be affecting it as much.  This blogger, a physicist, has written,
As long as we want to use the energy to drive, build, light, heat, cool, or whatever, the end result is heat. Perhaps this deserves a post of its own, because it may not be an obvious statement. But the short answer is that any technology: real; future; or imagined that provides a source of energy for our activities will necessarily run into the limits explored in the galactic scale energy post.
He has numbers and arguments to support that claim too, in the post he linked.  (Notice, by the way, that I said "support," not "prove" or "demonstrate.")  Because of this, I'm skeptical of claims that human beings can reverse or even stop the progress of global warming.  Maybe we can, and I'd be happy to be proved wrong in the event.  But I suspect that this claim is more magical thinking, akin to scientists' fantasies of dominating and controlling Nature.  Which is what's wrong with Naureckas's reference to human-accelerated global warming as an "experiment."  Human beings didn't develop technology or start exploiting fossil fuels as an experiment, to see what the effects of releasing huge amounts of carbon dioxide and infrared radiation would be.  We did it as we've done most things: because we lived in a world that didn't provide the support we needed, and we had the brains and hands to find ways to provide it ourselves.  It wasn't only modern technology that has affected the environment -- the environment is always and inherently unstable, insecure, and unsafe.  These people must surely know of Darwin's theory of evolution as an account of the "struggle for existence," yet they talk as though they believed it would be a cakewalk if we would just improve our attitude and buy hybrid cars.  I understand their fear, I feel it myself, but that's not the world we live in.