Sunday, March 09, 2014

What Should We Be Worried About?

== Worst Case Scenarios? ==
All the freaky weather, with the Polar Vortex swinging far south of its normal arctic home and aurorae over London, reminds one of James Lovelock's 2007 book, The Revenge of Gaia, which predicted that by 2020 extreme weather will be the norm, causing global devastation; that by 2040 much of Europe will be Saharan; and parts of London will be underwater.  Note that in EARTH I portrayed Bangladesh and Florida and Houston getting drowned by that date.  Though I do not go as far as James Lovelock did, back then…
vanishing-face-of-gaia1…and Lovelock himself appears to now be slightly less pessimistic.  I think there's still time to make a real difference and achieve a "soft Landing" so that there will be more good news than bad…
… but there are potential killer game changers.  For example if methane hydrates under cool thermal layers in northern seas start to "blurp" out, the runaway effects of all that methane (a far more powerful greenhouse gas than CO2) will be catastrophic.  Similarly methane from melting tundra… or the potentially horrible hydrogen sulfide scenario that paleontologist Peter Ward described in his "Green Sky" scenario

See his TEDx talk: A theory of Earth's mass extinctions. 
Are we on the verge of an "H2S Extinction Event?" It is one of two ways that the gradual nature of human generated climate change might suddenly do a non-linear takeoff. (The other would be if deep ocean hydrates of methane suddenly reached a critical point and were to "blurp" - along with methane released from thawing tundra, sending the greenhouse skyrocketing.)
Green-sky-ward Peter Ward, author of Under a Green Sky: Global Warming, the Mass Extinctions of the Past, and What they Can Tell us about our Future, and other researchers point to several past extinction events on Earth that seem to have been driven by sudden pollution of the atmosphere by hydrogen sulfide gas. This poison is generated in deep ocean anoxic (oxygen depleted) layers that stop getting mixing currents from above, by anaerobic archaeobacteria. 

The best example of this currently happening is the Black Sea, right next to where the Sochi Olympics just finished.  There, just a few hundred meters below the calm surface, and kept down by a delicate thermocline layer, sits "the greatest repository of poison in the world, by far." Someday, it will come out.

==Three Triggers to Disaster==
Three things need to happen, in order for a world disaster (a Green Sky) of unprecedented proportions to occur and two are already underway.
OCEAN-ACIDITY1. A rapid rise in ocean acidity… check. This is the product of human-spewed CO2 that the denialists at Fox strenuously avoid mentioning.  Because there is no response possible. Because the oceans are turning acid at unprecedented rates. No Hannity-obfuscation can hide it… so they never ever ever mention it. And when the topic comes up? They point offscreen and yell… squirrel!
2. Lots of nutrients.  Agricultural and other runoffs from civilization aren't feeding the healthy fishery food chains, but massive algae blooms, jellyfish and (when it all sinks) blooms of bottom layer archaeobacteria.
3. Failure of the healthy mixing currents that prevent thermoclines from getting too strong, in the great oceans.  From Arctic to Antarctic, currents mix layers and bring oxygen to the deeps. But scientists have long warned of ways that warming might shut down the North Atlantic conveyor... and if that third ingredient happens, we could be in FAR worse trouble than in that silly film THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW.
 Paul Werbos sums it up: "The previous head of ARPAE strongly recommended a book, The Alchemy of Air, to give us an uplifting story about science and innovation.. . which also tells us about how different our modern world is from the world of a thousand years ago. It looks to me as if the trigger is bigger than ever before in earth history, and as if the oxygenating currents are what save us. When they go…."
Or if the mysterious way the oceans have been uptaking extra CO2 suddenly stops… which of course it must, some day.  Or if ocean acidification (which you'll notice Fox never mentions, because it is absolute fact) reaches a tipping point…
…or if we simply remain obstinately stupid and complacent. And if the smart folks in civilization continue to let themselves be bullied by the dumbest, who rant hypnotic drivel poured out by cable propaganda machines, owned by lords who cannot spell and/or imagine the word "tumbrels" -- the vehicle that will replace their limos, if the bad stuff ever really comes down.  
What-should-we-be-worried-brockman
Alas, they fail that IQ test, proving no smarter than the mob they think that they control.

Follow-up:

See What Should We Be Worried About? Real Scenarios that Keep Scientists Up at Night, essays edited by John Brockman.

See also my article: Distinguishing Climate Skeptics and Deniers.

26 comments:

John Climatehawk Atkeison said...

I recently heard Richard Paley discount the runaway aspect of the methane clathrate burp in a webinar about abrubpt climate change. H did not elaborate except to say that there were inherent circuit breakers.
IMHO, if we "believe the scientists" then that goes for relatively good news, too.

Robert said...

Have to wonder why terrorists are so busy trying to martyr themselves when they could instead drop some explosives into that area to try and force the hydrogen sulfide up and result in a massive poison gas event. They could even state it was the work of Allah and that those people died because they didn't worship properly.

Rob H.

Tony Fisk said...

To which my response would be: "Eww! Allah! Must you?"

Less flippantly, do you know why CO2 is a greenhouse gas? (I asked this straightforward question on another forum, and the responses were interesting)

Tony Fisk said...

Some trivia (from this review):
- Peter Ward's book was published in 2007.
- The green sky it alludes to arises from very high altitude clouds that form as a result of extreme greenhouse conditions (I had thought it might be due to the tinting of excess H2S)

Anti-Imperialist said...

We should be worried about an out of control, criminal elite that continues to provoke and meddle in the affairs of Russia for no good reason. We should worry that a globalist oligarchy has usurped our government and is using it as its global enforcement arm. We should worry that war-mongers and imperialists are so deeply embedded in our government (as Eisenhower warned) that only a revolution will remove them. We should worry that a bankrupt, overstretched American empire is starting to lose, and may soon go the way of the Soviet Union.

Why do you so rarely talk about American imperialism, Dr. Brin? Are you actually a supporter of this mad-dog empire that murdered hundreds of thousand in Iraq, and doesn't spread democracy or prosperity around the world, but chaos, dictatorship and war?

Tony Fisk said...

Quick answer: no.

David Brin said...

Anti-imperialist… few people fought the mad Bushites harder than I did. On the other hand, your myopia, refusing to answer the simple question: "compared to what?" is disturbing and depressing.

Sure, Pax Americana has crimes to atone for. All imperial powers have. But ZERO other ages of imperium had as high a ratio of good to bad as Pax Americana (PA). If you disagree, show us the comparison statistics!

(Hint… every other such era was vastly vastly worse.)

Moreover, the times without a Pax Power were even worse, with incessant war. In fact, per capita violence worldwide has plummeted every decade since 1944… yes, even taking into account idiotic and insane things like Vietnam and Iraq.

Want to criticize? Terrific! Want to cast general damnations without any comparison to all the eras of our ancestors? Sorry, that's shallow.

sociotard said...

Moreover, the times without a Pax Power were even worse, with incessant war. In fact, per capita violence worldwide has plummeted every decade since 1944… yes, even taking into account idiotic and insane things like Vietnam and Iraq.

And yet, when you were young, college kids could take busses from city to city from paris to Bangkok in relative safety, but the Hippie trail hasn't been safe since 1979, with at least some of the causes for that directly traceable to US action. A change for the more war torn.

Tacitus2 said...

Regards Anti-Imp

Hey, none of us are gung ho for crazy international antics any more. (although a bit of partisan coloration still persists, see the one day wonder of enthusiasm for Obama getting tough on Syria).

The truth is that the age of gunboat diplomacy is over.

But regards the main topic today, if there is no effective international community (a good question that, is there?) then issues such as global warming, ocean acidification etc will have no effective solution.

In my opinion fellow conservatives either ask the wrong questions or are portrayed as asking the wrong ones (another good point to discuss).

Is dumping lots of carbon into the atmosphere bad? Sure. Probably the wrong question.

How are you going to get India and China and Russia to stop doing it? We have an international culture of lawlessness. I would be very interested in hearing a discussion on how we can get these large, bullheaded entities to do things that they would regard as counter to their national interests. We can't get China to stop bootlegging our intellectual property. Or Russia to respect international boundaries.

Yes, we should speak softly. We just don't have an effective "big stick" to go along with that policy.

Tacitus
looking for a stick

Christopher White said...

I wonder, without some form of abrupt climate event, if humans will be able to take any action. We need to hope that abrupt event doesn't include mass extinctions. Best case scenario would be a sea level rise of a meter or two. Enough to scare the jesus out of people, but hopefully not enough to push us to an extinction level event.

David Brin said...

An interactive map shows that melting claciers won't give us "waterworld"… but you might not want to own land where (ironically) most of the folks in the climate denialist cult live.

http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2013/09/rising-seas/if-ice-melted-map

Robert said...

By the way, was I alone in feeling a little disappointed by the new Cosmos? Primarily that a television show based on science and scientific discovery had a visual error when it came to showing the asteroid belt and Oort Cloud in that even if you had a small family of asteroids, you'd probably not be able to see them as significant-sized objects all at once, let alone the "Star Wars Asteroid Field" effect?

That "artistic license" threw me out of the show for half of it.

Rob H.

LarryHart said...

Tacitus2:

Hey, none of us are gung ho for crazy international antics any more. (although a bit of partisan coloration still persists, see the one day wonder of enthusiasm for Obama getting tough on Syria).

I'm an Obama supporter, and I didn't want him to start a war in Syria. I seem to recall the party opposite insiting that intervention would be a bad idea. I'd like to think (though I don't know if I really can) that the Prez was really against military intervention, but he knew that if he said so, then John McCain and Lindsay Graham would insist on war, so he pretended to be for it instead, knowing the GOP would then become peaceniks.

In any case, I think your first statement is accurate--we're finally sick of war in a way that maybe hasn't been the case since the period between the World Wars. George Bush may have inadvertently created "war fatigue" in the American public, to the point where even if Hitler was currently militarizing the Rheinland and annexing Poland, it would be difficult to get us in the mood for yet another military adventure.

Robert said...

If you look at history, a combination of the Civil War and World War I left us with war fatigue and we honestly didn't want to get involved in World War II until Roosevelt forced Japan into backstabbing us. Without Japan, I suspect the war might have become a stalemate between Russia, Germany, and Britain... especially as Germany's attention would not have been divided with other fronts, while Russia would have sacrificed Moscow and retreated into the mountains and waged a long cold war.

Ultimately it would have been decided if Germany was able to build the atomic bomb, at which point London would be nuked, Britain forced into surrender, and probably much of Russia eventually nuked to burn them out.

Fortunately, we did get involved because the Japanese had no choice but to attack us.

Rob H.

greg byshenk said...

From the last round...

Alex Tolley responded to Locumranch with a story about how "Wealth has apparently created new wealth out of thin air." The problem with the story, is that it doesn't show that at all. In the story, it is the ingenuity of Ogg (the inventor) that has created greater wealth. One might well say that it was the wealth already amassed by the leader that enabled Ogg's wealth creation, but that is not quite the same thing. After all, the leader's amassed wealth -- on its own -- will never produce anything.

Duncan Cairncross said...

"One might well say that it was the wealth already amassed by the leader that enabled Ogg's wealth creation, but that is not quite the same thing. After all, the leader's amassed wealth -- on its own -- will never produce anything."

And neither would Ogg - on his own,
Wealth was created by a combination of the two

LarryHart said...

Duncan Cairncross responds:

"One might well say that it was the wealth already amassed by the leader that enabled Ogg's wealth creation, but that is not quite the same thing. After all, the leader's amassed wealth -- on its own -- will never produce anything."

And neither would Ogg - on his own,
Wealth was created by a combination of the two


Yes, the Ayn Rand sensibility is that only the inventor contributed to the new technology, ignoring the fact that (in the story in question) the leaders wealth was a necessary prerequisite for Oog to have time available to do his work. Plus something that would not necessarily be the case in all scenarios, but was certainly true in this one: that while Oog was the one whose technical expertise made it possible, Oog never came up with the notion of inventing a new way of hunting on his own. It was the leader's idea in the first place.

This is an ideal story of how capitalism should work. Capital, management, and expertise all combine to produce something greater that would not have been possible without any of those elements.

David Brin said...

Interesting articles spin online, about the debatable choice of the COSMOS producers to focus so long and hard on Giordano Bruno, whose immolation in Italy cast into stark focus that fear and wrath provoked by heretical beliefs. (I was surprised that Tyson did not pose next to the statue of Bruno that now towers over the square where he burned.) Although I speak of Bruno often, I never portray him as a saint of science, rather, a palladin of confrontation… the top contrarian of an era that was just learning how to accept the prodigious benefits of open and fair argument.

As for as science goes, well, this article compares Bruno to the Englishman, Thomas Digges, who was quietly doing much more to bring the ideas of Copernicus into the mainstream of European thinking, without the accompanying in-yer-face theological dross that Bruno added, that multiplied his troubles. Certainly, I am more like Bruno, I suppose. But with just enough maturity to know that civilization is actually pushed forward by more modest men and women of science.

But they chose Bruno for obvious reasons. He was a martyr for... a new openness of inquiry.

http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/outthere/2014/03/10/cosmos-pick-wrong-hero/#.Ux8fUIZ1HnQ.email

David Brin said...

So cool! See an animation of the "Council of Giants" -- a dozen big galaxies that surround our Local Group (which is mostly the Milky Way and Andromeda) in a very thin sheet, constraining our two spirals and having guided their evolution.

http://www.csmonitor.com/Science/2014/0311/Was-our-galaxy-formed-by-a-Council-of-Giants

Robert said...

And your thoughts on the Star Wars-esque depiction of our Asteroid Belt and Oort Cloud?

Tacitus2 said...

From above:

"How are you going to get India and China and Russia to stop doing it? We have an international culture of lawlessness. I would be very interested in hearing a discussion on how we can get these large, bullheaded entities to do things that they would regard as counter to their national interests. We can't get China to stop bootlegging our intellectual property. Or Russia to respect international boundaries."

Really, nobody wants to toss out a theory? For all the energy devoted to the evils of anthropomorphic climate change (I did get that right, yes?) can we not have some kind of discussion on how this could be accomplished in the real world?

You could start with talking about the European experience but looking at where the Carbon is you have to find a way to persuade Russia, China and the Third World to change.

Some creative ideas, please. What will we use to reward or dissuade folks outside our boundaries but still very much in our atmosphere?

Tacitus

locumranch said...

Alex's caveman analogy about wealth could have cribbed from J Abner Peddiwell's 'The Saber Tooth Curriculum' word for for word, excepting that Peddiwell adds "and then the situation changed drastically", requiring a similarly drastic change of tactics.

Isn't that what we're talking about when we invoke some pending apocalypse, from rapture or financial collapse to climate change or a methane burp, a Desire for Change, when a greater world merely desires an eternity of more of the same much like Ogg??

If change is truly our desire, then we must pay the ultimate price. We must accept our entropic fate as inevitable; we must break it all so our children can rebuild the world anew; we must free our children from the burden of ourselves; and we must choose the form of our Destructor.



Best

David Brin said...

The neighbor -bullying being done by Russia and China is kindergarten level compared to how both nations behaved in centuries past. It's nasty stuff, but also amateur and small scale, ever since the American Pax started giving the world its first real breather of sustained peace and progress since Pax Brittanica (and far better, too.)

Far more thoughtfully, Stuart pursues the question of Whatever Comes Next (WCN). Because obviously something WILL come after Pax Americana. And it is right to hope that it will be something good, admirable, loose, with emphasis on protecting individual rights to be left alone… maybe heading toward what Roddenberry portrayed in Star Trek. Ideally something deeply inspired by and resonant with the general tenor that benefited nearly all people under the last (mostly benign) imperium … Pax Americana.

Alas, there's almost no discussion of WCN, which appears to be creeping up on us, not by intelligent design but by un-sapient evolution.

1) Two branches of "world government" take greater shape each year… a world bureaucracy and judiciary, because these are needed by states and corporations. What is NOT forming is anything like executive or legislative branches. Why? Because those states and corporations would lose power the instant those branches formed. Because seven billion people would see them and say "oh… yes… I know what happens now… I get to vote."

That cannot be allowed. Look up the principle of "standing." States and corporations have standing before bureaucracies and some international courts. Individual humans do not. That is viewed as a vital status quo.

2) WCN could happen by another route. Right now, with Europe in crisis, this scenario is considered laughable! But suppose they get their act together and - in ten years - the EU is in good shape again (escept demographically).

Now imagine the Accession Office in Strasbourg gets a creamy envelope containing an application for admission from the Bahamas, from Bermuda, from New Zealand. Would they refuse? Or would they shrug and say "Well… the "E" in EU could stand for "Earth"."

That is another way WCN might sneak up on us. As an American, I find it chilling. It's less-awful than 99% of possible WCNs! But come on! Can't we do better than that?

David Brin said...

onward to next posting….

Phil Osborn said...

Just to make the picture even bleaker, just heard on NPR a short discussion of what it would take to create an electrical blackout that would last for years. Just take out nine of the major transformer nodes. It was mentioned that somebody not long ago, for whatever reason - they never explained - shot up about twenty large transformers, completely frying them, I think, at one major substation, using an ordinary rifle. Didn't take that long to accomplish and the perp was long gone by the time the power people figured out it was an attack. It was also pointed out that the power grid doesn't keep a warehouse of spares for these major grid transformers, as they cost many millions of dollars each, while a rifle bullet is maybe 25 cents. It takes over a year typically to order, construct and then transport from China or whereever one of these monster transformers - the U.S. is out of that business... So, figure the grid would be down for at least two years. But that ignores the breakdown of basic security that would inevitably happen, leaving other portions of the remaining grid even more open to attack. I'll bet you thought that "Dark Angel" was fiction. How much extra cash will be available for dealing with global warming if we're back to candles and fortified cities jealously guarding their local power facilities - and hoping that the next shipment of coal gets through.

Phil Osborn said...

Just heard on NPR a short discussion of what it would take to create an electrical blackout that would last for years. Just take out nine of the major transformer nodes. It was mentioned that somebody not long ago, for whatever reason - they never explained - shot up about twenty large transformers, completely frying them, I think, at one major substation, using an ordinary rifle. Didn't take that long to accomplish and the perp was long gone by the time the power people figured out it was an attack. It was also pointed out that the power grid doesn't keep a warehouse of spares for these major grid transformers, as they cost many millions of dollars each, while a rifle bullet is maybe 25 cents. It takes over a year typically to order, construct and then transport from China or whereever one of these monster transformers - the U.S. is out of that business... So, figure the grid would be down for at least two years. But that ignores the breakdown of basic security that would inevitably happen, leaving other portions of the remaining grid even more open to attack. I'll bet you thought that "Dark Angel" was fiction. How about a future in which there is no climate-change effort, because everyone is too maxed out on getting another shipment of coal to run the local generators for another month?