Friday, September 24, 2010

The small, non-zero set where Laughlin is right and Hansen is wrong

Michael Tobis dismantles the "thought" involved in a piece by physicist Robert Laughlin that mostly repeats the climate consensus science. With the scientific depth that anyone could get from Wikipedia, Laughlins says that on the time scale of centuries, after we're done adding CO2 emissions to the atmosphere, most of it will be absorbed by oceans but some will remain in the atmosphere, heating the climate for more centuries/millenia until geologic processes finally capture it.

The alleged insight by Laughlin is his argument that we're going to consume all fossil fuels so all the handwringing and attempts to escape the future won't work. This is a political judgment that we're incapable of making a decision to refrain from burning everything. I don't see why a physicist has any great claim to insight on that question. (It also ignores the possibility of sequestering carbon and keeping it sequestered, but that's just yet another flaw.) Due to Laughlin's poor writing, where he says things like the climate is "beyond our power to control" he confuses people with potential denialism, but I think he's basically talking about his political willpower claim.

To a tiny extent, though, Laughlin has a decent argument. People like Jim Hansen opposed the cap-and-trade legislation this summer because it wasn't perfect and instead reflected political compromises. I think Laughlin is right that our political will isn't infinite, and Hansen is wrong to reject a solution that reflects political constraints. Laughlin just goes way too far in the other direction of assuming zero political willpower.

My own little electoral campaign reflects this. My Republican opponent has never mentioned climate change, so I don't know how he feels about it. I've talked about how our Water District has to deal with it, and is dealing with it. I could theoretically argue that we should also immediately cut our water consumption in half, which would reduce a lot of energy demand by eliminating the need to pump water from the Sacramento Delta all the way to here in Santa Clara County. But I think that's unrealistic, and instead we just need to focus on conservation that's possible. We can't do everything, but we can do something, and I think both Laughlin and Hansen need to get that right.

One other note. To be fair to Laughlin, he gets this right: "humans can unquestionably do damage persisting for geologic time if you count their contribution to biodiversity loss. A considerable amount of evidence shows that humans are causing what biologists call the “sixth mass extinction,” an allusion to the five previous cases in the fossil record where huge numbers of species died out mysteriously in a flash of geologic time. "

I've thought for a while that the mass extinction we're causing, probably dating back to the extinction of ice age mammals, and definitely dating back to numerous island extinctions, could be seen as our biggest effect on the environment, one that will take millions of years for nature to fix. Climate change accelerates the problem because species have to move in response, but we've destroyed the connecting habitat that could make migration possible.

1 comment:

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