May 10, 2014

Saturday Morning Essay: Door Number One, or Door Number Two? Better to find a Door Number Three, I suppose.

Brought to you by Peet's Colombian blend...

(Video doesn't seem to want to embed; worth watching - 8 minutes of Noam Chomsky's deadpan description of "Challenges of the Anthropocene.)

Climate Denialists point to the natural variability of weather, the waxing and waning of solar maxima and minima, the wobbling of the Earth around its axis of rotation, and other factors which have, given very long periods of time in which to subtly influence the climate, led to ice ages and eras of significantly higher average temperatures than prevail today.  These things did not happen in the ancient past, however, when the Earth was inhabited by 7 billion people combusting fossil fuels at the current rate. While the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere has been higher in the ancient past, even without the influence of fossil fuel burning, the rate at which we are increasing CO2 concentrations is unprecedented, as far as we can tell.

Also, it should probably go without saying that there have been no ice ages of any consequence (just a couple of Little Ice Ages of abnormally cold weather, of centuries duration, such as was occurring in Valley Forge the night before George Washington led his troops across the Delaware) since the era of agriculture began about 12,000 years ago.  The explosion in human population over these twelve millenia has depended on a moderate, predictable climate, as Craig Dilworth explained at great length in the indispensable Too Smart For Our Own Good.  These moderate, ideal conditions are what we have now trashed for good.  This is a stunning achievement, when you think about it.

It is perhaps true that modern humans spend an entirely unnatural amount of time in virtual realities or in artificial environments generally, and this is particularly true in advanced human civilizations of the First World.  Still, we were once arboreal foragers and hunters, and we remain exquisitely attuned to perturbations in the climate around us.  Lately, people have begun to notice that the weather is getting somewhat whacked.  This accounts for the very recent explosion in the sheer volume of airtime that the issue of climate change has begun to command.  As little as a year ago, it seems the subject never came up on the evening news or in the halls of Congress.

Led by breakthrough research and thinking by Jennifer Francis at Rutgers University and Paul Beckwith at the University of Ottawa, the effect of "Arctic amplification" has moved to center stage as an explanation for what the hell is going on.  Such as: granted, the song told us it never rains in California, but I thought this was poetic hyperbole.  I didn't think we were going to arrive at the point where it actually never rains in California.  Or: the "polar vortex" attacks on the Northeast and Southeast during a very rough winter, while the Arctic itself (and Alaska) remained unseasonably mild through the dark, sunless months.

With the Arctic warming and the Equatorial Earth remaining fairly constant in its temperature, the thermal gradient between the 0 latitude and the Arctic Circle has broken down.  It was this gradient  and the resultant flow of warm air northward toward the Pole, which was in turn bent laterally into the west-to-east jet stream by Coriolis force, which controlled our predictable weather in days of yore.  We took care of that.  Now anything goes, as Cole Porter would sing it.

Admittedly, I've gotten a little obsessed with the subject, because that's sort of the way I roll. Like my cats, I'm a little too curious for my own good. I find myself reading books, or watching movies, that were written or filmed ten years ago and taking solace in the idea these characters were living in a world where you didn't have to worry about which bizarre meteorological thing was going to happen next.  Now we don't have that grace, ease and comfort.

I think we've run up against things, hard, implacable things, all of a sudden, and that is why we're so disoriented.  Why those three a.m. disquietudes are so unsettling.  Even the climate scientists seem shocked into silence.  On the most recent open thread at, a persistent question from the posters took this form:

Speaking of the weather, I actually have a climate science question.
How long before Arctic amplification causes the Jet Stream to completely collapse, and what will happen then?

Others seconded the question, but I didn't see any of the climate science moderators take the question on.  What is there to say?  The predictive models did not really forecast this particular manifestation of global warming, but if we wanted to point to just one effect of AGW, wouldn't we talk about this weather weirding attributable to the disappearance of Arctic sea ice and disruption of the northern jet stream?   So this thing that has us totally freaked out - we didn't even see it coming.  What does that suggest to you?

Noam points out that Homo sapiens has figured out another reliable way to bring on the End Game, which is thermonuclear war.  This post is running a little long, but since I only write once a week, I will venture this observation which I have not seen voiced in any of our official organs of public opinion, even the chief propaganda rag of D.C., the New York Times.

To wit, beginning in late November of next year, 2015, the great nations of the Earth will gather in Paris for what is widely considered a make-or-break climate conference.  It is slowly dawning on the Big Thinkers that given the 40-year lag time between a given CO2 level in the atmosphere and its effect on climate (meaning, this weird weather and the crazification of the jet stream reflect emissions up to 1974), and that it was well after 1974 that China and India came on board with their coal-burning jamboree, that maybe, just maybe, we better get this thing the fuck in gear. So, my question: given the manifest need for international kumbaya, is it absolutely the best time for the Obama Administration, egged on by the Council of Morons at the NYT, to bring back That 70's Show called the Cold War with the Soviet Union Russia?  To conjure up images of the "Domino Effect" by pretending that Russia is in imminent danger of invading Lithuania, Estonia, Finland, or pouring through the Fulda Gap to overrun East Germany?

Personally, I doubt it.  Dmitry Orlov referred to our President in his latest blog as a "claymation figure with a teleprompter," which I admit is damn good, and reflects my own take on the extent to which Mr. Obama actually controls American foreign policy.  The State and Defense Department apparatchiks are more likely running the show, and they seem intent on playing this "Great Game" bullshit over the world's remaining oil and gas pipelines and reserves, and of maintaining American strategic primacy in regions far distant from our (acidified) shores.

There comes a time when Utopian idealism is actually more realistic than what we used to think of as realism, and I suspect that time has arrived.  Realism of the old kind leads to extinction, through either Door Number One or Door Number Two.  It is, as Baudelaire said, time to get drunk, on wine, poetry or virtue as we choose, that we may not be the martyred slaves of Time.