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Thanks for a very interesting and balanced post. With all the politics surrounding this issue, it's far too easy to get caught up in the question of who's side you're on rather than looking strictly at the science.

One question:

Not to save the world (that would be rather arrogant and pretentious), but perhaps to save humanity.

Given our successful habitation of practically every land environment, I have to ask if the climate change we are experiencing/inducing really a threat to (all of) humanity?

by Jace on Mon May 9th, 2011 at 10:07:16 AM EST
Almost certainly not.

Actually, it'll probably mostly kill poor brown people, which could be why it's not considered a problem in certain quarters.

by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Mon May 9th, 2011 at 11:04:09 AM EST
[ Parent ]
That depends how you define "humanity."

If you mean violent ape-like creatures with basic time-binding skills - probably not.

If you mean the vast mass of culture and scientific/technical knowledge accumulated over the last few millennia, the possibility of an off-planet swarm migration, and the end of cultural accumulation as a process - very probably.

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Mon May 9th, 2011 at 11:48:34 AM EST
[ Parent ]
"If you mean the vast mass of culture and scientific/technical knowledge accumulated over the last few millennia, the possibility of an off-planet swarm migration, and the end of cultural accumulation as a process - very probably."

How so? And I'm not trying to be cute here, I'm just trying to understand the threat especially in light of our history of adaptability.

by Jace on Mon May 9th, 2011 at 12:10:16 PM EST
[ Parent ]
The simple answer is that cultural accumulation depends on leisure, on division of labour and of persistence of cultural memory - not just in the sense of information being around with lack of bit-rot or paper damage, but in the sense that there exist individuals who have the time, skills, and resources to access it, use it successfully, and expand it.

Climate change has the potential to stress these factors.

Cultural accumulation isn't an inevitability. Of the million or so years of human habitation, it wasn't until a 2-4 millennia ago (depending who you ask) that it became a significant influence. And it's only in the last few centuries that it became a very significant influence.

Without it, humans default to monkey tribalisms, which seems to have been the state of things for most of recorded history, and most of the time before that too.

(See also Republicans in the US.)

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Mon May 9th, 2011 at 12:39:49 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Thanks. Not that I agree with it (for what that's worth), but I can see your point.
by Jace on Mon May 9th, 2011 at 01:32:39 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Since the majority of us are not mind-readers, would you please describe what you mean by adoption, and how we would accomplish such?

"Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one's courage." - Ana´s Nin
by Crazy Horse on Mon May 9th, 2011 at 06:17:09 PM EST
[ Parent ]
That's something for a future diary but think in military terms: light and mobile versus heavy and stationary.
by Jace on Mon May 9th, 2011 at 09:16:28 PM EST
[ Parent ]
... that went before, it may have been that the cultural accumulation of the previous two to four millennium wouldn't have had a platform to stand on.

Technological progress works primarily by the recombination of existing technologies, and so its intrinsically more of an exponential process than a linear process. People looking for a linear "rate of progress" are of course going to retrodict back to a period "when basically nothing is changing", even if technological progress is occurring at the same exponential rate, because its occurring over generations rather than years, while in addition, the further back in time we are looking, the less complete our picture of the technology and institutions in use.


I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.

by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Fri May 13th, 2011 at 11:54:22 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Have you seen Stuart Kauffman's model of economic innovation in his book At Home in the Universe?

Economics is politics by other means
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Mon May 16th, 2011 at 04:20:41 AM EST
[ Parent ]
If the human footprint exceeds the ecologically sustainable footprint for a long period of time, it exhausts many natural resources and thus reduces the sustainable footprint much further.  Think a mass extinction event including many species, but also a large part of humanity.  Plus - the political instability created by much increased competition over ever diminishing resources will probably result in an Armageddon style nuclear war sooner or later, much reducing the ongoing sustainable footprint still further.  Many species are far more adaptable than humans, and humans can often only adapt to environments where they can control the parameters within which that environment can fluctuate.  We can build sea walls but thy can only contain rising sea levels up to a point... and the intensification of agriculture is heavily oil dependent.

Index of Frank's Diaries
by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Mon May 9th, 2011 at 05:05:43 PM EST
[ Parent ]
But aren't these possibilities due to over-population rather than climate change? As for sea-walls, to me that's an economic problem more than anything else.
by Jace on Mon May 9th, 2011 at 09:12:05 PM EST
[ Parent ]
No, because climate change shrinks the available ecological footprint.

And sea walls aren't a viable option for entire continents. Sea level rises create disproportionate economic stress because so much critical infrastructure - never mind so many critical cities - is already in flood-prone areas (q.v. New Orleans and Florida) or in areas where a rise of a metre or less would knock out critical distribution and transport nodes.

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Mon May 9th, 2011 at 09:52:57 PM EST
[ Parent ]
But can't any number of changes also shrink the available footprint?

Let's suppose that the people that are involved with Geoengineering aren't the dangerous knuckleheads that I think they are and instead are actually capable of developing a system to fully control the atmosphere. Great! The status quo is preserved (which, as indicated by your earlier comment seems to be most desired). Life goes on, human population can continue to increase. But now we'll need more land for all these people and more food and more resources, etc. Sooner or later, and assuming something else doesn't change on us, we'll start reaching the physical limits of the continents. Well we can build out on to the seas until we run out of room there and so on. But guess what, we will inevitably find that our growth (our population size) is not unlimited. It seems only prudent to accept this sooner rather than later before we too become too big to fail.

As you've illustrated sea walls are not a viable long term or large scale option. But why should we even consider this? The need for sea walls is predicated on the fundamental assumption that the world is static, that everything is now what it will always will be. The whole issue of climate change seems to be more about realizing that we were wrong with this assumption than anything else (unless of course things don't have to change...).

by Jace on Tue May 10th, 2011 at 07:21:08 AM EST
[ Parent ]
But can't any number of changes also shrink the available footprint?

Yes, anthropogenic climate change is just the most pressing example of biosphere destruction.

There are others, but currently it looks like the one that will cause the most immediate problems.

The general problem is that we have a stupid habit of destroying our habitat.

As I've said before - terraforming your own planet to make it uninhabitable doesn't count as a win.

 

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Tue May 10th, 2011 at 07:39:33 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Why shrinks, necessarily?
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Tue May 10th, 2011 at 07:30:42 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Give us all a sensible model where it increases the available resources.
by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Tue May 10th, 2011 at 07:43:10 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Longer growing seasons in nontropical latitudes?

Economics is politics by other means
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Tue May 10th, 2011 at 08:03:27 AM EST
[ Parent ]
See also:

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Tue May 10th, 2011 at 08:55:18 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Climate change is beginning to acerbate over-population.  

What needs to be understood is "over-population" is a conclusion reached through analysis of the number of predators to the number of prey.  (Using "predators" and "prey" in an abstract sense.)  Climate change is a systematic variant (changeable) first directly lowering prey, e.g., global wheat production, which follows through to stressing and then lowering predator population.  Typically in these scenarios the predator population crashes below objective conditions for the predator population.  The typical run of events:

  1.  Prey population increases
  2.  Predator population increases
  3.  The system become unbalanced
  4.  Prey population crashes
  5.  Predator population crashes
  6.  Prey population stabilizes at a lower rate and begins to climb
  7.  Predator population stabilizes at a lower rate and begins to climb

As the canonical Canadian hare/lynx relationship illustrates:

 

Unfortunately, there is another canonical scenario where the rate of predation is above the rate of prey population renewal and the prey goes extinct.  This seems to have happened with the mastodon; humans over-predated the species to extinction; I note Climate Change was also affective in this scenario.  Something similar is happening with oil/human "predation."  

If you will.

She believed in nothing; only her skepticism kept her from being an atheist. -- Jean-Paul Sartre

by ATinNM on Tue May 10th, 2011 at 02:17:19 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Adding to the sequence (and this is especially typical of us large predators):

  • go after the easy food first (big, meaty, slow moving critters) and then work your way down the food web
  • eliminate rival predators (either directly or indirectly by taking their food and/or space)

With these two additions you can see why the Mastadon, the Dodo, the Great Auk, and many, many other large animals were hunted to extinction and also why predators like the European Brown Bear are either locally extinct or barely holding on climate change or not.

But you also have to note that we as a predator have already exhausted pretty much all of the available prey (the Grand Banks fishery was problably the last truly abundant source) and are thus no longer following that progression. We've learned that once we clean out an existing ecosystem, we then have to create our own dedicated (and grossly over-simplified) ecosystem as a replacement. We're still working the bugs out of this one.

by Jace on Tue May 10th, 2011 at 04:00:45 PM EST
[ Parent ]
"Prey" can also be physical natural resources such as oil.  

She believed in nothing; only her skepticism kept her from being an atheist. -- Jean-Paul Sartre
by ATinNM on Wed May 11th, 2011 at 01:44:52 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Except that oil has virtually no capability to recover stocks

Index of Frank's Diaries
by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Thu May 12th, 2011 at 06:34:51 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Of course it does. God wouldn't let us run out of oil.
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Thu May 12th, 2011 at 07:09:10 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Over a 1000 Million year timeframe, no problem.

Index of Frank's Diaries
by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Thu May 12th, 2011 at 10:49:20 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Exactly.

I find it illuminating to use, e.g., "we are predating oil to scarcity along an exponential growth curve," as an analytical heuristic.  Thinking along these lines it becomes immediately apparent if the replacement rate of the prey (oil) is below predation (extraction) rate systematic use of the prey (oil) MUST, at some point, change the "ecology," or Fitness Landscape, necessarily leading to a change in consumption patterns of the predators (Actors) to accommodate lowering availability of the prey.  This change in consumption patterns changes the predation rate, which changes the Fitness Landscape, changing the predation rate, & round and round we go.

There is more that fall out of the heuristic, I'll only mention one: emergent behaviors, and everything that EB drags along, are inherent.  This is in sharp contrast to NCE where EB, e.g., "Black Swans," are always a surprise.


She believed in nothing; only her skepticism kept her from being an atheist. -- Jean-Paul Sartre

by ATinNM on Thu May 12th, 2011 at 01:27:44 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Only renewables. Nonrenewables follow a different model.

Economics is politics by other means
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Mon May 16th, 2011 at 04:19:17 AM EST
[ Parent ]
See this thread for a discussion of Lotka-Volterra as a model of consumption of renewable resources. Also this thread
imagine that the red line in the chart is humanity and the black line its renewable resource base.

Finally this thread on logistic consumption of nonrenewable resources.

Economics is politics by other means
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Mon May 16th, 2011 at 04:16:45 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Jace:
But aren't these possibilities due to over-population rather than climate change?

Our total ecological footprint is less due to population and more to the way we fill up all and then some. Most of the worlds population is living on a sustainable level even at our current population, but white people are as a group way over the limit.

"Over-population" is a term that when uttered in relation to over current situation in my ears sounds like prioritizing the western lifestyle over poor people's lives. Not that I think you meant it that way.

Sweden's finest (and perhaps only) collaborative, leftist e-newspaper Synapze.se

by A swedish kind of death on Tue May 10th, 2011 at 04:14:12 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Very good point. I think it's interesting to consider why the western lifestyle is so voracious and also whether or not there is anything fundamentally unique about it. For the latter I tend to think not.
by Jace on Wed May 11th, 2011 at 10:06:01 AM EST
[ Parent ]
One can point to Chaco Canyon, Easter Island, Mayan city states to show the western lifestyle isn't unique.  

Not even unique to hominids.  The Saber-toothed cat lasted for 42 million years.  Our earliest ancestor showed up ~14 million years ago.  On the record being a Saber-toothed tiger is a MUCH better way to make a living.  

Species finds a way to make a living, population increases under the system that way creates, eventually the system goes sour, population crashes.

She believed in nothing; only her skepticism kept her from being an atheist. -- Jean-Paul Sartre

by ATinNM on Wed May 11th, 2011 at 01:59:43 PM EST
[ Parent ]
... is an excellent cautionary tale of the dangers of specialization on a lifestyle that is excessively dependent where the climate is with respect to the ice age cycle.


I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.
by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Fri May 13th, 2011 at 12:02:57 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Saber-toothed tigers are also an excellent example of the consequences of human over-hunting. From the current issue of Conservation magazine:

More than 25,000 years ago, one megafaunal species--we humans--began to spread rapidly around the globe and in the process helped to wipe out about half of all land mammals weighing more than 44 kilograms (97 pounds). "More than 101 genera perished," Anthony Barnosky, an ecologist at University of California, Berkeley, reported in a 2008 study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). Among the victims were whole groups of mammoths, mastodons, saber-toothed tigers, giant ground sloths, and big beavers. Many vanished in just a 4,000-year span that ended about 11,000 years ago. By then, Australia had lost roughly 88 percent of its big mammal groups, South America 83 percent, and North America 72 percent. Africa did better during what is now called the Quaternary Megafauna Extinction (QME), losing about one-fifth of its big species, while Eurasia lost one-third.

Exactly what caused the QME has been the subject of long and fierce debate, but most explanations finger some combination of two ingredients: human hunters and rapid climate change. It doesn't take a PhD to realize that big mammals roaming across vast territories were obvious, attractive targets for hungry hunters seeking the biggest bang for their buck. It takes a little math, however, to see just how quickly unconstrained "overkill" can eliminate a species, such as the elephant, that reproduces slowly (as big mammals tend to). Sometimes, it can take just a few human generations. Toss hunting pressure into an environment already changing rapidly due to events such as human-set fires and yo-yo climate shifts, and it's no surprise that the stress "robbed global ecosystems of the biggest animals on Earth," Barnosky told a packed lecture hall a few years ago.

By his count, just 183 large-mammal species survived the catastrophe, often in dramatically reduced numbers. And their days are numbered unless we learn from the past, he argues in his provocative and eye-opening PNAS paper. The fundamental problem, he says, is that we're literally taking the lion's share of Earth's resources--and the shares needed by all other megafauna, too--for ourselves. The QME represented "a dramatic change in the way energy flowed through the global ecosystem," he writes. Before the extinction, there was easily enough "biomass"--the fundamental source of energy created when plants convert the sun's rays to edible tissue--to support some 350 big-mammal species. As hungry Homo sapiens spread, however, "energy began to flow toward a single megafauna species: humans." In addition to simply eating other big animals, we grabbed vast swaths of their habitat to grow crops and raise cows, goats, and sheep. In essence, Barnosky says, "we replaced the extinct megafauna with us and in the process lost a bunch of species that are never coming back because we now have grabbed their biomass."


This article also adds an interesting twist to the discussion of fossil fuels (and human population growth and...):
 
One puzzle, however, remains: Why have just a handful of big mammals actually gone extinct in the past few thousand years, even as human and livestock populations skyrocketed? One answer is that some, such as the American bison, are actually "dead species walking"--reduced to small, unsustainable population sizes or marginal habitat fragments and unable to survive without human help. Another answer, believes Barnosky, is that we temporarily took pressure off wild ecosystems when we discovered fossil fuels and then used that energy to supercharge our ability to feed and shelter ourselves. But that era appears to be closing, he notes, as humans press in on the few remaining habitats still dominated by nonhuman megafauna. It's no coincidence, he says, that human impacts now threaten some 90 species of large mammals, including 40 percent of those in Africa, a continent that made it through the QME largely unscathed. And with a rapidly warming climate taking hold, he says, the present is beginning to look eerily like the past: "Growing human populations and climate change? Beginning to sound familiar?"
by Jace on Sat May 14th, 2011 at 10:47:40 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Since Smilodon Populator went extinct in South America before humans seem to have made it down to South America, its normally put down to the start of the interglacial and the greater dependence of the saber tooth cats than other large cat species on large prey.

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.
by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Sat May 14th, 2011 at 09:40:57 PM EST
[ Parent ]
The arrival date of humans in South America is still unclear but it appears that there may very well have been some overlap between Smilodon populator (extinct circa 10,000 years BP) and humans. From Wiki:
The 14,000 BP immigration date maximum, however, has been challenged. Claims have been made for human presence in the 20,000-30,000 BP timeframe at Pennsylvania's Meadowcroft Rock Shelter and in California's Yuha Desert as well as sites in South America [re: Chile], Central America, and Mesoamerica.

Like many other sites, there are Mastodon bones present at Monte Verde. Smilodon may very well have been over-specialized and preyed only on big animials but then so do (did) we. Loss of habitat and loss of food also lead to extinction.

by Jace on Sun May 15th, 2011 at 11:44:32 AM EST
[ Parent ]
And in any event, whether the Smilodon lost its prey directly to climate change or to the lazy fire-hunting of big game by early man, in either event at those population densities, the American cats that were able to survive on smaller game had no trouble surviving all the way up to the present human-induced mass extinction.

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.
by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Mon May 16th, 2011 at 07:00:15 PM EST
[ Parent ]
will be put to the test in an entirely new way, if we effectively get the 3+°C global warming we seem to be on track for.

We emerged from monkeyhood in the context of repeated ice ages, which forced our ancestors to continually migrate and/or adapt to different habitats, essentially temperate. Then in the past ten thousand years of extraordinarily stable climate, we were able to become sedentary, have regular food surpluses, invent cultural accumulation.

What comes next? Nobody knows : there is no precedent (in the Pleistocene) for the CO2 level -- we're already off the scale -- and temperature ranges we're heading for.

Intensification of agriculture has gone very far, and it's premature to say we can't take it a great deal further. Exhaustion of resources is a graver and more imminent danger than climate change itself : can we make the transition to an intensive, resource-lean agriculture capable of sustaining a population of billions? The history of humanity makes me moderately optimistic, but doesn't say whether we can get there without massive die-offs.

Human intervention on the climate is a fact. There's no going back to a hypothetical natural state, not at a planetary level. The long term future of civilized humanity requires that we actually take control of the climate, rather than drowning in our own extreta.

It is rightly acknowledged that people of faith have no monopoly of virtue - Queen Elizabeth II

by eurogreen on Tue May 10th, 2011 at 04:53:50 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Human influence on the climate is the natural state.
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Tue May 10th, 2011 at 06:09:44 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I agree with everything but your last sentence. With our success, we have come to expect unlimited growth. But as seen repeatedly in places like the business world, there are always limits to growth. Perhaps it is time to recognize and live within these limitations instead of continually trying to maximize growth through complete environmental control.
by Jace on Tue May 10th, 2011 at 06:35:41 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Humanity's bull-in-a-china-shop approach to climate has to stop. Regardless of future growth, we are already in overshoot in terms of climate impact. We need to take responsibility for stabilizing the climate. Once we've done that, we will have the tools enabling us to search for an optimal climate equilibrium. That should be interesting, politically...

But before we can get to that, we need to correct the overshoot urgently. This requires optimizing resource use to produce, at minimum, the same amount of food etc. with fewer primary resources, and producing much less greenhouse gases. If we don't manage this, we are heading for die-off (which is one of Nature's wonderful ways of balancing the population/resource budgets).

Now comes the question of growth. The study of demographic transition shows us that populations stop growing once a certain level of education and well-being is achieved. World population is levelling off, or at least is no longer in exponential growth, because of this phenomenon. The urgent goal is to help the countries who aren't there yet, rather than decreeing some arbitrary limit to population (and enforcing it how?)

It is rightly acknowledged that people of faith have no monopoly of virtue - Queen Elizabeth II

by eurogreen on Tue May 10th, 2011 at 08:27:52 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I may have misunderstood your comment concerning environmental control. Control through conservation is one thing, control by manipulating or engineering the climate is quite another.

I think we're making the same point on population growth. The sense of well-being means that you've accepted what you have, you're sated, you've effectively accepted that you've reached your limit. It's how that limit is defined that's key. Defining it through wealth and acquisition doesn't seem to work too well.  

by Jace on Tue May 10th, 2011 at 09:28:41 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Humanity's bull-in-a-china-shop approach to climate has to stop

It will.  Either we'll use our vaunted cognitive ability to address and solve the problem or Mother Nature will solve it by crashing the global human population in her own indomitable fashion.  

I have become pessimistic we'll choose the first.

She believed in nothing; only her skepticism kept her from being an atheist. -- Jean-Paul Sartre

by ATinNM on Tue May 10th, 2011 at 02:19:56 PM EST
[ Parent ]
"Humanity's adaptability will be put to the test in an entirely new way..."

Maybe. But remember that the plague in Europe killed about 1/3 of the population, and "civilization" continued onwards. (Maybe even improved as the feudal system collapsed.) And much of what we risk losing is the ultra-comfortable personal lifestyle advantages of 20th century technology.

What is likely is that the global population will be severely pruned at the low end of the socio-economic scale. And there may be massive political or economic change as a result, but basically the overall situation will look like it did under the traditional population pressures caused by disease, starvation, and war.

For example, if westerners became vegetarians, even a severely compromised food supply system could support the current population. That would require people to become vegetarians, though, and they don't want to. So they would probably have a war to resolve the question of who gets meat and who eats potatos and onions and cabbage. But that's just traditional old-style human interaction, and as you suggest, we evolved in that sort of environment.

Might be a bit uncomfortable, but not more than in the 1600s, say...

by asdf on Tue May 10th, 2011 at 03:43:59 PM EST
[ Parent ]
You may also be underestimating the fragility of our agricultural system. A significant failure of the global wheat (corn) crop for example would not only be a food supply problem but also a problem of political stability...
by asdf on Mon May 9th, 2011 at 07:50:37 PM EST
[ Parent ]
driven more by speculation than actual shortage, was arguably the biggest driver of the Arab Spring.

Looking further out, various entities (often sovereign) are buying up and developing agricultural land in order to secure future food supplies. This raises interesting ethical questions (the former users are generally expropriated in various ways) but will undoubtedly produce more food per hectare. Quantitatively, will this have a visible impact on world food supply? Dunno.

It is rightly acknowledged that people of faith have no monopoly of virtue - Queen Elizabeth II

by eurogreen on Tue May 10th, 2011 at 08:38:29 AM EST
[ Parent ]
... is a distinction without a difference for a food production system that is dependent upon futures markets are part of their supporting social infrastructure.

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.
by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Fri May 13th, 2011 at 12:04:27 PM EST
[ Parent ]

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