March 02, 2014

Twelve Steps to Extinction

I didn't write a Saturday Morning Essay because I was at the University of California, Santa Cruz, at a conference on climate change.  Some true heavyweights in the field were there, including Michael Mann of Penn State, the "Hockey Stick" proponent who took on Rep. Joe Barton of Texas and is now suing the National Review, William F. Buckley's old rag,  for libel.  How can one not admire a man like that?  Also, Gavin Schmidt of NASA Goddard, a mainstay at, Ben Santer of Lawrence Livermore, and Susan Solomon of MIT. 

I am familiar with the work of these scientists through my reading on the subject, which, admittedly, borders on the quasi-obsessive.  Well, we all have our hobbies.  I stayed with friends who live adjacent to the university, and it was a cool and bracing walk up the hill, on a blustery, rainy day, to the multi-purpose room where the conference was held.  Despite the weather and the early hour, the event was well-attended. 

The first panel (pictured up above in the writer's own photo) conducted a cursory review of the current state of the science of climate change.  This was, frankly, a little humdrum, and I suspect this was inevitable.  Four speakers given ten minutes each to say something about a science so complicated is not a process likely to produce a lot of breakthroughs, and it didn't.  More interesting to me was the second panel, which featured some genuine, working bureaucrats from the state of California who described what California is doing and plans to do about climate change. 

You might say that California is the American version of Germany and Holland.  It's a Green state with a lot of economic clout: 38 million people and the 8th largest economy in the world.  On its legislative books we have AB 32, which requires California to achieve a 35% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions below 1990 levels by 2020; thus, by this target year California is to emit not more, in the aggregate from all sources, 427 million tons of CO2.

To give full credit where it's due, this law was supported and ushered into law by the Austrian muscleman himself while he was governor in 2006.  Strangely enough, the Governator's dream seems likely to be fulfilled.  After that, the plan is to achieve reductions of 80% of GHG emissions (again, with 1990 as a benchmark) by 2050.  California is going about this in a variety of ways, including big pushes in solar and wind power plants, electric cars, and energy efficiency.  Ideas from Holland are being studied, such as the idea of covering the very long California aqueduct with solar panels, a non-invasive way (where animal habitat is concerned) to build power facilities with the added plus of reducing evaporation.  The Dutch are doing the same thing with their vast array of canals.  The Germans have all kinds of good ideas, such as super-insulation of housing and ways to localize power production. And, of course, Steven Chu's idea of painting, or building, all housing and commercial structures with white roofs. It's odd that white roofs are not already national policy.  I haven't done any calculations, or seen any by anyone else, but it seems to me that some of the slack in the loss of Arctic albedo could be corrected if every habitat in the world was reflecting ultraviolet radiation from the sun back into space instead of absorbing it and radiating infrared light into our greenhouse gas-clogged atmosphere.

I read a few "collapse" blogs, of course, and a morning spent listening to positive ideas clearly expressed by highly intelligent people places me in a state of mild cognitive dissonance.  We have the Denial crowd (such as "idiot politicians," as Gavin Schmidt called them; I happened to glance over at Michael Mann as Schmidt said this, and Mann was looking my way, and we both laughed - a nice moment of connection).  But beyond these increasingly irrelevant ranters and ravers (the Flat Earth contingent of modern times), we have the Collapsarians who have become deeply emotionally invested in hopelessness.  Thus, a contingent of pragmatic, can-do people such as those assembled yesterday are squeezed from both sides: they are called "unrealistic" by the Deniers because there's no problem to begin with, and unrealistic by the Collapsarians because we're plainly beyond all hope and the hour of our extinction is almost at hand.

Humans are strange psychological phenomena.  Between these two ideological phalanxes, it is hard to say which is more damaging.  The Denialists are being marginalized, day by day.  The Collapsarians, however, sneer, deride and laugh at any attempt to do anything about our predicament, because the earnest, deluded Mitigators are just listening to climate scientists who are "corporate shills" and/or who smoke "Hopium" all day.  There are even organized groups who celebrate their Realism together, such as the NTHE Support group (Near Term Human Extinction).  On Facebook, I have seen some of the ringleaders suggest "rules" for posting on their threads: one should not "troll" by saying anything positive which creates the illusion that anything can be done.  If you do, you're immediately identified as a Pod Person.

That's an odd idea.  One is already doomed, yet there are "rules" for describing your feelings about it. (Sort of like the great line in "Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid:"  "Rules?  In a knife fight?").  For example, perhaps you would be tempted to comment (or Comment) on one of their threads, as someone I know did (actually, it may have been me) that the "methane bomb" thesis where the Arctic is concerned is unsettled science, and that arguments "establishing" this is happening are found only in non-peer reviewed speculation; indeed, perhaps the world's leading authority on methane and carbon loads in the Arctic generally, and the East Siberian Arctic Shelf particularly, Natalia Shakhova of the University of Alaska, does not endorse the "methane bomb" thesis, stating the science does not yet support such a conclusion.  But for the NTHE crowd, the fuse is already burning.

I am sure that the desire to "belong" may indeed override all other instincts in some individuals, including the will to survive. Thus, in their addictive clinging to their own annihilation, they find comfort and solidarity.  It doesn't make any sense to me.  We don't actually "know" the things that the Collapsarians base their demise upon.  I'm sorry, folks, but the actual science does not conclusively support your position.  Your confidence about hopelessness is an artifact of your smug sense of superiority, which you have not earned.  You haven't made your case.

Anyway, it's the wrong case to make.  Why go down without a fight? Why wallow in despair? How futile, how inhuman, how...boring.  Far more interesting is the attempt to solve the problem.  Take the side of life, not death. Death will be along regardless, and then you can be dead for as long as you like.  But while you're alive, be alive.

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