Sunday, February 16, 2020

The Return of the Black Death? The Coronavirus as an Agent of Population Collapse

Always plan for the worst-case hypothesis!  

The four horsemen of the apocalypse by Albrecht Durer (1498): famine, plague, war, and death itself. For sure, the ancients understood that collapses come from a combination of several different factors. It is the essence of what I call the "Seneca Effect." Today, if the coronavirus remains isolated as a threat to human life, it won't cause a population decline. But if the other horsemen intervene, then things could change for the worse.

The data about the coronavirus epidemic are starting to look scary. Yes, the Chinese government has taken draconian measures. And it is also true that the spreading of the infection in China is slowing down. So, if nothing unexpected happens, it is likely that the epidemy will be contained. But, as we all know, the real world always has ways to surprise us. So, let's drop for a while the "likely" adjective and ask the uncomfortable question: what is the worst that can happen? Could we see a serious collapse of the world's population?  

As usual, if we want to understand the future, we need first to understand the past. So, let's look at some data for the greatest pandemics of the past, those that swept Europe during the Middle Ages and afterward:

European Population in history (from Langer, W. L. The Black Death. Sci. Am. 210, 114–121 (1964))

These data are somewhat uncertain, but there is a general agreement that the great plague of the 14th century (correctly termed "Black Death") wiped out about 40% of the European population, some say more than that. As worst cases go, this is surely one.

Could a new plague do the same to us? Why not? If it happened in the past, it could happen again. But, of course, it can happen only if similar conditions will occur. If we examine the case of the European plagues in detail, we see that they never struck at random times, they struck already troubled populations. Viruses and bacteria are opportunistic creatures that tend to expand when they find a weak target.

In the case of the 14th century Black Death, it hit Europe after the failure of the attempt to expand to the East with the crusades. Europe found itself overpopulated, in the midst of a social and cultural crisis, and with no way out. The result was a series of famines, internecine wars, and social and political turmoil that opened the door for the plague to strike. Something similar happened with the second main plague burst of the 17th century. It arrived after the 30-years war had destroyed the very fabric of European society, creating poverty, famines, and the displacement of entire populations.

The rule that pandemics come with famines holds also for the last (so far) great world pandemic: the Spanish flu of 1918-1920. It was associated with the extensive famines generated by the first world war. Unlike the case of the Black Death, though, the Spanish flu struck against a background of economic expansion and population growth. By all means, it was a disaster: it may have killed about 1-2% of the world population of the time (that is 20-50 million victims out of a population of about 2 billion). But it barely caused a dent in the population growth curves of the 20th century. Other modern epidemics, AIDS, Ebola, SARS, etc., occurred also in times of economic expansion and no lack of food, causing modest overall damage (again, so far).

Conversely, famines can cause extensive depopulation even when not associated with plagues. A good example is the Irish famine of 1848. It wiped out about half of the Irish population in a few years, but it was not associated with a specific human disease. Sometimes, you don't even need famines to cause depopulation: social and economic stress is enough. A good example in modern times is that of Ukraine, where the population started declining in the early 1990s and it is still declining after the loss of some 20% of the total. There were no epidemics nor famines involved: the Ukrainians died as the result of a combination of poor quality food, lack of health care facilities, bad government, depression, heavy drugs, alcohol, and more.

  Ukrainian population – data from the World Bank

There is a general rule, here: disasters never come alone (when sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions). It is because when a complex system is in overshoot, it is fragile: it is sensible to even minor perturbations from the outside. These perturbations tend to generate a cascade of failures that brings the whole system down. It is the essence of what I call the "Seneca Effect" stating that growth is slow, but decline is rapid.  

Coming back to the coronavirus of today, we can conclude that it won't cause great disasters as long as it remains alone in attacking humankind. The world is not seeing large wars and it is not suffering from major famines. So, even if the virus were to spread outside China, maybe it could kill 1% of the current population. That would be a terrible disaster, of course, but it wouldn't change the growth trajectory of the world population, just like the Spanish flu didn't.

Yes, but, as I said at the beginning, reality has plenty of ways to surprise you. Maybe you don't need major famines or wars for a population to be weakened enough to be a good target for a viral attack. 

Think of pollution: in large part, it is a modern phenomenon. At the time of the Spanish flu, people were hungry, but not carrying in their bodies the amounts of heavy metals, pesticides, chemicals, microplastics, and other weird stuff we all have nowadays. And they didn't live in a hot world with 410 ppm of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, as we do. To say nothing about the rapid decline of the health care services, the poor quality of the average diet, the spread of alcohol and heavy drugs, the health effects of depression, the damage done by bad governments, and don't forget the risk of being shot. 

As a result, the population of many Western countries seems to have started to move along the same trajectory that the Ukrainian population started to follow 30 years ago. Life expectancy has been declining in the West starting with 2014.

Life expectancy in selected Western countries. Data from World Bank

In addition to the already weakened population, there is another factor that may favor the plague horseman: the economic crisis that's being created by the fear of the virus. Don't forget that if nearly 8 billion people can survive in the world today, it is because they can purchase food and have it delivered to them by means of that stupendous commercial system that we call "globalization" and its container ships crisscrossing the oceans. But if people stop moving and goods stop being transported, then food will stop being shipped to the places where it is needed. As a result, one more of the four horsemen, famine, will start galloping. And the third horseman, war, may decide to start galloping too, taking with him the last one, death. Then, yes, we could see a new Black Death.

Don't forget that this is a scenario: a story that we are telling to each other. It is up to us to make sure that it remains a story and it doesn't become reality. The future is never predictable, we can only be prepared for it.

A comment by Ugo Bardi's personal troll, Mr. Kunning-Druger

"And here you are, Mr. Bardi. I knew you would have arrived to this: I figure that you and your friends of the Club of Rome must be very happy, now. Isn't the coronavirus exactly what you always wanted? From the very beginning, the Club of Rome has been working at planning the extermination of most of humankind. And now the flag of the enemies of humankind has been taken by the little monster called Greta Thunberg. But we know who you are and we know what you are doing. If your plan ever becomes reality, we'll know who are the criminals behind it."

Thursday, February 13, 2020

The Decline of the West: More Evidence From Australia

Are climate scientists criminals?

There was a time, not long ago, when in the West we were proud of our scientific achievements, our rationality, our approach to knowledge. Maybe it was a little overstated, but there was something good in the Western pride and respect for science.

I don't know what happened that destroyed everything, but it happened. Scientists are rapidly becoming the laughingstock of politicians, insulted, threatened, and accused to be criminals conspiring against humankind for their personal gains.

It is clearly shown by this speech of a few days ago by Senator Malcolm Roberts of Australia. He thinks, evidently, that five minutes of low-level rhetoric by an incompetent politician are sufficient to destroy 50 years of work by thousands of competent scientists. He is not alone, unfortunately, but he is a good example of how politicians tend to create their own reality. At some moment, we will discover what the real reality is, but it may well turn out to be a very painful experience.


Note: this is the direct transcript from the record of the speech by Mr. Roberts. In the version reported by Roberts himself in his youtube channel there are some differences: in Robert's transcript there are no references on Mann having criticized Jim Molan and the mention of the names of Al Gore, Rajendra Pachauri, Gavin Schmidt. But the threats against climate scientists defined as "criminals" remained

How dare you, Michael Mann.

Last Monday, the infamous Michael Mann, fabricator of the completely discredited hockey stick temperature graph, appeared on the ABC programme "Q&A;" and teamed up with the ABC, to discredit an Australian hero, Jim Molan.

How dare you Michael Mann pretend you are scientific when you are not? How dare you Michael Mann for maligning a marvelous leader, Jim Molan, who has the courage to challenge the status quo and state a simple fact.

You come down here pretending you have evidence that carbon dioxide from human activity affects climate and needs to be cut when you have no such evidence.

How do I know?

Easy, you released papers that led to the infamous hockey stick graph, falsely fabricating high temperatures. Despite repeated requests from scientists, you refuse to hand over your data.

No evidence.

Scientifically, your claim should have been completely and immediately dismissed. The state of Virginia Attorney General asked for your data from the University of Virginia because your research was reportedly taxpayer-funded. Your University refused.

No evidence.

Didn't the court find it? Sorry, then you sued Professor Tim Ball, a real scientist, and then in court you refused to provide evidence to support your case.

No evidence.

Didn't the court find you in contempt? Regardless, your claim was dismissed, and you failed to provide any evidence. Yet Professor Ball's team provided plenty of solid statements and evidence from internationally reputable scientists.

You are the one in the climate gain scandals who wanted to hide the temperature data, decline, the temperature decline. Didn't you hide the evidence? You have sued people that dared to question you to shut them down, to stop the evidence.

You now say Senator Molan as a policymaker should ask some unnamed Australian scientists for their opinion. Name any such people with evidence proving human carbon dioxide affects climate variability.

After 21 years, you have still not released data for your hockey stick graph fabricating high temperatures, yet many people had completely debunked it. My understanding is that fraud can include the presentation of something that is not true with the intention of personal gain.

You claim you were awarded a Nobel Prize. That is false. You contributed to the UN's climate body, the IPCC, that was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Note, that was not for science. After the UN IPCC was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, it dropped your graph. And if that's shonky political body dropped it that really destroys, kills your credibility.

You have a record of serially misrepresenting climate, serially misrepresenting science, and serially misrepresenting humanity. The use of hydrocarbon fuels such as gas, coal, and oil has liberated humanity and saved the forest and whales that previously fueled civilization and human progress.

Your advocacy, your blind advocacy to stop their use is anti-human, anti-environment. It hurts our security and our sovereignty.

Now your host, the ABC, has been a blind supporter of an advocate for others misrepresenting climate and science, including the notorious Al Gore, Rajendra Pachauri, Gavin Schmidt, people advocating for cutting hydrocarbon fuels, have branded those who dissent from your advocacy as climate criminals.

I believe, Mr. Mann that in the very near future, it is people like you who misrepresent science and climate that the public will see as climate criminals. None of you have ever presented the empirical evidence proving human production of carbon dioxide from our use of hydrocarbon fuels, hurts our environment and future.

You're here in Australia now, so I challenge you to a public debate on climate science and on the corruption of climate science. Secondly, all you need to do is provide me with the specific location of the empirical scientific evidence, the hard validated data within a logical scientific framework that proves cause and effect, and I will retract this speech.

Mr. Mann, I need specific publication titles, specific page numbers. No entity anywhere in the world has provided this.

Now don't bother to smear me or get someone to smear me, that has no effect on me. I love it. I use it to prove that those who smear only do so because they lack hard evidence.

How dare you Michael Mann, provide the evidence.


A comment from Ugo Bardi's personal troll, Mr. Kunning Druger

"Mr. Bardi, if you hate our freedom so much, why don't you go live in Iran?"

Saturday, February 8, 2020

What is in a Carbon Sink? Why Can't Mother Gaia use it to Save us from Disaster?

Can the ecosystem remove the CO2 we dumped into the atmosphere? 
One of the reasons for the popularity of Gaia, the Earth Goddess, is the hope that She'll save us from our own reckless behavior. Maybe she'll absorb the CO2 we emitted into the atmosphere? Doesn't the planet have "natural" sinks? Why worry, then? Well, I am afraid that Gaia will react just as shown in the figure above

Roy Spencer is one of the few critics of the current interpretation of climate change who can produce reasonably good scientific credentials. And, indeed, his criticism is often valuable, although -- unfortunately -- sometimes marred by political elements. But that's normal, we are all political animals.

So, Spencer made an interesting observation in a post of a few days ago. He says (boldface mine):

For many years I have seen reference to the average equivalent fraction of excess CO2 that is removed by nature, and I have often (incorrectly) said something similar to this: “about 50% of yearly anthropogenic CO2 emissions do not show up in the atmosphere, because they are absorbed.” I believe this was discussed in the very first IPCC report, FAR. I’ve used that 50% removal fraction myself, many times, to describe how nature removes excess CO2 from the atmosphere.
Recently I realized this is not a very useful metric, and as phrased above is factually incorrect and misleading. In fact, it’s not 50% of the yearly anthropogenic emissions that is absorbed; it’s an amount that is equivalent to 50% of emissions. You see, Mother Nature does not know how much CO2 humanity produces every year; all she knows is the total amount in the atmosphere, and that’s what the biosphere and various geochemical processes respond to.

And that's perfectly correct. I have to admit that I myself made the same mistake more than once. Of course, Mother Gaia doesn't know where the CO2 in the atmosphere comes from. The ecosystem just absorbs part of it.

Then, Spencer went on to claim that the IPCC scenarios were wrong of a factor of 4 with respect to the fraction of CO2 absorbed by the sinks. That was a mistake that he himself corrected later on. That's normal: a good scientist is never afraid of admitting a mistake. Apart from that, Spencer's observation changes nothing of our interpretation of climate change, but it has the merit of focusing on a fundamental point: the interplay of sources and sinks.

Eventually, Spencer presented the following (corrected) model:

Note how the models presented by the IPCC assume that the fraction of CO2 that will be absorbed by the sinks will go down as more CO2 is present in the atmosphere. Spencer's model ("CO2 Budget Model") assumes instead that the ratio will remain constant. If the latter is the case, when we stop burning fossil fuels (and we will, sooner or later), then the CO2 concentration will go down faster and -- hopefully -- we may go back to temperatures comparable to those of the Earth we used to know up to not long ago.

I wish that Spencer were right but, unfortunately, that can't be the case. What he has been doing, in practice, is returning to a criticism that had been already used against Swante Arrhenius when he developed the first version of the greenhouse gas warming theory -- more than a century ago. The criticism was, "but the oceans will absorb the excess CO2!" and it took decades to overcome it. Eventually, a picture emerged in which the sinks of the ecosystem absorb most of the human-generated CO2, but not all of it. In addition, the fraction absorbed will go down as the sinks are gradually filled.

As you may imagine, it is a complex matter. There are all sorts of sinks: the biosphere, the oceans, the weathering reaction, carbon burial, and probably more. You may take a look at the latest IPCC report, or at this recent paper by Walsh. The sinks behave in a complex way and they may still surprise us. But, so far, the experimental data show a small but measurable decline in the absorption rate. I don't have to tell you that this is bad, very bad, extremely bad.

Instead, Spencer assumes that the sinks will continue absorbing at a rate proportional to the difference between the current CO2 concentration and the "reference" value of 295 ppm. In practice, he assumes that the sink is infinite. That's a little too much: nothing on this planet is infinite. Even though we see Gaia as a Goddess, She is not all-powerful. And She is not even benevolent and merciful. She won't save us from ourselves.

A comment from my personal troll, Mr. Kunning Druger

"Now, now, Mr. Bardi. I see that you finally came out for what you are: one of those silly Greenies who are Gaia worshippers. Actually, I think it is worse than that: you just pretend to be a worshipper of Gaia, but under that green skin you are all red: really, you are one of those communists who would use the excuse of a non-existing climate change to impose on us such ugly ideas as free health care and social security for everybody and that would destroy the American way of life. Anyway, about this silly rant of yours, let me first note how it shows your deep elitism: why should those so-called "scientific credentials" be needed to express an opinion? A citizen's opinion is worth another citizen's opinion: that's good, old American democracy. Then, you'll tell us that we need a Ph.D. to vote in our elections, wouldn't you? It is all because you foreigners are envious of our freedom and our democracy that works so well. And all this criticizing Dr. Spencer is only because you are envious of him: he works at a proper American University, in Alabama, whereas you work at a silly, little, provincial university in Europe where people can't even speak proper English. So, keep going like this, the more you disinform us, the more we know who you are."


Sunday, February 2, 2020

The Fight Against Climate Science. Why is Italy at the Forefront of the Battle?

The Italian Right sees climate science denial as a political weapon

The full page of a few days ago of the Italian newspaper "Libero Quotidiano" with interviews with three Italian scientists (Crescenti, Scafetta, and Battaglia) opposing climate science. The title says "scientists rebel against the climate catastrophists." As a newspaper, "Libero" is probably at an even lower level than that of such wonders of the gutter press as the "Daily Mail" in Britain and the "National Enquirer" in the US. The problem is that what we read on Libero now may be the harbinger of worse to come

Sometimes, my American friends tell me how lucky I am because I live in a country where the top politicians haven't embraced climate science denial as they did in the US. It must be wonderful, they say, not to have a president like Mr. Trump, nor to have to expose yourself to the hate of the deniers for expressing your opinions on climate.

It is true that, so far, Italy has managed to escape the worst political monstrosities that took over the debate on climate in the US. So far, most high-ranking Italian politicians maintained a low profile, preferring to have climate science attacked by lower level henchmen of theirs. The same strategy has been used by most European politicians.

But, clearly, things are changing: climate is becoming a politically explosive issue. Some lobbies are starting to understand that they are going to lose big if something serious is ever done to face the climate crisis, and they react by anti-science propaganda campaigns. Even ordinary citizens are starting to perceive that their economic (maybe also physical) survival is at stake. Many of them tend to react with the first of the five stages of grief: denying the existence of the problem. And the right is starting to consider if they can profit from the situation to obtain political gains.

Italy seems to be at the forefront of the trend. Immediately after the recent regional elections, a setback for the right, the Italian Right-Wing Media started a new campaign that targeted climate science. Earlier on, they had managed to find a small group of scientists who were willing to declare that climate change doesn't exist, or that it is not a problem, or that it is an excuse to have us pay more taxes, you know, the usual arguments. A declaration in this sense obtained less than 100 signatures, mostly by retired geologists and people with no formal qualifications in science. It was diffused also outside Italy, where it gained some 500 signatures. (read here the details, in Italian).

This story is now all over the right-wing newspapers again, together with daily attacks against Greta Thunberg, part of an ongoing smear campaign against climate science. All this is remarkable: even in Trumpland, there doesn't appear to exist such kind of politically coordinated action against science that makes use of a group of elder scientists who, apparently, don't care about destroying their own reputations. So, why is this happening in Italy?

Right now, Italy could be defined as a backwater province of the Global Empire. But it is far to be a quiet backwater: quite the opposite. Social tensions are on the rise, the economy is not going well, unemployment is widespread, politicians are as bad as they may be, and struggling to become even worse. On top of all that, Italians score poorly with literacy and numeracy skills.  Most Italians can read and write, but their ability to understand a written text is low. In short, Italians are angry and they can't understand what's hitting them. They are the ideal target for the kind of hate campaigns that target someone or something as being the "enemies of the people" to be eliminated.

Several targets for a major hate campaign seem to be under testing: immigrants, Muslims, intellectuals, Communists, Angela Merkel, the Euro, the European Union, the banks, and more. And, of course, also climate science and climate scientists. The tests are being performed right in front of us and we'll see how effective the campaign against science will be. If it is successful, it may teach a thing or two to right-wing organizations in other countries.

There have been other occasions in history for Italy to be a laboratory to test new political ideas. It happened when Machiavelli experimented for the first time with the idea of a "citizen army," later on with Mussolini and his Fascist party, then with Berlusconi and his media-based political success, and more. So, it will be interesting to see how the climate debate evolves in Italy in the near future. And, as usual, living in interesting times is a curse.


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)