Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Here be Dragons: climate change and a lesson from the past

          Recently, Richard Alley, a Nobel Prize winner for his work with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, as well as Evan Pugh Professor of Geosciences at Penn State, told the Anthropology Department here a tired tale of human-driven global warming and how it will be our end (or our children’s children’s end, and then only if they live in the tropics). I’m a graduate student in Archaeology in the Department, working on land use and sustainability issues, and so I was particularly interested in what he had to say. 
          Alley provided good evidence that carbon dioxide is intimately linked to rising temperatures, as it has always been. Throughout different periods of history, changes in earth’s orbit caused heat spikes, in turn ramping up atmospheric levels of CO2. This resulted in a feedback effect, where increasing carbon dioxide spun the temperature dial in the direction of HOT. Of late, humans have opportunistically contributed to atmospheric CO2 through the burning of fossil fuels, causing uncharacteristic warming in our interglacial period and, undoubtedly, unnecessary extremes in weather. This has become a fairly well known and accepted argument across the board, and the data are only getting stronger.
          But the noteworthy bit, to me, was Alley’s generous display of humility. One of the world’s leading scientists on abrupt climate change, he began his talk with the moralizing concession that science can only know so much. In other words, he acknowledged that the story of climate change is and will remain, to some degree, unknowable. And that might be the scariest part. To bring the point home, he produced a slide of the Hunt-Lenox Globe. Dating to the early 16th century, the Hunt-Lenox is a beautiful, copper sphere, one of two historical maps with the Latin phrase HIC SVNT DRACONES, or “here be dragons.” He then posed a simple but earnest question: if people prepared for dragons in the past, if only out of fear, then why don’t we, here and now, prepare for ours, especially when we are, in terms of global warming, on firmer (though, dare I say, soon-to-be-submerged) ground?

Hunt-Lenox Globe

          These weren't scare tactics; Alley was being realistic. Based upon their theoretical constructs, scientists have long observed anthropogenic climate change. He pointed out that even Navy Admiral Samuel J. Locklear III, US Chief of Pacific Forces, was recently quoted in the Boston Globe as stating that melting polar ice is leading to rapid rises in sea level, posing a top threat to national security. When it comes to climate, the question is no longer if, but when and to what extent.
          Good science on climate change favors words like risk over certainty, because science deals in probability, not truth. Unfortunately, the public doesn’t like the former. This might seem odd, given that we equip our automobiles with seat-belts and airbags, our airplanes with flotation devices, and our dress shirts with that extra little button on the inside, just in case, all in the name of risk. Why, then, shouldn’t we prepare for the increased risk that attends a warming planet? The answer, I tend to believe, is that people are waiting to see direct correlations for the nearing of another Permian Extinction, where warming will be the de facto source of death and destruction. But that’s not how this works, not this time, at least. What will happen instead, and what we’re already beginning to see, is a correlation between rising temperatures and lower crop yields (at a time when one out of every eight people are suffering from chronic undernutrition), increased water usage (at a time when water scarcity effects one out of every five people), mounting violence (hello, Arab Spring), and rising seas (goodbye, Florida). There’s another problem, as well: the age-old belief that technology and innovation will be our savior. Here, archaeology presents a cautionary tale.
          Just as earth’s climate is dynamic by nature, people are naturally shortsighted in their maximization of resources, and understandably so. We prepare for what we know. Indeed, humans switched from hunting and gathering to farming some 12,000 years ago, in large part to optimize production, as agriculture provided a more consistent food supply. Famine and drought were ever-present possibilities, as they remain today, and so early farmers developed technologies, slowly over time, to increase and store their yields. Early agriculture’s shortsighted innovations had, from time to time, localized consequences, to be sure, but they remained just that: local. And that’s a fundamental difference from today.
          It was not until populations grew large enough, and technologies effective enough, that people had long-term impacts—through shortsighted decision-making—on the surrounding landscape. Maximization and stability are opposing strategies, but this becomes obvious only after certain thresholds are crossed. Particularly with the rise of state economies, individual or community interests became absorbed into fewer and fewer maximizing strategies. As humans invested ever more in their environments, and as economies of scale developed around the extraction of particular resources, institutions developed and the very fabric of a community became locked-in, part of a path-dependent, adaptational response. While this was economically and socially advantageous in the short-term, it meant decreased resilience over the long-term. With the introduction of a crisis, large, interdependent societies were faced with few options but to innovate. Often, they failed to do so, and this is why the rise and fall of empires is the stuff of legend.
          In some ways, it’s useful to think of history as a cycle of challenge and response. This is not to suggest that certain societies at certain times faltered because of a lack of creativity – to the contrary, in fact. But in terms of innovation and the environment, every technological response trades knowns for unknowns. Moreover, technological innovation is directed toward common challenges, meaning that a group’s technological advancements are designed to face common threats, meanwhile disregarding and therefore becoming more vulnerable to unsuspected but (potentially major) dilemmas. As societies and their technologies build in complexity, complex unknowns also build, inviting far-reaching and often unforeseeable consequences.
          Global warming is as much an environmental challenge as it is a social challenge. It would be an extreme myopia to believe that technological advances will save us in the future. When looked at from the perspective of the past, a people’s ability to successfully innovate is never guaranteed. A brief review of the archaeological record shows that, time and again, technological advances failed to outpace advancing interdependency and the coalescence of maximizing strategies. We now live in an era of globalization and unprecedented vulnerability, subsumed, willingly or not, under a stratagem of cheap oil maximization. The ineluctable switch to natural gas and methane hydrate, instead of the necessary and unconditional move to renewables, is further proof that technology is touted over reality, over science.
          Environmental catastrophes have never been wholly avoidable. But in the past, they were limited in extent, largely because societies were more decentralized, comprised of fewer people, and significantly, the sole reapers of what they sowed (pun intended). With the introduction of fossil fuels and the global market, we've exchanged local resilience and stability for worldwide maximization and fragility, as well as the universal responsibility of, as Richard Alley made clear, an unpredictable climate. And all with an Ozymandian arrogance. This is not to suggest that innovation is inherently evil, but to say that technology, in the modern sense, might not be able to slay the dragon.


Ken Weiss said...

Nice post, Reed. You raise a number of key issues about when, how, whether, or where agriculture is itself not good, and how those facts may affect our view of our current situation.

Jim Wood said...

You're right, Reed, that the key issue is how risk is perceived. You and I might think that the probably costs of continued warming are too great to bear, others might be equally convinced that the decline in (cost to) Western consumption needed to avoid those less-than-certain costs of warming are too great to bear. The deeper political problem is that those two costs are borne by distinct groups of people: poor people, including those in the developing world, will disproportionately bear the costs of warming, whereas rich people in the industrialized world will bear the "costs" of reining in consumption. Guess which group has greater political power.

Manoj Samanta said...

Much of what is going on regarding global warming is scare-mongering and bad science as explained by your sentence - "unfortunately, the public doesn’t like the former ". Many scientist take that as 'scientists should do scare-mongering to convince public', but we believe the physical scientists should take no part in it beyond what is truthfully described by their science including all the inherent ambiguities, because it hurts and will hurt their credibility.

When a journal like Nature publishes a bullshit paper to forecast what will happen to the earth in 2080 and call it science, that is abomination of scientific methods. I could sit in 1880 and see the expansion of horse-buggies to 'forecast' that the earth would be filled with horse-shit in 1980. Economic forecasts like that have many limitations and they should be properly described as economic forecasts and not science.

Manoj Samanta said...

'Cheap oil' is an outcome of cheap credit. Everything that follows from it (shipping of vegetables from New Zealand to New York, TV from China to Texas, global exchange of commodities, etc.) will go away, when cheap credit from Federal Reserves disappears.

Why will cheap credit disappear? It is because the cheap credit that Fed distributes is taken from the pension savings of baby boomer generation. Once the boomers pass their peak working age, they will take more out than they put in, and the cheap credit will be very, very expensive, leading to extremely cheap oil that nobody will be able to afford.