What Part of “Complex, Nonlinear System” Don’t You Understand?

I am not a climate scientist, but I trust those who are to be experts in their own field, and so I think that any reasonable person who doesn’t have his head up his ass can agree that global warming is happening, and that it is a serious threat to Human civilization. Reasonable people can also agree that it is being caused (or at least exacerbated) to some extent by Human activities–namely, the addition of billions of tonnes of greenhouse gases to the upper atmosphere, trapping the radiative heat from the sun.

So the question, once we have freed ourselves of right-wing denialism, becomes: what do we do about it? Can we just find ways to cut back on our production of greenhouse gases by, for example, overhauling our agricultural practices, switching to ‘clean’ energy sources, imposing greater fuel-efficiency standards on industry and so forth? Are these feasible? I admit, I have not studied the engineering aspects in any great detail.

What I do know, however, is that I’m not in favour of so-called ‘geo-engineering‘ schemes to mitigate the damage. And the reason for this is very simple: namely, the Earth’s climate is a non-linear system. Anyone remotely familiar with the mathematics of non-linear systems understands that even small perturbations can result in enormous and unpredictable side-effects. Neither do I believe that testing these effects locally (say for example, over a patch of New Mexico desert) is going to be at all useful, because the interactions that will be coming into play will depend upon the entire state of the atmosphere (the whole ‘butterfly effect,’ and so forth).

Geo-engineering reminds me of nothing so much as a man who, having been judged to be unhealthily overweight, demands that his doctor perform a liposuction on him so that he doesn’t need to change his diet or exercise habits. Only it would be even worse than that, because he’s living in a time before Doctors even know how to perform liposuction.


About thevenerablecorvex

I have the heart of a poet, the brain of a theoretical physicist, and the wingspan of an albatross. I am also notable for my humility.
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11 Responses to What Part of “Complex, Nonlinear System” Don’t You Understand?

  1. I almost wish I didn’t know they were even thinking about doing that. That seems insane.

  2. Priyanka says:

    The one thing that always appalls me about engineering and classical lib. economics in particular — since they have such immense influence in shaping the world we live in — is their refusal to acknowledge the contexts/networks within which their subjects live.

    This geo-engineering this you speak of has its roots quite far back in history, and has been the bane of my country since its process of ‘development’ began. Ecosystems were destroyed to construct damns, displacing local tribes (this was before ‘liberal’ activists in the West decided ‘tribe’ was a terrible insult to humanity and had the PC police ban the word), and eventually, damaging the weather system of large stretches of the land while also logging a loss in the state/nation’s budget.

    The people who were displaced some thirty years back are now part of the urban poor, where they hire themselves out as manual labour and live in shacks or on streets. Those that stayed behind are worse off. (the administration is quick to point out that these people, especially their children, often turn to crime and violence, and are not a demography to be trusted). They’ve now become a national ‘problem’.

    And the government is planning to hand out more mining and drilling permits, and more dams. Because, as everyone knows, ‘progress’ means constant engineering of the environment.

    The liposuction similie was most apt.

    • Of course, there’s also that additional ethical problem. Almost by definition, any geo-engineering scheme will end-up having far ranging consequences for millions (or in the case of the climate, billions) of people who will not be able to give informed consent. It’s all very well to tell them that you’re doing it for their own good, but who gives them that authority? And if things go terribly wrong (as, frankly, seems very likely) the overwhelming majority of people will have to suffer the consequences.

  3. Lindsay says:

    Thank you for spelling out so clearly and simply why we should be skeptical of these goofy, Ringworld*-esque schemes! I have always felt that way, but never really been able to articulate why, apart from muttering about energy costs and unforeseen consequences. I always felt like a superstitious old woman because I could not produce a more specific, technical reason for my pessimism.

    I also agree very much with Priyanka’s comment, and find her analogy to liberal economics a very good one. I think so many of our problems, environmental and economic, come from the fact that our economic theories and practices — the ideas we live by — assume that there are no physical limits to anything we do, that we can keep growing indefinitely and just find new sources of energy, water, food, and raw materials for building whenever we exhaust the old. They also seem to assume that, if you were to draw a diagram of human industry showing inputs and outputs, that this diagram would be linear instead of circular — i.e., that whatever waste we produce can just go … somewhere and it doesn’t matter how much there is or what its effects on the environment are.

    My own opinion on the matter of climate-change solutions is 1) “solution” is a bit of a misnomer in that climate change is already happening, has been happening, so whatever measures we adopt won’t stop it but will hopefully stop more of it from happening. Kind of like the bank bailouts — they didn’t stop the US economy from tanking, but they prevented it from being a lot worse than it was, and 2) drastic reductions in energy usage are unavoidable.

    *I love the novel, but I wouldn’t live on Ringworld! Niven himself admitted that such a construction would be inherently unstable, and wrote a later novel describing subsequent attempts to stabilize it.

    • “*I love the novel, but I wouldn’t live on Ringworld! Niven himself admitted that such a construction would be inherently unstable, and wrote a later novel describing subsequent attempts to stabilize it.”

      Apparently at one point, Freeman Dyson got sick of pointing out the alleged instability of his ideas, and pointed out that, contrary to their depictions in science fiction, he actually meant for them to be networks rather than solid objects.

    • “I also agree very much with Priyanka’s comment, and find her analogy to liberal economics a very good one.”

      Which is a bit ironic, when you think about it, because the logic that I am using to argue against geoengineering is precisely the same logic that classical liberals use to argue against Keynesian-style interventionism (i.e, the law of unintended consequences)

    • ken says:

      But then again, drastic reductions in energy use are also dangerous. The cornerstone of everything that we think of as “civilized” life is high energy use, from easy travel (without which people become insular), to weather resistance (building modern housing takes energy, and lots of it… and it spells the difference between losing a handful of people in a natural disaster and losing several thousand or more) to emergency services, to climate control, to say nothing of scientific advancement.

      We need more clean nuclear power and other types of clean power, and we need more of anything that will insulate humans from the effects of climate change (see climate control and sturdy housing above, for starters).

      • Of course, Lindsay can speak for herslf, but I think that she meant “unavoidable” in the sense that it’s going to end up happening whether we plan it or not, just because of the economics of increasing demand with dwindling supply. Of course, as you suggest there’s always the hope of new power coming in from clean sources.

      • Lindsay says:

        Aye, that’s what I meant.

  4. Pingback: Extinction, Resurrection and Moral Responsibility | voxcorvegis

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