Predictable Natural Law – Part 2

November 24, 2012

In my last post on natural law, I focused on how changing minor “precepts” might make tremendous impacts on our theological understandings. I used cosmological models from general relativity to illustrate the point.

Today, I want to look at things a little less, well, cosmically,  and review how changing scientific “precepts” over the last few years also limit our ability to predict the outcome of policy decisions we make as a society today — even though we know those policy decisions are likely to have profound moral consequences.

In her post last week, Tatiana made the valid point about the necessity of thinking way ahead about long range problems having major impacts in order to avert them. That would certainly be a good idea. “Could’a, would’a, should’a” is already an applicable response to many of the problems we see today. However, we have to remember that what we actually did in the past seemed like good ideas for solving the problems we had to solve at the time. I suspect “judge not lest ye be judged” would work quite well even if it were merely a subtle scriptural reminder that most of us will have great-grandchildren who will wonder how we could have been so stupid. So this discussion is really a follow-up building on her post as well as my earlier post.

I want to illustrate one aspect of our dilemma in trying to carry out long term planning by talking about climate change, and what science can offer as a guide toward the policy discussion today as opposed to what we thought perhaps five years ago.

Here it is useful to consider what we know about the happenings at the end of the last Ice Age. About 20,000 years ago, Canada, the Northern United States, Scandinavia, and Siberia were mostly buried under thousands of feet of hard ice — enough to lower world wide sea level about 400 feet, connect Eurasia with the Americas by land and generally make the shape of the continents fairly unrecognizable. This Ice Age was one of several that have been occurring with a cyclic regularity (due to perturbations in earth’s orbit and orientation to the sun caused by pulls from other solar system bodies) since geological processes themselves raised the coast of Central America above the waves about 3 million years ago.

And so each cycle has an ending, too; things start to warm up when the glaciers are stretched to capacity, and summer sunlight in the northern hemisphere then starts to increase.

The ice starts to melt, and the melt water has to find its way back to refill the oceans somehow. And this has some counter-intuitive effects because the melt water is fresh and the oceans are salty. Salinity, it turns out, has had a vital role in driving the ocean currents, and, thus, the climate, at least since the uplift of Central America I mentioned above finally sealed off the most equatorial route for currents to flow between the Atlantic and Pacific Basins through Panama.

The relatively high salinity of surface ocean waters (due to evaporation) compared to deep ocean water makes them less dense, allowing them to carry heat farther north through currents such as the Gulf Stream. It is that heat which keeps Western Europe, in particular, relatively warm in modern times. Thus, if anything lowers the salinity of the northern waters so that they become more dense while farther south, the sinking becomes more diffuse, the Gulf Stream becomes less intense, and, in fact, ocean circulation as a whole slows down because there is no need for cold deep water to rise toward the equator or in the southern oceans to become the replacement source water of the Gulf Stream.

And the best way to mess up the salinity of the Gulf Stream is to dump lots and lots of fresh water into it from the melting ice sheets. Oh, but then, Europe and North America, having lost their Gulf Stream blanket, will turn icy again, and that should stop the melting.

And, that’s what we see in the record of the Northern continents. Almost as soon as the melting started, the North was plunged back into a “dryas”, a resurgence of the ice that lasted more than a thousand years.  And this is where the puzzle really got interesting, because the melting/dryas minicycle has no obvious exit ramp. Canadian ice hockey, at least, should be played under the ice rather than on top of it. So what leads to a complete end of the Ice Age and a full “interglacial” period like modern times?

As outlined in New Scientist a few weeks ago, the Northern and Southern Hemispheres began to behave in opposite manners when the dryas began. The North went back into the freezer, but the South just kept getting warmer, even though there was no real link observable in southern summer sunshine. The conventional wisdom is now that carbon dioxide rose and warmed the south — a rise that postdated, not preceded the initial melting, and is clearly visible in what data records we can obtain from the time — but the rise in carbon dioxide was attributable to a natural process larger in scale than the Thermohaline Circulation’s effects on climate in the North, i. e., the one causing the dryas. With the northern circulation suppressed, the ocean and wind currents in the Southern Hemisphere spontaneously reorganized — we still do not know in exactly what way — to produce a closed, more localized circulation there that brought much more upwelling of deep water filled with carbon dioxide to the edges of Antarctica. The lower pressures of the surface water allowed the carbon dioxide to escape into the atmosphere, where its greenhouse effect began to do a number on the southern polar ice cap. The earth “see-sawed” through thousands of years of dryas and non-dryas circulation states, but each time seeing less ice, and higher carbon dioxide and sea levels overall. (And at various times in there, you get catastrophic floods in various places like the Persian Gulf, the Black Sea, and Southeast Asia, too, which get passed down to moderns as stories of world-wide deluges.)

On its own, the cyclic change in northern sunshine is likely to lead to a slow cooling, but nothing like a return to the ice age for tens of thousands of years. But of course, the climate is no longer on its own. Humans are dumping carbon dioxide into (especially the Northern Hemisphere of) the atmosphere at geologically unprecedented rates and much of the northern sea ice is already melting. Our best models say we are going to get unprecedented climate impacts accordingly.

However, as the “new” conventional wisdom about the historical collapse of the last ice age shows, the models are highly uncertain and subject to constant revision when it comes to understanding regional impacts — and it is regional impacts that determine what people have to plan to mitigate. After all, we’ve seen that it is apparently possible to have great warming and great cooling simultaneously, and we’ve not explored all the possible states of spontaneous reorganization the oceans and atmosphere may assume.

For example, the “old” conventional wisdom held that the bulk of the North American melting that triggered one dryas 13,000 years ago entered the North Atlantic through the St. Lawrence from ancestral Great Lakes. Yet models now suggest that would put the fresh water too far south to have produced the circulation slowing of the Gulf Stream. Instead, there are now suggestions that the catastrophic draining came on the northwestern edge of North America, directly into the Arctic Ocean by way of the MacKenzie River and then flowing across that Ocean into the North Atlantic east of Greenland. The two scenarios produce very different climate impacts around the Arctic Basin, with their own potential for unexpected feedbacks elsewhere.

“Uncertain” is not the same as “wrong”. An inability to predict what we need to predict to mitigate the climate problems doesn’t mean there’s no climate problems. (Think of the stereotypical “snake oil salesman” of the Old West. The fraud was in claiming the snake oil would cure anything; the fraud was not in claiming that people needed a cure.) And here, even if the models are correct, they point clearly to the fraud. As I wrote here more than three years ago, we can impose limits on greenhouse gas emissions to levels that we haven’t seen since the later nineteenth century, with all of the economic and social disruption that would impose, and still achieve nothing but a delay of about two years from exceeding a temperature change (+2 degrees Kelvin) that international scientific bodies have deemed unsafe.  At this point, it seems that the response of the economic and geopolitical systems to the change in the environment is more critical than the environmental change. Environmental change seems pretty locked in at this point.

Physical law usually makes no exceptions for good intentions or listens to our votes. If we model the behavior of the atmosphere incorrectly, and nature gives us a mini ice age when our best guess was for the tropics to spread north (or the other way around), our flood protection measures are uselessly built inland, we plant crops in the wrong places, and we don’t get our lost economic growth back. Without that growth, if we then model human behavior incorrectly and adjust our military and entitlement resources accordingly, being sorry will be insufficient when our defense or entitlement systems break down. If we impute intent or capacity to individuals in power here or abroad, and we are wrong about them, the “people suffer”. For that suffering to happen, our leaders don’t have to be “wicked” (although being snake oil salesmen won’t exactly help); they just have to be wrong.

Thus, as desirable as it is (and I do acknowledge the desirability) to plan for the future, I tend to see success at that sort of planning function requiring more than human abilities and time scales. Indeed, I feel a little like the field mouse in the famous Robert Burns poem who labors mightily to build a better nest, only to have the farmer sweep in and mow the field because the farmer has a different purpose.

But little Mouse, you are not alone,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes of mice and men
Go often awry,
And leave us nothing but grief and pain,
For promised joy!

This isn’t even about the distinctive views that progressives and conservatives hold about what moral values should be; this is about the inability to identify choices correctly that will produce those moral outcomes. The Universe (and/or its God) will do what it intends to do, regardless of whether we take a clue about what that is or not. The Farmer outranks the mouse, and mice that prosper are the ones who evolve a balance of behaviors in case some of them get the intentions of the Farmer wrong.

Do not put too much faith in the stability of your nest, little mouse.

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11 Responses to Predictable Natural Law – Part 2

  1. mh on November 24, 2012 at 3:47 PM

    I am not sure what to make of this post. It seems a little fatalistic in implying nothing we do will make a difference. (I am not sure if that was the intent.)

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  2. FireTag on November 24, 2012 at 4:32 PM

    MH:

    It’s all a matter of scale. What you do may make an enormous difference at the scale of your family, or your friends, but it will make no difference at all at some larger scale. I can vote all I want for pi to be 3.0. but pi will still be an irrational number. So decide what you do without the assumption that people or things will behave as you wish they would, because you know that many will not.

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  3. MH on November 24, 2012 at 6:31 PM

    Well, I think this is an interesting take on the issue of global warming. From what I understand, it seems that there is evidence of warming. The question seems to be whether it is human caused, or nature caused. From your perspective, it seems that you seem to think it is nature caused, rather than man-caused, or rather that yes man contributes, but the contribution is small in the scheme of things.

    I read somewhere that some countries will benefit from global warming. For example, Canada may benefit from shipping across the Arctic Ocean because currently frozen ports will be unfrozen, and the distance across the top of the world will be shorted than across the Atlantic Ocean.

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  4. FireTag on November 24, 2012 at 10:26 PM

    MH:

    I believe that dumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere at rates as humanity does clearly warms the atmosphere as a whole. It is when and how continental and smaller scale regions get perturbed that the climate models can not predict robustly. These predictions are constantly changing (and dramatically so) as new information comes to light, and as new feedback loops are hypothesized. The ocean and atmosphere are capable of wildly counter-intuitive responses to forcing, as the see-saw effect at the end of the last ice age shows.

    But it is effects at the smaller scales that you HAVE to predict accurately to drive national policies. Should we pay to build floodgates to protect New York City, for example? National policies are inherently coupled to economic and geopolitical systems which topple governments over the rise and fall in the price of food or fuel. The instability in those systems is now surprising the experts almost monthly.

    It isn’t just that some countries benefit/pay more than others because of climate change. Interest groups WITHIN countries benefit/pay more than others because of climate change.

    Systems that can’t cope, year after year, with figuring out who pays for the mistakes of creating the Euro or who in America pays for employee pensions, or who gets the rights to South China Sea oil, simply aren’t good bets for stopping all emissions growth by 2020 and then steadily reducing them thereafter to levels America hasn’t seen since the 1870s (and which we may have exceeded in wood-burning colonial times). We can’t even stop the ethanol subsidies for converting food to fuel, even though even the greens no longer think ethanol offers ANY net environmental benefit.

    Yet, the models say what we have just eight years to peak emissions in order to avoid a temperature rise of more than 2 degrees Kelvin. We seem, in fact, to be on a course more toward a 4 degree rise. And the environment is just one of the arenas where world-changing issues are looming for this generation.

    So, I’m fatalistic to the extent that I think that the consequences of past injustices we CAN now see are likely still smaller than the as yet unseen consequences that are to come. Happy ending, by the grace of God. Sucky next act anyway.

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  5. Juliathepoet on November 25, 2012 at 12:32 PM

    This gives a lot to think about. I hadn’t read the New Scientist article yet. After reading it I think there are still arguments for reducing carbon emissions even if we get the 2 degree rise, because the next one is likely to come a lot sooner.

    Given some of the modeling, it would seem that the real call should be for less nationalistic borders, with more freedom of movement of people and goods, so that the ability to act and react is not controlled by any one national government that doesn’t have to take global interests to heart.

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  6. FireTag on November 25, 2012 at 1:10 PM

    Julia:

    “we can impose limits on greenhouse gas emissions to levels that we haven’t seen since the later nineteenth century, with all of the economic and social disruption that would impose, and still achieve nothing but a delay of about two years from exceeding a temperature change (+2 degrees Kelvin) that international scientific bodies have deemed unsafe.”

    If you could AVOID the temperature rise with its impacts on social and political systems at the risk of the impacts to those systems you’d also incur when you tried to cut the emissions, that would be one thing.

    But you STILL GET THE TEMP RISE, so why incur BOTH sets of impacts? The strategy has to shift from avoidance to adaptation. And there are different economic and political interests who make money from avoidance than from mitigation.

    What I think one has to worry about is people who wish to use the “threat” to impose control over others. I think it is notable, for example, that the European carbon trading system that imposes restrictions on air travel internationally carved out exceptions for the European government flights themselves. Somehow, the people who impose the rules always exempt themselves from the rules. :D

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  7. Hedgehog on November 26, 2012 at 6:44 AM

    Irrespective of views on climate change/global warming, and the effectiveness or otherwise of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, I still hold (as I mentioned on Tatiana’s thread) that burning fossil fuels is inherently wasteful, as they have many other uses. On that basis alone, I believe renewable energy sources should make a bigger contribution.

    I don’t disagree that we have a very limited understanding of the various global processes, feedback loops etc. We can only do the best we can with the knowledge we have, and pray for guidance both for ourselves and various global leaders who are in the position of having to make those important decisions.

    On mitigating effects of/adapting to climate change: I agree that a lot needs to be done here. There are number of places in Britain that are currently flooded. Indeed flood warnings seem to have become a regular part of our weather forecasts in recent years. There have been several episodes of flooding dotted around the country this year alone. All of which affect the lives of a great many people. This time round, fewer people have been adversely affected than would have been the case two or more years ago because flood defences have begun to be installed (though not as quickly as the insurance industry would have liked, and their agreement with the government to continue providing insurance against flooding for their existing customers runs out next year – talks are under way now). Exeter is one such place. Flooding has been caused both by rivers over-flowing their banks, but also by current drainage of surface water being insufficient to cope with the volume of rain falling at any one time. Both types of flooding need systems in place to prevent future occurrences.

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  8. FireTag on November 26, 2012 at 11:51 AM

    Hedgehog:

    The second type of flooding is going to be a consequence of increasing urbanization and population growth regardless of rainfall totals. Lots of concrete on the ground isn’t helpful to drainage.

    Hydrocarbons are indeed useful for things other than energy production, but maintaining accessibility in future to those things aren’t going to be all that important unless the scarcity of hydrocarbons drives the price of the fossil fuels much higher than renewables. The corn turned into ethanol can’t be eaten, and high tech economies usually require energy intensity AND bulk supplies.

    North America has gone from energy hopelessness to the potential for being one of the largest energy exporters in the world within the next decade because the fossil fuel industries have out-innovated all of the government-promoted green energy R&D. And I say that as someone who started working for the Department of Energy industrial conservation programs back about 1980.

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  9. Hedgehog on November 27, 2012 at 1:59 AM

    FireTag #8
    Well yes, urbanisation is a factor in that type of flooding – but much of this type of flooding is occurring in areas that have existed for decades now, in some cases far longer, and it is the type of rainfall – very heavy in a short period of time – that has altered, not the areas themselves so much. The government is trying to encourage permeable driveways and so forth, less paving over of gardens. At the moment, the wet summer we’ve had means the ground is already saturated, and unable to drain away. Climate change is playing a part in this kind of flooding too. Urbanisation is a particular problem in the south-east of the country – but the problem it causes is shortage of water as that area gets the lowest rainfall, has the highest use, and is busy draining aquafers which are hard to refill because of the shortage of ground that isn’t concreted, but in the main those aren’t the areas that are flooding now.

    For such a small country, rainfall isn’t equal over the nation, so that where I live there were drought restrictions back in spring, and our water provider had to purchase water from a neighbouring provider (this involved them increasing water levels in a river somewhere which joined our water system at some point to be taken off again). Drought isn’t a problem where I am now. Only yesterday I was walking in a nearby market town (many of our market towns have rivers running through), and the river level was almost to the top of the bank, and is today (I read) flooding into the meadow park in the centre of the town (it is a flood meadow), and the council are handing out sand bags to protect property. The level is expected to peak today, without too much more of a rise. Some market towns have experienced severe flooding from their rivers.

    As a nation, Britain is having to take measures to deal with these changing patterns of rainfall. But funding to flood defences has recently been reduced because of austerity measures, which is making the insurance companies antsy as their agreement with government to continue covering properties is due to expire (indeed some people can’t get insurance cover for flooding even with the agreement in place, and that problem is expected to get worse, as it basically makes the properties unsaleable). The government are now talking about increasing community resilience, but have yet to explain what they mean, or how it will work – though as phrase it looks quite snappy.

    On renewable energy: the US has lots of desert – how much of that is being used for solar arrays? I gather the scheme in North Africa planned to be providing power to Europe is close to collapse what the Euro crisis, and various companies pulling out because of that. A scheme has been suggested locally where I am, but given that it would require using good farm-land not such a good idea. Placing is all important, and to be done properly would require cooperation between nations in Europe. The US have a much bigger area as a single nation, with lots of different types of land, to be trying these things out. I agree that bio-fuels are not a good idea when food security is also an issue. I don’t think sitting around waiting for things to become economically more appealing in the ‘short term’ that economists only seem to consider is the best way forwards (commodity prices etc.). I would favour strategic long-term planning for preserving resources of all kinds. That the chance of it happening in today’s world is pretty slim, doesn’t mean it isn’t something that should be done.

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  10. FireTag on November 28, 2012 at 12:55 PM

    Hedgehog:

    There is a classic science fiction story (if not more than one) about colonists who leave earth in suspended animation for a generations long trip to a new planet in another star system (usually Alpha Centauri). Mayhem, villany, sacrifice, and heroism occur along the way, but eventually the colonists arrive at Alpha Centauri. There they are met by earthlings, who beat them there by waiting until better ways to get to Alpha Centauri were invented as SIDE EFFECTS of technology that made sense to solve immediate problems.

    Technological innovation is a lot like biological evolution. It’s filled with twists and turns and random accidents and false starts. Our government-run attempts at innovation have flailed precisely when they’ve bet big bucks on trying to force technology into paths serving interests of those with political power whether or not they serve the economic interests of society as a whole.

    The US does have lots of desert, but you can still make solar panels at Chinese labor rates a lot cheaper than they can be manufactured at US labor rates, which American labor unions don’t like, and you still have to transmit the power to the places far away from the deserts, which is where the American people actually live, and the upper class greens don’t like transmission lines, either.

    The American people right now seem to be in the position that we want lots of good things to happen, but only if we can convince ourselves that only bad people will have to pay for them to happen.

    We want ponies under the Christmas tree, but don’t want to be reminded that ponies also produce manure.

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  11. Hedgehog on November 29, 2012 at 1:33 AM

    FireTag #11, “We want ponies under the Christmas tree, but don’t want to be reminded that ponies also produce manure.”
    Well, I for one would be delighted if ‘Big Business’ would only take a longer term view of things, and put in the necessary investments. To go back to insurance companies and flood defences (since those are the things currently at the forefront of discussions here at the moment). The insurance companies appear to see it as the job of government to invest in and provide said flood defences, allowing them (the insurance companies) to make a decent profit at low risk. The stance they are taking with at risk properties is to either hike up premiums, hike up the initial cost the policy holder is expected to pay before the insurance kicks in, or to refuse to cover those properties at all. I want to know why, perhaps combined with a reasonable raise in premium the insurance companies themselves can’t get in on the the act of investing in flood defences – by doing so they would decrease their risk long-term whilst keeping customers and premiums, provide a public service, and presumably get good publicity as well. But they aren’t doing that. Some better off at risk communities have got the ball rolling themselves, the businesses affected contributing to the costs involved. Sadly though, it seems that it was only the smaller local companies that were prepared to make those investments, not the national or international companies also in those communities. (I wish I was better at remembering the details of who, what, where.)
    I am disappointed the North Africa solar project is pretty much stalled. I do think the US has so much of different sorts of land you could be experimenting with all kinds of technologies, but I do see the oil industry as being heavily invested for that not to happen, for their own shorter term profits. I do think the more time passes before these kind of projects get off the ground, the more expensive they will be because they consume energy to create and establish at the outset, and so on…

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