Category Archives: Global warming

Carbon Crop

I recently discovered the website Information is Beautiful, run by David McCandless. As a person with interest and some experience in creating maps, I truly respect the work that has gone into these thoughtful, elegant representations of reality. Please click on the link, because the image you see above is cropped. The original graphic gives much more terrifying detail about the possible outcomes of 3 – 6 degrees of warming, which seems likely, including the flooding of coastal cities, reduction in crop yields, ocean acidification and attendant fishery collapses, droughts, severe hurricanes.

This is an excellent graphic – I already knew most of the information in it, but one thing that leaped out at me, which I hadn’t really grokked before. That is the fact that fossil fuel extraction companies already possess in their reserves enough oil and gas to push us into ecological catastrophe. And of course they are still proposing new pipelines, new wells in the Arctic and the Gulf, the Tar Sands, and that’s before you even leave North America.

I hope you click that link and take a look – the image you see above is a cropped version of the original.

I have to confess that I am pessimistic about the future of our civilization. I’m pretty sanguine about the ultimate survival of humans qua humans, but that’s cold comfort when I consider the fact that my sister’s grandchildren may only know about the internet from stories told by bitter old survivors.

Let’s think for a minute about a few of the things we would have to do in order to really get serious about climate change. According to the experts who provided the data behind the image from Information is Beautiful, we have about 10 – 13 years to get really serious about doing something to stop or slow greenhouse gas emissions:

  • Transportation: widespread replacement of fuel infrastructure for individual vehicles. Development of hydrogen or electric vehicles. Better yet, severe cutbacks in use of personal vehicles and large increase in public transportation and automobile alternatives such as bicycles
  • Food: complete redesign of food production and distribution systems so that fewer calories of oil are burned in the process of growing the good and the process of moving it to the market that needs it, and agricultural land is managed sustainably so that it requires fewer fossil fuel-based inputs
  • Housing: efficiency retrofits for all existing housing stock, stringent efficiency requirements for new construction, including possible the requirement of passive solar design and solar hot water heating
  • Energy: complete redesign of electrical grid so it can deal with decentralized power production as well as peaks of various types of energy production throughout the day
  • Consumer goods: entities that produce material goods for consumption should be responsible for entire life cycle of pollution generated by production, including greenhouse gases burned in transporting raw materials and finished goods from extraction to manufacture to market. “Recycle” would be a silly, redundant word, because it should be unthinkable to manufacture a product that can only be used once

These are all things which are completely doable – but they’re nearly impossible because our political system has been captured and subverted – and some of the same companies that are planning this irresponsible development of further fossil fuel extraction are the same that are causing the profound disconnect between what the constituents of our allegedly representative democracy want and need, and what their elected representatives are willing to do for them.

Take one example – in the housing category, one simple thing we could do is pass a law that all roof shingles and other roofing materials must be white or light-colored. This would increase the albedo, or average reflectivity of the land surface in the country, and that would slow the process of warming by sending more heat back out into space rather than keeping it here to get trapped by those greenhouse gases. And can you imagine the outcry from right wing Congressional representatives and the right wing media? How dare the government tell homeowners what color to paint their roofs! It’s unthinkable, at least for national legislation in the USA. Just that one tiny little thing.

So I’m pessimistic. Sad to say. I really hope I’m wrong, but I’m deadly scared that I’m right – and if I allow myself to contemplate the information, my heart starts to break and I can’t finish the work I was trying to do.

I do have suggestions for how we can achieve a change in our political system dramatic enough for us to make the drastic changes required to deal effectively with climate change, and I want to write about those too – but I doubt that 10 – 15 years is enough time to implement that change. I am still going to try, though.

EDIT: I have no idea why WordPress insists on transforming my hyperlinked text into text that is also HUGE.

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March 6, 2013 · 1:46 am

Why I’m anti-theist, not just an atheist

So, the other day I was doing public outreach at a church event. Let’s say I was promoting “Cash for Clunkers.” Remember that? Remember George Bush and his occasional wacky schemes that put a few extra hundred dollars in your pocket every few years? I kinda miss that sometimes.

Anyway, this is an analogy, but it fits pretty closely. So I’m making a speech, asking people if they want to pay less for gas, and get some incentives to ditch their old dirty cars and buy an electric. “How many people here are happy with the amount of money they pay for gas every week?” I ask rhetorically. Surprisingly, one hand goes up.

Later on, as we’re taking questions about the program and passing out flyers, the woman who raised her hand approaches me.

“I wasn’t being sarcastic when I raised my hand,” she says. “We get really good gas mileage.”

“Well, that’s great,” I say. “It’s true, every once in a while I meet someone who owns a car that’s already very efficient, so they don’t really need our program.”

“Oh no, it’s not an efficient model,” she replies. “I’m pretty sure it’s miraculous.”

“Oh?”

“Yes, God just puts a little extra money in our pockets whenever we need it.”

It’s not the time to do a spit-take, so I settle for, “Wow, that must be really handy,” accompanied by a somewhat awkward smile.

Now, the people at this church are really, really nice people. I mean, they are absolutely adorable. It’s probably the most racially diverse crowd I’ve been in since I moved here. And the people are kind and friendly and laughing–the children are rambunctious but not obnoxious. If it came down to it, I’d definitely call the pastor for help turning people out to a rally against racism or against climate change or something along those lines. But the religiously inspired paradigm they use lends itself to inadvertent insults and denigration of human achievement and human effort–which are obstacles to change.

In this woman’s case, I can’t really be confident that her car gets good gas mileage. We didn’t discuss what constitutes good vs. bad gas mileage, and it sounded like she was saying that the mileage actually varies somewhat, according to whether God feels like they need some extra cash or not. Like, when they’re poor, God magically makes the engine burn more efficiently, and when they’re flush he lets it run normally.

If this is true, that means several things. For one thing, it’s a testable claim which if verified would lend support to the hypothesis that not just god but specifically Yahweh, the god of the Bible exists. But that’s a story for another day. Another thing it means is that there’s barely any point in measuring fuel efficiency. Also, it means that whatever humans put work into designing and building her car to be as fuel efficient as it is–their work is paltry and meaningless compared to the influence of this supernatural being.

I am also forced to wonder if God is artificially depressing her car’s greenhouse gas emissions when He makes it magically more efficient, or if he’s artificially increasing them when he’s letting the mileage go lower. Either way, it would seem to me like global climate change is a much more pressing concern than the concerns of this or that family in upstate New York, no matter how nice they are.

Then my brain starts to boggle at the worldview that sees this omnipotent being as being avidly concerned with one family’s monthly budget but can’t be bothered to avert a major ecological catastrophe, but then I remember that this is the same God that’s supposed to destroy the world, or so some Christians believe, and that’s supposed to be a good thing, which is why they don’t have to worry about climate change, and there’s a burning smell and smoke starts to come out of my ears.

Truly, even in a congregation whose ethics and values are in the right place, religion poisons everything. Not only was this woman blinding herself to the value of human achievement, she’s also using her religious belief to buttress her system justification, meaning that she’s rendering herself less likely to even be able to hear evidence that economic inequality exists in the world and is unjust. If God pads the pockets of the deserving, the obvious implication is that those with less padded pockets haven’t given God what he wants.

I don’t really see how you can maintain a belief in an invisible but powerful being that rewards those who please it but not those who don’t, and not have it feed into system justification at some point.

Theism is a poisonous and destructive belief, even in very small doses. I don’t suppose it’s reasonable to think that religion will end in my lifetime, but that doesn’t mean I can’t give it a shove while I’m passing through.

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Filed under Atheism, Global warming, Religion, Science

Arrogance Takes Many Forms

If you’re interested in anthropogenic global warming (AGW), and have frequented the intertubes where AGW is discussed, as I have, then you may have seen someone justifying their denial of AGW by saying something along these lines:

Humans are too tiny and insignificant to have an effect on something so vast as the climate. How arrogant you are to think that we are really changing the course of the planet’s geologic history. 

I looked around for examples of this, but the only results I found were people writing about how to respond to this type of argument. So, trust me, I’m not making this up. People really do think that humans are too small and puny to be able to change the climate.

Clearly, they’re wrong. But it makes a sort of intuitive sense, given the nature of our individual experiences with nature. Who hasn’t stood at the edge of the ocean or looked up at the stars and ruminated on how vast the universe is, and how ant-like and minuscule we humans are in comparison?

But… hold up one second. We feel puny next to the vastness of the ocean. And we also feel puny next to the vastness of the stars. And yet the ocean itself is quite puny when compared to the volumes of space between the stars. And therein lies the difficulty. Our brains are not equipped to differentiate between something that’s just a little bit vast, like the ocean, and something that’s hugely, enormously vast, like our galaxy.

The total volume of the water in Earth’s oceans is approximately1.3 billion cubic kilometers. Let’s put that in scientific notation. Probably a lot of you already know what scientific notation means, but since I hope to eventually reach out to audiences that aren’t as familiar with basic scientific concepts, I’m going to go over it here.

To put a number in scientific notation means to take the number and show how it would look if it were multiplied by ten, but this ten is raised to the power of however many zeroes come after the main number. So,

10 x 10 = 100.

Or,

102 = 100.

Therefore, in scientific notation, 100 looks like this:

1 x 102

The number 130 in scientific notation looks like this:

1.3 x 102

And the number 1,300 looks like this:

1.3 x 103

With me so far? I know this is kind of annoying and dry, but I’m talking about it for a reason. Scientists use scientific notation because it allows them to quickly and easily compare numbers that are mind-bogglingly big to numbers that are mind-bogglingly bigger. Or, if you’re talking about chemistry or physics, where you’re talking about comparing the sizes of molecules, atoms, or sub-atomic particles, it allows you to differentiate between things that are so small you can’t comprehend it and things that are even smaller than that.

It’s hard to immediately perceive that 9,000,000,000,000,000,000 is a much smaller number than 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000. But if you put it in scientific notation, then you can immediately see the difference between 9 x 1018 and 1 x 1025. The numbers in superscript after the ten are the most important thing here, much more important than the 1 or the 9 that come before the “x 10” part. Since the difference between 25 and 18 is 7, that means that the second number is approximately seven times larger than the first number. Or, as they say in Science Land, seven orders of magnitude greater. One “x 10” is the same thing as an order of magnitude. Sounds super impressive, doesn’t it? That’s why science it cool.

The concept of scientific notation is not, in and of itself, a truly difficult one to learn. What is difficult is learning to keep straight the various scales of measurement that are important in learning how to think about the reality in which we all live: there are the truly vast scales of interstellar space, the merely gargantuan scales of our solar system and our planet, the teeny-tiny ones we use to talk about single-celled organisms, the truly minuscule measurements we use to talk about molecules and atoms, and then there are those that we are more familiar with, the ones that work on a scale comprehensible to our monkey brains.

So, returning to our awe-inspiring oceans and galaxy: the volume of the Earth’s oceans is about 1,300,000,000 cubic kilometers, or 1.3 x 109 cubic kilometers. Okay, that’s a big volume, especially considering that a cubic kilometer is a space large enough to contain a smallish town as well as the air above it for a significant distance. Well, significant to humans. And we naturally feel a bit overwhelmed by the sheer bigness of the oceans. However, let’s consider the volume of space inhabited by the stars that also inspire feelings of awe in us tiny humans. The approximate volume of our galaxy, the Milky Way, is about  3.3×1053 cubic kilometers. And that’s just this galaxy. Lots of the stars we see at night aren’t even in the Milky way.

What I’m getting at is that it’s really easy to forget that even though our planet seems quite large to us, the Earth is tiny compared to the rest of the universe. It’s easy to forget the huge difference between the size of the earth and the size of, say, the solar system or the galaxy, because our brains aren’t equipped or predisposed towards dealing with numbers and scales like those. I’m a strong advocate of recognizing the limitations our evolutionary heritage sets upon us, and this is definitely one of them. The fact that many people have the misperception that humans are too insignificant to affect something so vast as the atmosphere or the climate is an artifact of that inherent limitation of our ape brains. It takes training and practice to get used to thinking about really big or really small numbers and understanding what they mean. Anytime we humans have to think outside the mental parameters set for us by millions of years of evolution–that is, anything not primarily revolving around social relationships, human-sized spaces or objects, or food–it takes a bit of extra mental effort. This refusal to recognize the power humans can have when they are numerous and equipped with technology dates back a long way. In another post, I’ll explore humanity’s long history of altering our environment, including climate and geology, dating all the way back to the beginning of civilization, but for now I’ll just leave you with this thought: in his book The Culture of Make Believe, Derrick Jensen talks about the Europeans’ first impression of the New World: they talked incessantly about the sheer, mind-boggling abundance: salmon so thick you could walk across a stream on their backs. Berries so numerous their juices dyed their horses’ bellies pink as they walked through them. Flocks of birds so numerous they blacked out the sun. All this abundance, they reasoned–puny humans could never put a dent in these enormous populations. Centuries later, flocks of birds no longer darken the sky, carrier pigeons are extinct, berries grow in isolated patches in gaps between human settlements, and fisheries worldwide are experiencing population crashes even as environmentalists struggle to restore salmon habitat. How long will we continue to make the same mistakes? About as long as we continue to fail to train our children to think beyond their human limitations. The true arrogance is thinking that our immediate intuitive reaction to a given problem is the correct one, and that we can comprehend the difficulties of existing in a world with advanced technology and 7+ billion human beings without taking drastic measures to change the way the majority of people think about life, nature, and the environment.

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Filed under Global warming, Science