Tuesday 13 August 2019

We Have A Problem

Alone, Alone. All, All Alone: Will it be a good or a bad thing, when humanity’s bright blue spacecraft is stricken by the civilisation-destroying problem of Climate Change, that no Houston Control will be standing-by to rescue the crew?

“WE HAVE A PROBLEM, HOUSTON.” These were the words used by the Apollo 13 astronauts to announce their spacecraft’s stricken status. Miraculously, the astronauts and “Houston Control”, working together, managed to overcome the “problem”, and the crew of Apollo 13 were returned safely to Earth.

Forty years later, the inhabitants of “Spaceship Earth” also have a problem. Unfortunately, they do not have a Houston. This time the crew are going to have to sort things out by themselves.

What is the problem? Obviously, the biggest part of the answer is Climate Change. But it’s not the whole answer. Simply identifying Climate Change as the problem to be overcome does nothing to resolve the problem hidden inside the problem.

The problem within the problem arises out of the fact that 85 percent of the energy utilised by human-beings is derived from carbon (a finite resource) and the balance is provided by machines and structures manufactured and constructed using carbon-based processes (all of which must be regularly replaced). Put simply, the skeleton of the advanced technological civilisation we inhabit is made out of coal, oil and natural gas – plus the objects they allow us to make. Remove these things and our civilisation will collapse.

The use of coal, for example, is critical to rapidly developing nations such as China and India – just as it was to the industrialisation of Europe and North America. The massive coal-mining venture underway in Queensland is being undertaken by Indian capital on behalf of Indian energy generation and manufacturing. A similarly huge coal-burning exercise is underway in East Africa courtesy of the Chinese. The American coal industry, thanks to President Donald Trump, has resumed its decapitation of mountains to keep the furnaces fed.

These developments will pour gigatons of additional CO2 into the earth’s atmosphere – worsening the already dire consequences of anthropogenic global warming.

“Keep it in the ground!” Cry the young defenders of the planet. “Blockade the coal ships! Halt the coal trains!” Would that it were that simple.

Coal is not burnt simply to produce mechanical and electrical energy. Some of it is used to make steel. Try to imagine a world without steel. It’s not easy. So much of the infrastructure of the present depends upon an endless supply of high-quality steel.

The functioning of past civilisations was similarly dependent on implements made of iron. What’s needed to make iron? Charcoal – carbonised wood. The continuous burning of trees to make charcoal is one of the principal causes of the deforestation of Western Europe – an unqualified ecological disaster. And, when the trees were gone, our European ancestors moved on to digging up the petrified forests of the planet’s distant geological past – otherwise known as coal.

“We are stardust/ billion-year-old carbon/ we are golden/ caught in the devil’s bargain”, sang Joni Mitchell in her hit song “Woodstock”. And it’s true: humanity and carbon are inextricably bound together. In mastering the extraction of energy from carbon, human-beings were simultaneously mastering the planet.

Except, of course, we weren’t. The planet has its own means of mastery, and we are beginning to feel them. The scientists insist that the only way we can ensure our species long-term survival is to unwind its extraordinary relationship with carbon. We must solve the problem within the problem.

In practical terms that can only mean unwinding civilisation itself. Humans will cease to be a threat to themselves, and others, only when they give up using carbon-based products to smelt metals, manufacture cement and extrude plastics. Only when our species’ collective footprint is light enough to be blown away on an autumn wind, will the planet, and all the other species that dwell upon it, be able to breathe easy.

Such a footprint will never be left by a species numbering 9 billion.

Does humanity grasp this: the brutal, but inescapable, reality which lies at the heart of the problem within the problem of Climate Change? That to come through the next 100 years, the human species will, somehow, be required to reduce its present population by nine-tenths?

Think of the Holocaust. In 1939, there were approximately 9.7 million Jews living in Europe. By 1945 there were fewer than 4 million. Two-thirds of European Jewry had perished at the hands of the Nazis. The dismantling of our carbon-fueled civilisation would be accompanied by even more devastating depopulation: not two out of every three would vanish, but nine out of every ten. Will those billions of doomed souls go gently into Gaia’s good night? Or, will they rage, rage against the dying of human civilisation’s light?

Some young people in the West are openly talking about refusing to have children. Others speak hopefully of universalising the achievements of feminism. Such a victory would, if the experience of those countries in which women have won equality is any indication, gradually reduce the number of human-beings on the planet. Would this depopulation option occur at a pace and on a scale to avert planetary catastrophe? It seems unlikely. Especially when patriarchy in all its forms would have to be defeated first. That will not be easy!

How does one persuade the most privileged layers of the human population to surrender their power and status: their cars, their red meat, their dairy products – their guns? How do you make men understand the consequences of Climate Change, when the ongoing enjoyment of their many privileges depends upon them not understanding the consequences of Climate Change?

It’s not just men. Around the world, cities and even nation states are declaring “Climate Change Emergencies” in recognition of the diminishing amount of time humanity now possesses to stabilise the phenomenon of global warming. All well and good, but the truly chilling feature of such declarations is what happens after they are made. Which is, in nearly every case, nothing at all.

Perhaps, in the end, the planet – Gaia herself - will solve the problem. Perhaps a virus – as yet unencountered by any human-being – is already mutating away in the mountain rain-forests of equatorial Africa. Perhaps it will break free of the trees. Perhaps, like Ebola, its lethality will be in the vicinity of 90 percent.

Will it be a good or a bad thing, I wonder, when humanity’s bright blue spacecraft is stricken by this final problem, that no Houston will be standing-by to rescue the crew?

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 13 August 2019.


Guerilla Surgeon said...

Cue the usual suspects saying that climate change is a con in 3.. 2.. 1.

pat said...

Bleak but likely prophetic....and the 'virus' is likely to be armed with an AK47 or an AR15

Charles E said...

So you are not sure if the death of billions would be a good or bad thing Chris.
Oh well I guess the 200 million the left killed last century without apology so far was just a warm up then.
Of course people matter more than the planet doe. Each individual is more important that the whole world.
Now yes there is a big problem with that idea. If we destroy our habitat we go too. But anyone who thinks it would be better if 'other people' were eliminated should do the right thing and depart this life right now. I say to those people: Go jump off a cliff to prove your sincerity.
Otherwise try coming up with humane solutions to the problem instead, and do so while giving hope to the young. To spread doom is a crime equivalent to child abuse.

John Hurley said...

Fantastic Chris. The grandstanding Greens really annoy me: the "Bobo's" are all off overseas travelling. They are talking growth out of one side of their mouth and climate change out the other. Will they drastically cut our tourism industry (I can assure you people travel in diesel buses)?

“Spoonley…says declining birth rates and the effects of an ageing population signal the end of population growth for almost everywhere except Auckland – and if the regions are to survive they must consider new options such as increased immigration flows.”

“Massey Vice-Chancellor Steve Maharey says the country needs to focus on taking advantage of the rapid demographic changes to drive the economy.”

Lianne Dalziel is also brimming with enthusiasm at the thought that Christchurch could be a thriving metropolis of 2m people - and diverse (the old Christchurch was "stuck")

Evolutionary psychologists say our minds aren't adapted to novel threats.

Anonymous said...

Jeepers, Chris - all those decades old sc-fi movies re population (when you turn 35, you're due to be hunted down and exterminated - and the like), had a point. Sadly, you're due to go as you guess I must too if I can remember the movies.....

David Stone said...

We have lots of problems. To do with a population explosion of our species overwhelming all other species , the planet and each other. But obtusely I am not convinced that the CO2 we are releasing into the atmosphere is one of them. Not an overwhelming one anyway.
I did think so, people talk about it arising as a concern 30 years ago, but it was part of the motivation for the Hippy movement 40 years ago when I went to Colville to work a little crystalline lime quarry , breaking ton and a half limestone boulders with a 12 lb spalling hammer, the kind of activity I had an aptitude for in those days.
The brothers and ex of the nice Hippy lady I found were particularly concerned about it , and given we were / are burning up in a couple of hundred years the accumulated fossil fuel of several hundred million years I have had no reason to question the concept until a few months ago when it first came to my notice that it was water vapour that had to be multiplied up in it's effect by the tiny amount of CO2 as water is overwhelmingly the main GHG.
To have talked so much to those better educated friends about it , and heard so much in the news for so long, and not to have picked up that the effect was so totally dependent on what water vapour does made me realise that I didn't know a bloody thing about it. So I have started learning.
Firstly how much effect is water and how much CO2? Articles on the human induction side said 30 to 60 % water 70-40% CO2. Skeptics articles said 95-97% water 3-4% CO2 and some minors like methane. Can't both be right, so more digging . 3 articles told me WV if condensed would cover the earth to a depth of one inch, Interesting but no help. Eventually found one that gave numbers I could work out to 4000 ppm cf 400 ppm CO2 so 90 to 10. but perhaps the CO2 is much mere effective molecule for molecule? but no . Turns out WV is 1.6 times as effective molecule for molecule as CO2. So thats where 95 - 97%
for WV effect comes from. Where the hell does 30 to 60% come from?
Next question I needed to understand was how much dissolves in the sea and how much is in the forests and other plants?
Well % time as much in the biosphere on land as in the atmosphere , and 50/60 or 65 times as much in the sea depending on what article you are looking at.
So does it mix? The human induction side say it will stay in the atmosphere for thousands of years. How am I to check that out? Well it turns out that in New Zealand the content started being monitored near Wellington some time before the atmospheric atomic testing began. Up to '63 the testing created a doubling of the atoms- C14 isotope that is used in carbon dating . This took 11 years to drop half way back to normal and half again in the next 11 years. This means that 50% of the CO2 must be mixed with the sea and biosphere in 11 years. Subsequently lots of things I read seem to say it turns over in about 3 and a half to 4 years but I haven't seen how that is assessed . But the 11 years half life will do for me to accept that the mixing in and out of the sea is quit rapid enough to establish that the CO2 we are adding we are adding to a pool at least 50x the size of what is in the atmosphere, so though it's a hell of a lot of carbon it is tiny compared with the reservoir it is being added to. Some molecules we release will still be in the atmosphere fro thousands of years because their selection for dissolving is random and the number of molecules is very large so some will keep on missing out, but to use that to imply that en mass the CO2 we emit will be there for perhaps a thousand years seems to me to be deliberately misleading .

David Stone said...


What also seems misleading is the often heard/read statement that the sea is saturated with CO2 so no more of what we add can be absorbed. Well in the specific scientific use of the term "saturated" it is true, but not in the sense that an unsuspecting member of the public might be expected to infer from that statement , who has forgotten their fourth form general science lessons or who like me was not paying proper attention . As applied to a gas dissolved in water it means that at that temperature, and at that gas pressure the balance between the gas in solution and the gas out of solution is at it's natural equilibrium. Exactly what you would expect, what would stop it being at equilibrium? But if the temperature changes so will the equilibrium point, and if the pressure changes in either direction the solution will change too. Saturation of fresh water with CO2 in solution at STP and 20 degrees C is about 2 grams per 100 grams of water;2% by weight; Sea water will dissolve less because of the salt already taking up some ions in the water, but proportionally less not orders of magnitude less, Sea water has about 90 parts per million of CO2 , say 100 ppm so one part in 10,000 cf two parts in 100. It is very very far from saturation at 20 degrees and atmospheric pressure. But to recall Fulton's law of partial pressure of a gas in a mixture of gasses, the effective pressure of CO2 in the atmosphere is not at STP but at the proportion of Atmospheric pressure that it is a proportion of the atmosphere's volume i.e.. 400 ppm , or 14lb per square inch multiplied by 400 over one million , or
14/2500. Which makes sense of the sea's con tent being 90 ppm.
The next question that understanding what's going on desperately begs is " If the sea warms up by 1.3 degrees C as it is claimed to have done, how much CO2 would be driven out of the sea into the atmosphere, the equilibrium having been shifted by the rising temperature. But though that seems such a vitally relevant question it is not that Google WILL NOT ANSWER. But I have found two articles that suggest that at 10 degrees C fresh water will hold about 2.5 % and at 20 degrees about 2. so in the range of the sea's temperature the likelihood that if the sea has been warmed from above or below anything like by 1,3 degrees the CO2 content of the atmosphere would increase by at least what it has increased by. My crude calculations suggest it would be at more than twice what it is at now.

David Stone said...

And again if Chris will indulge me ...

In my opinion it is not possible to know whether a warmer sea, or just a warmer sea surface , is causing a rise in CO2 level or a rise in CO2 is causing a rise in temperature, and I strongly suspect the former is the case.
And what of the role of water ?. It is being claimed that CO2 is the stimulus that causes more WV to evaporate and this is what will cause the temperature to rise. But why doesn't WV stimulate its own increase. By that reasoning it should run away with the Greenhouse effect, stimulating more evaporation trapping more heat and on and on. But they tell us that water is only a secondary GHG CO2 is a primary and that's what matters. What it means to my mind is that the WV is responsive to temperature within the relevant range and CO and is not. Water vapour doesn't only warm the earth it also cools it. The same human induction adherents who say WV only responds to what CO2 is doing also say that WV alone would lead to a snowball earth. This inadvertently identifies what the overall impact of water is. It controls the temperature in both directions . Ultimately , as WV only stays in the atmosphere for about 9 days before it condenses at differing levels in the troposphere , dumping it's enormous heat of evaporation onto the surrounding air where much or most of it escapes to space depending on how high it gets before it condenses . Water has the greatest specific heat of any common substance so it takes a lot of heat to raise it from melting to boiling pt. But it takes more than five times that amount of heat to make it evaporate . Even though some molecules gain that energy long before boiling point the energy per molecule is the same, and it has to dump that energy to condense into rain. So the more WV is put into the atmosphere the more energetically it will be transferring heat high up into the troposphere where much of it will leave the planet.

John Hurley said...

Piss me off Chris. I'm reading about Greta Thornburg and her "message" that we must "lower emissions" and then there is the "wise young man" (and morality lecturer) Henry Cooke of Stuff heralding Jacinda Adern and her message that we must lower emissions. It's as though we must masturbate less or stop drinking. You really need to contact Stuffed and inform them of the problem within the problem?

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Jesus Charles worry is your go to point of bullshit always associating social Democrats with the Communists – whether killing 200 million – a disputed figure anyway I might say or whatever? No one on this site is at bloody Communist for Christ's sake. Makes just as much sense to associate you with the millions killed by fascism, and at your worst you're probably not a fascist. Just stop it. It's ridiculous, it adds nothing to the debate, and it makes you look stupid.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Dammit, that should be why not worry. Dictation software again. But the point being Charles now that I'm a little calmer is that snide remarks like this typical as they are, lower the tone. Not it doesn't get very low at times. I notice you never reference Denmark or Sweden or Finland? I wonder why. Could it be because they have so much to teach us about how to run a country? They leave us behind in almost every social metric, and I would imagine that many of the left-wing people who comment here if not all, would aspire to that rather than the soviet union. And yet you continually reference.......... blah blah Venezuela, blah blah Stalin. Now if you just going to troll Charles that's fine but just let us know, and we can ignore you as an irrelevance.

Shane McDowall said...

The Earth has been in 100,000 year long ice-age cycles ( 90 thousand glacial 10 thousand inter-glacial) for the last 2 million years.

Modern humans have been around about 200,000 years.

At least one point in this planet's history the whole place was covered in ice.

Frankly I do not give a rat's proverbial about "climate change".

Climate change is what our planets does.

And the thing is, it does not matter a rat's proverbial what the 5 million people in New Zealand do. We could shoot every cow, scap every motor vehicle, and flatten every fossil fuel burning power station and it would not make an iota of difference to the fate of this planet.

Charles E said...

GS my thesis is that it's clear from the evidence that the far left (I should have said far) always wants to hang humanity. They currently say it's to save the planet. Previously it was to improve human nature, to perfect man. Having failed at that at vast cost and horror now they just want us all gone, to save nature. You cannot deny that in the first half of the 20th C it was two kinds of collectivist socialists that launched industrialised murder across the northern continent.
Today these people are still represented by the left greens in the West. I accept that social democrats are not them, and indeed currently there are fine examples from that cohort (our host included, at times) who are starting to stand up and bravely stare down the nihilist ideologically possessed and ultimately genocidal far left. But they should start by accepting that last century they were too often fellow travellers. That meant the generations after WW2 were 'educated' to believe that evil is just the manifestation of the fascist right. It took a repentant communist, turned Christian to describe ever so clearly that the line between good and evil runs straight down the middle of the human soul. So the young today still know nothing of this truth and are being fed a diet of resentment of humanity by the far left, assisted by a largely silent centre left. At best this leads to useless destructive anxiety and despair, but at worst may lead to another collectivist disaster, in my humble view.

Charles E said...

David I admire your efforts at self education on the subject of AGW.
I gather from my reading and from a forest scientist friend over many years who was an IPCC reviewer, that the CO2 'problem' is just the last point of deniers. The problem they have with it is they cannot believe such a tiny amount extra can have such a big effect. So either they say that perhaps it is a red herring, and just the result of natural warming; or that (and this is the current favourite) that CO2 just warms us a little then after that has no part to play, even at 1000 or 10,000 ppm.
Well the science says not so. Who are we to disagree?
From outside of the climate science world completely, which is almost all of us, I think the best way to look at it is risk. Like many complex things the climate is a system, having many many inputs, and what we are doing alters a few of those inputs. Even if small it risks significant changes down the line. Risk management requires considerable caution if the harm risked may be massive. So phasing out fossil fuels as fast as we can without collapsing the economy would be wise. And it is the future of energy anyway so let's speed that up.

John Hurley said...

In the early 1980's climate change wasn't an issue

Mediawatch can't see beneath the slogans

David Stone said...

I think your point about risk is pertinent . A question that arises as soon as you doubt the AGW narrative is "Why would the IPCC scientists say this if it were not necessarily so?" And I think your comment applies to them as well. For instance to assert that the whole sea, or even the atmosphere on land at sea level, has warmed by a degree , or parts of a degree over a hundred years, given that it changes constantly at every point and at all times far more than that seems to me preposterous. They can't know that for sure even with the gear they have now let alone 100 years ago; And that is something they can measure to some extent. Beyond that everything is on speculative modelling . They don't have the information and certainty they need to be able to tell us what is really going on. But they are responsible to the world to warn us. A responsibility they don't have the wherewithal to discharge. The CO2 we are producing might be having a catastrophic effect for all they know ,and the best they can do is to assert that it will to be safe. All they can be sure of is that ice is melting.
Bear in mind that some highly qualified climate scientists not employed by the IPCC disagree too.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

"GS my thesis is that it's clear from the evidence that the far left (I should have said far) always wants to hang humanity. "
Instead of railing on about this than Charles perhaps it would be better if you started to bravely stare down the nihilist right wing which seems to be far more of a danger than the left at the moment. That at least would be constructive.
And don't tell me you're starting to adopt this far right meme of the Nazis were socialists? Oh dear please don't do that because if you do I will have to (intellectually of course) eviscerate you. It seems to be a thing at the moment for extreme conservatives to do this simply because they don't like being associated with Nazis. Funnily enough though very few of us on the left actually do that, unlike you who is continually harping on about Stalin and the like and associating moderate people on the left with him.