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Archive for the ‘Global warming’ Category

Perhaps somebody needs to remind Bengt Braun that Finland just topped the Reader’s Digest list of greenest countries in the world. And while they’re at it, they might suggest he put in a word to the management of that Helsinki TV station they own.

Girl in shower

Finland’s MTV3 (their current home page includes a link to the Evangelical Christian network Worldvision, a showering young woman on the Big Brother cam and a bloated Brittany Spears staggering through a dance routine) understands the Finnish TV audience (even with a lower tolerance for commercial interruptions than their American counterparts) can survive on a “low-fact” diet of reality shows with voyeuristic and prurient emphases, spiced with the occasional blockbuster film, popular American series, and some “fair and balanced” current events programming. Having shown the Gore movie a few weeks earlier, it was hardly surprising that MTV3 chose to air Martin Durkin’s  The Great Global Warming Swindle on an otherwise pleasant Sunday afternoon. The possible justifications for showing this particular film as a counterpoint to An Inconvenient Truth could be that 1) publishing titan Bonnier is moving to a more abrasive advertising strategy (unlikely), 2) those doing the programming at MTV3 didn’t realize it was a hit piece (hmmm…), 3) those doing the programming believe the program to be factual (trusting the Channel 4 brand, not unreasonable), and 4) those doing the programming know the film is a hit piece and that showing it constitutes harmless fun à la Reefer Madness (possible, Finns are subtle in this respect). Whatever the reason, the documentary was produced for Britain’s Channel 4, which decades ago was founded by luminaries that include Colin Young, a genius who trained two generations of serious documentary filmmakers.

Whatever you may think, Durkin’s film is now in circulation and a good reflection of our age, where ideas must be think-tank-certified to qualify for public discussion.

When Firesign Theater released it’s spoof “Everthing You Know is Wrong” in 1974, the conspiracy fringe was seen as a target for ridicule. Nowadays, people who sell the same line do it in all seriousness. If we buy Durkin’s line, global warming was cooked up by scholars who want grant money and spoiled Greens want to deny third-worlders their right to coal-burning electrical power plants. Oh yeah, and if you buy into fears that global warming could have large impacts on the 6 billion-plus inhabitants of our planet, Mr. Durkin invites you to go fuck yourself. Sweet come-back, Dude.

We’ve seen large discombobulation on a global scale in the past, and even within the memory of some of us. Last century the world was hit between wars by an economic tsunami , the Great Depression. It took most countries decades to recover. Yet when the problems of speculative borrowing emerged in the Roaring 20s, the decision by the Federal Reserve and other central banks to raise interest rates seemed prudent. By 1933, when a quarter to half of the working population was unemployed in most industrial countries and similar amounts of industrial capacity were idle, central banks were hoping for a do-over. They had screwed the pooch — rich and poor alike were caught up in a vicious deflationary circle characterized by delayed consumption, bankrupcy and bank runs.  It was the time Hitler came to power. The world was nuts.

Could another period of collective insanity be lurking just around the corner? Naomi Klein suggests in The Shock Doctrine that social crises, manmade and natural, have many people are already on the ragged edge ready to jump. While she assumes that ultimately a frightened population will remain docile while those manipulating the shock effects to strip them of their civil liberties, I submit that, unfortunately, there could be a further point beyond where things get so confused that nobody operates in their best interests, not even the manipulators. This is the distinction economists make about major economic shocks; usually governments can do things to correct or mitigate shock effects, but once a society is overwhelmed the ability to rationally deal with problems is absent until things calm down. In the case of shifts in weather patterns and global heating and cooling patterns, the limits on the amount of push-back that can be served up by the Hudson Institute or Greenpeace is decisively constrained. At some point the natural shock of lost habitat, environmental degradation and new systemic equilibia points will arrive. Do I need somebody to interpret this for me? After all, I already know that the Sierra glaciers I climbed on in my teens have all but evaporated, that there’s all those blue patches I saw flying over Greenland this summer weren’t there two decades ago, that the wind patterns that I measured as an apprentice meteologist in college have changed, that the Golden Trout I fished as a child are no longer plentiful, that the Baltic has been trashed, and that the yellow Gobi desert dust that floats over the Mojave every spring signals that this change is wide-ranging.

Yet Durkin insists it’s all a swindle. Silly me for trusting my senses and memory. So what ultimately was MTV3’s motivation for broadcasting such a fact-bending piece? We may never know. I think what I’m supposed to do is forget about it and get back to worrying about who’s dancing with which star, the F1 driver pouring champagne on his pit crew and those jumping bikini ladies, that woman in the shower, Brittany’s child-rearing skills,and a guy who tells me he’s the Lord’s TV spokesman.

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In the classic Prisoner’s Dilemma of game theory, the police can only make misdemeanor cases against two persons they have caught unless one prisoner betrays the other. If the police break one, the betrayer walks free while the other is punished with a felony. The optimal solution for both players (as any mafioso knows) is to stay mum and accept the minor punishment, but this means overcoming an incredible urge to screw your partner in crime in order to save your own skin. In more benign terms, cooperation, even if counterintuitive, is the right course of action.

The current goings-on at the G8 summit in Germany suggest the most powerful countries in the world are nowhere near adopting an optimal solution in fighting global warming.

The agreement reached Thursday does not include a mandatory 50 percent reduction in global emissions by 2050, a key provision sought by Chancellor Angela Merkel, nor does it commit the United States or Russia to specific reductions.

Nevertheless, Mrs. Merkel, the host of the Group of 8 meeting, proclaimed it a major victory. She had placed climate change at the top of the agenda for the gathering, and put heavy pressure on Mr. Bush in recent days to relax his opposition to mandatory cuts in emissions, though he ultimately did not.

Indeed, it appears a distracted and disengaged W has had his eye on the door pretty much from the minute he appeared at the summit. And with that kind of a crack in the solidarity, it is hard to see why anybody else at the meeting would feel they still have much incentive to fight global warming. Whatever they do merely subsidizes the bad (but profitable) behavior of others. For those of us living outside the US media bubble, perhaps the most frightening aspect of this sorry spectacle is the tepidness of the American response this latest Bush snub (cue to crickets). Rather than hanging together, Americans generally seem quite comfortable with a second-best world where everybody else hangs separately. Under this logic, being the first to torpedo even relatively modest measures to fight global warming means the US walks free (or drives off into the sunset in a Hummer), just like that prisoner guy. Right?

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In the recent film comedy Stranger than fiction, lead character Will Ferrell discovers his life is the product of a writer’s imagination. In this blog, we choose topics of interest to write about and then as soon as it’s posted some odd coincidence takes place. Now Finnish austenitic stainless steelmaker Outokumpu today announced a consortium to build a new nuke somewhere in Finland. The details are available from this link at NIE Nuclear Notes. 

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Finland’s nuclear power industry started with the Lovisa plant, a wedding between east and west nuclear technology. The Soviets supplied the reactor core and the rest was based on Westinghouse technology. I’m not sure if Finnish technology historians Tuomo Särkikoski and Karl-Erik Michelsen have yet managed to get a book in English published, but these enfants terribles of Finnish academia have been telling the hilarious tale of “Eastinghouse” in Finnish and Swedish to anybody who’ll listen. Gaining access to 16,000 pages of transcripts, design proposals, contracts and technical negotiation documents, they discovered how in the mid-1960s at the height of the Cold War a group of barely-old-enough-to-shave Finnish engineers ran rings around representatives of a top US nuke provider and aging nomenklatura from the Soviet Academy of Sciences in order to put together the kind of nuclear power plant they wanted. What makes the story so compelling is the single-mindedness of the young Finns’ engineering vision and the fact that they never made a peep in public about what they had been up to.

There is a mysterious quiet in the discussion of Finland’s longer-term nuclear plans, even as the country’s politicians contemplate construction of a very plain-vanilla sixth reactor. Given the recent innovations in conventional nuclear power such as fuel rods and a systematic rethinking of fast-breeder technology that eliminates much of the waste and weaponry problems, as well as the fact that Finland may be sitting on enough uranium to satisfy its current power needs for over a thousand years, there is clearly huge scientific and commercial interest locally, but about the only people willing to utter the U-word are freaked-out homeowners in Espoo who may be living on top of commercially viable uranium deposits. In any case, if calls for non-CO2-emitting energy grow and such ideas as Warren Buffet’s proposal for a universal registry and comprehensive tracking of nuclear fuel gain acceptance, big changes could lie ahead for one of the nastiest and most problematic of technologies.

Finland has always been famous for its engineers — from the mythological Ilmarinen, forever saving the national bacon (but unlucky with the ladies) to Eero Mäkinen, who single-handedly created a national metals industry and Martti Valtonen, who trained an entire generation of Nokia engineers to do the basic theoretical work in inaugurating the electromagnetic noosphere. So why don’t we hear much about Finnish engineers today? They’re probably back in their labs working on quantum dots, energy-neutral housing, cleaning up the Baltic cesspool, nanomedicine, a complete new theory of the universe, or whatever. Don’t worry, you’ll hear about it in a couple of decades, it’s just that right now there’s no time for self-promotion. That’s the way Finns are.  

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NASA director Mike Griffin set off a firestorm of criticism yesterday when asked about whether or not NASA’s mission should include more work on global warming. Wiki provides this summary of the exchange and its fallout:

In an interview with NPR’s Steve Inskeep airing May 31, 2007 on NPR News’ Morning Edition, Griffin said the following: “I have no doubt that global — that a trend of global warming exists. I am not sure that it is fair to say that it is a problem we must wrestle with. To assume that it is a problem is to assume that the state of earth’s climate today is the optimal climate, the best climate that we could have or ever have had and that we need to take steps to make sure that it doesn’t change.

“First of all, I don’t think it’s within the power of human beings to assure that the climate does not change, as millions of years of history have shown, and second of all, I guess I would ask which human beings – where and when – are to be accorded the privilege of deciding that this particular climate that we have right here today, right now is the best climate for all other human beings. I think that’s a rather arrogant position for people to take.” [17]

James Hansen, a NASA climate scientist, stated that Griffin’s comments showed “arrogance and ignorance”, as millions will likely be harmed by global warming.[18] Jerry Mahlman, a scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, said that Griffin was either “totally clueless” or “a deep antiglobal warming ideologue.”[19]

It is fascinating that Griffen, who has spent much of his life piling up academic degrees, fails to consider how his answers are likely to be received by an audience partly up to speed on global warming issues. Most scientists readily concede humans, including Americans, are doing a damn fine job modifying our atmosphere and climate. What they don’t see is how the new equilibrium state we seem to be heading for could in any way be “optimal” for humans, or, for that matter, any lifeforms from cyanobacteria to cheetahs.

In Griffin’s favor, he is apparently an accomplished engineer and probably had no intention of portaying himself as a whack job when he made his comments. If his efforts to save the Hubble Telescope are indication, there’s just no way he could simply be a consummate Bush “fox in the hen-house” appointee or a cog in the federal money machine whose job is assuring that the spice uh, funding to NASA contractors, must flow.  

But at a deeper level most people have trouble with numerosity, and by extension, judging the likelihood of something happening. Indeed, we even call big concepts that are hard to get our mind around “mind-boggling.” Wasn’t it Watership Down, where rabbit counting was limited to six numbers: one, two, three, four, five and many? Hare-brains simply could not comprehend immensity beyond a certain point. For the three-year-old this unknown is called the Boogie Man, or The “Kuh” Thing in my case. As we get older, the fear may subside, but the blindness to the Great Statistical Beyond persists. The only reason public lotteries attract any business is the profound probability blindness of the clientele. If lotto was not a sucker’s game, every math department in the world would be playing it for keeps.

There’s even a flip side to the probability blindness coin — it causes some of us to lose our fudge at the mention of remote risk. Drivers are likely to have some bump-up during their lives, but we deal with it. Then there’s that target demographic that buys into George W. Bush’s rhetoric about “terrists” doin’ “evil” to “good people” (and to which Dick Cheney might add “of Wyoming”). Not being able to accurately assess risk can also get expensive. Last November, former US Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin complained:

Our society seems to me to have an increasing tendency to want to eliminate or minimize risk. Instead of making cost–benefit judgments on risk in order to achieve optimal balances, the result too often, again in my judgment, is regulation, legislation, or litigation outcomes whose cost in other areas greatly exceeds the benefit of risk reduction.

So what is the actual risk of global warming, and what would an appropriate, non-alarmist response be? The only calculation for quantifying such risk that I’ve seen lately comes from a Finnish engineer:

E = ∫∫ (Aρst) ΔA Δt,
where E = environmental impact, A = surface area of the earth affected, ρ = relative magnitude of the impact, m = ecological importance of the area affected, and t = how long the effect lasts

Consider a worst-case scenario, an asteroid collision. Even here, we know that t is finite, so while everything on the surface is vaporized or fried, the little bacteria colonies a couple of kilometers below us will eventually get some DNA back to the surface and start things over.

One order of magnitude below that we find all-out thermonuclear war. So much for our species, but I understand cockroaches and even certain higher plants may keep going.

Two orders of magnitude below that we get to what happens if global temperatures increase another 3°C on average (IPCC scenario), loss of most rainforest, melting of polar cap, substantial decline in human population, etc. Assuming the contributing factors to global warming are arrested at some point, the planet could recover extensively in just 500 years.

One order below that we have a limited theater nuclear conflict, pretty messy locally, but limited in its overall planetary effects.

So here’s the deal. First, even at “man in the can” NASA, I suspect there is an unspoken mandate to “be useful.” The argument that NASA is not tasked to study climate change is absurd. When a problem of vital interest to us all emerges, any organization with the resources to be useful has a duty to help. Second, a NASA director, like any CEO, has full authority to distiguish emerging threats. He can, of course, ignore them, or he can balance. Risk can come in the form of rather infrequent encounters with large space objects or ineluctable orders-of-magnitude-less-destructive climate change .

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