False dichotomies: global warming

I dislike the fact that the public intellectual space and discourse is defined by the false dichotomies.

You are either for global warming (they call it climate change now because there was no warming) or against it. You are either pro choice or pro life. You are either an antifascist or a fascist. You are either an atheist or you believe in one of the middle-Eastern bronze-age theologies. You either believe that all people are the same or you are a racist.

I think the cause of this is the fact that people are not very good at thinking and having coherent opinions, but they are far better at forming groups around simplistic concepts. If you can reduce an issue to being for or against something, then you can politically exploit idiots who are unable to think in more complex terms.

Let me explain what I think, using issues of global warming, abortion, fascism and religion as an example. Let’s start with global warming in this article, and go on from there.

I see Earth as a complex thermodynamic system; it seems to be the only place in the Solar system other than the Sun, that derives a significant portion of its warmth from nuclear energy. I shit you not – more than 80% of the energy that keeps the Earth’s core in a molten state is derived from either nuclear fission or radioactive decay. This is the reason why we have such a powerful electromagnetic field, unlike Venus and Mars. Earth has a magnetic field on par with the gas giants. This is because the Theia impact, some 4.31 BY ago, gave Earth enough heavy elements for two planets, while expelling the light elements into what later became the Moon. As a result, Earth has its own nuclear furnace that keeps the inner core spinning within the outer core and the mantle, producing a strong magnetic field. This heat emanates from the core and eventually into space.

The second source of Earth’s energy is the Sun, which, obviously, heats up the atmosphere, the oceans and the crust during the day, and this energy radiates into space during the night. The speed of this release of energy can be moderated by the buffers, also called the glasshouse gasses. Also, since the equatorial areas absorb more solar energy than the poles, there is a thermal gradient between those. Depending on the amount of buffers in the atmosphere and the layout of the continents and the oceans, there is a certain variability to this thermal gradient between the equator and the poles; if the oceans can’t bring the energy from the equator to the poles quickly enough, the Earth starts warming up.

As it warms up, the oceans release carbon dioxide, one of the important buffers, into the atmosphere, because it is more easily soluble in cold water (which is easy to demonstrate by warming up carbonated soda). This then contributes to the moderation of the equatorial-polar thermal gradient, essentially smoothing the seasonal transitions and increasing the habitable area of the Earth’s crust. If it goes too far, it can make the equatorial areas very hot, but habitability of those areas is already questionable today, because they aren’t actually a pleasant place for humans. On the other hand, thawing of the polar regions would more than make up for the loss of equatorial habitability by opening up the currently inaccessible areas for human habitation. Another issue are the coastal areas, that would be flooded by the melt-water resulting from the polar ice. This would result in the gradual loss of the very densely populated coastal areas, but I see no cause for panic, since the gradual increase of the water levels would force people to simply migrate to a safer area. Of course, you can never eliminate the possibility of a sudden event, something of a Dansgaard-Oeschger variety, that would seriously threaten mankind, but those occur with some regularity in any case.

So, what is my long-term prognosis? First of all, I take my data from a vastly longer time-span than is the case with most climatologists; I work with the last billion years of climate. This includes several pre-Cambrian global glaciations, the Cambrian melt, warm period that started subsiding some 65 MY ago, entering a drier, cooler climate, increasing the thermal gradient between the equator and the poles, starting the formation of polar ice, and gradually absorbing the carbon dioxide gas in increasingly colder water, reducing the amount of atmospheric buffers. The polar ice on the other hand increased the Earth’s albedo, thus contributing to the situation by reflecting more sunlight into space. Eventually, this reached extremes somewhere in the late Pliocene, early Pleistocene, some 2.6MY ago, when the amount of atmospheric buffers declined to dangerous levels, where even the minor orbital and axial variations started throwing the climate out of whack. These are called the Milankovitch cycles, and the interesting thing about them is that they exist only in the Pleistocene; I heard about that once and it made me wonder so I looked into it and now I know why that happens. Basically, if the CO2 levels fall below the Pliocene levels, the Earth starts to balance on a very precarious edge of a runaway glaciation, where due to the lack of buffers in the atmosphere it becomes possible for more ice to accumulate on the polar areas than can be removed in the summer. Due to the albedo effect of the ice, this increases the problem in the next season, and so on. If left unhindered, this process will eventually and quite certainly result in a full global glaciation, poetically known as the snowball Earth, and that is game over for most forms of life on land, including humans. That’s the tricky part – the thermal curve of the last 65 MY has a clear downwards-pointing trend, and it’s because of the ring of seawater that formed around Antarctica, enabling the Coriolis force powered sea currents to quickly dissipate energy, de facto working like an air conditioner or a fridge, powered by Earth’s rotation and convection.

What humans did here with their industrial revolution and combustion of fossil fuels is to raise the atmospheric CO2 concentration to either early Pleistocene or even early Pliocene levels; the data isn’t clear enough. But what does that mean, exactly? Is it a bad thing, in a sense that the climate will undergo a dramatic change, destructive to human civilization, before it re-establishes itself on the Pliocene levels? Is it a good thing, in a sense that it either delayed or completely prevented the onset of the next glacial maximum, and possibly even brought us out of Pleistocene ice age altogether? I don’t know. Earth is such a complex thermodynamic system, I’m simply unable to make a precise enough simulation in my head to account for all the factors and variables. What I do know, with absolute certainty that comes from looking at the last billion years of climate data, is that without this increase of CO2 levels this glacial minimum that we call Holocene would ultimately come to an end, and we would sink into a glacial maximum, colloquially known as the ice age. Also, since the circumantarctic air conditioner keeps on pumping heat out into space, one glacial maximum will eventually cross the threshold of runaway glaciation where even the equator would freeze over, and that will last until the continental drift eventually breaks the heat pump of sea currents, some hundreds of millions or even billions of years in the future. Basically, this means it’s game over for life on Earth as we know it, and since the Pleistocene itself with its climatic instability means the process has already started, it is unlikely to take more than a few millions of years before the Earth cools down so much that Milankovitch cycles will no longer be able to bring it into a glacial minimum. So, without that evil beast of global warming, we are not safe in the bosom of Mother Earth with its perfect balance of climate and whatever bullshit the tree-huggers want you to believe. On the contrary, we live in a climate that is so viciously unstable, it forced animals to evolve hibernation and seasonal migration in order to survive the seasonal extremes. Earth is in its death throes, and it’s called Pleistocene. It’s only because our lifespan is so insignificant that we don’t perceive it as a terrible train wreck that it is. The only event in the last 65 MY that went contrary to the trend of gradual cooling and the eventual death in ice is our industrial carbon dioxide release.

But if you expect my prognosis to be bright, you’re wrong. I actually think our CO2 release is merely a “blip”. The circumantarctic current is a vast, unstoppable global force. With our pumping CO2 into the atmosphere we might actually trigger a Dansgaard-Oeschger event by melting too much polar ice at once, breaking the thermohaline circulation and resulting in some violent climatic extreme that might cool the planet down in one instant to simply sink all our CO2 into the oceans and resume the cooling trend, maybe even accelerating it. That’s what you have when you work with complex thermodynamic systems – it’s always chaos, and in chaos the scale can tip both ways in unpredictable ways. So yes, our CO2 release is the best news that life on Earth got since the extinction of the dinosaurs. It’s the only thing that could possibly delay or even prevent the runaway glaciation. It could also wreck the climate enough to wipe us out. But our prognosis was never bright, to begin with. We have our extinction event sometime in the future, in a runaway glaciation. It’s a certainty. What we did with our industrial civilization might delay it or prevent it altogether. It could also kill us more quickly. The thing is, I don’t know what will happen, because the thermodynamics of it all is too complex for me to simulate, and from what you’ve read so far you can see that I’m actually quite a bit ahead of the general trends in climate science.

And now we come to the conclusion: why the question “do you believe in global warming” makes me facepalm and despair to the point of tears. It’s because I know the level of superficiality and ignorance that lies beneath that question. It’s because I know I’d have to write this article in order to explain what I really think about it, and because I rarely think in yes/no dichotomies, that so rarely function beyond the level of elementary mathematics, where you have simple questions such as “is n, an element of N, an odd or an even number”, and all elements of the set result in unequivocal Boolean answers. The real world is more like the R set, in which such a question would apply only to an insignificantly small subset, making no sense whatsoever outside that range.