Monday, June 11, 2018

Reading New Thoughts: Hessen’s Many Lives of Carbon and the Two Irresistible Forces of Climate Change

Disclaimer:  I am now retired, and am therefore no longer an expert on anything.  This blog post presents only my opinions, and anything in it should not be relied on.
Dag Hessen’s “The Many Lives of Carbon” is the best book I have been able to find on the chemical details of the carbon cycle and CO2-driven climate change (despite some odd idioms that make it difficult to understand him at times).  In particular, it goes deeply into “positive feedbacks” that exacerbate departures from atmospheric-O2 equilibrium and “negative feedbacks” that operate to revert to equilibrium.  In the long run, negative feedbacks win; but the long run can be millions of years.
More precisely, if humans weren’t involved, there are medium-term and long-term “global warmings” and coolings.  The medium-term warming/cooling is usually thought to result from the Milankovitch Cycle, in which Earth orbit unusually far from the Sun during winter (“rubber-banding” of its elliptical orbit), a more severe tilt of the Earth’s axis as it oscillates periodically, and “precession” (wobbling back and forth on its axis) combine to yield unusually low Northern-Hemisphere winter heat from the Sun, which kickstarts glaciation, which acts as a positive feedback for global cooling along with atmospheric CO2 loss.  This cooling operates slowly over most of the next 100,000 years to descend into an Ice Age, but then the opposite effect (maximum heat from the sun) kicks in and brings a sharp rise in temperatures back to its original point. 
Long-term global warming is much rarer – there are instances 55 million years ago and 250 million years ago, and indeed some indications that most of the previous 5 largest mass extinctions on Earth were associated with this type of global warming.  The apparent cause is massive volcanism, especially underwater volcanism (the clouds from on-land volcanism actually reduce temperatures significantly over several years, but then the temperatures revert to what they were before the eruption).  It also seems clear that the main if not only cause of the warming is CO2 and methane (CH4) released into the atmosphere by these eruptions – carbon infusions so persistent that the level of atmospheric CO2 did not revert to equilibrium for 50 million years or so after the last such warming.
For both medium-term and long-term global warming/cooling, “weathering” acts as a negative feedback – but only over hundreds of thousands of years.  Weathering involves water and wind wearing away at rock, exposing carbon-infused silica that are then carried to the ocean.  There, among other outcomes, they are taken up by creatures who die, forming ocean-floor limestone that “captures” the carbon and thus withdraws it from the carbon cycle circulating carbon into and out of the atmosphere.
Human-caused global warming takes the slow negative feedback of animal/plant fossils being turned into coal, oil, and natural gas below the Earth’s surface and makes it into an unprecedentedly fast direct cause of global warming, mostly by burning it for fuel (hence “fossil fuels”).   The net effect of CO2 doubling in the atmosphere is 2-2.8 degrees Centigrade land-temperature warming, but it is also accompanied by positive feedbacks (including increased cloud cover, increased atmospheric methane, and “black carbon”/soot decreases in albedo [reflectivity of the sun’s heat]) that, in a slower way, may take the net global warming associated with CO2 doubling up to 4 degrees C.  Some of this can be overcome by the negative feedback of the ocean’s slower absorption of the increased heat, as the ocean “sink” can take more carbon out of the atmosphere, but at some point soon the ocean will be in balance with the atmosphere and much of what we emit in carbon pollution will effectively stay aloft for thousands of years. 
My point in running through the implications of Hessen’s analysis is that there is a reason for scientists to fear for all of our lives:  The global warming that, in the extreme, disrupts agriculture and food webs extremely and makes it unsafe for most of us to operate outside for more than a short period of time most of the year, except in the high mountains, is a CO2-driven “irresistible force”.  There is therefore a good case to be made that “mitigation” – reducing carbon emissions (and methane and black carbon and possibly nitrous oxide) is by far the best way to avoid the kind of global warming that literally threatens humanity’s survival.  And this is a point that I have argued vociferously in past blog posts.

The Other Irresistible Force:  The Business/Legal Bureaucracy

And yet, based on my reading, I would argue that there is an apparently equally irresistible force operating on its own momentum in today’s world:  what I am calling the Business/Legal Bureaucracy.  Here, I am using the word “bureaucracy” in a particular sense:  that of an organization operating on its own momentum.  In the case of businesses, that means a large-business bureaucracy operating always under a plan to make more profit this year than last.  In the case of the law, that means a court system and mindset always to build on precedents and to support property rights.  
To see what I am talking about, consider David Owen’s “Where the Water Goes”, about what happens to all the water in the Colorado River watershed.  Today, most of that water is shipped east to fuel the farms and businesses of Colorado and its vicinity, or west, to meet the water needs of Las Vegas and Los Angeles and the like.  The rest is allocated to farmers or other property owners along the way under a peculiar legal doctrine called “prior appropriation” – instead of the more typical equal sharing among bordering property owners, it limits each portion to a single “prior claimant”, since in the old mining days there wasn’t enough water in each portion for more than one miner to be able to “wash” the gold effectively.  Each new demand for water therefore is fitted legally within this framework, ensuring that the agricultural business bureaucracy will push for more water from the same watershed, while the legal bureaucracy will accommodate this within the array of prior claimants.
To see what creates such an impression of an irresistible force about this, consider the need to cut back on water use as climate change inevitably decreases the snowpack feeding the Colorado.  As Owen points out, there is no clear way to do this.  Business-wise, no one wants to be the one to sacrifice water.  Legally, the simple solution of limiting per-owner water use can actually result in more water use from each owner, as seasonal and annual variations in water needs mean that many owners will now need to draw down and store water in off-seasons “just in case”.   The result is a system that not only resists “sustainability” but in fact can also be less profit-producing in the long run – the ecosystems shafted by this approach, such as the now-dry Mexican terminus of the Colorado, may well be those that might have been most arable in the global-warming future.  And the examples of this multiply quickly:  the wildfire book I reviewed in an earlier blog post noted the extreme difficulties in fighting wildfires with their exacerbating effect on global warming, difficulties caused by the encroachment of mining and real-estate development on northern forests, driven by Legal/Business Bureaucracy.
The primary focus of the Legal/Business Bureaucracy with respect to climate change and global warming, therefore, is after-the-fact, incremental adaptation.  It is for that reason, as well as the dangerous trajectory we are now on, that I view calling the most disastrous future climate-change scenarios “business as usual” as entirely appropriate.

Force, Meet Force

It also seems to me that reactions to the most dire predictions of climate change fall into two camps (sometimes in the same person!): 

1.       We need drastic change or few of us will survive, because no society or business system can possibly resist the upcoming “business as usual” changes:  extreme weather, loss of water for agriculture, loss/movement of arable land, large increases in the area ripe for debilitating/killing tropical diseases, extreme heat, loss of ocean food, loss of food-supporting ecosystems, loss of seacoast living areas, possible toxic emissions from the ocean. 

2.       Our business-economy-associated present system will somehow automagically “muddle through”, as it always seems to have done.  After all, there is, it seems, plenty of “slack” in the water efficiency of agriculture, plenty of ideas about how to adopt businesses and governments to encourage better adaptation and mitigation “at the margin” (e.g., solar now dominates the new-energy market in the United States, although it does not seem to have made much of a dent in the existing uses of fossil fuels), and plenty of new business-associated technologies to apply to problems (e.g., business sustainability metrics). 

An interesting example of how both beliefs can apparently coexist in the same person is Steven Pinker’s “Enlightenment Now”, an argument that the “reason reinforced by science” approach to the world of the late 18th century known as the Enlightenment is primarily responsible for a dramatic, continuing improvement in the overall human situation, and should be chosen as the primary impetus for further improvements.  My overall comment on this book is that Pinker has impressed me with the breadth of his reading and the general fairness of his assessments of that reading.  However, Pinker appears to have one frustrating flaw:  A belief that liberals and other proponents of change in such areas as equality, environmentalism, and climate change are primarily so ideology-driven that they are actually harmful to Enlightenment-type improvements, and likewise their proponents within the government.  Any reasonable reading of Jeffrey Sachs’ “The Age of Sustainable Development”, which I hope to discuss in a later post, puts the lie to that one. 
In any case, Pinker has an extensive section on climate change, in which he both notes the “existential threat” (i.e., threat to human existence) posed by human-caused climate change, and asserts his belief that it can be overcome by a combination of Business/Legal-Complex adaptation to the findings of Enlightenment scientists and geoengineering.  One particular assertion is that if regulations could be altered, new technologies in nuclear power can meet all our energy needs in short order, with little risk to people and little need of waste storage.  I should note that James Hansen appears to agree with him (although Hansen is far more pessimistic that regulation alteration will happen or that nuclear businesses will choose to change their models) and Joe Romm very definitely does not.  
One also often sees the second camp among experts on Business/Legal-Complex matters such as allocation of water in California in reaction to climate-change-driven droughts.  These reactions assume linear effects on water availability of what is an exponential global-warming process, and note that under these assumptions, there is plenty of room for less water use by existing agriculture, and everyone should “stop panicking.” 
So what do I think will happen when force meets force?

Flexibility Is the Enemy of Agility

One of the things that I noticed (and noted in my blog) in my past profession is that product and organizational flexibility – the ability to easily repurpose for other needs and uses – is a good thing in the short run, but often a bad thing in the long run.  How can this be?  Because the long run will often require fundamental changes to products and/or organizations, and the more that the existing product or system is “patched” to meet new needs, the greater the cultural, organizational, and experiential investment in the present system – not to mention the greater the gap between that and what’s going on elsewhere that will eventually lead to the need for a fundamental change.
There is one oncoming business strategy that reduces the need for such major, business-threatening transitions:  business agility.  Here the idea is to build both products and organizations with the ability for much more radical change, plus better antennae to the outside to stay as close as possible to changes in consumer needs.  But flexibility is in fact the enemy of agility:  patches in the existing product or organization exacerbate the “hard-coded” portions of it, making fundamental changes more unlikely and the huge costs of an entire do-over more inevitable.
As you can guess, I think that today’s global economy is extraordinarily flexible, and that is what camp 2 counts on to save the day.  But this very flexibility is the enemy of the agility that I believe we will find ourselves needing, if we are to avoid this kind of collapse of the economy and our food production.
But it’s a global economy – that’s part of its global Business/Legal-Bureaucracy flexibility.  So local or even regional collapses aren’t enough to do it.  Rather, if we fail to mitigate strongly, e.g., in an agile fashion, and create a sustainable global economy over the next 20 years, some time over the 20 years after that the average costs of increasing stresses from climate change put the global economy in permanent negative territory, and, unless fundamental change happens immediately after that, the virtuous circle of today’s economy turns into a vicious, accelerating circle of economic collapse.  And the smaller our economies become, the less we wind up spending on combating the ever-increasing effects of climate change.  At the end, we are left with less than half (and maybe 1/10th) the food sources and arable land, much of it in new extreme-northern areas with soil of lower quality, with food being produced under much more brutal weather conditions.  Or, we could by then have collapsed governmentally to such a point that we can’t even manage that.  It’s an existential threat.

Initial Thoughts On What to Do

Succinctly, I would put my thoughts under three headings:

1.       Governmental.  Governments must drive mitigation well beyond what they have done up to now in their Paris-agreement commitments.  We, personally, should place climate change at the top of our priority lists (where possible), reward commitments and implementation politically, and demand much more.

2.       Cultural.  Businesses, other organizations, and the media should be held accountable for promoting, or failing to promote, mitigation-targeted governmental, organizational, and individual efforts.  In other words, we need to create a new lifestyle.  There’s an interesting take on what a lifestyle like that would look like in Peter Kalmus’ “Being the Change”, which I hope to write about soon.

3.       Personal.  Simply as a matter of not being hypocrites, we should start to change our carbon “consumption” for the better.  Again, Kalmus’ book offers some suggestions.

Or, as Yoda would put it, “Do or do not.  There is no try.”  Because both Forces will be against you.