Monday, February 19, 2018

Islands Not sinking: Climate Change Demonstrated to Be a Hoax



Have you ever wondered how it is possible that coral islands lie flat just a little above the sea level? It is not a coincidence, the coral reef that forms the islands is alive and it can adapt to variations of the sea level. According to some people, that demonstrates that climate change is a hoax (??).


Do you remember when there was a "debate" about climate change? Yes, there was such a thing. Someone would set up a panel where there would be a scientist arguing for the current interpretation of anthropogenic global warming and someone who at least pretended to be a scientist who would argue for the opposite interpretation. It was supposed to be a civil debate, all based on science.

I don't have to tell you that such debates have disappeared, you don't see them anymore just as you don't see quiet and civilized debates between Trump supporters and members of the Antifa movement. In recent times, the closest thing to a public debate on climate was the proposal by Scott Pruitt, EPA's chief, of a "Red Team" and a "Blue Team" of scientists who should discuss climate matters. The fact that Pruitt chose terms commonly used in military exercises says a lot about what kind of "debate" this was supposed to be. Perhaps it is a good thing that the idea seems to have died out.

Today, we have no debate anymore. We only have two sides shooting slogans against each other. Each side is ready to exploit every perceived weakness in the other to discharge a volley of posts and tweets aimed at gaining a few political points. A snowstorm demonstrates that AGW doesn't exist while a hurricane that we are all going to die soon. The latest example of this attitude is the news arriving from the Tuvalu Islands. An article by Kench et al.,  published on Nature, reports that, over the past 40 years, the 101 Tuvalu Islands had gained some area - on the average a little less than 3% - despite the sea level rise that took place during that period.

Of course, that generated the usual blast of attacks against "alarmists", for instance by James Delingpole and Anthony Watts. How come that the islands are not sinking? "Global Warming" (written in quotes) must be a hoax.

In practice, if we go beyond the noise of propaganda, the story of the coral islands is fascinating and complex. That these islands are not shrinking nowadays has been known for at least ten years. What is most interesting is why they are not shrinking - while the sea is indeed rising. The reason is that the islands, or at least the reef barriers around them, are alive. It is not rock, it is the result of the excreta of tiny creatures that create the hard part of the barrier, it is their exoskeleton.

Being alive, corals can grow and follow the vagaries of the sea level - within some limits. They position themselves to stay just below the water surface. If they can't manage that, they can "drown" at depths too high for sunlight to arrive, while they die and are eroded away if they are exposed to air. Some coral reefs survived the great sea level rise (some 120 meters!) that took place at the end of the last ice age. Not a small feat, but it was possible over a few thousands of years.

So, there is nothing special in the modern coral reefs having survived the sea level rise of a few centimeters of the past decades. As long as the sea level rise is not too fast the islands can probably stay above water - perhaps they can even cope better with climate change than some low elevation continental lands.

But it is a precarious survival. Even for the modest sea level rise of the past decades, the Maldives experienced some 30 severe floods during the past 50 years, including several which affected the capital city of MalĂ©. In 2007, a series of swells forced the evacuation of more than 1,600 people from their homes and damaged more than 500 housing units.

All that is a problem for Maldivians, but the real problem is that, unlike the population of continents or of large islands, they have no place to escape. The islands are uniformly flat, there is no high ground to retreat to. If the islands are flooded, the inhabitants will be swept away.

That could happen: the current temperature increase is so fast that the sea level rise may well reach rates beyond anything that the coral reefs can cope with. To say nothing of the threats to the reef coming from seawater acidification and of human destruction for fishing or because of pollution. If the corals die, the islands are lost. And the corals are already dying. Nobody can bet that the Maldives - and many other coral islands - will still exist by the end of the century.

Up until a few years ago, the governments of the coral islands seemed to be determined to make an effort to attract the world's attention to their situation. In 2009, the Maldivian government held an underwater meeting just for this purpose.


Today, the situation seems to have changed. The Maldivian government has shifted emphasis from fighting climate change to economic development on the tune that "Development must go on, jobs are needed." I argued that this policy switch may well be the result of the Maldivian elites having discovered that it is too late to stop global warming and that nobody from the mainland will help them. I wrote in my post that:

Imagine that you are part of the elite of the Maldives. And imagine that you are smart enough to understand what's going on with the Earth's climate. As things stand today, it is clear that it is too late to stop a burst of global warming that will push temperatures so high that nothing will save the Maldives islands. Maybe not next year but in a few decades, it is nearly certain.
So, given the situation, what is the rational thing for you to do? Of course, it is to sell what you can sell as long as you can find a sucker who will buy it. Then you can say good riddance to those who remain.

Translate that to the whole world and you have one of the reasons why there is no debate anymore on climate change. 





Wednesday, February 14, 2018

The Life and Death of Memes: Vegan Vs. Macrobiotic



This 2009 book by Lierre Keith is a fascinating reflection on how ideology permeates people's eating habits. Ideology, then, is based on memes and that's a new and developing field of science. 


John Michael Greer (the Archdruid) tells the whole story of the great cycle of the macrobiotic and vegan diets. The macrobiotic movement started in the 1970 and peaked sometimes in the 1980-1990s. Greer himself tried to follow the rules of the macrobiotic diet and he reports an experience similar to that told by Lierre Keith in her book "The Vegetarian Myth" with a Vegan diet. Both Greer and Keith suffered serious health problems with these diets until they finally decided to abandon them - and then felt much better!

The question of diets can be utilized to illustrate how memes propagate in the global mindsphere. Data from "Google Ngrams" provide the number of times that a word is used in books. It can be used to quantify Greer's claim that Veganism somehow supplanted Macrobioticism in a memetic cycle that covered a few decades. It is true: here are the data:



You can see how the "macrobiotic" meme went through a classic memetic trajectory, virally infecting the consciousness space of a fraction of humankind. Then, it lost potency and started fading. These data are up to 2008, if you use Google Trends to measure how many times the term "macrobiotic" was searched for in the Web, you see that it is in terminal decline from 2004.

If "macrobiotic" is a dying meme, that's not true for "vegan" which is still showing growth in both Google Ngrams and Google Trends, the latter showing the number of times that a term is searched for in the Web. Here are the Google Trends data:


So, veganism is still alive and kicking, but it is hard to say for how long. Most likely, it will follow the same cycle of the macrobiotic meme, peaking and declining in the coming decades. This is not so much related to whether one diet is better than another, or whether either or both diets bring benefits to the people following them. It is the hard law of memes - they have a life of their own and a limited existence time (*).

Still, the fact that there is so much interest in diets tells us something. What we eat is not just a question of survival - even though in Italy we have a saying that goes as "what doesn't kill you, fattens you." (**). Rather, what we eat is a cultural, political, and religious statement. Not for nothing, most of the world's religions tell to their followers that God worries about the details of what His sons and daughters eat or do not eat.

Today, many people perceive that the world's food industry is operating on the basis of a new kind of religion: the religion of growth. Granted, the growth of food production has been successful in eliminating the major famines that plagued the world up to a few decades ago. But the food industry's approach to feeding the world is, literally, a "scorched earth" strategy. It destroys the soil, kills everything, razes forests, destroys the fisheries, fills the planet with chemicals and more. In the West, the result is the obesity epidemics and plenty of health problem.

So, following a diet such as the Vegan one is mainly a political - perhaps religious - statement. A statement that many people feel like they need to make in order to fight the way they are treated by the food powers that be. We'll see more of this in the future and it wouldn't be surprising if a new diet-based religion will arise one day.

In the end, food and diets illustrate how difficult it is for humans to understand (let alone manage) complex systems. The human metabolic system is hugely complex and it becomes coupled to the chemistry and the biological activity of food, just as it is interlaced with political and economic questions about the opportunity of using more and more precious resources in order to produce certain kinds of food. The result is a giant confusion of different opinions that may veer all the way to physical attacking people who don't share the same way of thinking about diets. It happened during the 1st century AD and in more recent times it happened to Lierre Keith, attacked by vegan fanatics.

Memetics doesn' tell us how to manage complex systems, but it allows us to have some idea of how memes diffuse and fight each other in the human memesphere. So far, we can at least say that dieting memes grow and die as virtual viral entities, apparently independently of whether they are beneficial to people or not. Maybe one day we'll learn how to do better. 



(*) We (myself, Ilaria Perissi, and Sara Falsini) have a paper that provides a theoretical assessment of these cycles. It is accepted for publication on "Kybernetes". If you like to have a preprint, write to me or to Ilaria at ilariaperissi(thingeything)gmail.com or Sara Falsini (sara.falsini(thingery)unifi.it)

(**) Quello che non ammazza, ingrassa

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Keep on trucking? No, Keep on Platooning!


The concept of "platooning" involves electronically connected trucks running close to each other. It is a much more innovative idea than that of self-driven private cars and it has the potential of revolutionizing road transport by drastically reducing costs. (image from scania.com).



Self-driving cars (or "automated vehicles," AVs) are all the rage in the debate. In most cases, we have a lot of hype and little evidence but it is also true that such cars are not impossible. So, what can we say about this idea?

I often say that technological progress is subjected to the golden rule that it generates more problems than it solves. So, not surprisingly, the way AVs are normally proposed today they would solve no important existing problem but would bring new ones. In most cases, you are told that you'll still own a car, use it for commuting, take your family to a vacation - the only difference with AVs is that you are relieved of the drudgery of having to keep your hands on the wheel and your eyes on the road. But a recent study reports that, under equivalent conditions of owning a driverless car, people tend to log in more miles and keep their cars circling around rather than bothering about finding a parking space. Not exactly the way to reduce traffic congestion and pollution.


But there is a different application of AVs which may qualify as a true technological breakthrough. It is "platooning." (Image from The Business Times). At first sight, it doesn't look like a big innovation. Trucks running close to each other? Didn't that already exist under the name of "trailers"?

There is a breakthrough here, and it is a big one. First of all, platooning doesn't need the massive complication of a completely self-driving car. A platoon of trucks is still supposed to be controlled by humans - what is needed for platooning are sensors and actuators coupled with some computing control. Then, of course, you need safety tricks to ensure that a "de-platooned" truck doesn't run awry, but that should not be a problem. Platooning is one of those "sweet" technologies that need only existing subsystems to function.

Then, the advantages. A minor one is that a platooned truck has a lower aerodynamic resistance. But this is peanuts in comparison to the real advantage of the scheme: saving on the cost of personnel. The platooned trucks simply do what the first truck does, there is no need for every truck to have a driver. So, connect two trucks together and you halve the number of drivers needed. Connect three or more, and you proportionally reduce the cost of the human drivers.

Now, according to a recent study of the American Transportation Research Institute (ATRI), the cost of drivers represents 40% of the total transportation cost per mile (p. 24 of the report). You see how big the change could be just in terms of reducing the number of drivers.

But there is more. Right now, there is no interest in slowing down trucks in order to save fuel because the cost of drivers rises proportionally to the number of hours traveled. But for platooning it makes sense to slow down the whole train and reduce fuel costs. Slower trucks also bring fewer accidents and consequently lower insurance costs. Slower speeds also allow using smaller engines and simpler technologies. And that would also reduce the need for maintenance of roads and bridges. All these effects come together in bringing costs down.

So, platooning is a big innovation. But it must be seen in light of the evolution of the whole society. Alice Friedemann has argued in her book "When Trucks Stop Running" that trucks are a critical element of the way modern society function. Will we have sufficient resources to keep trucks running in the future, platooning or not?

Surely, a complete societal collapse generated by resource depletion or runaway climate change would necessarily ensure that the transportation system would collapse, too. But platooning could make trucking much more resilient. If trucking were to use less energy, trucks could be made to run on electric power provided by batteries or by overhead wires. Current rubber tires are made from petroleum but if the trucks slow down we won't need so much rubber as we do today and rubber synthesized from biological sources could do the job. The same is true for the asphalt of roads: slower trucks would place a lower strain on road surfaces and we might go back to "Macadamized" roads.

So, platooning is an innovation that we shouldn't ignore. And, as usual, it will have important impacts - not necessarily good. Substantially lowering the cost of road transport will make it more competitive in comparison to rail. This could further marginalize the already marginal role of railroads in freight transportation. Then, nothing prevents from platooning also buses or other kinds of vehicles, also reducing transportation costs. That might mean the end of railroads, except for high-speed trains where road vehicles can't compete.

But the truly major effect of platooning is on employment. In the US alone, there are more than 3.5 million truck drivers. Trucking is the most popular medium-skill jobs still available in most of the industrialized world. Platooning may create millions of unemployed drivers. How society will react to that is hard to say, but the shock is likely to be felt.

As usual, we move into the future driven by enthusiasm and by the idea that better technologies automatically mean better life. Platooning is just one of the new technologies which may lead us to some direction that we might not have wanted to take. But we will.




(h/t Arthur Keller)

Friday, February 9, 2018

The world as a canvas: Vincent Van Gogh's models of the world




An intriguing post by Ilaria Perissi on her blog "boundaries" where she examines in depth the relation of painting and modeling - the latter in the modern sense of using mathematical tools to describe the behavior of complex systems. She goes in depth into describing how Vincent Van Gogh and how his paintings can be seen as models of the world. An excerpt from her post is below, but do read the whole thing; it is fascinating!




The image of the world around us, which we carry in our head, is just a model. Nobody in his head imagines all the world, government or country. He has only selected concepts, and relationships between them, and uses those to represent the real system – Jay Forrester (1971).

Could these sentences represent also a painting process? Is a painter a sort of modeler?  Following the rational of previous words, most of the painters are interested in reporting an image of the world and the paintings are just models of that images, including both the material world as well as the rapresentation of feelings and situations; they are not models of the whole world, but of a set of selected concepts and relationships used to represent a real material system, which could be a landscape, a still life, a portrait, a situation or event, as wars, battles, a sunset or a ‘starry night’, ‘potatoes eaters’  and representation of feelings as in the painting 'Sorrowing Old Man' or 'Two lovers'.

 

 Rread the whole post at Ilaria Perissi's "Boundaries"

Monday, February 5, 2018

What if we could REALLY convince the public that climate change is a threat?


 

Maybe one day some really gigantic-awful-horrible-monstrous-humungous climate related disaster will hit us. And that, at that moment, people will stop playing the boiling frog and will be forced to admit that climate change is real and we have to do something about that. 

Unfortunately, plenty of gigantic-horrible-etc. disasters have already hit us, but the public doesn't seem to have taken notice. But never mind, we might be hit by the really big one. And, if it happens, do you think people will come to the scientists and tell them "we are so sorry, now we understand you were right all along"?

I have the impression that it will be rather something like what you see in the clip, below. It will be something like what the woman says, "God is going to destroy this Earth and there is nothing you silly scientists can do about that with all your scientific blah-blah."

And I have this terrible feeling that she may be right.


Video from "Ars Technica")


Friday, February 2, 2018

How Big a Disaster Can Climate Change Be?



Above, you can see an image from the paper by Marsicek et al., just appeared on Nature. It shows a reconstruction from pollen records of the temperatures of the past 10,000 year or so, the "Holocene," for North America and Europe. Note the black squares, showing how fast temperatures have been growing during the past 50 years or so.

As all reconstructions of the past, this one has to be taken with some caution, but it fits well with the various "hockey sticks" that research continues to produce despite the attempts to discredit both the science and the scientists who work in this field. So, we can assume these results to be reasonably reliable. Then, we can note a few interesting things.

1. What we call "civilization" arose and continued to exist during a period of relatively constant temperatures, that is, during the past 5000 years or so. During this period, the oscillations in the graph are never more than about half a degree. That's probably not a coincidence. Agriculture and civilization come together and it is unlikely that agriculture could have been developed for wildly oscillating temperatures and rapidly varying climates

2. Civilizations seem to grow and collapse because of internal factors - the fall of empires doesn't seem to be correlated to climate change. For instance, you can look in the graph for the data corresponding to the fall of the Roman Empire, between 2000 and 1500 years ago. Temperatures are flat, at most cooling a little. It is a point that I already made on the basis of another set of data specific for the region occupied by the Roman Empire. These more detailed data show a cooling period in Europe, but after the fall of the Empire. 

3. Some relatively intense oscillations in the curve appear at about 3000 years bp, which corresponds to the collapse of the Late Bronze Age civilization. This might support the interpretation by Eric Cline who sees climate as a concause of the collapse. Maybe, but can a whole civilization collapse abruptly as the result of a temperature change of just a couple of tenths of degrees? Personally, I tend to think the opposite. That is, the modest temperature change of the Late Bronze Age has been triggered by the collapse of the Mediterranean civilization of that time. 

4. Note how some much touted events of the past - for instance the "Medieval Warm Period" - appear as just minor perturbations in the curve. Overall, it seems that the effect of human activity on climate has been marginal until the age of fossil fuels.

5. According to Ruddiman, the relative stability of the past 8000 years or so is the result of the release of greenhouse gases produced by human agriculture. This is the phenomenon which prevented the earth system to return to a new ice age. It is possible, but it seems to me at least unlikely that a system can be stabilized by two opposite strong perturbations (the other one is the effect of the Milankovitch oscillations)

6. There is no obvious correlation of this long term trend with what we know of the Sun's output. There has been a lot of speculation that the past temperature oscillations have been related to variations of the Sun's output -- the "Maunder Minimum" is an example of that. But if these variations have an effect, it is truly minimal. It can only be within the oscillations of the curve which don't exceed a few tenths of degree.

7. The increase in temperatures during the past 50 years or so has been simply stunning. In a sense, these sudden temperature changes are not unusual in the earth's history (the problem for biological species is to survive them). But, in this case, it is so fast that it has probably no equals in the whole geological history of the planet. It is a disaster ongoing. Will civilization survive? Will humankind survive? Will anything alive today survive? Who can say?


But don't worry: we all know that this paper is part of the great conspiracy of the 97% of the world's climate scientists. Fortunately, they have been debunked by a group of brave internet trolls, helped by friendly fossil fuel lobbyists. 




The paper cited here is behind a paywall. If you have no access to it, write to me (ugo.bardi(twiggyingthing)unifi.it) and I'll send you a copy.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Donald Trump: the Evil Monster



Sorry about this a little rant of mine. And sorry also for the click-baiting title. I promise that from now on I won't publish more posts about Trump (not too many, at least) (Image source)



When I publish something about Donald Trump, I usually face criticism. People tell me that they don't expect posts about Trump in this blog -- it is off topic. And comparing Trump to Emperor Hadrian - as I did - seems to make some people angry. Maybe they are right, but I suspect that they say so in part because I am not usually describing Trump an evil monster (apart from the title of this post, to be intended as a clickbaiter!).

To tell you frankly, I find Trump not a monster, and not evil, either. He is a fascinating phenomenon, the result of factors well worth trying to understand. No matter how outrageous, nasty, politically incorrect, insulting, sexist, racist, and more, Trump is successful. And there are reasons for this success. Look at what he said about climate change.

From "The Independent."
"There is a cooling, and there’s a heating. I mean, look, it used to not be climate change, it used to be global warming. That wasn’t working too well because it was getting too cold all over the place.”

“The ice caps were going to melt, they were going to be gone by now, but now they’re setting records. They’re at a record level.”

If you read this blog, you are probably the kind of person who knows that what Trump says is completely wrong. But think of any discussion you could have with some "normal" person, not a scientist. These are exactly the arguments that you would face. And you would have a hard time in convincing them that these statements conflict with facts.

That's the way the discussion is - it is not science, it is politics. And politics has different rules: it is not based on facts but on trust. You can't convince people that climate change is real with facts. You can only convince them if they trust you. And those people who mistrust science will never be convinced.

Trump, instead, follows the rules of politics: he puts himself in the role of the ordinary guy who is not a scientist. And he speaks the way an ordinary guy would speak. He gains trust because he speaks like the people he speaks to. That's why he is successful.

We'll never win this battle if we don't understand this point. Not that scientists can (nor should) transform themselves into politicians, but we need to rebuild the trust in science. That can be done, but it takes time and effort and, in particular, recognizing that if this trust was lost is, in large part, our fault (I mean, of the scientists).

Maybe this man is a genius, maybe an evil genius, maybe a numbskull who found himself by chance in the right place at the right time. I have no idea. But, as I said, he is an (evil) genius. We'll see how this story evolves.





Who

Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014). His most recent book is "The Seneca Effect" to be published by Springer in mid 2017