Thursday, September 6, 2012

What If There Were A Real Problem?

(After reading “The Climate Fixers,” by Michael Specter, in a recent New Yorker Magazine.)

We are currently surrounded by people who are relentlessly boosting “problems” that are so unimportant, non-threatening, bogus, or just plain stupid that one could be forgiven if one arrived in a state of problem fatigue. Gay marriage will cause God to rain fire down on us; abortion, ditto; failing to reduce taxes on the rich and do away with government regulation will cause the “end of America as we know it;” electing Romney, or Mr. Obama, depending on who you listen to, will deliver America into a state of fascism; the imposition of Sharia Law, or One-World-Government, is imminent. They’re coming for our guns! It’s a long list, but there’s not a cough in the carload, it’s all bullshit from start to finish.

But what if there were a real problem? Either all of a sudden, like a comet impact, or the Yellowstone caldera exploding in a million year event, or some kind of creeping problem that was unidentified in its early stages, or inadequately understood, or rejected outright due to political or financial expediencies, like, let’s say, Global Climate Change?

Whatever anyone might tell you, it is a fact that the global climate is changing, that much is certain at this point, and it is likely that human activity is responsible. Whatever is causing it, things are happening, things with consequences. Before this century is over, the whole thing is liable to get very, very exciting.

The world is full of propeller-heads working on documenting the problem or trying to come up with “solutions.” I put that in quotes because the few courses of action that would actually qualify as solutions are completely out of the question. So the big thinkers are trying to come up with ways to mitigate the effects of the change without addressing the problem at its source, because that is considered impossible.

Some of their ideas are comical. They are so bizarre that they seem like stories from one of those 1930’s magazines that were half-way between science and science fiction. There’s a whole group of scientists in England who think we should inject huge quantities of reflective materials into the stratosphere to turn back some of the sun’s energy. Their best guess for a medium is sulfur dioxide, which produces sulfuric acid, which destroys the ozone layer, which, I seem to recall, causes more of the sun’s energy to reach the surface of the earth. I’m not sure that would work. But they must know what they’re doing, they’re English after all, or British or something. Their idea is to pump the sulfur dioxide “through a twelve mile long pipe held aloft by a balloon at one end and tethered, at the other, to a boat anchored at sea.” Oh, try to imagine that as a trouble free enterprise.

Trouble is coming though. Average temperatures are going up, and the correlation with human activity is compelling. Human activity that will continue, because there is an universal determination to expend every molecule of oil, coal and natural gas before attempting to make other plans. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is keeping track of things, and making predictions. By the end of this century the rise in the earth’s average temperature will be somewhere between 1.1 and 6.4 degrees Celsius (between 2 and 11 degrees Fahrenheit). Notice that even while being so imprecise in their estimate they are very precise with the decimal points and all. You’ve got to love science.

That’s potentially a big increase, although lots of people will tell you that it’s not. The "nots" are self-serving statements made by non-scientists though. And don’t forget, those numbers are averages, and there's more to it than just the averages. Think about it, the average of eight and twelve is ten, and the average of two and eighteen is also ten. As we have seen, while the average temperatures are going up, the highs are getting higher and the lows are getting lower. See what I mean? It’s a problem.

It’s really a family of problems. Not only is the shroud that we’re building around the earth keeping in heat, but the heat is melting the permafrost all around the northern reaches of the earth, from Alaska to Canada, on to Scandinavia and Russia, and back again. “Melting would release enormous stores of methane, a greenhouse gas nearly thirty times more potent than carbon dioxide.” So that would make things worse all around, thickening the shroud and turning up the heat, maybe a lot, maybe quickly. It’s happening already, the melting, whole towns in Alaska are moving around, and houses in Russia are sinking into the ground. Wooly mammoths are bubbling up.

This is fun stuff. It’s good to be distracted from the fiddling-while-Rome-burns that passes for discussion in our political discourse. And this whole climate change thing makes even creeping fascism seem like a party.

In light of all of this, it does seem like a good idea to consider possible courses of action. I mean, at some point something will have to be done, you know, like when it stops raining in China, or India is being carried away by the mother of all floods. “At the very least, we need to learn what approaches to avoid even if desperate.” Like maybe that sulfur dioxide idea, with the twelve mile long pipe and the balloon.

If I were a betting man, I’d go with the political entities continuing to pass this problem on to committees whose recommendations will continue to be found to be inconclusive. The whole energy regime of the entire world will insure that result. This will set the stage for the inevitable cataclysm, which will put the entire world into “frenzied crisis mode,” which it is generally best to avoid.

So maybe we should all go back to our little bullshit problems of choice, the noisy, colorful non-problems on the screen, with the smoke and mirrors, and pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. That way it will all be so much more exciting and cathartic when it hits.

(All uncredited quotes are from the article by Mr. Specter. All of the rest of it is mine. He wasn’t so flippant about it, and he concentrated on the efforts of the scientists.)

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