28 February 2008

Hope or despair?

There are reasons for hope. Society-at-large is increasingly tuning out the climate change deniers and doubters. Global warming is now widely recognized as a very real and very serious threat to civilization as we know it. Many are proposing a wide-ranging set of solutions. Some are promising, but many questions remain. Careless or rash actions could easily lead to despair.

One feasible solution involves capturing CO2 and storing it in sausage shaped bags which are subsequently dumped in the ocean. While this is apparently technically feasible with contemporary technology, the whole idea is really unpalatable to me. Haven't we done enough damage to the ocean? We've already wiped out a lot of the fish and created an enormous pool of plastic rubbish in the Pacific, all while slowly acidifying the ocean. Human impacts on the ocean are visible from space. This “solution” just adds insult to injury, even if it is “safe”.

Some new materials (chemicals) have been produced which are able to selectively capture CO2. Quoting from the link:

The carbon dioxide is captured using a new class of materials designed by Yaghi and his group called zeolitic imidazolate frameworks, or ZIFs. These are porous and chemically robust structures, with large surface areas, that can be heated to high temperatures without decomposition and boiled in water or organic solvents for a week and still remain stable.

Rabett Run points out that the energy cost may be too high for this to be feasible on an industrial scale. My concern is different than that. History suggests we have a poor track record when it comes to using new chemicals. Metaphorically speaking, It always blows up in our face. CFCs were considered stable. DDT was supposed to save the world. Look how well those turned out. This trend continues as the world discovers that the environmental contamination from our “harmless” chemicals is looking like more of a problem than originally believed. Chemicals in our waters are affecting humans and aquatic life in unanticipated ways. Dilution is NOT the solution. Terrestrial life is also affected by endocrine disrupting chemicals, although the net effect isn't clear at this time. Before we unleash some new chemical on the world, can we thoroughly test it and understand its interactions with the natural world?

Geo-engineering solutions remain a possibility, but fortunately these seem to be falling out of favor. The company that hoped to make money through ocean geo-engineering, Planktos, has stopped its field tests thanks to a “highly effective disinformation campaign waged by anti-offset crusaders.” I'm proud to have contributed. Further studies are continuing to suggest that geo-engineering through aerosol enhancement is likely to be very problematic. I think we shouldn't waste research time or money on these efforts. They could only possibly be used as a last resort, and if the situation gets that dire we are unlikely to be able to mount such an effort. Better to use to the money to better understand the increasingly dissonant 'music of the spheres' as a whole.

In the 'Are you serious?'-category comes 'To save the world we may have to waste it'. This is pretty cynical, and it is not clear to me what the author's intent truly is. It's funny in a black humor sort of way, or if you are feeling incredibly nihilistic, both of which I have been known to appreciate. But such a 'solution' cannot be genuinely considered. Maybe this is a manifestation of despair.

The above solutions (mostly) rely on some sort of techno-optimism. With just the right fix, everything will be alright. Such solutions allow humans to continue to live outside the bounds of the eco-system. Unfortunately, people are part of the natural world, and we must live within it. Solutions that offer real hope will take this into account. There can't be one quick fix, but rather many small steps which add up to a greater whole. The sole focus can't just be on the climate, either. Instead, the whole gamut of environmental problems we face must be addressed simultaneously. Any one of them alone could do us in.

Some steps (among many) could include: Organic fertilizers in agriculture can take up more CO2 in the soil, cutting waste and inefficiency, stopping deforestation, development of alternate energy sources, economic and social reforms. Population control is essential. In short, a societal change towards a more sustainable, less resource-intensive society. Maybe it is true that there is not enough time for a “reinvention of the world's cultures”, but that is the direction we must head to solve this problem in the long term. Perhaps we have to adopt some of the band-aid solutions noted above, but that entails enormous risk and they should only be used as stopgap measures. Recent studies suggest that human cultures are subject to natural selection, just like genes. To survive the challenge,the world and the Global North needs to rein itself in and live within the limits imposed by Nature. The cultures that do this the best will be the writers of history in the future. Nature wins in the end every time. If it finds us lacking, we lose.

There is reason to hope, though, as solutions are on the horizon. A path for long-term, permanent solutions exists with contemporary technology. But the problems we face are large, and most still do not understand the magnitude of the task at hand. Societal collapse requires adjustment, too. This can easily lead to despair. Prompt, but thoughtful action is needed to avoid this state.

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1 comment:

Carl said...

Hope. Implement a carbon tax and the market will cut carbon dioxide production. The technology already exists and more is in the pipeline.

I have made a case for why conservatives should back a carbon tax. If environmentalists would expend more effort in getting conservatives on board with such arguments vs. just peddling doom, we'd likely get faster progress.