How to Get Environmental Science Wrong

A Longread article proves little more than how bad us non-scientists are at Science

I’m still pretty new at this WordPress stuff; at this point I ought to include a link to an article that attracted my attention when I signed on today.  The tagline to it, under the heading ‘Longreads’, was entitled “In 1975, Newsweek Predicted a New Ice Age, We’re Still Living with the Consequences.”  I apologize for not knowing how to do the doubtless simple act of including a link to it.

(Ooo!  I just figured it out!  Wow!  Rampant delusions of adequacy flood my puny brain!  Here it is:   I’m so proud.  Party like it’s 1999!)

The article, allow me to suggest, shows more than anything else how very much harder than one might imagine it is to get a grasp on reality; the Real World, if any, is dominated by a complexity that constantly fools us.  The article referred to is about how, some forty years ago, some environmental scientists ‘mistook’ some incoming data to suggest that we were heading into a new ‘little ice age’, how later evidence showed they were wrong, and how the climate deniers used this mistake to further cast doubt on global warming, helping to set back needed actions to solve this ever-increasing threat.

Fortunately – fortunately?  Really? – almost all of this gets the science wrong.

First, some basic concepts.

When scientists hear ‘global warming’, they picture the increasing energizing of the planet’s atmosphere by the overproduction of carbon in the atmosphere – they hear ‘global energizing.’  It’s a much better way of thinking about what is unarguably going on on our good Earth.  It confuses many when we keep having severely cold winter weather; if our planet is warming, how can we continue to have such extreme blizzards here in the Northern Hemisphere?  Answer; as the atmosphere gets more energetic, the polar jet stream that normally (remembering that ‘normal’ is itself a fairly useless concept over time) keeps cold air over the Arctic begins to wobble.  Thus the ever-more-common ‘polar vortex’, when a lobe of the polar jet stream extends far south of its usual course – bringing very cold air to temperate zones and allowing warm air to flood the pole.  Thus the snowball the Longread article alludes to having been brought into Congress proved the exact opposite of what it was intended to show.

Also – The popular idea that the Ice Age ended some ten thousand years ago is not reflected in scientific nomenclature.  We are still in an Ice Age, and have been for some two-and-a-half million years; the warm period we are now in is, in scientific thought, an ‘interglacial’ period – that is, a time when the norm of extensive glacial growth and low sea levels is reversed.

Also – Another relatively popular idea, that we live in our star’s Goldilocks Zone, is partly true, but inadequate.  Yes, our planet is a distance from Sol that is neither too hot, like Mercury and Venus, nor too cold, like Mars.  But – and this part is very important – we live at the far outside edge of that zone, and slowly are moving out of it.  For this reason, we are gradually having longer ice ages with briefer and less frequent interglacial periods.

Please don’t think simply about this.  Our planet’s path around the Sun varies slightly every year; we might generally be farther away, or closer, and yet for one or a few orbits be the opposite.  Thus ‘little ice ages’ during interglacials, or brief warm spells during periods of extensive glacial advance, and these can be years, decades or even centuries long.  But these are no longer surprises, because they can be predicted.  We know, with limited confidence, when the interglacial – the warm period – we are now in will gradually end.  It will slowly end in –

Minus 250 years.

That’s right.  This is known.  It is an amazing fact of our amazing life on our amazing blue gem of a planet: At about the same time as the Industrial Revolution was beginning to pump an excess of carbon into the atmosphere, between two- and three-hundred years ago, we were moving, on average, a bit farther from the Sun, which caused – or should have – a return to the frigid norm.  For stupid, selfish, poorly-informed reasons, out of ignorance and greed, we were, quite accidentally, doing just the right wrong things to halt, and then reverse, a period that should have been marked by the growth of the polar ice sheets, the lengthening of winters, the slow fall of sea levels and has instead been marked by the opposite.  So the researchers who, in 1975, predicted a coming return to a colder environment were not wrong – or shouldn’t have been.

Being human, you will want to think simply about this; being human, with the tendency of brains to see as determinative and linear, black-or-white, things that actually are complex, non-linear, random – chaotic.  This isn’t a weakness or a fault; since it seems to be a universal tendency, there is doubtless some hidden, non-linear reason this must be so.  Still, I am certainly aware that many readers (again with the jokes, like I have ‘many’ readers) will choose to see this as more evidence that Global Warming Is A Hoax.  As I will comment at the end of my diatribe, I’m okay with that.

Yet I am bound to say that this expectation of simplicity is weak-minded.  The fact that stupidity and cupidity saved us from the Freezer Compartment of Life is neither a ‘good’ nor a ‘bad’ thing.  It is a thing; like all of reality, it exists in its own space, quite independent of what we want to believe about it. Not to be too Hamletish about it, but ‘there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.’  For now, let’s not worry too much that the guys the Danish Prince said that to didn’t make it alive to the end of the play.  After all, neither did Hamlet.

Yet it is, this non-spiritualist must admit, one of those staggering coincidences that make one doubt whether anything is truly coincidental.  So very strange.  It’s like a voice rang out at the end of what is colloquially considered ‘the last ice age’ telling this single, intelligent (or at least intelligent-lite) species that we had only ten thousand years to develop our civilization before the Ice returned to crush it – and we crushed Nature instead, in absolutely the nick of time!  And not by our intelligence, but by mindless bumbling and greed!  You couldn’t write so unbelievable a storyline, even in hyper-gullible Hollywood!  A starter’s gun fires ten millenia ago and we cross the finish line just in time almost to the year!

Those researchers who, according to the Longreads article I’m picking on, ‘got it wrong’ should have been right!  In a planet like ours that hadn’t so badly fouled its atmosphere, so wildly interfered with its carbon cycle, winters would, on average, be longer; ice caps would extend farther south; and though it’s impossible to predict how far these effects would have gone – it’s the problem of knowing the unknowable, knowing when the tipping point is going to be reached where a slow trend would suddenly gather speed and flip us into the next period of runaway glaciation – our civilizations’ fate would be sealed.  Should have been sealed.  From Stone Age Man to Globe Changing Species in a relatively few years.

In other words – we screwed it up just right.  Amazing.  Another Thornton Wilder moment – surviving by the skin of our teeth.

What does all this mean for our future, assuming we have one?  Clearly, we overshot; and even given that, there are problems that using the overproduction of atmospheric carbon to prevent the returning ice would lead to in any event.  Even had we found just the right balance of carbonizing the air, there would still be very dangerous threats, such as the acidification of rain and oceans, wild gyrations of weather patterns, threats to other species and the like.  What it does show, though, is that our tendency to depend on centralized control mechanisms is foolish and unwarranted.

Complexity theory suggests at least one vital, powerful idea.  Solutions to big problems must – must – exist on the level of granularity upon which those problems are created.  Though governments do affect challenges like global atmospheric energizing, and have a role to play, the level of granularity upon which atmospheric energizing happens is the individual human and his choices and actions.  Your actions.  Your choices.  The decisions you make in the environment you live in, multiplied by seven billion other actors and their actions, choices and decisions.

And just as in any other highly complex system, you don’t need any universal rules and regulations, any absolute demands applied to all.  It isn’t necessary, or possible, that all parts of the system adopt solutions.  You need a tipping point – enough better choices, enough wiser decisions.  Not ‘We Must All.’  More ‘I will.’

The danger is that centralized, command-and-control, “We all gotta just shut up and (fill in the blank)” thinking is too often simply the way in which the good-hearted are fooled into thinking that something has been done to address a problem by the passing of legislation, the compelling of behavior.  It’s just too hard to do these hard things ourselves, make those hard choices, those sacrifices of our own comfort and ease if we imagine that we have succeeded in demanding, commanding, limiting the choices others make.  We marched; we wrote our Congresspimples; we passed the laws, made the programs, spent the taxes.  Now we can go back to our lives, turn up the heat, drive our massive SUVs to Starbucks.

That way lies madness, death, destruction.

And what is preventing this madness?  What is keeping us from the delusion of thinking we’ve solved anything by commanding not our own behaviors but those of others?

The doubters.  The idiots.  The deniers.  The poorly informed, the greedy, the foolish.  The extractive industries, and those that support them.  The moron who brings a global-warming-proving snowball into Congress and imagines himself to have been clever.  The moron who thinks it’s all a Chinese plot.  Those who so muddy the legislative process that we can’t pass those useless laws we want to pretend solve anything so that we can keep in our driveway the four-wheel-drive off-roader that never has, and never will, go off road.  Because of the idiots who doubt the problem, the wise must change themselves – not because they are wise, but because they are scared.

It’s all so friggin’ weird.